Maybe it’s a piece of passed-down jewelry, a pressed military uniform or a mothballed wedding dress. Certain objects trigger family memories.

For Karl Cambronne, cigar butts do the trick. The more chewed up, the better. They bring him back to his grandfather, John Albert Erickson, whose life was as unremarkable as his name.

Cambronne was born in 1949, the same year his grandfather retired as a night watchman at the 180-foot-tall Occident grain elevator on Duluth’s docks — the tallest of the towering silos that stored the grain before it was loaded onto Lake Superior freighters.

“In retirement, John would enjoy a cigar while sitting on the porch at the front of the house,” said Cambronne, a retired attorney living in Golden Valley.

His grandparents’ house in Duluth’s blue-collar West End stood at 2306 W. 2nd St. — shoehorned between neighboring homes. “One could stand between the houses and extended arms would touch both,” Cambronne said.

With sunlight unable to reach between the houses, neither grass nor flowers grew in the shadows. “As a result,” Cambronne said, “the space between the houses became somewhat of a dumping ground” for his grandfather’s cigar butts.

Erickson was no snobby cigar aficionado. He spent a nickel or a dime for a smoke, which his wife, Mina, wouldn’t allow him to enjoy indoors.

So, “he would sit on the front porch, rock, and smoke his cigar down to the end,” his grandson recalled. “He would then flip the cigar butt between the two houses.”

By the mid-1950s, Cambronne remembers a massive pile of cigar butts, diminished only by summer rain or winter snow. It kept growing until his grandfather died in 1963 at 88.

Cambronne is now the same age as Erickson was when his stub pile began to grow. And the grandson admits enjoying a daily cigar in summer months.

“I don’t have a rocking chair on a porch where I can nurture my own pile of old cigar butts,” he said. “But I have often wondered how wonderful it would be to sit and smoke a cigar with my grandfather” and hear “his stories of life on the Minnesota prairie and on the docks of Duluth.”

Twice, Erickson’s life trajectory sliced 220 miles across northern Minnesota — from Duluth to the windswept prairies near Hawley, 20 miles east of the North Dakota line.

Born in 1874 in Ishpeming, Mich., Erickson was about 6 when his Norwegian-born parents, Bernt and Stina, loaded their belongings — including a horse, cow, chicken and feed — for the counterclockwise Lake Superior voyage around the Keweenaw Peninsula and into Duluth Harbor.

They headed for Hawley, becoming charter members of the Solem Lutheran Church, where John was confirmed in 1888. When John married Mina in 1909, he was 35, she was 19, and they decided to quit speaking Norwegian at home — raising their kids with English. Five of their eight children reached adulthood — including Cambronne’s mother, Geneva.

By 1923, they moved east. A state grain inspector told Erickson about a new grain elevator going up at the Duluth docks. The Occident elevator, completed in the mid-1920s, was the first in Duluth to run on electricity instead of steam. It added 2 million bushels of storage in 1930 and was eventually razed in the late-1990s.

John Erickson spent 26 years there, working maintenance and the night watch for the Russell-Miller Milling Co.

“Think of it,” his grandson said. “Cold bitter Duluth winter nights … armed with a kerosene lantern, walking the dock to assure all was well.”

At home, John and Mina never owned a car. He could walk to the docks and the three blocks from home to Zion Lutheran Church, which he helped construct.

Cambronne recalls walks to Bridgeman’s with his grandparents toting a cloth bag with empty milk bottles to be swapped for full ones. “When grandchildren accompanied them,” Cambronne said, “ice cream was the treat.”

Erickson read a Hawley newspaper printed in Norwegian, along with the Lutheran Standard. When his dozen grandchildren grew fussy, “he would take them and rock and sing softly to them,” granddaughter Janet Evans said in an e-mail from North Carolina. “He had a very gentle way about him and was able to calm the child.”

John Albert Erickson returned to Hawley when he died 55 years ago. He’s buried alongside Mina behind the Solem Lutheran Church — a white clapboard house of worship between Detroit Lakes and Fargo, N.D.

“He was a modest man who never made headlines,” Cambronne said. “This will be the first time his name appeared in the newspaper. The life of a first-generation Norwegian offered few comforts other than those afforded by family, friends, the Lutheran church and in grandpa’s case, an occasional cigar.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.