If These Walls Could Talk

Minnesota Monthly editor Reed Fischer visits his grandfather’s childhood home in Duluth and is pleasantly surprised at what he finds

A collection of old letters scattered on a brown table.
Hidden letters with postmarks from almost 70 years ago, were recently discovered in my grandfather’s childhood home

When we tear open old walls, the skeletons of the past can come tumbling out. Sometimes, literally: Earlier this year, during construction for the Dayton’s Project in downtown Minneapolis, a monkey’s bones emerged. When St. Paul’s old Schmidt Brewery was turned into artists’ lofts a few years ago, the neighboring keg house’s modern façade was stripped away to reveal windows and a faded Schmidt “ghost sign.” Developer Craig Cohen said the building’s transformation showed him the potential for the now-open Keg and Case Market.

You never know what (or whose) history lurks beneath old walls. On a recent trip to Duluth, I was hoping to connect with my family’s past, but I got more than I bargained for. I had never visited the house where my grandfather on my mother’s side, Robert Turnquist, had grown up nearly 100 years ago. He died before I was born, so I have always wondered what he was like, and how he lived. I plugged the address into Google Maps, and while my car climbed those Duluth hills, I imagined him on a bike, puffing for air and calf muscles burning.

Several owners removed from the Turnquists, the house still stands. It’s painted white, and there’s a beautiful view of Lake Superior out the back. I rang the doorbell, and a woman about my age came to the door. I introduced myself and explained my presence. Her face lit up, and she said she had something for me. She opened a drawer and retrieved a stack of old letters, saying they fell out of the ceiling during some basement renovations. The weathered envelopes were addressed to A.A. (Axel Albin) Turnquist, my great-grandfather, and were filled with strange and humorous tales. I was elated, and thanked her for holding onto them.

Before I left, she handed me her business card. It turns out my grandfather’s childhood home now belongs to Emily and Joel Vikre, who are the cofounders of Vikre Distillery located in the historic Paulucci Building in Duluth’s Canal Park. If you haven’t already, look them up. The research and care put into their products and spaces reflect their business motto: to “thoughtfully blend tradition and innovation.” I didn’t ask her why they retained these letters from a stranger’s past, but I didn’t have to.