Give the Gift of Family History This Year
I had the good fortune of growing up in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. We had a forest for a backyard, surrounded by rivers, mountains, etc. It was perfect. Growing up in an extremely rural setting (in the pre-internet days) meant that a trip to the city (Seattle in this case) was quite exciting and eagerly anticipated. One of my favorite parts about the trip was getting to see my Aunt Carolyn, who also became our tour guide and interpreter on these occasions. She introduced us to another world that left lasting impressions.
My brothers and I loved to visit Carolyn’s apartment. I don’t believe there were any buildings over two stories near my hometown, and to my knowledge there wasn’t an elevator within a 70 mile radius. The sites, sounds and smells of the city were quite a thrill. One of the many indelible memories that really jumped out to my brothers and I was a plaster bust of Hiawatha that Carolyn had atop her bookcase. Something about it was very captivating and part of the total sensory tapestry that was ‘the city’ for us. Carolyn, a gifted writer and storyteller was more than happy to regale us with the story of its origin.
My Great Grandfather Calvin ‘Cal’ Gilman was born in Maine in 1863. By the early 1890’s he had migrated west to Seattle. He met a gentleman there named Daniel ‘D.M.’ Gunn who convinced Cal that there was opportunity in Minnesota, more specifically in Grand Rapids, the northernmost point steamboats were able to navigate on the Mississippi River. Grand Rapids, incorporated in 1891, was a natural hub for the timber industry, as the river provided conveyance for the timber to a good chunk of the country. Cal followed Mr. Gunn east.
Gunn purchased the Pokegama Hotel in 1892, soon after the railroad had arrived. The hotel, located just two blocks north of the Mississippi River promptly burned to the ground a year later. Undaunted, Gunn rebuilt the hotel, which reopened in 1894 on Thanksgiving Day. It was a big event; guests who came from far and wide were entertained by the Duluth Orchestra. Grandpa Cal tended bar in the saloon.
Another hotel employee was Christine Severina Johnson, whose parents had immigrated from Luster County, Norway in the 1850’s. (Their name had been Johanson prior to arrival in the USA) Bored with the rural farm life in Wisconsin, she left home around age 15 to become a ‘dining room girl’ on the riverboats. She took the same position at the Hotel Pokegama a dozen or so years later and met Cal. She would become my Great Grandmother in the process.
As the timber industry began to boom in earnest, Cal determined that there was enough business for him to start his own saloon. This was a move apparently supported by Gunn, who was reportedly an investor in the venture. The Royal Buffet opened around the turn of the century at 210 Kindred Avenue (now NW 1st Ave) just a block from the hotel. Christine gave birth to my Grandfather Benjamin around the same time in 1903.
In the photograph, you can see that the saloon was quite elaborate in its decor, highlighted by punched tin, mirrors, ornate woodwork and of course, the plaster busts of native american leaders. By all accounts the Royal Buffet was successful; it remained open for at least a decade and was a popular watering hole.
But it wasn’t meant to last. Minnesota, which saw contentious debates over prohibition well before the the Volstead act in 1919, passed a ‘county option bill’ in 1915 which allowed each county to determine its prohibition status. Itasca County went dry, effectively putting the Royal Buffet out of business several years before prohibition was enacted nationally.
Cal had been very generous in extending credit to his clientele (which were also his friends), and was certainly owed a fair bit of money from his regulars. Most of these people were recent immigrants themselves from Scandinavia or Eastern Europe with little to their name…except their name. But when your name is all you have, you take it seriously. These customers made sure to square things up with Cal by whatever means they had at their disposal. That came in the form of rolling cigars for him, or trading him items such as a shotgun, a pocket watch, or in one case, a baritone saxophone. And most memorable to our family is the one customer who gave him a 40 acre piece of lakeside land to forgive his debit. That parcel remains in the family today; I remember ice fishing there with Grandpa Ben in my childhood. And all those customers remained friends with Grandpa Cal for years to come.
I like this story for several reasons, not the least of which is that it involves my colorful ancestors. My Great Grandmother rising from an immigrant settlement to become a businesswoman and landowner with nothing but determination and moxie. My Great Grandfather moving across the country twice to find a place to stake his claim. But I love reading about a time when one’s name was their biggest asset and that with hard work and determination, anything was possible. And of course the idea that a family heirloom with limited financial value can become the string that keeps the history and memory of those that came before us alive and well. And if there is a little embellishment along the way...even better. History (and family) should be interesting.
In an era where the US household debt rose to a record high $13 trillion at the end of 2017, the idea of paying off a bar tab to a friend with a saxophone seems like a quaint notion. Or maybe not. But it makes me proud to be Cal’s great grandson either way.
Oh, and I almost forgot about Hiawatha...you are probably wondering how his bust ended up in Seattle. It was discovered in Christine’s attic in the late 1940’s by my mother and her sisters. While originally in possession of my Aunt Nell, Aunt Carolyn would eventually lay claim and take it with her to Seattle. And if she hadn’t, I suppose it’s possible that I would have never learned the story of Grandpa Cal and this valuable lesson on personal responsibility. I hope that you have a similar heirloom in your family that makes you look back and smile.
Happy Holidays from all of us at Thin Pig, and may 2019 be the best ever for you and your family!
Special thanks to my mom and her sisters, Nell and Carolyn, for sharing their memories with me and answering all my questions to put together this post!
Thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society for the use of the cover photograph. This picture and much more on the history of the North Star State may be found at: http://www.mnhs.org/