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Once upon a time in Duluth: A Mystery Woman hunted for attractive, polite and modest Duluth shop girls

One hundred years ago, the News Tribune introduced an anonymous judge who would make her way around the city, ducking into shops and stores to pluck contestants.

Aastra Houle web.jpg
Aastra Houle was named Queen of the Auto Show in 1921. (1921 file / News Tribune)

A candidate for the Queen of the Auto Show would be attractive, polite and modest. In the face of a frustrating customer searching for, say gloves, the shop girl would remain calm and cool even when she had combed unsuccessfully through the entire stock.

She would not, for instance, lean against the counter “calmly removing from under her polished fingernails the terra firma that had accumulated there” — as with one unidentified woman who was nixed from the running without even knowing she had potentially been a part of it.

The search for six potential queens was a more-than-weeklong, ongoing search, cheekily written about and often on the front page of the Duluth News Tribune between late February and early March 1921. The contest was tied to the Duluth Auto Show, then in its seventh year, a multi-day showcase of cars, trucks and tractors. There was ancillary entertainment: wing-walking on an airplane, singers, orchestras and speakers. Buried deep within one article: a reference to silent film star Charlie Chaplin, who “shuffled from booth to booth for his mirth-provoking stunts. ” (In the article’s defense, this wasn’t Chaplin’s first trip to Duluth.)

The auto show, also referred to as a gasoline classic, drew thousands to the Armory. Attendees’ cars reportedly lined London Road for up to two blocks from the venue.

Also, anyone who had paid for an entry was able to interview the women in the running for queen, then pick a favorite. The News Tribune ran the vote totals every day of the event, a sort of sports agate ranking of these everyday women pulled from behind the counters, photographed and described as a “pretty dark haired madonna” or as having brown eyes that danced laughingly.

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So who’s picking the candidates

The News Tribune introduced the character of “The Mystery Woman” — an anonymous human who would make her way around the city, ducking into shops and stores to pluck contestants.

The daily reports are written in a voice that suggests the reporter was in on the hunt — and had a lot of leeway from their editor for shenanigans.

“One blue-eyed little dear who tried to be nice about it lost patience when the Mystery Woman insisted she had given her a half dollar and not a quarter as contended,” according to a story from Feb. 19, 1921. “She knew she had given the girl only a quarter, but mean methods sometimes have to be resorted to as a test for patience.”

The Mystery Woman searched almost daily — sometimes selecting one woman and once picking three. She took off weekends and Feb. 22, 1921, because it was George Washington’s birthday.

Once a woman successfully and kindly dealt with the Mystery Woman's general dissatisfactions, the candidate would be whisked off to the News Tribune to get her portrait taken.

The Mystery Woman was revealed, after the full roster of young women was selected, and given space to talk about what she had learned from her search — namely that the women of Duluth are superior to the sorts she meets in places like Chicago and New York.

“There isn’t a question that Duluth stores have more pretty and courteous girls than any city in the West,” according to Mrs. Jane E. Scully, who was unmasked in the Feb. 26, 1921, edition of the News Tribune.

Scully found quality candidates to be the rule — not the exception.

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“If I had my way the queenly candidates would number twice as many, and still dozens would be left out,” she said.

Meet the queenly candidates

Aagot Lovdal was the first selected, discovered in the glove department at George A. Gray Co., with twinkling eyes and a trim waist. She fared better than an anonymous “attractive bit of fluff with still more attractively bobbed hair” who was not only chewing gum, but seemingly popped it.

Mae Anderson of Glass Block Store had a pleasant smile and cheerful answers and then the Mystery Woman snagged three in one swoop: Anna Hagen of the R&R Garage, Francais Holmes of Walk-Over Shoe Store and Jenice Allen, a student from Central High School.

Aastra Houle, of Northwestern Tire Company, was discovered "poring over a book" — the perfect candidate for a customer's rankling. The Mystery Woman approached her and asked for information about tires.

“It just so happened the mystery woman didn’t know anything about tires, but an appreciative cub assigned as the Mystery Woman’s aid had a passing knowledge of automobiles, as he once had a thirty-second cousin in California who was rumored to have owned a second-hand Lizzie,” according to the news story. “Fifteen minutes were spent trying to break down the girl’s reserve, but efforts seemed to increase her pleasantness and the Mystery Woman lost her patience.”

You’ve been selected, now what?

The nominees were all taken for an airplane ride over the city — which was described as a “tour of the rarified ozone” and a complete success. The first girl off the plane, it was noted, brought forth the powder puff, for strong winds and shiny noses are companions. It’s Aastra Houle, juggling questions and figures and able to "answer more foolish questions while trying to juggle a column of figures than any good looking girl in Duluth," who ultimately won the popular vote.

She was reportedly crowned by the Orpheum's King Solomon Jr., (real name Franklyn Ardell) who was accompanied by his seven wives during a ceremony that included a royal procession and the police chief in full regalia.

"It was a royal party and King Solomon Jr., only lost one wife as a result of an interruption by John Walker, an uninvited guest," according to the News Tribune.

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Houle, who was reportedly 5 feet, 5 inches tall in woolen stockings, is said to have responded to the Mystery Woman when she was nominated that she didn’t see how anyone could have picked her out for queen in a gasoline classic.

And later

The contest had less fanfare in 1922, when it shifted the quest for the title of Miss Liberty in the Fete of Nations competition. Local women representing different countries vied for votes — a contest that was ultimately extended an extra day.

Ultimately, it was Ebba Lundsten, representing Sweden, who won the title and, that year, a car.

Listen

This story was told as part of Once Upon a Time in Duluth, a Wednesday feature on the News Tribune Minute podcast.

Related Topics: HISTORYDULUTHEXCLUSIVE
Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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