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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