Superior’s (Almost) Lost Mercantile Blocks
First Street is a time capsule that you can drive to—and, well, you should. There you will find the Twohy and Osborne Mercantile buildings.
Each is well worth a 2-block detour on your trip to Tower Avenue; you can consider this a historic two-for-one sale.
To the uninitiated, these are conveniently out-of-the-way eyesores, but in the right light—and historical context—each hand-laid brick takes on a significance and beauty that seldom grows in the shadow of grain elevators (with the exception of Harris Machinery, of course).
These are more than warehouses for dry goods; they hold memories of Prohibition, a three-generation family business, a defunct Twin Ports truck factory, two bygone shipyards and a half-dozen grocery magnates. And that’s just on the ground floor, somewhere between the outgoing cigar shipment and the incoming bags from next door.
This is an article dedicated to anyone who has looked at an old brick warehouse and wondered, “I wonder what happened there.” You won’t be disappointed.
First Street of old Superior was expected by all to be the center of commerce for the city, and early on this was the case.
In 1889, when the community’s still-new village charter was superseded by the newborn City of Superior, its business leaders looked across the bay at a very prosperous Duluth. There the model was clear: the closer to the lake you could locate your business, the more profit will flow from the lake to the bank.
This reasoning led many companies to build close to the lake, where there was easy access to rail and ships, and an honest measure of prestige. No industry observed this relationship more closely than the grocery industry whose distribution networks penetrated every community of Duluth and Superior.
Food was more personal in those days, and the business of moving dry goods and perishables alike had as much to do with price as intangibles that were embodied in the friendly salesman or community-minded business leader. J. Osborn and Edward Twohy understood this when they looked to Superior’s economic boom and envisioned buildings named after themselves.
What they could not predict is how different their paths would be.
Osborn Mercantile: Over Before It Started
The Osborn Mercantile Company was the first to build, and its construction was seemingly the most rushed.
On October 4th, 1892, even before the plans for the building were finalized, Zenith City Dredge began driving pilings into the adjacent slip for the forthcoming structure. Hughitt Slip, at the end of Hughitt Avenue, would directly connect Osborn’s trade network to its warehouse via this protected strip of Lake Superior.
A few facts leaked to the press as the worked continued: Five stories, brick and stone, and set up so the basement would allow for direct loading and unloading of cargo vessels, and the first floor would allow for direct loading and unloading of train cars.
This meant that all goods could be shoved straight from an elevator and into the transportation without extra hoists, saving a lot of time and money.
While the rear part of the building was the ideal grocery warehouse, the front would consist of luxury offices that included fireplaces and a pair of high-security vaults. Estimated cost: $70,000.
In May 1893, the building had just been completed when the various local interests in the company met, but this was not a moment for champagne. Just a month previous, with much public drama, the company reorganized itself, claiming “internal trouble”. Though the May meeting was intended to smooth over stakeholder personality clashes, in April the company disbanded, leaving their brand new building utterly vacant.
After a year, a new company, the Bemis Bags Company, moved into Osborn’s shell. Bemis manufactured heavy paper bags and other industrial packaging and had just begun their operation next to the Hughitt Slip when construction began across the railroad tracks.
Twohy Mercantile: Pulling Out of the Panic
If the Osborn Mercantile Company had ever flourished, its major competitor would have been the locally-strong Twohy Mercantile Company.
Twohy hoped to complete construction on a building with offices and a warehouse in 1893, but that year saw a major upset on Wall Street- what would come to be known as the Panic of ’93.
That year, 15,000 business closed nationally and unemployment in some nearby states neared 50%. Needless to say, it was a poor time to begin a major construction project. When the company finally broke ground in 1894, in many ways, the act signaled Superior’s rebound from the crash that halted so many local projects.
On October 6, an announcement was printed in The Superior Evening Telegraph that made public the newspaper’s opinion of the Twohy building:
“The Twohy Mercantile Company’s building is an elegant structure. It is a monument to Superior’s progressive wholesale grocery concern… readers of the Evening Telegraph will agree that it is an ornament to the commercial district of the City of Destiny.”
Sadly, the moniker, ‘The City of Destiny’ did not stick.
The floor plan was simple: above the basement’s boiler and storage rooms would stand four floors. Its First floor would have space for office and outgoing shipments; its Second floor would house the Packing department and a cigar rolling operation- a flourishing local industry at the time along; the Third and Fourth floors would store incoming cargo, freshly unloaded from boats docked in the Hughitt slip behind the Osborne warehouse. An additional building was later constructed to house the company’s teams of delivery horses.
The Telegram announcement went into even more detail regarding the materials used in the construction—maple floors, with oak-finished offices and French-plated glass.
Twohy company was also quick to brag about their “thirty-foot driveway around the building for accommodation of the company’s delivery teams for local trade.” Judging by the building’s design, the west side of the building was at the correct level for receiving horse-driven delivery wagons, while the opposite had trackage and loading doors at the appropriate height. Across those tracks stood the Osborne Building.
Twohy’s final cost was estimated to be a bit less than its neighbor, at just over $50,000.
New Faces, Old Spaces
Twohy Mercantile’s rapid growth paralleled the explosion in the Twin Ports population around the turn of the century.
While Twohy was the largest wholesaler, it had a close competitor, Eimon Mercantile. The early 1900s threatened the established businesses as waves of laborers flooded the region to work the area’s shipyards, ore docks, and blast furnaces. More mouths to feed meant more food would have to arrive, requiring larger companies and facilitating unwanted rivalries among established firms.
To insulate themselves, Twohy and Eimon joined forces in 1902 to create the Twohy-Eimon Mercantile. Eimon left their Winter Street headquarters and consolidated at the Hughitt slip, where Edmund Twohy was president and Peter Eimon would serve as Vice President of the new company.
