Before the music died in 1959, it lived in Duluth

A copy of the poster for the Winter Dance Party concert that was held on Jan. 31, 1959, from an ad in the Duluth News Tribune at the time. (News Tribune file image)

Before it died, the music lived in Duluth.

Fifty-five years ago today (Jan. 31), on a cold Saturday night in 1959, the Winter Dance Party tour featuring Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens played the Duluth Armory.

Two nights later, they were gone, the victims of a plane crash in a snowy Iowa cornfield.

“This was the biggest teenage music show we’d ever had at the Armory. Kids were there dancing; kids were there in front of the stage just watching. And as everyone knows, we found out later Bob Dylan was there from Hibbing,” the late Lew Latto, local promoter and master of ceremonies for that show, told the News Tribune in 2009. “When I read in the newspaper … that these guys were gone in a plane crash, I was shocked like everyone else. Buddy Holly would’ve continued to be a dominant force in the music business — but just like that, he was gone.”

Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and Tommy Allsup perform during the Winter Dance Party concert at the Duluth Armory on Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo by Colleen Bowen)

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The text above is taken from a story written by the News Tribune’s Kevin Pates for the 50th anniversary of the concert and the subsequent crash, Here’s the full story from Jan. 25, 2009:

BEFORE THE MUSIC DIED, IT LIVED IN DULUTH

Kevin Pates, Duluth News Tribune

The one wish Lew Latto has from that cold Saturday night in 1959 is that he’d had a camera. He took no pictures at the Duluth Armory on Jan. 31 as a troupe of rock ’n’ roll entertainers put on a Winter Dance Party show for about 2,000 fans — a performance that takes a place of honor in Duluth entertainment lore.

Latto, then a 19-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth freshman, was the local promoter and master of ceremonies. He had no way of knowing history was right around the corner.

The Day the Music Died was 48 hours away for Buddy Holly , 22, of Lubbock, Texas; J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, of Beaumont, Texas; and Ritchie Valens, 17, of Pacoima, Calif.

“This was the biggest teenage music show we’d ever had at the Armory. Kids were there dancing; kids were there in front of the stage just watching. And as everyone knows, we found out later Bob Dylan was there from Hibbing,” Latto, 69, said recently from his winter home in Hallandale Beach, Fla. “I spent most of the time on the side of the stage and had the chance to talk quite a bit with Ritchie Valens.

“When I read in the newspaper three days later that these guys were gone in a plane crash, I was shocked like everyone else. Buddy Holly would’ve continued to be a dominant force in the music business — but just like that, he was gone.”

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 2, 1959, the Winter Dance Party reached the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where 1,300 youngsters showed up. It was the 11th stop on a tour that began Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and had become a tedious, bitterly frigid bus excursion. Holly rented a plane to get to the next destination, 440 miles away for a concert the next day in Moorhead, Minn. They were to land in Fargo, N.D.

Just after midnight on Feb. 3, Holly, Richardson, Valens and pilot Roger Peterson, 21, boarded a 12-year-old single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza at an airport in nearby Mason City, Iowa. Peterson, a rookie, wasn’t given weather advisories about a band of snow moving southeast through Minnesota and North Dakota. The plane flew two minutes before crashing into a cornfield eight miles from the Surf Ballroom. Everyone aboard was killed.

The Duluth Armory, built on London Road in 1915, decommissioned and given to the city in 1978 and now mothballed in hopes of renovation, is no longer a performance venue. But the building will be the site of a 50th anniversary Winter Dance Party gathering for about a half-hour starting at noon Saturday. Fans will be able to look into the Armory but not go inside, said Susan Phillips, president of the nonprofit Armory Arts and Music Center. The entrance is at 13th Avenue East and Jefferson Street.

Buddy Holly performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

Holly fan

Dan Heikkinen, 40, of Cloquet is a Buddy Hollyphile. He grew up a Beatles fan and then heard that his favorite band was influenced by Holly and his group, The Crickets. The Beatles sang “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “Think It Over,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “It’s So Easy,” “Raining In My Heart,” “Reminiscing,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and “Everyday,” and recorded “Words of Love.”

Heikkinen had a new favorite band and has since become a Holly historian. He’s helped organize re-creations of the Winter Dance Party in Duluth in the past decade, helps select a Winter Dance Party Scholarship winner for a Minnesota high school student with a musical background, and almost never misses the annual Winter Dance Party celebration at the Surf Ballroom. He’ll drive the 290 miles there this week with his brother, Scott Heikkinen, 51, of Hermantown and brother-in-law, Terry Purcell, 56, of Esko.

