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Congdon Family papers

 Collection
Identifier: U6192

Scope and Contents

This collection is organized into seven series:

Photographs: This series contains photographs of the Congdon family, the Glensheen estate, and various employees and friends of the Congdons. Materials date from 1843 - 1983.

House Grounds, and Staff: This series contains materials related to the Glensheen house, outbuildings, and grounds, their care and maintenance, and the people employed at the estate. Topics include construction, household contents, and gardens. Congdon Trust files are also included in this series. Materials date from 1899 - 1985.

Business, Financial, and Political Records: This series contains materials related to the Congdon’s finances, business interests, and Chester A. Congdon’s political career. Materials date from 1882 - 1993.

Pacific Panorama: This series contains materials from Chester A. Congdon’s 1914 trip around the Pacific Ocean, including stops in Tahiti, Rarotonga, New Zealand, Australia, Canton, Java, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. The majority of this series is a collection of hand-colored glass lantern slides. The slides were numbered and titled with hand-written labels. The titles of the slides were written at the time of the trip in 1914, and reflect the attitudes of Congdon and his fellow travelers at that time. Numbers and titles of slides were also recorded on typed lists included in folder 25. The original numbering system and titles were used in an item-level inventory of the slides. Also included are postcards, correspondence, and Chester A. Congdon’s diary of the trip, which was printed and distributed to family members by Robert Congdon in 1938. The diary in this collection is Clara B. Congdon’s copy. Materials in this series are dated February - June, 1914.

Correspondence: Contains correspondence to and from members of the Congdon family and the Wyness family. Correspondence in this series is of a personal nature. Correspondence related to the construction and maintenance of Glensheen can be found in “Series 2: House, Grounds, and Staff,” and business and political correspondence can be found in “Series 3: Business, Financial, and Political Records.” Materials in this series date from 1856 - 1982.

Diaries: Contains diaries written by members of the Congdon and Torrey families. Travel diaries, daily planners, and gift diaries are included. The majority of the diaries were written by Clara Bannister Congdon. Materials in this series date from 1861 - 1948.

Publications and Ephemera: Contains publications and ephemera collected and used by the Congdons and their household. These include catalogs, maps, travel ephemera, magazines and journals, City of Duluth charters and ordinances, and other materials. Included in this series are copies of Patriotism by Chester Adgate Congdon. Also included are ephemera from You’ll Like My Mother, the 1972 horror movie filmed at Glensheen. Materials in this series date from 1870 - 1987.

Dates

  • 1843 - 1993

Creator

Biographical / Historical

Chester Adgate Congdon was born on June 12, 1853, to Sylvester Congdon and Laura Jane Congdon (Adgate). He spent his childhood in New York State, where his father was a Methodist Episcopal minister. Following Sylvester’s death in 1868, Chester worked in a lumberyard in Corning, New York to help support his mother and two younger siblings. In September 1871 he became part of the first class at Syracuse University, where he met Clara Hesperia Bannister.

The Bannister family was originally from New York, though they had been living in California since 1850. Clara was born in San Francisco on April 29, 1854, to Reverend Edward Bannister and Elizabeth Bannister. The family returned to New York following Edward’s death in 1871, and Clara enrolled in Syracuse University shortly afterwards.

While Chester and Clara met during their first year at Syracuse, and graduated together in 1875, Chester continued to have financial difficulties and the couple did not marry for several years. While Clara accepted a teaching position at Alexandra College in Belleville, Ontario, and later taught at Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Pennsylvania, Chester took the New York bar examination and was licensed to practice law in New York. After taking several teaching jobs while looking for employment in law, in 1879 he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, passed the Minnesota bar exam, and began his Midwest career at the law firm of Pierce, Stephenson, and Mainzer.

On September 29, 1881, Chester and Clara were married by the Reverend Charles W. Bennet in Syracuse, New York. By this time, Chester was working as an Assistant United States District Attorney in St. Paul, and the couple returned to Minneota to live. In 1882, the Congdon’s first child, Walter Bannister, was born. In 1883, Chester established a private law practice, where he remained for the next several years. During this time four more children were born to the Congdons: Edward Chester in 1885, Marjorie in 1887, Helen Clara in 1889, and John Adgate in 1891. John Adgate passed away in 1893 of scarlet fever.

In 1887 Chester, along with his brother Albert, started making business investments in Washington Territory, focusing on developing and selling land. These land ventures had mixed results, and in the early 1890s Chester turned his attention to Duluth, Minnesota, which held promise both for practicing law and for other investments. Chester’s friend and business associate William Billson had a practice in Duluth that was growing along with the city, and in 1892 Chester agreed to join Billson in a law partnership. The Congdon family moved to 1530 E. First Street in Duluth.

