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Duluth Eskimos 'the top story' in new Vikings Museum

EAGAN, Minn. -- Just inside the freshly Windexed glass doors of the still-new-smelling Minnesota Vikings Museum here in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities, take a few steps around the purple and white retired jerseys and move past the shrine...

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EAGAN, Minn. - Just inside the freshly Windexed glass doors of the still-new-smelling Minnesota Vikings Museum here in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities, take a few steps around the purple and white retired jerseys and move past the shrines to the hall-of-famers.

There you'll see it, just around a corner to the left.

Duluth's connection to the NFL and our direct line to the birth of the Minnesota Vikings is on grand display. It's an appropriate and permanent part of the fan attraction at the heart of the team's still-being-built 200-acre headquarters, training facilities, and all things skol.

The display includes a Duluth Eskimos jersey, like the ones worn in 1926, the year the NFL team from the tip of Lake Superior barnstormed the country with its stadium-filling star Ernie Nevers, a native of Willow River, a high school standout in Superior, and an all-American at Stanford.

It includes historic, black-and-white photos of the Eskimos, credited by then-National Football League President Joe Carr with literally saving the NFL from financial ruin.

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There's a portrait of Eskimos' owner and publicist Ole Haugsrud of Duluth, who, after the Eskimos folded, finagled a letter from the league promising that if the NFL ever returned to Minnesota he'd be a part owner. He held onto that letter for 30 years before finally cashing in and becoming a 10 percent part of the Vikings' first ownership team.

And there's an old leather helmet worn by Harry Peter Grant of Superior when he practiced with the Eskimos in the 1920s. The helmet was donated to the museum by his son, Bud Grant, who coached the Vikings to four Super Bowls in the 1970s.

"This tells the story of our founding. How did we get here? We had to tell that," Erin Swartz, the Vikings brand and creative director said, showing me the Duluth display inside the 14,000-square-foot museum. It opened during training camp.

"We love the early-NFL connections," she said. "Where would the NFL be if not for the Eskimos barnstorming and filling stadiums? We like that. Even if the Vikings weren't here at that time, Minnesota and the North were here. We were on the map, and we were making a statement in football.

"I love the connections that draw us all the way back," Swartz said. "The roots run deep, and ... it seemed an obvious way to start when we were creating the museum."

My book about the Duluth Eskimos, "Leatherheads of the North," was published in 2007. A year after that, Hollywood elites George Clooney and Renee Zellweger made a movie based on the Eskimos' story, "Leatherheads," a slapstick comedy.

Nonetheless, the Eskimos' story remains largely unknown, said Vikings Museum Tour Guide Kevin Tholen, who's helping to change that by sharing the story daily with museum visitors.

"Most people think it's amazing when they hear about it," he said. "They just kind of nod their heads, 'Wow!' To me, it's the top story in the museum because it has so many wow factors and is something most people haven't heard before."

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This might help raise awareness. In 2020, the NFL will be celebrating its 100th season, and the Vikings already are lobbying to wear Duluth Eskimos throwback jerseys for one of the team's games that season, Swartz told me.

"They're just so cool looking. I will feel like I won the lottery if we get to play a game in those in 2020. That would be amazing," she said.

As amazing as Duluth having a place in the new Vikings Museum, our rich football past immortalized and preserved. You'll find it just past Cris Carter's retired No. 80 home jersey and around a corner to the left.

 

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's editorial page editor and the author of "Leatherheads of the North." He can be contacted at (218) 723-5316 or at cfrederick@duluthnews.com .

Related Topics: MINNESOTA VIKINGS
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