“I read biographies about Buddy and then went and bought some of his music at the old Carlson Books and Records [in Duluth],” said Heikkinen, store manager at Super One in Two Harbors. “I put those records on at home and thought: ‘This guy is fantastic.’ He was ahead of his time. To know that he played right here, in Duluth, well that’s a pretty big deal.

“Going to the Surf is like being in a time machine. It’s like walking back into the 1950s with people wearing poodle skirts and letter jackets. It’s an amazing place.”

That night

Latto was hired at WDSM Radio in 1958 after his senior year at Duluth Denfeld. He played the Top 40 format of the day from 4-6 p.m., labeling it the Nifty 50. As a young entrepreneur, he fronted music shows at the Armory, including acts like Gene Vincent and Brenda Lee, and a Summer Dance Party stop on July 11, 1958, when Holly first played in town and stayed overnight at the Hotel Duluth.

For the Jan. 31, 1959, show at the Armory, Latto put posters up in music stores like Mickey’s Melody Lane at Third Avenue West and First Street. Fans paid $1.25 to $2 that night and General Artists Corp., a rag-tag outfit that booked the tour, was promised $1,000 or 50 percent of the gross receipts. Because of the large crowd, Latto estimates the payout for the performers was about $2,000, while he split his half with the National Guard.

A bus carrying the approximately 12-person group traveled 370 miles from Fort Dodge, Iowa, after a Jan. 30 concert, arriving in Duluth just before the 9 p.m. performance. The bus left shortly after the dance ended at midnight. Also on the tour were singer Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts, and musicians including guitarists Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup.

“Compared to some acts, Holly and his group had a refined presentation. Everyone was dressed in sport jackets and acted like gentlemen,” said Latto, now an owner of radio stations in Eveleth and Grand Rapids, and still employed by WDSM as a freelance talk show host, on weekdays from 7-9 a.m.

Latto has great memories from 1959, just no memorabilia. In the past two years, a Los Angeles entrepreneur offered $20,000 for a promotional poster from the Duluth performance, but Latto says there are none as far as he knows. They were discarded after the dance.

Photos, however, have surfaced from that night — black-and-white shots taken by teenagers Sharon Johnson and Colleen Bowen, which can be viewed at www.buddyhollyonline.com.

The Winter Dance Party moved to Green Bay on Feb. 1, ultimately by train after difficulty with its school bus because of wind-chill temperatures of 40 below zero. Then it was on to Clear Lake and a meeting with destiny.

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J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

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The News Tribune’s Kevin Pates also wrote a story about the event on Jan. 30, 1999, for the 40th anniversary:

RELIVING THE LEGEND

Kevin Pates, News Tribune

Three days after leaving Duluth, Buddy Holly and three others boarded a plane after midnight in Mason City, Iowa.

Holly, 22, had chartered a flight to Fargo, N.D., for the next stop of the 1959 Winter Dance Party: Moorhead, Minn. Also on the single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza were entertainers J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson, 28; Ritchie Valens, 17; and pilot Roger Peterson, 21.

Peterson wasn’t given weather advisories about a band of snow moving southeast through Minnesota and North Dakota on Feb. 3, 1959. The plane flew two minutes before crashing into a cornfield. Everyone aboard was killed.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s fatality list had its first superstar.

The news of Holly’s death was a blow to America’s teen-agers, including those in Duluth, where he had performed Jan. 31 at the National Guard Armory on London Road.

“We had a chance to see him, just as he was getting started, and then he was gone. It was like `Oh my God. He was just here.’ It was devastating,” said Yvonne Pavelich, 54, a bartender at Duluth’s Radisson Hotel. She was a 14-year-old Washington Junior High freshman when she attended the Armory dance. “The next day at school the boys wore black armbands and the girls had black ribbons in their hair.”

The Lubbock, Texas, songwriter, who played guitar, sang with a trademark hiccup-style and wore black, horn-rimmed glasses was like no one before him.

In the 40 years since the crash, Holly has become recognized as the founder of the first modern rock band. He was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His life has been portrayed in a 1978 movie. His face is on a U.S. postage stamp.

