February 2016 will feature the 50th Super Bowl of the NFL. In honor of the “big game”, this month’s “Lure Of The Month” will feature some history on NFL Pro Football in Minnesota. No, it is not about the Minnesota Vikings. But, it is about the Duluth Eskimos!
With a prime location close to a shipyard and railroads, wholesale warehouses in the Duluth area were highly successful in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
A small hardware store, called Costello Hardware, started around 1873. In 1896, the controlling interest of the company went to two Duluth lumberman, Mike Kelley and J. F. Killorin. The name changed, and the Kelley Hardware Company was born. In 1902, D. W. Howe joined the company and the name changed to Kelly-How Hardware. Then, in 1904, it absorbed the Thomson-Glaskin Co and became the Kelley-How-Thomson Co.
Kelley-How-Thomson Co at its peak served nearly 7,000 hardware stores in eight states and offered nearly 50,000 items. Many items featured their “Old Hickory” brand, including axes, tools, and fishing tackle. The Sportland brand was also used on rods, fishing line, and flies (such as the one pictured above).
On to the subject of football!!
In the early 1920s, an independent professional football team was sponsored by Kelley-How-Thomson Co called the “Duluth Kelleys”. They played mainly local teams and were not affiliated with any major league, like the AFL or the NFL (or the APFA as it was called until 1922).
One of the teams they played was the Minneapolis Marines, a team that had existed since 1905 as another non-affiliated pro team. Then, their rival, The Marines, decided to join the NFL in 1921 in order to create more interest in their team.
In 1922, the Kelley’s played well against an NFL team called the Green Bay Packers. Even though they lost, it was decided to pay the league fees and obtain an NFL franchise. Heck, if the Minneapolis Marine team did it, why not them?
So, in the 1923 season, the Duluth Kelleys became a new NFL team.
However, an NFL team in Duluth had very little chance of success. Home games drew “disappointing crowds” and the cold fall/winter weather in the area was a huge obstacle when scheduling NFL opponents. Back in these days, teams were in charge of their own schedule and teams refused to travel to Duluth.
As costs in travel and the NFL increased, bills began piling up. Even after a very successful 1924 season (5-1, which ranked them 4th out of 18 teams and even ahead of the Green Bay Packers who they beat early in the season), interest in the team fell…and in 1925 the poorly funded NFL team only played 3 league games (all losses) before calling it a season.
The Kelley’s owners still held the rights to an NFL franchise and were willing to do anything for someone to take over their financial flop. Along comes Ole Haugsrud, who was not a wealthy man by any means, who paid $1.00 for the franchise and promised to take over all financial obligations. The team name was changed to the “Duluth Eskimos” and people thought Ole was a dreamer and would soon be bankrupt.
But, Ole had a plan. Little did anyone know, he had signed former all-American Ernie Nevers to the team. Ernie happened to be an old high school classmate of Ole’s from Superior, WI (right next to Duluth). The running-back from Stanford made the Eskimos an immediate must on every other team’s schedule. Ernie Nevers would attract large turnouts in every road game and this, along with the cold weather, made the Duluth Eskimos a road team. In fact, the first year, they spent September of 1926 to February of 1927 on the road…and only had one home game.
In 1926, the team actually made a profit for the first time of $4,000. Not bad for the 1920s. They finished ranked 8th out of 22 teams after 11 games in the NFL, thanks mainly to their main players named Walt Kiesling, John “Blood” McNally, and of course, Ernie Nevers who played running-back, defense, and kicker…and was part of nearly every single play on the field. (Note: all three of these players are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame)
Due to them not playing at home, local interest never grew in the team. In fact, many other NFL teams didn’t even know them as the Duluth Eskimos or that they were from Minnesota. A flyer from the New York Football Giants listed them as “Ernie Nevers and his Eskimos vs the New York Giants”. 1927 will be a more trying year for Ernie, as he was now not only an offensive, special teams, and defensive player, but also the coach of the Eskimos!
After a poor 1-win 1927 season played entirely on the road, Ernie Nevers decided to quit football and pursue another career…as there was little money for players in the NFL. With that, the Eskimos did not field a team in 1928 and Ole Haugsrud sold the team back to the NFL. However, part of the deal gave him first rights to any future NFL team in Minnesota….
Back to the company history:
Kelley-How-Thomson Co. was acquired by E. A. Bergeron in 1928 and renamed the Kelley-Duluth Hardware Co.
While Kelley’s continued to grow, it was always in the shadow of the largest wholesale hardware firm in the world, Marshell-Wells, also located in Duluth. In 1958, they consolidated with their neighbor. Later that year, Coast-to-Coast Stores of Minneapolis bought this division.
And, back to football again!
What happened to Ole Haugsrud, the former owner of the Duluth Eskimos?
Remember when I mentioned he had a deal that gave him rights to a future NFL team in MN? Well, he turned down a stake in the Minneapolis Red Jackets (formerly the Minneapolis Marines), who didn’t last long in the NFL. In 1960, when the NFL voted to expand to the Twin Cities, Haugsrud was able to acquire 10% of the MN Vikings which went way back to his NFL deal in the late 1920s.
What happened to Ernie Nevers?
While many of his teammates joined other teams, Ernie quit football…but only for one year. In 1929 he returned to the NFL and played for the Chicago Cardinals and played from 1929 – 1931. In 1929, he scored 40 points himself against their arch rivals, the Chicago Bears. These 40 points included 6 touchdowns and 4 extra points that he kicked. This record still stands today! The NFL Network ranks him as #89 of the 100 greatest players in the NFL. Also, many believe that Ernie saved the NFL, as his signing by the Duluth Eskimos drew in fans to the NFL. It has been suggested that if he signed with rival AFL, the NFL would not exist as it is today. He was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 1963.
What happened to the Duluth Eskimo Team?
Due to various transactions, they still have ties to the NFL. In 1929, a promoter bought the defunct franchise and used it to promote the Orange Tornadoes in Orange, New Jersey. After the 1930 season, the Tornadoes went back to the minors and the franchise rights went back to the league. It was the “great depression” years, so no one bought the franchise, and the league ended up fielding a team themselves called the Cleveland Indians in 1931. Then, in 1932, an expansion franchise call the Boston Braves was awarded the assets of the failed Tornadoes/Indians. In 1933, the team was renamed the Redskins and moved to Washington DC. However, due to the period of dormancy, the Redskins and the NFL do not consider the Washington Redskins franchise as a continuation of the others teams, the Eskimos/Kelleys included.
Also note, the 2008 movie “Leatherheads” is partially based on the story of the Duluth Eskimos.
And, on May 18, 2015, the local law makers of one town in the Duluth-Superior area (Proctor) passed a motion to relocate an NFL team back to the region. They also approved to build a new outdoor stadium, despite having no current means to finance it. It is unclear if their proposal has been formerly submitted to the NFL….