Once Upon a Time in Duluth: High school's namesake died after contracting cold

About 100 years ago: R.E. Denfeld died in his Woodland home, though he was "conscious to the last.'"

Robert Denfeld_web.jpg
Robert E. Denfeld died about 100 years ago this week. He was 68. File photo

It’s been about 100 years since the namesake behind West Duluth’s high school died — a fast-paced fall from “the best of health” health to a debilitating cold following a series of lectures he presented at Masonic lodges in Montana.

Robert E. Denfeld, then 68, died Dec. 22, 1921, in his home at 2114 Woodland Ave., according to the obituary in the News Tribune, where he is described as “prominent in Masonry and educational circles.” His funeral at Glen Avon Presbyterian Church was closed to all but close friends and immediate family.

“Mrs. Denfeld, O.E. Amisbueschler, son-in-law, and Dr. S.H. Boyser were with him when he died,” according to the obituary. “He was conscious to the last.”

In October 1921, the News Tribune’s society pages indicated that Denfeld and his wife would be guests of the latter’s brother and sister-in-law in Great Falls, Montana, and were expected to be gone for two months.

Deets on Denfeld

Denfeld was born in Westboro, Massachusetts, and went to Amherst College, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees before attending Boston University Law School and passing the bar in the early 1880s.


He was superintendent of Duluth schools from 1885-1916 and then held the same position in Aurora for two years. He was also president of the Minnesota state high school board and, at one point, secretary of the National Education Association, according to his obituary.

In a 2009 story for the News Tribune, Joe Vukelich, a former teacher at the high school, wrote that Denfeld took the community from seven schools to 34 during his tenure and “provided free textbooks to students, becoming the first superintendent in the state to do so.”

There was little fanfare in the News Tribune around his resignation, just the news that he would be succeeded by Wilbur H. Schilling, who had been assistant superintendent for the past year.

Outside of education, Denfeld was involved with the Masonic community and a 33rd degree Mason of the Scottish Rite.


Go Hunters

Before it was called Denfeld High School, it was Irving High School and then Duluth Industrial High School.

In August 1914, Denfeld High School opened on North Central Avenue in West Duluth. It was at the time described in the News Tribune as “one of the most modern buildings of its kind in the state.”

The three-story structure, with a full gymnasium, basement and auditorium capable of holding 1,000, was built by H.L. Erickson and cost $230,000.


It was, reportedly, fireproof, well-lit and sanitary.

The current building, now at 401 N. 44th Ave. W., was built in 1926, according to the ISD 709 website. This one, too, has a noteworthy auditorium — though it can hold twice as many people — in addition to its signature 120-foot clock tower that faces Grand Avenue.

Weird fact tacked on

Not-so fun fact: In 1915, Denfeld was in a board of education-issued car that struck a 9-year-old who was sledding down First Avenue West. (Of course, it was reframed that the sledder struck the men’s car. The boy fractured his ankle.) Denfeld was a passenger.

Sledding, as any look through the News Tribune’s 1920s archives will show, was among the most dangerous things a child could do during this period in history.

Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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