On Sunday, the Winter Dance Party will live again, 40 years to the day after it stopped in Duluth. An anniversary tour is hitting 11 towns in 11 days. Because Duluth’s National Guard Armory is no longer a performance site, the party is at the Holiday Inn’s Great Lakes Ballroom.

Niki Sullivan, a member of Holly’s band the Crickets, and Ernie Valens, nephew of Ritchie Valens, will be among those performing here.

John Mueller will portray Holly. He’s played the rock ‘n’ roll legend for the past 4 1/2 years, first in a production called “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and more recently in the play “Buddy.”

“I hope what comes across is the pure joy I get from his very straightforward, innocent music. I try not to make it a caricature and I don’t even like the word impression. I would say my performance is 50 percent me and 50 percent Buddy Holly,” Mueller, 36, said from a tour stop in Montevideo, Minn.

Sullivan has seen many Holly impersonators, but says Mueller is unique.

“John is a clone of Buddy Holly. I’m not kidding,” said Sullivan, who was a pallbearer at Holly’s funeral. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over Buddy’s death, but I’m getting a chance to relive my past every time I see John perform.”

Second time in Duluth

In 1959, Lew Latto was a 19-year-old top-40 disc jockey-entrepreneur at Duluth’s WDSM. The University of Minnesota-Duluth freshman acted as booking agent and master of ceremonies for musical acts coming to Duluth.

The Crickets, with Holly, first played the Armory on July 11, 1958, as part of a Summer Dance Party. To finance the Winter Dance Party stop on Jan. 31, 1959, Latto got an advance on his WDSM paycheck.

The largest crowd for any of Latto’s events — about 2,000 — paid $1.75 to $2 that winter night. The package of entertainers, which also had singer Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts, earned about $1,000.

Teens came to Armory dances to listen to music, meet friends and dance, said Duluth News-Tribune columnist Jim Heffernan, 59, who was at the Winter Dance Party as a UMD sophomore.

“The girls were screaming over Holly and I remember thinking `What has he got? He looks geeky,’ ” said Heffernan.

Holly’s appeal was obvious to some fans, like Hibbing’s Bob Zimmerman, later known as Bob Dylan. He was a 17-year-old high school senior and budding musician when he came to the Winter Dance Party. Dylan has credited Holly with being an influence in his music.

Latto knew Holly was onto something.

“There’s no doubt that had he lived, he would’ve been one of the top rock performers of his era. I look at Holly’s effect on music like what James Dean was to movies,” said Latto, 59, who now owns radio stations in Eveleth and Grand Rapids and has a weekday talk show on WEBC.

Duluthian Darrell Paulson was a drummer in his own group, the Rock and Roll 5. The band was on the same bill with Holly in 1958 at the Armory and Paulson later worked for stars like Gene Vincent, Marty Robbins, Skeeter Davis and Brenda Lee. He met and talked with Holly again, in Canada, while with Vincent.

“I’ve worked with other big shooters, but Holly was very personable, very kind. All of his musicians carried themselves as professionals. They were very concerned about the kind of music they were making,” said Paulson, 60, who still owns two drum sets, and is now in the food sales business.

Ritchie Valens performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

Holly’s burning star

Holly’s meteoric rise was just that — a brief three-year recording career. He had three albums and just one No. 1 hit (“That’ll Be the Day” in 1957) before his death.

The band that recorded many of the Crickets’ studio albums was Holly, drummer Jerry Allison, bass player Joe B. Mauldin and rhythm guitar player Sullivan.

Demanding travel and recording schedules, and problems with business manager-producer Norman Petty led to changes in the group.

Sullivan says he never regretted leaving the Crickets in 1957 yet enjoyed his time with the group and its leader.

“Buddy was a good, old Christian boy, who knew what he wanted and how to get it. His burning desire was to be an entertainer and he got there and became a legend,” said Sullivan, 61, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and still receives royalty checks for his association with the Crickets.

Holly left the Crickets and Petty in 1958. He married and moved to New York to begin a solo career that October.

The final tour

Holly’s motivation was to grow as a rock innovator, producer and artist but he lacked the money. He reluctantly agreed to headline the 1959 Winter Dance Party put together by General Artists Corp.

“More than anything, Buddy went on the tour as a favor to GAC. They felt they needed a bigger attraction, so they really urged Buddy to help them out,” his widow, Maria Elena, said in the 1975 biography “Remembering Buddy.”

