Superior’s Berger Hardware

The narrow aisles and crowded counters behind Berger Hardware owner Sam Berger serve to support his advertising slogan, “The store that has everything.” This photo is from January 1983. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

This hardware store really does have everything

News-Tribune, January 24, 1983

Sam Berger is a chip off the old block – and so is the hardware store he owns in Superior.

Berger has spent most of his life, starting as a youngster, in the business his father opened in 1915. And like his father, who worked at the store until he died five years ago, Sam Berger has kept the Berger Hardware of today just like the Berger Hardware of yesteryear.

It stocks hardware and household items that can be found on the shelves at most of his competitors, from neighborhood hardware stores to the supermarket-style home-building centers.

But what Sam Berger, and before him Morris Berger, have done is retain the atmosphere of a hardware store of decades ago – complete with merchandise that may have been on the display shelves and counters 10 to even 40 years ago. Tucked away in corners, on shelving, hanging from the walls and ceiling are such items as handles for walking plows, horse collars, blacksmith tools, two-man saws, milk cans and plumbing and building supplies of another era.

Sam Berger knows what’s in the store at 525 Tower Ave. and, despite its old-time flavor, he’s an astute businessman. If Berger Hardware doesn’t have what a customer wants, he’ll try to locate it by telephone from some other hardware store owner or supplier from among a list of connections he’s made over the years.

“You can call Berger Hardware the store that has everything,” Sam Berger says in his astute businessman’s sales pitch. “Everything but money, that is.”

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Sam Berger, who took over the hardware business founded in Superior by his father, makes some long-distance phone calls to locate a hard-to-find item sought by a customer in January 1983. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

Sam Berger died in 1993, and the store passed to his son, Charles. Charles Berger suffered some health problems and sold the store to Jim Kremer in May 1994. Kremer ran the store for about three years, but was plagued by the lack of a inventory or organization of all the store’s merchandise. He closed the store, and the contents were auctioned off in March 1999. Here’s the story from the March 19, 1999, News-Tribune…

Eager bidders eye a spool of rope up for auction at the old Berger Hardware in Superior on March 18, 1999. People came to the auction from all over the area, including small groups of Amish from southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

FOLKS HAVE SOFT SPOT FOR LONGTIME HARDWARE STORE

BARGAIN HUNTERS FROM REGION, FAR AWAY REMINISCE, PICK UP TOOLS AT BERGER AUCTION

By Candace Renalls, News-Tribune

They came to Superior’s North End by the hundreds Thursday for good buys and rare finds as Berger Hardware’s massive inventory began being auctioned off.

With it goes the end of an era.

The old-fashioned store at 525 Tower Ave., a North End fixture since 1915, had long been known as THE place to go in the Twin Ports for odd pieces of hardware, no matter how old or obscure.

On Thursday, bidders wearing serious expressions, crowded around the auctioneer’s truck on a closed stretch of North Sixth Street as item by item, box by box, pile by pile, the inventory began to shrink.

Items sold quickly — 100 pounds of rope, pick ax handles, cross-cut saws, rolls of wire, old boat anchors, large steel shelving units used in Berger’s warehouse.

By 12:30 p.m., two hours after the auction began, about 260 people from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Ontario had registered as bidders. The auction continues today and Saturday, then resumes next Friday and Saturday.

For $25, Jim Jamaouski of Esko bought caulking compound, a bunch of nuts and bolts and some rubber belting. For years, the 56-year-old farmer had been a regular customer at the store.

“It had a little bit of everything,” he said. “You could get stuff you couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The cash register inside the old Berger Hardware in Superior, seen here in March 1999, had been around since at least the 1950s.(Bob King / News-Tribune)

Among those who turned out Thursday were members of various Amish communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota who read about the store and auction in “Country Today,” a weekly farm newspaper.

Emery Hershberger of Harmony, Minn., was one of them.

“I’m interested in things we still use, like stainless steel milk strainers for straining cow’s milk,” said Hershberger, 28, who came to Superior with his nephew.

Jim Kremer, the store’s owner, said he intentionally tried to reach Amish communities with news of the auction.

“They’re looking for old hand drills, horse harness buckles, snaps, some buggy whip holders and braces for buckboards,” Kremer said.

And Berger Hardware had them, as well as an abundance of other hard-to-find items, some still in the boxes they came in more than 50 years ago.

The store, with its squeaky wooden floors and decades-old display cases, was founded by Morris Berger in 1915 in the tradition of a general store.

He’d buy in volume to get a better price. He’d go to auctions and buy in bulk, rapidly filling his storage space.

When Berger died in 1978, his son Sam took over the business.

The jam-packed store had it all, from horse harness buckles to hand plows, from turn-of-the-century coffee pots to globes for old ceiling lights, from 2-inch drill bits to old door knobs.

“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” Sam Berger used to say.

Sam Berger ran the business until he died in 1993 while sitting at his office desk. His son, Charles, left his chiropractic practice in St. Louis to take over the family business. But health problems forced him to sell the following year.

Jim Kremer at Berger Hardware in Superior in June 1994, shortly after he bought the iconic store. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

Kremer, a former owner of Kremer Disposal of Superior, bought Berger Hardware in 1994. But finding merchandise seemingly placed randomly on shelves and stacked in storage was a challenge.

The Bergers kept no stock charts or inventory lists. They just knew what they had and where it was.

“Surprisingly, I got to where I could stumble around and find what I was looking for,” Kremer said.

But after running the operation for three years, Kremer tired of the hardware business. He closed the store 1 1/2 years ago. But the merchandise remained, filling the building’s three floors, basement and next-door warehouse.

