Rock of many ages is still smiling

Peggy Minor, who grew up in far-eastern Duluth, issued a challenge this summer. "I've always wondered who first painted 'Keep Smiling' on the rocks on Seven Bridges Road," she said in an e-mail. "[The message] has been there for years. It's been ...

Josh Kaufer (left) talks to his girlfriend, Paige Bennett, as she sits on the rocks above a waterfall in Amity Creek on Labor Day. "I love the swimming holes at Lester," said Bennett. This particular swimming hole has long been adorned with what once was a professionally painted reminder to smile. The urging, hand-painted on the rocks above the water, is now little more than graffiti. (Amanda Hansmeyer / News Tribune)

Peggy Minor, who grew up in far-eastern Duluth, issued a challenge this summer.

"I've always wondered who first painted 'Keep Smiling' on the rocks on Seven Bridges Road," she said in an e-mail. "[The message] has been there for years. It's been there probably since 1976.

"You probably won't be able to find an answer," she continued. "But maybe it's something you could ask your readers. Someone must know the answer."

I asked on Aug. 17. By Aug. 18, readers of "Didja Know?" had come through big-time. My voice mailbox was full and my e-mail inbox was jammed with dozens of responses and remembrances of swimming along Seven Bridges Road, which snakes back and forth over Amity Creek in Lakeside-Lester Park. One swimming hole, below a bridge near the top of the road, is in the shadow of a hand-painted reminder to wear a happy face. The long-adorned creek-side boulder is a fond childhood memory of many.

"In 1959, our daughter played in a playpen set in the water directly across the river from some rocks that had a sign painted on them that read, 'Smile: It Adds to Your Face Value.' We still all remember that sign, and quote it often," responded Lynn B. Duncan, who returned to Duluth with his wife five years ago after living away from his hometown for many years. "Do you think this is the same sign you referenced?"


Sounds like an original version of what still exists today, based on other responses.

"What now [looks like] graffiti ... was once a well-designed, hand-painted sign," recalled Dan Mettner. "I imagine the color blue included, but that might be my colorful imagination after 50 years. My mother took my brother and me to this pool on hot summer afternoons in the late 1950s. We and many other kids looked for that sign as our cars crawled up Seven Bridges Road.

"As for the sign's creator," he said, "you'll need someone older than [me] to answer that question."

That didn't prove a problem.

"I believe [it] was painted by Paul (or perhaps Pete) Lucia, a sign painter who lived in a little house on the Maxwell Road, which is nearby. I believe it originally said, 'Smile: It Adds to Your Face Value,'" contributed Rae Gagnon of Duluth. "My sister and I believe the original sign was refreshed at least once [and] became, "Keep Smiling." Then, after that faded, some other artist painted over it."

The painted message is hardly professional-looking now, but it does still exist. In white paint, the rock reads, simply, "Smile!" What appears to be a crudely drawn smiley face is below the word. It's a far cry from the talents of the original artist.

"Mr. Lucia was a small man, had a wrinkled face and was very friendly," Gagnon said. "He used to walk down the Seven Bridges Road to catch the city bus in Lester Park. Many times in the '50s and '60s my parents gave him rides down and up the road. One time he painted our mailbox with very professional letters and numbers in thanks for the rides we gave him."

The artist was, indeed, named Paul, as Gagnon recalled. But his last name was actually Lusua, not Lucia. That's according to the artist's former Maxwell Road next-door neighbor, Cliff Taylor, who lives now in Two Harbors. Taylor confirmed the spelling by telephoning the people who bought Lusua's house after he died in the 1970s. Like Taylor, they knew Lusua quite well.


Taylor described his former neighbor as a "little old Finlander bachelor. ... He was a painter who would paint murals on the sides of trucks, do lettering on mailboxes, and other artistic-type painting."

The rock he decorated along Seven Bridges Road was above a swimming hole known as the "First Pool," Taylor said.

"First Pool [was] for sissies and babies because it was shallow and the Second Pool (downstream), [was] for bigger kids because it was deeper and there were more rocks to dive off," he said. "I remember the paint was flaking in the early '70s when I last saw it. I'm not sure if it was Paul Lusua who painted 'Keep Smiling.' ... But he was, for sure, the one who started the whole thing."

Taylor provided a couple of other interesting tidbits about Lusua: "He was featured in a local TV time-filler-type blurb, trudging up Seven Bridges Road in a heavy wool coat, carrying a gunny sack over his shoulder which contained provisions purchased from Gershgols [store] in Lester Park, as he did every week. The tune, 'Walk on Down a Country Road,' by James Taylor, played as we watched him trudging along.

"He kind of kept to himself," Taylor went on. "He used to sit out on his porch late at night playing a concertina. We used to sit and listen to him, and if he knew we were listening, he'd go back into his house. He was just a guy who liked his privacy."

And liked it when others were happy, apparently.

CHUCK FREDERICK is the News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at 723-5316 or .

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