Holly needed a new touring band and got Carl Bunch on drums, former Cricket Tommy Allsup on guitar and Lubbock disc jockey Waylon Jennings, 21, on bass.

The GAC tour chartered a bus that proved to be a lemon on the icy, snowy roads of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. It broke down several times the first week.

The Dance Party began Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and the 11th stop was Feb. 2 in Clear Lake, where 1,300 fans showed up.

Weary from travel, Holly chartered the 12-year-old Beechcraft for a 3 1/2-hour flight to Fargo. Allsup and Jennings were to join him, yet legend has it that an ailing Big Bopper talked Jennings into trading places and Valens won a coin flip for Allsup’s seat.

When the plane didn’t arrive, a search began. When the tour bus reached Moorhead at noon, Allsup was first into the hotel and the news was on the lobby television. The desk clerk relayed the details.

High schooler Bobby Vee, 15, and his band, The Shadows, made their professional debut that night in Moorhead, filling in for Holly. The tour went on, finishing Feb. 15.

The music does matter

Paul Anka had written “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” specifically for Holly. It turned out to be Holly’s last studio track, released Jan. 5, 1959, and ultimately reached No. 13 on the Billboard charts.

Certainly, Holly and his music have mattered. While record sale totals aren’t available, an MCA Records spokesman said Holly’s albums continue to consistently sell well. His records have influenced rockers from the Beatles to Elton John to Linda Ronstadt.

It’s estimated that Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper combined to sell more than 10 million records in the 12 months leading up to the Winter Dance Party.

Dennis Farland, who works for the Maytag Co. in Newton, Iowa, took time off to put the 40th anniversary tour together.

“It’s been far beyond my expectations. It has been phenomenal,” Farland, 54, said from a tour stop in Eau Claire, Wis. “I’m pretty passionate about the music, but even so, I think this is a magical show.”

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Dion and the Belmonts performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

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As noted above, one of those in attendance at the Duluth Armory show was a young Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing – later to be known to the world as Bob Dylan. In February 1998, when he won the Grammy for Album of the Year for “Time Out of Mind,” Dylan mentioned the concert in his acceptance speech:

Were you at any of the Winter Dance Party concerts in 1959? Share your memories by posting a comment.

Happy 72nd birthday, Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan – then Bobby Zimmerman – as a sophomore in the Hibbing High School yearbook, circa 1957. (News-Tribune file photo)

Today, May 24, 2013, is the 72nd birthday of Northland native and music icon Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth in 1941 and raised on the Iron Range, in Hibbing.

Two years ago, on the occasion of Dylan’s 70th birthday, I posted a collection of text and photos of Dylan from the News Tribune files. If you have not yet seen that – or even if you have – you can find the post here.

Vintage view of Gary-New Duluth fire and police hall

This undated view shows the fire hall and police station on Commonwealth Avenue in the Gary-New Duluth neighborhood. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable about cars can date the photo based on the police squad parked in front:

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And, when this photo was taken the building didn’t just house a fire station and police station – it had a branch of the library in the basement:

The fire hall still stands, and still serves as a fire hall. The police station portion of the building now houses the Gary-New Duluth Community Center.

Share your memories by posting a comment.

Corner of Superior and Fourth Avenue East, 1959

This photo from the News Tribune files, which appears to be dated 1959, shows the north side of Superior Street looking from the corner of Fourth Avenue East. The site of the building being torn down in this picture is now the home of Voyageur Lakewalk Inn. Click on the photo for a larger view.

The back of the photo has the address of the doomed building – 329 E. Superior – and the word “landmark,” without further explanation. Can anyone shed light on this mystery? Why would this building have been a landmark, or otherwise special for some reason?

According to a 1959 city directory (and confirmed by a small sign in the window), the last occupant of the building was Speedometer Service auto repair. Next door at 331, in a structure already razed by the time this photo was taken, the 1959 directory lists Larry’s Clutch & Brake Service, George-N-Henry outboard motors and a few apartment tenants.

To the left…

… in 1959 the building at 323 E. Superior, the facade of which is just visible, housed The Antrobus Shop, a women’s clothing store. The sign right below the shop’s billboard points the way to Hutchinson’s used car lot across the street.

The Antrobus Shop building survives today – it apparently now houses a tattoo shop – tucked between the Voyageur Lakewalk Inn and the Hacienda del Sol restaurant building.

