Cheers to Craigville, where everybody knew your name

Craigville on a Saturday night in 1937. (PHOTO: Russel Lee, U.S. Farm Security Administration)

This photograph was taken by Russell Lee for the U.S. Farm Security Administration.

If it looks familiar it’s because it’s the picture they show on the opening sequence of “Cheers” as John Ratzenberger’s name appears on the screen. Ratzenberger played the annoying but lovable mailman Cliff Clavin.

But what I didn’t know is that Lee took this picture in Craigville, Minnesota, in 1937. I recognized the image amid a pile of research about nefarious back woods hideaways in Northern Minnesota, which is what I was actually looking for.

In further surprise, I learned that Craigville, by my calculations, sits just 42 miles from MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters here in Itasca County. I live closer to Craigville than I do IRRRB headquarters in Eveleth.

According to legend, Craigville was a rootin,’ tootin’ lumber town that would swell to about 5,000 people during its peak season. Craigville kept a post office from 1915 until 1952, and supported several hotels and saloons, one of which is seen in the photo. At least one of the saloons became one of Northern Minnesota’s best known brothels.

Craigville was considered a great party town because its remote location six miles north of Effie. Perched on the Itasca and Koochiching border, its isolation made little allowance for law enforcement. I remember an old timer telling me about Craigville, saying that the place was practically daring for a raid, but was protected by the surrounding wilderness. Considerable amounts of depression-era moonshine passed through Craigville.

What’s interesting is that the town’s founder, James Reid, went to his grave angry over the tarnishing of Craigville’s reputation. He told the late Grand Rapids Herald-Review columnist Ken Hickman in 1960 that the town was run by upstanding men who worked hard and built a community. Only 100 people lived there year-round, he said, and they all held steady jobs. Reid said people who came to Craigville for trouble liked to embellish their stories when they got back to the bigger towns further south.

From Hickman’s column:

“Groups of men and women — including an occasional historian from Effie, Deer River, Bigfork and Grand Rapids — would decide to get out and have a fling,” Mr. Reid said. “They would choose Craig where there were no police or other authority and where the home folks had little chance of detection.

“They could howl to their hearts’ content in competition with the coyotes. The next day they would tell their chums what a wild time they had in Craig and of the dead bodies they saw lying around. It got to be a thrilling yarn.

“One of the freaks actually told me that he knew a number of dead bodies the were dropped through a hole in the Bigfork ice. It was useless to argue with a brain like that,” Mr. Reid said, with a sorrowful shake of his head.

Stories of ruthless timber operators and brawling lumberjacks always made Mr. Reid indignant.

“Minnesota was not pioneered and developed by thieves and drunks,” the old-timer made clear.

Pioneered and developed, maybe not. Populated? Well, that’s another matter. The truth, most likely, lies somewhere between the legend and later efforts to bolster the town’s reputation.

If you like to imagine things, imagine what it would have been to paddle down the Bigfork River on a Saturday night, guided to your destination by the raucous sounds of paychecks being blown to smithereens. If there was any trouble, and there would be, people would scatter into the night swamps or downriver, stealing away in the wide wilderness of Northern Minnesota. But they would come back. It would take an army to break up the Craigville party scene in its prime, and no army would take the time.

If you go to Craigville today, however, everybody won’t know your name. In fact, you’ll only find one run-down building and a mountain of buried whiskey bottles which have slowly been winnowed away by hikers with metal detectors. Craigville is gone along with all the old lumber camps it served.

People still log in the woods. And they still drink in the woods. But it’s not the same.

UPDATE: This wonderful oral history transcript with the Minnesota Historical Society gives us a glimpse into the latter days of Craigsville’s boom period from the stories of one of the town’s bar owners.

Comments

  1. Jim Murphy says:

    The man on the far left was my uncle, Thomas Maher. He was married to my father’s oldest sister Vera who was 20 years his junior. My dad told me that when Tom lived in Orr Minnesota, and was in the bar getting drunk, my aunt would call the sheriff to warn the residence that Tom would be driving on the road home. I remember that my aunt would have to come down with Tom on the Greyhound bus, and stay at our house in Minneapolis while Tom was drying out at the VA. My aunt passed away quite a few years ago. But before she passed, Channel 5 did a story on her and the famous photo. I still have an old hat that Tom wore when he would come off the bus. But it is not the hat in the picture. Darn!

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