Duluth was a fast-growing city, and for several years had supported thriving lumber and shipping industries. Furthermore, in 1890 Leonidas and Alfred Merritt had discovered a rich deposit of iron ore sixty miles north of Duluth. This was the Mesabi Iron Range. Soon after establishing their practice in Duluth, Billson and Congdon were hired to represent the Oliver Mining Company in negotiations with the Merritts over mining rights. Other parties interested in the Mesabi deposits included Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

Carnegie and Oliver became allies in these negotiations, but eventually Oliver was forced to sell most of his shares in the venture to Carnegie and his new company, the U.S. Steel Corporation. After these negotiations in 1897, Congdon purchased a large amount of cheap mining land on the western Mesabi Range, which he later leased to U.S. Steel. This investment in iron ore and the Mesabi Range was the beginning of the wealth for which the Congdons are known.

During these early days in Duluth, two more children were born to Chester and Clara: Elisabeth Mannering in 1894, and Robert in 1898. In 1895, the family moved to 1509 E. Superior Street, to a house designed by Oliver Traphagen. But with a growing family and the intention to stay in Duluth long-term, the Congdons started plans to build their own estate. In 1903, they purchased a total of twenty-one acres of land in east Duluth, along the shore of Lake Superior. This would be the site of Glensheen, the Congdon family home.

Glensheen was built between 1905 and 1909.The architect was Clarence H. Johnston, Sr., and John C. Bush supervised construction. Site preparation for the estate began on May 5, 1905. It would include a 39-room Jacobean Revival mansion to serve as the family home, as well as a carriage house, four greenhouses, a gardener’s cottage, a boathouse and pier, and extensive landscaped grounds. Landscaping was by Charles Wellford Leavitt, Jr. Furnishings and interior design for the family home were by the Willian A. French Company of St. Paul, with the silver electrical fixtures in the dining room by Edward F. Caldwell and Co. of New York. Construction of the house was completed on February 1, 1909, but the Congdons moved in before all the finishing work was done, in November 1908.

In the years that followed, Chester Congdon continued to expand his business interests and build the family’s wealth. As well as continuing to pursue mining interests on the Mesabi Range, he invested in copper mining in Ajo and Bisbee, Arizona. In addition, he made agricultural investments in Yakima, Washington, partnering with Clara’s brother Alfred Bannister. Congdon also became interested in preserving the natural beauty of the north shore of Lake Superior. He donated funds for the city of Duluth to purchase a large swath of land from Lester River to Stony Point and build Congdon Boulevard, also known as North Shore Drive. The land was donated on the condition that the lakeshore would not be developed further, but would be preserved in its natural state.

In 1909 Chester entered politics, being elected to the Minnesota State legislature as the Representative from the 51st District. He ran largely in order to oppose a proposed tonnage tax bill that targeted the U.S. Steel Company. The bill eventually failed, and Congdon remained in politics until 1916, when he served as the Minnesota representative to the Republican National Convention.

The family traveled both domestically and internationally, including to Europe and the Middle East. In 1914 Chester took a trip around the Pacific, including stops in Tahiti, Rarotonga, New Zealand, Australia, Canton, Java, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.

On November 21, 1916 Chester Congdon died of cardiac arrest in St. Paul. He was sixty-three years old.

Clara Congdon remained at Glensheen until her death in 1950. Members of the Congdon family continued to live at Glensheen until 1977.

Glensheen was donated to the University of Minnesota by the Congdon family, and opened as a historic house museum in 1979. Today, the grounds cover 7.6-acres of lakeshore, and the interiors of the mansion include nearly all of the same furnishings and décor as they did when the Congdons lived at the estate. Glensheen is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Partner Place of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Sources:

Backerud, Thomas K. “Congdon, Chester A. (1853–1916).” MNOPEDIA. Minnesota Historical Society, 30 September 2013, https://www.mnopedia.org/person/congdon-chester-1853-1916. Accessed 29 December, 2020.

Hoover, Roy O. A Lake Superior Lawyer: A biography of Chester Adgate Congdon. Duluth, Minnesota, Superior Partners, 1997.

Nelson, Paul. “Glensheen Historic Estate.” MNOPEDIA. Minnesota Historical Society, 30 December 2016, https://www.mnopedia.org/structure/glensheen-historic-estate. Accessed 4 January 2020.

Extent

56 boxes

Language of Materials

English

Physical Location

This collection is located at the University of Minnesota Duluth Archives. For more information about this collection or to make an appointment, contact us at libarchives@d.umn.edu or 218-726-8526.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin

Collecting Area Details

Contact The University of Minnesota Duluth Archives and Special Collections Collecting Area

Contact:
Kathryn A. Martin Library
University of Minnesota Duluth
416 Library Drive
Duluth MN 55812-3001
(218) 726-8526