At upper right (perhaps better seen in the full picture), you can see the unique roof line of the Hemlock Garage building. And some of those buildings in the background, up along First Street, still stand today, though obscured from this vantage point by a parking ramp (see below).

Here’s one more zoomed-in view, of the demolition workers forever frozen in time atop the building:

Here are two present-day views of this site, starting with an approximate re-creation of the original photo:

And for a better view of the former Antrobus Shop building, here’s a look down the block to the west:

Share your memories 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.

Photos of Babbitt from the 1950s

Sunday’s News Tribune includes a News Tribune Attic print edition column about a photo of a grocery store in Babbitt in the 1950s.

A few weeks back that photo ran in the paper, and I asked if any readers knew the people in the picture. They did – and you can read the story at the DNT home page to learn more.

Meanwhile, here is that photo – and a few others from Babbitt in the 1950s:

This photo, labeled “Babbitt Store – Mrs. Roland Wright and son Jon” – ran with the News Tribune Attic print column on Aug. 21. We asked if any readers could provide any more information about the photo – and heard from Jon Wright himself. (News Tribune file photo)

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This photo from the News Tribune files is unlabeled, but was filed with other photos from Babbitt and appears to date to the 1950s or 1960s. It shows a crew working on a new cement sidewalk, with local kids watching closely – perhaps waiting patiently for the chance to write their names in the wet cement? (News Tribune file photo)

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Mrs. John Hyvarinen teaches school – possibly a first- and/or second-grade class – in Babbitt in the 1950s. Do you recognize any of the students? (News Tribune file photo)

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Kids walk past a building labeled “Babbitt School Grades 1 & 2″ in the 1950s. A Standard gas station is in the background. (News Tribune file photo)

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Share your memories by posting a comment.

Do you know anything about this car?

A reader passed along this clipping from Reminisce magazine, about a one-of-a-kind (or close to it) car supposedly built in Duluth in the 1950s:

The same car also was featured in Hemmings Motor News last year.

A quick initial search of the DNT files turns up nothing on Pingel or the Sterling Stein. Does anyone out there have any information to offer? If so, post a comment.

I may not be able to moderate comments for a few days, but they’ll be saved and I’ll approve them as soon as I have the opportunity.

Duluth’s long-gone King Neptune statue

Reader John Michel e-mailed a couple of photos earlier this month of the 26-foot-tall King Neptune statue that used to grace Canal Park from 1959 to 1963. There’s this view from a postcard:

And then this view from the other side that he found online; I don’t have a source, so if you know where it came from, let me know and I’ll post the proper credit:

This photo was reversed hen I first posted it; it’s correct now.

The statue had a brief but tumultuous history in Duluth. The News Tribune’s Chuck Frederick did a great job of recounting the tale in a column that ran September 9, 2006. Here it is:

STATUE OF LIMITATIONS

By Chuck Frederick, News Tribune

Sometimes olden is just old. Not historic. Not significant. And when gone, not a lost treasure. Just lost.

So goes the story of Duluth’s King Neptune. Memories of the 26-foot, 2,000-pound statue that once stood guard over the Duluth ship canal were sparked this summer when Duluth historian and postcard collector Tony Dierckins came across a card featuring the mythical Roman god of the sea. Dierckins dropped me a whatever-happened-to e-mail and the News Tribune published a call for answers — and memories.

The story that emerged, disappointingly, wasn’t nearly as golden as Duluth’s once-proud painted statue.

“Neptune was a hunk of junk,” Duluth’s Lyle Bergal recalled. “Depressing to look at. An eyesore. It was just a disgrace to the city.”

However, as Bergal also recalled, the statue didn’t start out that way. In fact, the big guy was heralded by Duluth Mayor E. Clifford Mork as a “tremendous tourist attraction,” especially among “picture-taking travelers” in 1959, shortly after the Minnesota State Fair Board voted to donate the statue to Duluth. Neptune had been on display during the Great Minnesota Get-Together to commemorate the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The city’s chamber of commerce, visitors bureau, and retail merchants association came up with the cash to truck Neptune from St. Paul to Lake Superior. At least a dozen businesses provided men or equipment to load and unload Duluth’s newest resident.

With a trident in one hand and a replica of the Ramon de Larrinaga, the first large ocean-going vessel to reach Duluth, in the other, Neptune was hoisted with a crane onto a concrete base not far from the maritime museum. The late-fall dedication was well attended, and D.T. Grussendorf, the State Fair Board member from Duluth who was honored for nabbing Neptune, said the statue exemplified Duluth’s “rugged individualism” and “tenacity.”

