When I started writing this column a couple of months back, I hoped things might go like this:
A reader asks a question. I seek answers from someone in the know and then write about it in a column. Another reader sees that column and recognizes they have a personal connection to the topic. That reader contacts me, and we get more insight. Information flows both ways.
Sometimes, friends, we get really lucky.
Last week, we learned about the Conrad Service Station in Lakeside, which in addition to auto services featured a miniature farm display, a miniature cabin display and a huge, not-at-all-miniature shoe-shaped “house” sculpture — a nod to the old Mother Goose rhyme about an old woman who lived in a shoe.
When the column was published Oct. 14, I woke up that morning to tweets from Zach and Abigail Conrad, respectively the grandson and great-granddaughter of Lawrence Conrad, who operated the service station at 5310 E. Superior St. from the 1930s until the 1950s.
I reached out, and Abigail gave me the number for her grandfather, Larry Conrad, who is Lawrence’s son.
Larry, 76, lives outside of Kansas City, and we had a chance to chat on the phone on Wednesday. I asked him to tell me about his father and how he ended up with such an unusual roadside business.
“It was just kind of a tourist trap,” he said.
Lawrence Conrad was born in Wisconsin in 1898 — "almost certainly in Washburn," Larry told me. His family moved to Duluth and settled in Lakeside. Lawrence left school after eighth grade and went to work as a carpenter with his dad and brothers. Together, they built several houses in Lakeside, Larry said.
Lawrence leased the gas station, and Larry couldn’t remember exactly what year his dad signed that lease, but he said the station was well established by the time he was born in 1943.
The service station first appears with the Conrad name in the 1935 Duluth city directory.
The displays outside the station, which Lawrence built on site, were the products of his natural creativity and a desire to help entertain families who stopped by.
“When a person came to have their car serviced, they probably brought kids, so I’m thinking a lot of it had to do with that,” Larry said. “He (was) very creative and capable of doing that kind of thing, and I suppose if he didn't have customers, he'd have it set up, like, to build the old woman in the shoe right there in the bay of their gas station.”
The family lived behind the station, across the train tracks on Dodge Street, and Larry remembers spending plenty of time at the station.
“Every time the snow would fall, what do you think I did if I were home that day?” Larry said. “I got the privilege of shoveling.”
In the 1950s, the Conrads built the Lakeside Motel next to the gas station, at 5320 E. Superior St., continuing the family’s role in the hospitality business. Lawrence’s wife, Nellie, worked at the motel, along with Larry’s two sisters.
Larry said his dad sold the miniature farm, cabin and the shoe in the 1950s, once the Lakeside Motel was up and running. (There also was a miniature Split Rock Lighthouse, he said.)
The items ended up at the Loneyville Motel at 7717 Congdon Boulevard, now the site of the North Shore Cabins. Lawrence was friends with Loneyville’s owners at the time, Larry said.
Larry believes that his dad let go of the service station in the ’50s, amid growing health issues. According to city directories, the station was called R & J’s Service by 1955.
“He was getting to the point where he wasn't feeling well enough to keep everything up and going,” Larry said.
Lawrence died in the early 1960s — Larry wasn’t sure which year, but census records say 1963. Nellie Conrad continued to operate the Lakeside Motel for a few more years. It last appeared in city directories in 1969, being replaced by the O’Donnell Sweet Shop in 1970. Nellie died in the early 1970s, Larry said.
The service station carried on, as the Lakeside Mileage Service station by 1969, Lakeside Fas Gas in the mid-’70s and Food-N-Fuel in the early 1980s. The station became a SuperAmerica in the 2000s and today is a Speedway station.
As for the former Lakeside Motel, the sweet shop at that address lasted until the late 1970s, according to city directories. It was the Sight & Sound Record Store by 1980, the Lunch Box restaurant by 1982 and the Wagon Wheel Cafe in the mid-’80s. After a couple of other small businesses came and went, the address itself disappeared from directory listings in the early 2000s.
Larry graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth in the mid-’60s and moved to Iowa and then the Kansas City area, where he worked as the public ministries director for a bible college.
After a few years, Larry and his wife returned to Minnesota and settled in Warroad. There, he worked for 18 years for the Marvin Co., maker of windows and doors. After retirement, Larry and his wife volunteered in ministry and lived in Spain for a few years before returning to the Kansas City area.
While he was in Spain, Larry picked up a set of Swiss wood-carving tools, and a hobby was born. And, wouldn’t you know — he’s currently working on a relief carving of his father’s service station.
Larry and his wife still visit Duluth every couple of years, and they’ve brought family to see where the Conrad Service Station once stood.
Before we hung up, Larry invited me for a visit if I’m ever in the Kansas City area.
“You’d be a welcome guest to stop in and say hi,” he said. “You could even spend the night if you folks needed to.”
Thank you, Larry. Sounds to me like that old Conrad hospitality is alive and well.