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Congdon family comes back to Glensheen

About 170 Congdon family members attend a family reunion at Glensheen Historic Estate in Duluth on recently. It marked the first time since the 1970s that family members were allowed unrestricted access to the entire estate, inside and out. Photo courtesy of Adam Buchanan.1 / 2
Clara Congdon Spencer, 15, and her father Chuck Spencer, both of Duluth, bear an uncanny resemblence to their ancestors, Clara and Chester Congdon. Clara, is named after her grandmother Clara Bannister Congdon, who was named after her grandmother, Clara Congdon, seen in the portrait above her in Glensheen's library. Chuck Spencer is Chester Congdon's great grandson. Comment on his resemblence to the portrait and he says, "I get that a lot." (Photo courtesy of Adam Buchanan)2 / 2

On a recent day, Glensheen stopped being a museum and came alive again with the sound of the Congdon family's conversation and laughter.

The red velvet ropes that cordon off rooms at the historic Duluth estate overlooking Lake Superior came down as more than 100 descendants of Chester and Clara Congdon gathered for a family reunion.

For the first time since the 1970s, when the 39-room Jacobean manor and its contents passed to the University of Minnesota, the family was given unrestricted access to the mansion.

The 170 people who attended were allowed to sit on the chairs and gather around the grand piano normally off-limits to visitors. They played croquet and bocce ball on the expansive grounds and took carriage rides, though not with the estate's fragile century-old horse-drawn carriages.

Some went right to the attic where they had played as children. One man, a designer, examined the period garments in a closet to see how they were made. Some looked at the books in the cabinets, delighted to find "Chester Congdon" inscriptions written inside.

For the descendants of Chester and Clara Congdon, who built the mansion at 3300 London Road more than a century ago, it was like the good old days when family would gather at Glensheen for holidays and other family parties.

"The docents were still there keeping a watch on what was happening," said Chuck Spencer of Duluth, a great-grandson of Chester Congdon. "But it was respectful. The furniture was obviously aged in time, and we were very careful sitting on those we were allowed to sit on. But it was not quite so museum-like that way. It was a feeling of coming back to it, the way it used to be."

Spencer and his family lived at Glensheen with his great-aunt Elisabeth for several months in the early 1960s. A boy then, he enjoyed exploring the mansion's many closets and recalls getting his hand caught in an old-style wringer in the laundry room, to the maid's fright. But he preferred playing outside by the creek that led to Lake Superior and in the carriage house.

"It was always a living house," Spencer said of Glensheen. "It's so much of a museum now, with furniture ribboned off."

The family's last reunion in Duluth was in 1985. They had a picnic on the Glensheen grounds but had limited access to the house. Other family reunions were held in 1993 in Washington state's Yakima Valley, where the Congdon family still has a house, orchards and farmland. A 1998 reunion was held in Tucson, Ariz., where some family members are still involved in the mining business. That can be traced back to Chester Congdon, who was a mining baron as well as a prominent attorney and state legislator.

Revisiting Glensheen after the University of Minnesota opened it for public tours in 1999 was never the same for Spencer and other family members.

"One of the difficulties in going there and looking at it as a museum is that feeling that I used to be able to go there," he said, referring to spaces in the house. "And now they have a rope there saying I can't go there."

As a museum, the focus of the estate has been on the Congdon family's early years there in the early 1900s, when Chester, Clara and their six children lived there.

"Its trapped in time now," Spencer said.

But the family occupied the house for nearly 70 years until Elisabeth Congdon, the last surviving Congdon child, was murdered in 1977 along with her nurse, in what became one of the most publicized murders in Minnesota history. Elisabeth's adopted daughter, Marjorie, who was acquitted in the slayings, did not attend the reunion.

Thomas Congdon, 84, of Denver, the last surviving grandson of Chester and Clara, also felt the time warp.

He and his wife climbed the grand staircase to the third floor, where he showed her the room he slept in during the nearly two years his family lived at the mansion in the 1930s. It was exactly as he remembered it more than 70 years ago. Even the bedspread was the same.

While Thomas Congdon said he has good memories of holidays and other times at the house, the lack of change was unsettling.

"It's always startling to see something that was almost exactly as it was 70 years ago," he said. "Too many places we visit are no longer what they were which, of course, is quite natural. So it's unnatural to return to a spot and see it exactly the way it was."

In organizing the Aug. 5 reunion, Spencer's wife, Sue, and Susan Congdon Ott of Tucson wanted the family to again experience the house as it was intended.

"We wanted it to be like we lived there," said Ott, great-granddaughter of Chester and Clara Congdon. And with the help of the Glensheen staff, they succeeded, she said.

"I've never seen the house used like this," said Lori Melton, Glensheen's director of marketing. "It was like a home. We say everything is like it was in 1908. But taking off those ropes and seeing people in the library and front hall, and seeing people really enjoying it, it was really a sight to see, because that's the family who should be enjoying it."

During the four-day reunion, family members hiked along Congdon Creek, a stretch of land Chester Congdon gave to the city. They drove up Congdon Boulevard and saw miles of undeveloped North Shore he had donated for public use to preserve it. They had an event at the once-exclusive Kitchi Gammi Club, where Chester Congdon and his son, Edward, were members. And they spent time at family cabins on the Brule River.

Besides connecting with other family members who live throughout the country and overseas, a goal of the reunion was to teach the younger generation about their family heritage, introduce them to Duluth and the impact the Congdons had on the city.

"I learned a ton," said Jordon Rattray, 32, of Boston, a fifth-generation Congdon. "This house represents where everybody descended from. It was nice to hear everybody else's collective experiences that go back a couple of generations. There were a lot of memories of people visiting here, families living here for a summer or a couple of months while their own houses were being redone."

When you're a kid, talk of great-great-grandparents is far removed, said Charles "Quinto" Ott, 25, of New York City, great-great-grandson of Chester and Clara.

Visiting Glensheen changed that.

"It was so cool to be in their space," he said. "Even walking into their closets and seeing the clothes they wore, seeing who these people were and how they affected not just our family but the whole city and how things look."

Every corner of Glensheen is full of memories of family and love, he said.

"It was real magic," he said. "It was like stepping back in time. Yes, it's a museum, but it's a family spot. And it has a lot of significance and memories for people. And I was really touched by that."

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