“City officials and civic boosters made a big deal about its unveiling,” longtime News Tribune columnist Jim Heffernan recalled. They sure did. Mayor Mork even christened the statue by smashing a bottle of champagne. Luckily, he aimed at the concrete base.

Lucky because, within weeks, Neptune began showing his true quality — or lack thereof. Small stones thrown up on shore by Lake Superior’s waves punched holes into his robe. That despite Neptune’s reported construction of durable fiberglass and a weather-proof plastic composite.

The following spring, Neptune had to be patched and repainted, a maintenance job city crews wound up repeating annually. “He was awfully hard to keep repaired,” Charles K. Ulsrud, the city’s superintendent of buildings and grounds told the Duluth Herald in 1963. “We just couldn’t keep him from falling apart.”

The losing battle wasn’t helped when kids and other vandals threw stones at Neptune or kicked holes into him. The city had to spend about $300 a year — nearly $2,000 today — for paint and patching material. And that’s a figure that doesn’t include workers’ time.

“He was quite an expense for the city and he never really did look good,” Ulsrud said. “If the city’s going to have such a statue, it should be constructed of a more durable material.”

As it turned out, Neptune’s plastic and fiberglass construction was only durable in a thin layer on the outside. The rest of his body, it was later discovered, was made of papier-mache, the “stuff kids use in school to make toy figures,” as the Herald reported.

“Papier-mache does not do well in Northland winters nor does it hold up to the occasional fall storm and high waves,” Thom Holden, director of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center, pointed out via e-mail.

After only four years in Canal Park, a battered Neptune was in desperate need of major repairs. City crews, using blow torches to dismantle the pipes that held him in place, went to work to take him down in June 1963.

That’s when Neptune’s true construction material was first realized. The statue caught fire and, within minutes, was reduced to ashes.
“Duluthians had mixed emotions about Neptune,” the Herald reported on its front page on June 4, 1963. “Many thought him to be unutterably ugly and wondered why he faced out to the ship canal rather than toward the park, where he could be seen. Some thought the old fellow had been neglected, that one of his stature deserved better care.”

He probably did.

“It was a gallant effort,” Bergal said, referring especially to the good intentions that brought Neptune north.

“There are postcards and memories of his presence,” wrote Holden. And “there are still those nights … that he occasionally pays a visit to escort a lonely vessel through the canal.”

In concluding its coverage of the Neptune inferno in 1963, the Herald reported: “Fire officials declined to estimate the loss.”

Tough to put a dollar figure on an “eyesore” and “disgrace,” I guess.

Not a lost treasure. Not this time. Just lost.

-end-

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Famous Lashua, Duluth’s singing cowboy

The post on Duluth’s first television station from a few weeks back included a mention of “Famous, a country-western singer.”

The name “Famous” piqued my curiosity, so I went digging in the files and found out a lot more about Famous Lashua, Duluth’s singing cowboy, including this article from February 6, 1983:

Famous Lashua, Oct. 21, 1953. (News-Tribune file photo)

Duluth’s singing cowboy remembers

By Bob Ashenmacher, News-Tribune staff writer

He was Duluth’s singing cowboy during the heyday of radio.

He wrote country-western songs that were recorded by some of the biggest names. He made one of the earliest live television broadcasts in Duluth.

So what ever happened to Famous Lashua?

“Every once in a while that comes up,” Lashua, now 66, said from his home in Mountain Iron. “I get mentioned on one of the radio stations I worked for – maybe on a call-in show or something. People wonder where I went.”

He moved from Duluth in 1964 to take over a dry-cleaning business in Virginia. He and his wife Ruby retired two years ago. Lately he’s recovering from an artificial hip operation.

Lashua doesn’t regret leaving show business.

“I’d been in it for 30 years. This (the dry cleaners’) was a chance to get into a good, growing business, so we bought it.”

But his enthusiasm for the music days remains.

“Oh, the way I got into it is funny. I’d gone out West on a freight (train) when I was 16, gotten a job on a ranch. The cowboys there, it was a big joke for them to put me on a wild horse. I did pretty good – an old Indian wanted to put me in the rodeo. Anyway, I wrote a letter to a girlfriend back in Rhinelander and to dress it up a bit I said, ‘We’re sitting around the campfire singing songs and I’m playing my guitar.’ I was BS’ing – I didn’t know a guitar from any other instrument.

