Thursday, July 4, 2013

Making a Case for Preserving the Duluth Armory

Scarlet & Geno, benefit for the AAMC
The history of a community contributes to its personality. Preserving the history of a place through its significant historic resources gives a community its unique character. Historic preservation provides a link to the roots of the community and its people. ~Historic Hawai'i Foundation*

I moved to Duluth in 1986. I'm from Ohio and New Jersey, and knew very little about this region or its history. My first steady girl friend in high school had a Russian grandmother from up here in the Northland, and Duluth was one of the cities on our Greyhound Bus board game. I knew geographically it abutted Canada and Lake Superior, but for the most part it just seemed like nowhere. I knew nothing about the Iron Range or the peoples who settled here, the Land Grant that helped populate the region, or the personalities who passed through.

My first eye opening experience was the Chisholm Mining Museum. The visit was informative, eye-opening, and put one in touch with the hardships the rugged people had to go through to survive here in the mining industry. I learned, also, why Minnesota was a stop on that board game. The Greyhound Bus Lines had been formed there on the Iron Range, transporting miners to the mines in twenty below weather with no glass on the windows. Within the year we visited Glensheen Mansion and saw how the other half lived and I was struck by the contrast of ostentatious wealth in such close proximity to the hardships of working class Minnesotans.

When Bob Dylan went to the Big Apple he sang about getting paid to blow his harmonica there, "a dollar a day's worth." That was a day's pay from those miners in Hibbing in 1910 where he later grew up. 

The mining industry brought great wealth to the region, as did the Great Lake and its active shipping business, transporting ore and produce from this breadbasket of the nation to points east. The farmer's life was a hardscrabble existence as well. "Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town."

The history of the region includes a rich Native American heritage as well as the French Canadian Voyageurs who broke into the new territory as explorers and game hunters.

Often, local people take their history for granted and may even be unaware of where the names of roads came from, such as Cody Street, named after Buffalo Bill Cody who financed the Duluth Press Building in Duluth's West End. (His little sister lived here in town.) People like Tony Dierckens, Zenith City Press, have been actively trying to keep our past alive for the value it brings to our future.

Another somewhat non-descript building with a lot of history is the Duluth Armory down on London Road. The Armory Arts and Music Center (AAMC) website explains its importance. The Armory has been a site of great inspiration throughout its history – truly the building that made Duluth famous. It was built in 1915 at roughly five times the average cost of other armories of that era. It served as a military training facility for the Minnesota National Guard.

The building also played an important role as the cultural and entertainment hub of the Duluth region. Some of the most famous Americans appeared at the Armory – Harry Truman, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, and Liberace, to name a few.

In fact, I recently acquired a spreadsheet of the people who spoke or performed here and it was so long that I am only listing the first one hundred here:

