His improbable 1,200-mile life journey to Lutsen — and Lake Superior’s picturesque North Shore — began 120 years ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Born on Jan. 4, 1880, Hosiah Posey Lyght was commonly known as Hosey.
He had just turned 9 when a young black man named George Meadows was lynched in adjacent Jefferson County, Ala. — even though the white woman and sheriff said the mob had the wrong man in her alleged assault. They riddled Meadows’ hanged body with bullets anyway.
We don’t know if that lynching prompted Lyght to head north. But historians say lynchings in the Deep South peaked in 1892, when Lyght was 12.
Lyght “grew up as a young kid in Alabama. He didn’t like the way the state of Alabama treated the black people, and so he left out in the middle of the night,” his son John Lyght recalled in 1992.
Working in the coal mines near the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, Hosey Lyght met Stella Jones and they married in Fayette, Pa., in 1909.
By 1913, the Lyghts were raising three boys — Burt, Melvin and Norman. Their second child, Esther, died as an infant. Hosey and Stella grew tired of miners’ strikes destabilizing their young family and the coal companies diverting much of Hosey’s earnings to their company stores. So the Lyghts scoured newspapers until they learned of homesteading opportunities in northeastern Minnesota far from the coal dust.
“He thought that maybe there was something better somewhere else,” Norman recalled in 1974. His father first made a scouting mission to Duluth — where the 1913 City Directory lists him as a laborer living in a one-story house that’s still standing at 510 E. 11th St.
The government was offering a 160-acre parcel near Lutsen, about 100 miles northeast up the shore from Duluth. Make improvements and the lot is yours.
“Well, as long as I’m here,” Hosey said, “I’ll try it.”
Leaving most of their stuff in storage in Duluth, Hosey and Stella packed up the three boys and boarded the steamship American on Dec. 3, 1913. The boat anchored outside the harbor near Lutsen Resort, which dates to 1885 but was accessible only by boat or dogsled. The family needed to crawl down a ladder and board a smaller boat to ferry them to shore.
“At the time they got off the boat, they had three children, a dollar bill, a sack of flour and a sack of sugar,” John Lyght recalled.
Luckily, the weather was mild, with temperatures in the 50s and no snow — yet. Winter soon descended.
“The next several years were very trying; for my mother particularly, because she was a city-born-and-bred young lady and it was very lonesome for her, ” said Norman Lyght, who was 11 months old when they arrived.
He rode in a pack on his father’s back as the family found the windowless trappers’ shack they would call home that first winter. Stella’s first act: weaving a broom out of bushes to clean out the rabbit droppings.
A couple of Swedish-born brothers, Alfred and Charley Nelson, helped the Lyghts in the early days — offering shelter and gardening advice. But being some of the first blacks on the North Shore also brought trouble. Once, a younger, white neighbor threatened to shoot up and burn down the Lyghts’ place. Some argued the kids shouldn’t go to the same schools as white settlers. And authorities would single Hosey out for harassment — jailing him overnight for violating hunting rules when food was scarce and he shot deer to feed his growing family.
Eventually, Stella would birth 15 children, including twins girls — one of whom died from scarlet fever at 12. Norman grew up to serve in the Army in World War II, earn a master’s degree in education in 1951 and work for the St. Paul school district. John, the 14th of 15, was elected Cook County sheriff in 1972, becoming the state’s first black sheriff and serving until 1994.
But he wasn’t the first elected member of the family. Hosey Lyght won seats on both the school and town boards in the 1920s.
“He was without doubt well respected,” said Norman, who died in 1993, but not before recording an oral history in 1974. (tinyurl.com/NormanLyght).
That’s when Norman remembered, as a kid, joining his father, “the family provider,” as he skied off to hunt deer.
“It was kind of a nice experience, even though it was work involved,” Norman said, recalling how his father stuffed the fresh venison in his gunny sack and would “tie the thing across his shoulders, with a rope around his chest and hanging down from his back on a pair of skis … knowing also that [the] longer it stayed there,” the greater the chances “the wolves would get it …”
The Lyghts operated the Northern Lights Resort on Caribou Lake until the 1940s, and Hosey earned extra money working road construction. He died at 65 in 1945. Stella outlived him by 31 years, dying in 1976. They’re buried side-by-side at the Lutsen Cemetery.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.