“When I came back home in ’36, well, of course I run into the old girl again, and the first thing she wants me to do is sing for her. So I had to quick scare up a guitar and get me a music book for two bits. After about a week I could sneak by with ‘Home on the Range.’ I did it for her, and she liked it. It went from there.”

Songwriter and performer Famous Lashua spins country and western music on WDSM radio in early 1964. Note the Hotel Duluth / Greysolon Plaza facade visible through the window. (News-Tribune file photo)

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Except for a brief stint in Kentucky, Lashua played music locally for almost three decades. He had a pleasant soprano voice that lent itself well to relaxed country-western tunes.

He worked in many settings, from WEBC radio’s 15-piece orchestra to a popular band called Uncle Harry and His Hillbillies to a solo act.

He was master of ceremonies on “Corn’s A’Poppin,” a weekly KDAL radio show broadcast live from the stage of Duluth’s Lyceum Theater for three years in the mid-1940s.

“Every Monday night, right after the stores closed,” he said. “We had full houses – boy, it was great. We’d bring in some local acts each night. Some girls tap dancing or a local kid singing.”

Among his more unusual gigs was one with an organist who was dying of cancer. They played together on a show sponsored by a funeral home.

“He knew he was done for,” Lashua said, “but he insisted on continuing playing. During commercials I’d sing hymns and he’d play organ softly in the background and once in a while he’d break down and cry. … That was harder than digging ditches, I tell you.”

The early TV appearance came when engineers of Duluth television station WDSM were preparing to go on the air and wanted to test the signal.

“There wasn’t even a studio yet, just a garage up on the hill by the antenna. … We dragged a log in out of the woods. I sat on it and played some songs.”

All the while, Lashua was writing songs.

Red Foley had a big hit with his “Chocolate Ice Cream Cone.” It was among the top 10 country songs of – he thinks it was – 1952 and was eventually covered by 10 artists. Vaughan Monroe and Hank Snow each recorded his “Ghost Trains.” The Blue Sky Boys did his “I’m Glad.” His own favorite among his originals: “A thing called ‘Little Miss Mischief.’ It was recorded by the Oklahoma Sweethearts. I liked that one, but it never went anywhere.”

Where’d he get that stage name, “Famous,” anyway?

“They’ve been asking me that for years,” he said. “It’s my real name. My folks must have had big plans for me. Either that or they were running out of names – I’m the ninth out of 10 kids.”

Now that he’s retired, Lashua wouldn’t mind putting together a little radio show of his own again.”

– end –

Famous Lashua, undated photo. (News-Tribune file photo)

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Famous Lashua died on May 3, 1992, at the age of 76.

A Google search turns up quite a bit of information on Famous Lashua. For a site with a number of mp3 files of his songs, click here. Among the files available is “Choc’late Ice Cream Cone,” which was a country hit back in the early 1950s. It’s a sweetly innocent song, certainly from another era. Not quite sure how it would be received today. I found this image of a folio of sheet music for the song on Amazon.com:

A few more sites with information about Famous Lashua can be found here and here.

Share your memories of Famous Lashua, or other well-known Northland musicians, by posting a comment.

Photo mystery solved… and other odds and ends

Here is a copy of a News Tribune Attic “print edition” column that appears in today’s paper. It provides the answer to the crime scene mystery photo from a few weeks back, as well as catching up on a few other odds and ends from past print columns….

News Tribune Attic readers helped identify the men in this photo… read on to learn more. (News Tribune file photo)

Over the past few months I’ve tossed out a few questions about old photos and stories from the News Tribune archives. Now, I’ll share what I’ve heard back from readers.

We’ll start with the most recent question, which resulted in the most definitive answer. On May 15 I ran a photo showing a crime scene, with what appeared to be law enforcement officers examining a bullet.

Readers Sandra Sterling and Tess Thorstad both e-mailed that the man on the right looked like Alfred Senarighi, who had worked for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office (he’s Thorstad’s father).

Senarighi’s name jogged my memory — I vaguely remembered seeing it months earlier, in the captions for a folder of old crime scene photos. And sure enough, the lone “mystery photo” was part of that larger file; it had been separated years, possibly even decades ago.