Adelaide Abbot – Singer; Cederic Adams of WCCO – Mpls.; Cassious Clay – Mohamad Ali; Robert S. Allen; Whispering Bill Anderson; Marian Anderson; Ray Anthony; Elizabeth Arden – Cosmetician; Movie Star – Richard Arlen; Louis Armstrong; Eddy Arnold – Country Star; Augustana College Cappella Choir – Rock Island, IL; Gene Autry – Country Star; Bobby Bare – Country Star; Movie Star – Ann Baxter; The Beach Boys; Maj. John Hay Beith; Ralph Bellamy; Benson Orchestra of Chicago – 1920’s Jazz; Edger Bergan and Puppet – Charley McCarthy; George Bergman & his Wis. Serenaders; Leonard Bernstein; Black Devils Band - 1920’s Syncopation Ochestra; Ennio Bolognini – Cellist; Violinist Victor Borge; Charles Boyer – Actor; Les Brown and his Band of Renown; John Mason Brown; Lucielle Browning – Singer; Maxine Brown; Julian Bryan - Foreign Correspondent; Edmund Burke – Royal Opera London; Gloria Burkhart; Henry Busse & his Orch.; Erik Bye; Rear Admiral – Richard E. Byrd – Explorer of South Pole 1929; Frankie Carle & his Orch.; Dale Carnegie; Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters – Country Singing Group; Anna Case; Johnny Cash – Country Star; Irene Castle; Bennett Cerf - Publisher; Feodor Chalinpin; The Champs – Rock n Roll Group; Charlie Chaplin - Film; Pathe Star Chicago Pops Orch.; The Chordettes – Girl Singing Group; Clare Clairebert – Brilliant Coloratura of the twentieth century; Jimmy Clanton – Rock N Roll; Roy Clark - Country Star; Mrs. Mark Clark – Wife of General Allied 15th Army in Italy; Patsy Cline – Country Star; Jerry Colonna – Comedian; The Concordia Choir; Dick Conteno - Polka; Dorothy Cordray; Don Cossack and his Russian Chorus; Dorothy Crawford - Broadway Actress; Rev. Percy Crawford – Radio Evangelist; Galli Curci - Victor Recording Artist; Rev. Richard S. Davis – Portsmouth, Ohio; Skeeter Davis; Doris Day – Singer; De Paur Infantry Chorus; Jimmy Dean – Country Star; Delta Rhythem Boys; Little Jimmy Dickens – Country; Star Peggy Diggins – Warner Bros.; Starlet (Stars over America) Dion; Jimmy Dorsey; Tommy Dorsey; Jessica Dragonette Radio’s Star of Stars; Dave Dudley – Country Star; Dwane Eddy and the Rebel Rousers; Nelson Eddy; Duke Ellington; Mischa Elman - Violinist; Everly Bros.– Rock n Roll; Geraldine Farrar; Ferrante and Teicher; Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra; Gracie Fields – English Entertainer; Ted Fio Rito and his Orchestra – 1920’s Jazz; Doris Fleeson – Washington Correspondent of New York Daily News; Joyce Flissler – violinist; Florentine Choir; Father Flynns New York Paulist Choristers; Frankie Ford – Rock N Roll; Four Lads – Rock n Roll singing group; Famous French Army Band; Verne Gagne – Wrestler; Rudolf Ganz - Swiss Pianist; Mary Garden - Singer; Texas Bob Geigel – wrestler; Leon Gibb; Percy Grainger; Tito Guizar – Guitarist

And then there was Buddy Holly, with young Bob Dylan down in front in the audience. It is well remembered that this was where Buddy Holly performed his second to last concert, along with Richie Valenz and the Big Bopper.


Nelson French, who serves on the AAMC board, has explained that their goal in preserving the Armory is not simply to mark the past but to utilize it for the future of giving back to the community. "The Armory Arts and Music Center," says French, "will be a vibrant mixed use facility housed in the historic Duluth Armory and inspire generations to come through arts and arts education. It's mission statement: To preserve the Duluth Armory and its historic value to American culture and the arts, while encouraging its reuse, placing emphasis on arts and education."

Something I've become aware of in recent years is that people who fly to Duluth to visit Dylan's birthplace and where he grew up in Hibbing have very little to see in the way of landmarks. There are few places to have your photo taken to say you were here where Dylan was born. I know this because I have talked with a few people from Europe who were seeking just that. It's hard to lay down in the street next to a Dylan manhole cover. His first home is currently unmarked.

I do not believe anyone pushing for more Dylan recognition is striving to make him out to be a god. He's a mortal, we all know that. But making monuments can have value, both as a historical teaching tool and as an economic addition to the community and a historical acknowledgement. Nelson French affirms, "In this case it is more important to capture the essence of the bard, troubadour and traditional folk roots as reflected by the place, "the Armory". It is more important to recognize the above-referenced connections and linkages between the past-present-future, and it is in this spirit that it is important to "mark" through efforts such as those of AAMC as it relates to what the historic Duluth Armory represents in our arts, military and peace history. It is important that we recognize and acknowledge these connections -- and it is sometimes necessary to highlight those agents, such as Mr. Dylan, who have helped many see the connections a bit more clearly -- or reinforced the importance of those connections in time and space."

I've been inside that building and there is a lot of work to be done. Here are some pictures of how it used to be .


* http://www.historichawaii.org/WhyPreserve/WhyPreserve.html 

Lower right photo includes, Gregg Inhofer, Billy Peterson, Kevin Odegard, Bill Berg and Peter Ostroushko of the Blood On The Tracks gang, 2006 Hibbing High School Auditorium performance for Dylan Days.

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