“I loved the place,” Kremer said. “I appreciate some of the old stuff. But it started getting to me. It just isn’t my line of work.”

The entire stock is being auctioned off, along with display cases, office furniture and storage shelves. The building is up for sale, with an asking price of $185,000.

Sam Pomush, who says he practically grew up in the store, couldn’t resist showing up Thursday.

“I just had to come back and reminisce,” he said with a big grin.

“It was like a menagerie,” said the 52-year-old Pomush, who grew up in the North End. “Anything you wanted you could buy here.”

He pointed to a corner of the store and said, “Every kind of screw you’d ever want was there.”

He recalled the row of Schwinn bikes that used to be in the basement and the pans that lumberjacks used for cooking. He remembered well the turn-of-the-century safe and old cash register that soon will be sold.

“The store never changed,” he said, adding that that’s what made it special.

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The building that housed Berger Hardware has since been home to several restaurants, including Mama Get’s and, currently, Marlee’s Caribbean Restaurant.

UMD art student Matt Palmer browses through Berger Hardware in Superior to find art suppliesĀ  on June 1, 1993. (Clara Wu / News-Tribune)

Share your memories of Berger Hardware by posting a comment.

Klearflax Linen Looms, circa 1953

Klearflax Linen Looms, Grand Avenue and 63rd Avenue West, circa 1953. (News-Tribune file photo)

This photo from the News Tribune archives shows Klearflax Linen Looms, once a mainstay of industry in West Duluth before it closed in the mid-1950s. The photo above, if it was in fact taken in 1953 as suggested by some remarks scrawled on the back, would have been from shortly before the plant closed.

Klearflax was featured in the News Tribune’s former “Then & Now” feature back in 2004. The brief column included this historical information:

Klearflax Linen Looms Inc. was founded by Julius Howland Barnes, an industrialist and national figure who lived in Duluth and New York. Beginning in 1909, Klearflax rugs were exclusively linen, and business boomed. Then business fell off; some speculated it was because folks were investing in automobiles rather than home furnishings.

Barnes sought to find out how to use flax straw, at the time largely burned in Minnesota fields, to make various products. It made durable, artistic rugs.

According to Pat Maus, archivist of the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, one of the Klearflax rugs was in the main entry of the New York Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Another special design rug was made in 1939 — weighing a half-ton, costing $300,000 and 15 feet by 30 feet — for the Finnish capital in Helsinki.

The Klearflax building, at 6320 Grand Ave., was imploded and taken down in the early morning of April 4, 1987.

A champion of the St. Lawrence Seaway for decades, Barnes died at age 86 in the Holland Hotel two months before the Seaway was opened on June 26, 1959, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth.

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The former site of the Klearflax Linen Looms factory in West Duluth, as seen in fall 2003. (News Tribune file photo)

This story about a gathering of former Klearflax workers appeared in the News-Tribune on Oct. 20, 1973:

Nostalgia reunites Klearflax workers

News-Tribune

“Oh, those company picnics!”

“Remember the strike?”

“What a heck of a softball team!”

“When they were dyeing, the smell came right up the elevator shaft and we nearly died, too!”

Those are examples of the hip-deep nostalgia which Friday night gripped the reunion of about 100 former employees of the now defunct Klearflax Linen Looms, Inc., which closed its plant doors in West Duluth 20 years ago.

The reunion “kinda just happened” after the idea occurred to Mrs. Florence Nelson of Duluth, who, most of the former Klearflax employees assembled in the David Wisted American Legion Post agreed, should have the credit for the event.

Several months ago she asked a few Duluthians who formerly were her coworkers in the plant what they thought about promoting a reunion. They set the date and began contacting some of their other former coworkers.

“We didn’t know what the response would be, but didn’t expect anything like this,” Mrs. Nelson said as she pointed to the group of 184 persons at dinner in the clubrooms.

Chain reaction contacts did the trick. As one former employee agreed to attend, he called others he knew and invited them.

Attending the reunion were couples who met while working in the plant, fell in love and married. Included in that category were Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Bowman, Glastonbury, Conn.

Bowman was known to everyone working in the factory when it closed. He was the vice president, rising through the ranks from handyman drawing 22 cents per hour and working 60-hour weeks.

It was a reunion twice over for Bowman and Harry (The Horse) Bloomquist of Duluth, who sat across the bargaining table from the vice president while serving in a similar capacity for the union.

They talked at length about the five-week strike back in ’48.

They were joined by Henry Mickelson, Duluth, who recalled working a nine-hour day, six days per week and taking home $9.

“My pay envelope (he started working there in 1915) had a $5 gold piece and four silver dollars,” Mickelson recalled.

The event also reunited Bowman and Albert Weber, Duluth, who was treasurer of the firm when it closed the doors of the plant, primarily due to inability to meet the competition of other factories with more modern equipment.

Duluthian Dale McKeever, who gets much of the credit along with Mrs. Nelson in originating the reunion, agreed with her statement that “it was a fun place – we were one big, happy family.”

McKeever said management of the company was well-liked by the employees and there was a good labor-management relationship despite the one strike.

McKeever and Mrs. Nelson recognized “just about all of them,” referring to the former coworkers who attended the reunion.

So did Bowman, although his memory had to be jogged by others at times. He’s spry at the age of 79.

The firm’s rugs were marketed throughout the world. The company was founded by Julius H. Barnes, early industrial leader in Duluth, known also for his activity in the shipbuilding field.

The building at 63rd Avenue West and Grand Avenue now is occupied by the W-K Manufacturing Co.

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Share your memories of Klearflax or other long-gone Duluth factories by posting a comment.