Around that time, the Bemis Bag Company employed about 100 workers in what they were calling ‘The Lake Superior Bag Company’, in the building Osborn Mercantile left behind. When the factory got into trouble with its St. Louis investors, however, the owners began looking for an exit. They signalled to the community that they needed support or it would retreat from the Twin Ports altogether.
In order to gain better access to the slip and expand their operation, the Twohy-Eimon company agreed to buy the bag factory and the Osborn building for a mere $55,000—a surprise to local investors as the building on the slip was assessed at $70,000. This time, it seems, the grocers got a good deal.
In 1906, internal tension caused the Eimon part of Twohy-Eimon to back out of the agreement, though the name would remain the same.
The Eimons instead looked to create a new company called Eimon Bros Mercantile to compete with their former partners. Before that could happen, though, local investor Homer Fowler bought both the infantile Eimon Bros and Twohy-Eimon companies, which would manifest all its power in the original Twohy building.
Fowler’s firm was the Oyaas-Fowler Company, so there was for a time one building with Eimon-Twohy and Eimon-Oyass-Fowler offices. No company with such a terrible name could last.
Edmund Twohy decided to retire in 1914, selling his shares to the Eimons, who had successfully bought out the other partners and namesakes by that time. Two years later, just before Edmund’s death, the Twohy Mercantile Building went silent, as the Eimons took their company across town to a new warehouse.
As a courtesy, the Eimon family preserved the ‘Twohy’ part of the company name for many years.
Twohy After Twohy; Osborn (Long) After Osborn
Though empty and without the namesake which it supported for so long, the Twohy Mercantile Building was still quite functional.
Less than a year after the grocers moved on, a liquor importer bought the building that year and turned it into a warehouse, but when prohibition outlawed liquor in 1920, the warehouse closed. At that time, the Walter Butler Shipyards were operating nearby and in need of a long-term parts storage warehouse, hence they bought the former Twohy building.
In fact, the roughly spray painted ‘Bay Side Sales’ sign on the front of the building covers up a Butler Shipyards ghost sign.
Interestingly, at the same time the former Osborn building was up for sale, another shipyard, Globe Shipbuilding, was fighting bankruptcy.
It is unclear when Globe acquired the Osborn, but it was likely in the early 1920s when Eimon-Twohy was selling its other interests on the block.
A truck body manufacturer, of all things, bought the Osborn from Globe and began producing parts for small industrial trucks and commercial busses. In an early advertisement their name is mounted over Hughitt Slip: H. Miscampbell Body Corporation. The firm appeared from nowhere, and seems to only have lasted from 1918 to the mid 1920s, when all mention of it seems to have disappeared. The main factory was in Duluth.
Today there are few traces of the ‘Miscampbell Truck’ that was born in Duluth and built, at least in part, within the Osborn building.
As the Walter Butler Shipyards built its own resources near Connors Point in the 1930s it began to rent space to a local company, Builder’s Supply. Builder’s Supply would come to be the most stable of the Twohy inhabitants; it became a tenant of the shipyard in 1938, bought the building outright in 1959, and did not leave the space until its owner retired in 1985.
Details: Brick Graffiti & Ghost Signs
Twohy: The Ringsred Connection
When Builder’s Supply left the building, the Twohy sat empty for some time as an antique.
Poetically, it was an antique and historical oddities dealer who began renting the building in the 1990s from Eric Ringsred, who seemingly acquired the Twohy after it sat vacant for a few years.
Dr. Ringsred is a sometimes-controversial personality, owing to his penchant to collect historical buildings.
The store operated under the name Bayside Sales, which was perhaps known more for its giant rooftop sign (now gone) than anything else. Signs on the front door still instruct customers to call a phone number to gain access into what used to be Twohy Mercantile’s offices, which are now filled floor-to-ceiling with antique furniture, cookware, and clothing. By the time I came to the Twin Ports in 2005 the store was closed.
Osborn: The Sivertson Connection
Across the railroad tracks, the former Osborn Mercantile remains at least partially active. While it is unclear whether the top floors are used, what used to be the bag factory and knitting mill, the First floor is occupied by Lake Superior Fish Company, formerly known as Sivertson Fisheries, as the vintage neon sign will tell you.
Sivertson Fisheries, which is still in the Sivertson family, was founded by Severin “Sam” Sivertson in 1921. Sam immigrated to the United States in 1892 and spent most of his life moving around the North Shore. He was known for helping establish Finnish and Norwegian fishing communities along the Wisconsin shore, near Port Wing and Cornucopia.
Siverston returned to the Twin Ports in 1919 after a brief military service and immediately accepted a position at the Eimon Mercantile Company, about a year before the firm moved to their new building.
At the time, Eimon Mercantile probably still owned the former Osborne building, so it is likely that the company that the family that uses this 1892 office and warehouse can trace their family’s sweat there nearly a century.
I have spent almost a decade telling people about this “lost block” of Superior, and often get the response, “Wow! I had no idea you could even drive back there.”
You can. Here’s how, from downtown Superior:
- Drive North on Tower Avenue, toward the grain elevators.
- Follow Tower Avenue until it turns into North Third Street.
- Take your second left, onto John Avenue.
- Turn right onto North First Street.
Or, from downtown Duluth:
- Get on I-35 southbound.
- Merge leftward onto Highway 53, Superior.
- Follow I-35 over the Blatnik Bridge, and take your first exit.
- At the bottom of the exit ramp, go straight at the stop sign.
- You will cross a set of tracks and pass a former power plant on your left.
- Turn left when the road terminates, onto North First Street.