Dry in Duluth: The story behind the last dry neighborhoods in the Zenith City

Duluth women drinking

Duluth’s history is full of odd liquor laws. After 1934, men could not stand and drink at bars within Duluth’s saloons and taverns—they had to sit, and the stools had to be bolted to the floor. The women shown above would have been breaking Duluth law, as they could only drink in Duluth saloons while seated in booths with one open side. // Public Domain photo

Nearly all of Duluth has embraced the explosion of local beer, but there’s one eastside neighborhood that hasn’t partaken. In fact, the Lakeside/Lester Park neighborhood hasn’t sold a drop of alcohol during its 125-year-old ban on liquor sales.

The historic run came to end in June, however, when the Duluth City Council voted to sign off on a state law that repealed the ban on alcohol sales in the Lakeside/Lester Park neighborhood.

While the residential area won’t be the next Canal Park by any means, it’s surprising that such a ban could span two centuries, especially considering Duluth’s brewing traditions, which according to beer historian Doug Hoverson, date back to 1857, when the predecessor to Fitger’s Brewery was established—well before the city itself.

But while this and other breweries such as the Peoples Brewing were built up by blue collar Duluthians, the citizens of Lakeside/Lester Park were overwhelmingly upper class Protestants.

A History of Duluth’s Dry East-End

One of nearly 30 different neighborhoods in Duluth, Lakeside/Lester Park begins at 40th Avenue East, continuing northeast along the shore of the big lake to the Lester River. It’s filled with old houses (over 50 centurions), churches, and a small business district. The North Shore traveler could easily pass through without even knowing it.

According to local author and historian Tony Dierckins, Lakeside/Lester Park began developing in the 1870s and was initially composed of English and German Protestants who had capitalized on the early economic success of the region.

They migrated east out of the city to distance themselves from the unskilled immigrants that flocked to the region to find work in the booming manufacturing and shipping industries.

“The rich people who used to live close to downtown keep moving east, and the poor keep moving west to be closer to those jobs,” Dierckins said.

Four years after the Village of Lakeside was formed in 1889, it was annexed by Duluth. A stipulation of that state law, as demanded by the Temperance Movement-inspired residents, was that no intoxicating liquors would ever be sold in their neighborhood.

They feared that joining the city would mean becoming part of the blight that was common in other areas of Duluth, such as today’s Canal Park Business District, which was once a well-known and saloon-filled red light district.

While this law may seem archaic today, Dierckins said it was “common sense legislature” back then.

“It’s a geographic restriction that made a lot of sense right around 1890,” Dierckins said. “When they were setting up the community, we didn’t have social programs for alcohol abuse; it really was a contributing evil to society.”

These same residents also helped pass a law to make the entire city dry, three years before Prohibition took effect nationwide.

After the repeal of Prohibition, the city’s liquor licenses were limited to specific neighborhoods. This was the beginning of a number of bizarre liquor laws in Duluth, including one that outlawed dancing on Sundays until 1973, and one that mandated that bar stools be nailed to the floor.

All these oddities were removed long ago—but how did an alcohol ban hang around for so long? Because until recently, a majority of the Lakeside/Lester Park residents supported the ban.

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Myrtle Marshall // Photo courtesy of the Duluth Public Library

Well-known Lakeside/Lester Park resident, Myrtle Marshall, was at the forefront of the fight to uphold the ban. In the six-plus decades she lived in Duluth, Marshall was deeply engaged in the community, leading to her being named Duluth’s Woman of the Year in 1963, among a number of other accolades.

“Everybody in Lakeside knew her, and they all liked her,” said John McAllister, 87, a former high school English teacher and 46-year Lakeside resident, who fought alongside Marshall. “Marshall was instrumental in keeping the ban in effect. She was a very kind, decent person but she was feisty.”

Before the City Council in 1973, Marshall called the law “a sacred trust which should not be violated,” a sentiment that was disputed but ultimately upheld.

“It’s always easier to live with the status quo than initiate change,” said Don Ness, former Duluth Mayor (2008–2016) and lifelong Duluth resident. Ness has been outspoken in his opposition to the ban, which he called “an archaic remnant of local politics.”

Yet until last year’s referendum, a majority of the neighborhood supported the ban—albeit by slim margins. In a 2008 referendum, the alcohol ban won by a single vote. Seven years later, the tide had changed. The 2015 referendum showed that 53% of residents supported removing the ban. Citywide the figure was 67%. As a result, local senator Roger Reinert tacked on the repeal in a bill passed this spring.

For McAllister, the issue highlights a neighborhood shift. “The people that have lived out here a long time want the ban to continue,” McAllister said, “but the newcomers want to have the liquor and I’d say younger people want the liquor.”

Gary Anderson, the City Councilor for the Lakeside and Lester Park neighborhoods, voted against the measure in June (which passed 5-3) because he didn’t see overwhelming support for lifting the ban.

“On an issue like this, I’m very personal to this neighborhood. I would have liked to see a stronger consensus,” Anderson said. “I felt like I needed to stand up for those people who liked it the way it was, but I also understood that the votes were lined up to move it forward.”

Next page: The Future of a “Wet” East-End

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