A city sailed the lake

By Brett Adkins A small community in East Duluth became known as one of the most “gigantic projects in history” when the neighborhood was shipped from Wisconsin, across Lake Superior and into Duluth at the beginning of the 20th century. One couple, now living in a home in the Morley Heights area, strives to preserve its unique history.

This photograph of Morley Heights was taken in 1920. The James family lives in the house on the bottom left. Photograph by L.P. Gallangner

In 1919, The Marshall Wells Company purchased over 80 acres of land. Today, that area is known as Morley Heights, a residential neighborhood located off Snively Road in Duluth. The hardware company produced wholesale iron and steel. By exporting these resources, the industry impacted the need for railroad supplies.

Due to the shortage of housing for the employees working in the industry, houses were shipped from “DuPont Power Village,” located in Barksdale, Wisc. This was the first instance on record where several dwellings moved a large distance. According to an article published by the Duluth News Tribune on Nov. 11, 1919 found at the Duluth Public Library, the haul included a 72 mile rail expedition and a 125 mile sail across the lake by barge.

Today, a small one-and-a-half story home still sits on the corner of Spear Avenue and Morley Parkway. Lights line the front porch and wooden flower boxes accessorize the front six window panes. Chris and Carolyn James moved into this home in September 1991.

“Our goal wasn’t to update our home,” Carolyn said. “We wanted to bring it back to the 1920s which created a vintage look.”

The family has redecorated yet they haven’t reconstructed their homes original design. Inverted ceilings and short closet doors fit into the small space of two upper level bedrooms. Painted walls now cover the heavy-dark wooden paneling that once embellished the basement walls.

Other six room bungalows and duplex-like structures were auctioned off in Duluth in August of 1922. Flyers in the newspaper read, “You make your own price! If you haven’t seen Morley Heights, there’s a surprise for you!”

“I think it’s great that Morley Heights isn’t just a neighborhood that was once a corn field that was plowed in order for everyone to just buy a lot and build a house,” Carolyn said.

Gerth’s Realty Experts, the largest exclusive real estate auction house in the world at that time, also auctioned off 230 lots in Morley Heights. The event took place at the Armory in Duluth and the founder of Gerth’s Realty Experts, Charles S. Gerth, was a spokesperson.

The homes that were sold at cost for the company’s employees were reconstructed on each lot. According to The Duluth Herald issued in 1919, bidders for the homes were required to pay 10 percent of the purchase price in cash when the house was finalized at a reasonable cost between the salesman and the buyer. There was also a $15 auctioneer fee per house. At the end of 30 days, the purchaser was required to pay an additional 10 percent. The remainder of the purchase price was to be paid by monthly installments at the rate of one percent of the purchase price per month.

The Marshall Wells Company hoped that the subdivision would be made one of the “show places” of Duluth.

The neighborhood that was once filled with retired residents has transformed into a community of young couples starting a family. After the housing market crashed in 2008, some of the homes became rental properties for college students. For a period of time, the streets were covered with empty beer cans and public parking was limited. Now the neighborhood is peaceful and the residents seem to be respectful.

“We’ll always be a high rental area because of the duplexes found here,” said Carolyn.

“You have to appreciate and want to live in a neighborhood that has history,” said Chris.

A playground in the center of the block was reconstructed in the summer of 2010. Over $30,000 was donated for the new equipment. Now, a jungle gym and a rock climbing wall stand firm as several of its swings sway back and forth in the winter wind. Mounds of snow cover the scented wood chips that line the playground.

The James family believes the playground brings the neighborhood together.

“Everyone’s a parent at the park,” said Carolyn.

“History, like anything else, needs to be remembered and reserved,” said Chris. “That sense of place leads to a sense of community.”

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