DULUTH - Memorabilia from Duluth's first major high school, a grand landmark named to local and national historic registers, will be up for auction Saturday — to the chagrin of some alumni.
From taxidermy and trophies to intricately carved oak tables and antique copper maps, years of classroom and extracurricular contents have been preserved inside the 1890s museum at Historic Old Central High School for more than two decades.
The school opened in 1892 as the city's population mushroomed, and served students until 1971 when a new model opened high on the hillside in the center of the city. After that, the older downtown school housed district administration and alternative learning facilities.
The building was sold to a developer in 2021 for $3 million, and is under renovation to become housing.
The caretakers of the museum, a group of alumni, had to remove its contents several months ago when renovations began. The school district didn't have space for it either, said Nancy Mehrman, a 1958 Central graduate who used to offer tours of the museum and the school's famous clock tower, where graduating classes inscribed their names.
"Nobody wanted to do it," she said of the auction. "We wanted to keep the museum, but we couldn't."
When Don Ness, former mayor of Duluth and a 1992 graduate of the "new" Central High School, learned of the auction last week, he took to social media in an attempt to halt it and find a new, publicly accessible home for the museum contents.
"The event is sparking momentum to maintain and preserve as much as we can," Ness said, and he hopes enough can be saved to combine pieces with those from the hillside Central that will soon be demolished. He's asked that Central-specific items be removed from the auction to create a collection under the stewardship of a new group. Barring that, he and others will attempt to be the high bidders, he said.
"I'm appreciative these are volunteers who made a long-term commitment to this project, and my request would be a continuation of the spirit of that," he said.
Shirley Evensen, a 1954 Central graduate who helped oversee the museum, signed a contract for the auction months ago when it became clear a new location was unaffordable.
"It's very sad that it has to end, but we have to go forward with this," she said.
Some wonder why the school district didn't save room in its new building under construction on the site of the former hillside school, closed in 2011 under a consolidation plan.
"It's like they don't want to [acknowledge] Duluth Central was ever in existence," said Ardy Stabs, a 1961 graduate who was able to procure the 20-pound trophy given to the Central Trojans basketball team in 1961 after winning the state championship.
He plans to bring it to next week's class reunion.
"It saddens me," he said of the end of reunion museum and clock tower tours. "We'd go up in the tower and relive writing our names on the walls. There was tremendous nostalgia."
The school district doesn't own the museum contents, much of it donated by alumni over time. The district, along with the St. Louis County Historical Society and the University of Minnesota Duluth, were offered items for archival purposes, Evensen said.
A spokeswoman for the school district said space was available for the museum at the downtown school because there was plenty of room. But the nonprofit museum group isn't associated with the district, and to be "good stewards" of taxpayer money, space won't go toward museum space in the new administrative building, the district said in a statement.
In response to the outcry, yearbooks have been removed from the sale to be preserved digitally at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. Nordic Auction owner Forrest Evavold said the collection filled about five loads in a 20-foot trailer.
"It's a beautiful collection; vintage stuff," he said, that includes band uniforms from "new" Central and a blueprint machine from 1913. "Twenty thousand have looked at my website," Evavold added.
The museum caretakers plan to use auction proceeds to offer scholarships to students of Duluth Denfeld and East, the two remaining district high schools.