Ray and Florence Rutka have lived on Raleigh Street in West Duluth for 70 years. Their house is almost in the parking lot of the North Pole Bar, which they’ve owned for 24 years. Florence is fully Italian, born and raised a few blocks down from the bar. Her husband Ray is fully Polish. Their families were some of the first generation immigrants to make Raleigh Street their home.
“It’s kind of a neighborhood type thing,” said Florence, 70.
“There’s still some families that, three generations now, come in here from the same family,” said Ray, 71.
During prohibition in the 1920s, before the building became the North Pole, it functioned as the Neighborhood House for a gang of folks called Raleigh Streeters.
Raleigh Street is tucked out of sight from Interstate 35. It runs from Grand Avenue toward the St. Louis Bay and intersects Central Avenue. The North Pole is the last remaining bar on the quiet neighborhood street.
Families that lived along Raleigh Street came to the Neighborhood House to socialize. Many came to learn English. It helped connect those in the community.
After prohibition came to an end, the Neighborhood House became the North Pole. It still serves the community today.
The North Pole is still the same as it was after it opened its doors in 1935. Today there is an additional add-on that connects the retired Ray’s Restaurant next door and the North Pole.
Inside, behind the bar, hangs a black and white photo of the past owner which holds a story for another day. The middle of the room has a few tables and against the wall opposite the bar are booths with the original “Push for Service” buttons that look like doorbells.
Today outside the North Pole doors, Raleigh Street is quiet. It’s lined with oddly shaped apartments and homes.
An outsider to the street would never guess that in the 1920s those boxy buildings with flat roofs were once shops and after prohibition, taverns owned by a diverse group of immigrants.
Early customers in the taverns, along with the locals, were sailors from ships that carried cargo. The rusted ore docks where ships unloaded their cargo are still there today.
Many of the past businesses that employed Raleigh Streeters are no longer there, such as Interlake Iron, Clearflax, and Carbolite. The immigrants worked hard and for little pay.
Ed Cullen, 83, grew up across Central Avenue near Raleigh Street.
“Everybody was broke,” Cullen said. “I used to pick junk, recycle, I made pennies, nickels, and dimes.”
According to Cullen, kids spent their free time searching the railroad tracks for coal that had fallen from the passing cargo trains. They’d pack the coal in gunny sacks to get it home. This is how many people heated their homes through the winter.
The kids in the neighborhood attended Irving School together and learned to get along regardless of their different ethnic back grounds.
“Everybody knew everybody for blocks around,” said a proud Raleigh Streeter, Eli Miletich, 76. “It didn’t matter their ethnic background whether they were Italian, or Finnish, or Croatian, or Serbian.”
Outsiders of this close community treated the Raleigh Streeters different from people in other areas of Duluth.
Miletich remembered his experience in a science class at Irving.
“There’s an Olson and a Johnson and an O’Neil, and he gets to my name, Miletich. And I put up my hand and he says, ‘stand up’. So I stood up. ‘I want everybody to get a look at this guy’, and then he finished, ‘he’s from Raleigh Street and if there’s going to be any trouble in the class it’ll probably come from him’,” recalls Miletich with a small laugh.
To him, he’ll always be a Raleigh Streeter.
“It was a tight knit community of diverse ethnic backgrounds where everybody pitched in for their neighbors,” Miletich said. “It was a United Nations before there was a United Nations.”
Both Cullen and Miletich eventually married and moved away from Raleigh Street, but others who were born and raised there have stayed even though the community is different today.
Helen Lind, 82, lives at the end of an ally off Raleigh Street a few blocks from the North Pole. She lives in the house next door to the one she was raised in. She’s a happy lady with many stories from the old days and growing up as a Raleigh Streeter.
“Life changes,” Lind said. “We knew this. We knew it was never going to stay the same as it was [Raleigh Street]. In fact there’s just three of us [left] from the old days.”
The Rutka’s aren’t planning on leaving the Raleigh Street area either. They know their neighbors and it’s a nice place to live. They say the community today is still close, although not like it was in the early years of Raleigh Street.
“It’s still a quiet neighborhood, it’s nice, I think,” Florence said. “The Irving playground down here, they do so much for the neighborhood kids, ya know? And I think it’s probably just as good as it was then.”
“Well I’m not leaving, how’s that? That’s the best way I can say it,” Ray said.
“You’ve got whatever you need,” Florence said.
Ray, with a smile, adds one last thing, “And you’ve got a bar in your backyard.”