So what does the photo show? It’s the aftermath of a triple-murder at a farmhouse near Floodwood in November 1953. At the scene in the early morning hours are, from left, St. Louis County Sheriff Sam Owens; William Dinkel of the sheriff’s criminal investigation staff; and Senarighi, then a deputy sheriff.

Owens served as sheriff from 1931 until 1967. An interesting side note — Owens was appointed St. Louis County sheriff after a judge ruled that the winner of the 1930 election, Emil Erickson, was not an American citizen, and was disqualified from holding office. He had been born in Norway and never was naturalized.

As I was pulling that information together, a note arrived from reader Glen Kartin, naming all the men in the photo, and correctly identifying the date and place. Thanks to all who helped put that mystery to rest.

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Unlike the first mystery photo, the exact date and location of this picture remains a mystery. (News Tribune file photo)

Abandoned houses photo

There were quite a few responses to the mystery photo of a man looking at abandoned houses that ran with this column on March 6.

Unfortunately, no one could offer a definitive identification of where the photo was taken.

There remain two main camps of opinion on the location of the photo, both based on the idea that it’s a picture of homes being razed for the construction of Interstate 35 through the western and central parts of Duluth.

A slight majority of responses placed the photo near the corner of 51st Avenue West and Bristol Street in West Duluth. Several other readers said they believed it’s from the vicinity of 27th Avenue West and Helm Street.

Reader Denise Johnson of Superior said she thought the photo was from the Bristol Street area. She sent some nice recollections of her childhood in that neighborhood — memories that may resonate with some of you, too:

“I grew up on 63rd Avenue West, above Bristol Street. My siblings and I, along with the neighborhood kids, often watched the workers leveling homes and building I-35. I remember feeling such sadness, as they tore down homes and changed the landscape of our beloved neighborhood. The area where I-35 crosses 63rd Ave. West, traveling back to where the train tracks used to be along Green Street, was a children’s dreamland playground. There were fields of wild flowers and every type of fruit tree and bush, you could imagine. …

“I remember vividly the timeframe during which they tore the houses below Bristol Street down. A huge barn owl decided to make a temporary home in our backyard. As a child, I was in awe of its size. My mother allowed the owl to live in our yard, until it moved on. She told us that it probably had been living in one of the abandoned homes below Bristol Street. It chose our yard as a pit stop on its journey to find a new
home. …

“When the workers began hauling in truckloads of fill to build the massive hill off of 63rd Avenue West and Bristol Street, our playfield was lost to us. Being resilient kids, we found one benefit in that large mass of fill. That hill made a great slope for our sleds and toboggans. …

“Along 63rd, below the freeway overpass, a new sidewalk was laid after the completion of I-35. I walked down to watch the workers, asking them if I could please put my name, and siblings’ names, in the sidewalk. I was given permission to put our initials, not our full names, in the corner of one square of concrete. The workers smiled as I took a stick and etched, with pride, our initials into the fresh concrete. Years later, as an adult, I traveled back to the old neighborhood. I walked the same section of sidewalk, finding our initials buried under 30+ years of dirt.

“I don’t know who the gentleman is in the photo. I see a sadness in his posture. Perhaps, he is reminiscing about his pre-I-35 childhood, as I am now.”

Ely Bottling Works

After an archive story and photo about the Ely Bottling Works ran March 13, several readers shared their memories about the soda factory and its owner, Charlie Lampi. Some readers also sent photos of Ely Bottling Works bottles and memorabilia, including these:

Shirley Shusta of Ely sent this photo of a Jacob Lampi (Jacob was Charlie’s dad) bottle with an attached pumping apparatus. It’s standing atop a Kist Beverages box; Kist was the company from which Charlie Lampi bought his soda flavor extracts.

Mary Jackman Sanders sent photos of a similar bottle – only it was etched with the name John Jackman, her great-grandfather and the man who started the Ely Bottling Works. Jackman sold the business to the Lampi family.

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Kurt Soderberg sent a photo of a different style of Ely Bottling Works bottle that he has:

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And Dan Anderson of Cloquet, who grew up in Ely, sent these photos of a vintage bottle opener:

Anderson shared some childhood memories of the Ely Bottling Works:

“I passed the ‘Works every day on my walk to school and I always thought it was a cool building. There was always activity and I remember the rattle of the pop cases being loaded onto the truck on the rollers.

“They had the best pop (cream soda, orange, and lemon-lime) around.  It was a real treat to have pop back in the ’60s before it became ubiquitous and bad for us.”

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