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Dating Cloquet's Labor Day celebration? It's not an easy task


August 30, 2019

Hey, it’s the 100th annual Labor Day celebration in Cloquet coming up this weekend. As your newspaper of record on such milestone events, we thought we’d check in on some history about what has become one of Cloquet’s signature yearly events — and a unique one at that, as few cities celebrate the holiday in grand style any more.

So we went back to 1919. Sure enough, there was a big celebration. Fun was had by all, the old Pine Knot reported. The weather was perfect. Everything went off “without a hitch.”

There is only one large, gasp-inspiring fact from that 1919 celebration. It was the third annual Labor Day extravaganza in Cloquet. Which kind of puts a damper on this weekend’s 100th anniversary vibe. The storied Labor Day in Cloquet actually got its start in 1917.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Mike Kuitu, a former organizer for the event and the go-to-guy for information on its history. After all, we’re kind of putting a buzzkill on all this 100-years-ago business. He figures once someone made a Labor Day button with an anniversary number on it, 1919 stuck.

The Carlton County Historical Society has buttons from the event dating back to 1953. The first one printed with anniversary-type of information was in 1995. The button announced the “75th Labor Day.” It would have actually been the 76th if you went with the 1919 story, 78th with the actual start date in 1917. Successive buttons have all reflected 1919 as the date of origin, though most of them confuse the “anniversary” date with the number of celebrations held.

Kuitu admitted that he’s always riffed on the 1919 origin story because it made so much historic sense. Cloquet was coming back from the 1918 fire that wiped out the city. America was just recovering from the Great War and the scourge of the deadly influenza outbreak. “The town was rebuilding,” Kuitu said. “It made sense that at the end of that summer they said ‘We ought to have a celebration’ after all the hard work.”

It’s a nice fable. Add to it the long-held notion that today’s Central Labor Body, at first called the Federated Trades and Labor Assembly, got its start in 1919, although the body itself celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1967. Which brings us to 1917.

The real story is that in 1917, two unions from Cloquet’s lumber plants decided to organize “Cloquet’s first observance of Labor Day,” the Pine Knot reported the week before the holiday. The Pulp and Sulphite Workers and the International Brotherhood of Papermakers would cooperate in the organizing and then take each other on in a baseball game as part of the fun. The Papermakers won, earning a cool $10.

Labor Day as a celebration was just making inroads across the state. On the Iron Range, workers started marking the day with events a few years earlier. And groups in Duluth, Superior and the Twin Cities area had been parading and picnicking before the turn of the century.

The Cloquet unions had to ask storeowners to shut down that Monday so workers could get out and enjoy the day. The paper mills did not start up for the week until midnight after the holiday. Like the other cities before them, the millworkers were trying to impress upon the public the value of unionized labor. They were also celebrating new unions forming in the city among carpenters, retail clerks and box factory employees. It’s likely that soon after Labor Day, a loose association of of the unions was formed.

An unnamed correspondent from Cloquet reported on the 1917 event in his union’s publication, The Paper Maker’s Journal. “Labor Day was observed with all the pomp and sincerity here for the first time in the history of the Local,” the writer wrote.

A parade of a reported 200 workers, dressed all in white, marched in the heart of town in a morning parade that Sept. 3. It led to Pinehurst Park for speakers, food, music and a bonanza of sporting activities typical for the time: a fat man race, married and single persons’ sack and running races, wrestling, boxing, tug-of-war, shot putt, leapfrog, bicycle races, married woman’s egg race and an undefined “young married women’s clothespin contest.” A dance wrapped up the evening, with music from the five-piece Gerin’s orchestra.

Local businesses helped with prizes and cash donations, including $100 from Northwest Paper Company. (That’s about $2,000 in today’s money.) The prizes donated by merchants and handed out that day are a hoot: Dress shoes, boxes of cigars, fountain pens, watch fobs, hats, rings, dress shirts, dining forks and knives, fall sweaters, packs of gum, a Brownie camera, an oak rocking chair, electric iron, and a sack of sugar.

So there we have two detailed sources for the 1917 event, the Pine Knot and the union journal. But there is also a third, which makes more curious the discovery that Cloquet’s Labor Day celebration is older than once thought. The union newspaper in Duluth, Labor World, ran a story this past July about Cloquet’s “100 years” celebration. It quoted a story from its own archive about the plans for the 1919 event, saying it “heralded the start” of today’s extravaganza. That’s how the staff here at the Pine Knot News were alerted to the 100th anniversary (and 101st celebration).

But we found a Labor World story from 1917 about the organizing for the Cloquet event that year: “First Labor Day Celebration At Cloquet, Is Plan,” the headline read. (A similar story also appeared in the Duluth News Tribune that August.)

It’s easy to see how the origin details for Cloquet’s Labor Day got lost. Kuitu said organizers took past buttons and the anniversary dates printed on them as the definitive proof that things got going in 1919. He said he would ask “oldtimers” over the years about the earliest Labor Day events but go nothing definitive. Even the Pine Knot, 50 years ago, exclaimed that 1969 would be the 50th anniversary of the event. It was actually the 52nd.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kuitu said of this newspaper’s sleuthing. “Go right ahead and report it.”

So, not to burst any bubbles, now you know the facts. It won’t stop the tradition. It remains. The the big banquet, parade, carnival, music and dancing.

Mike Parrott, president of the celebration committee, shrugged at the 1919/1917 discrepancy. He said there had been an idea to celebrate 100 years with a fireworks show, but it proved too costly. The celebration has had its ups and downs over the years, mostly with finding people to help and scraping up enough cash. Shortly after the 1969 event, leaders suggested ending the tradition unless more union members got involved. That notion might seem sacrilege today for people like Kuitu, who was a child in the 1960s. When the carnival set up at the park near his home, “it was like magic to me.”

Union pride has taken its hits across the decades. There were strikes and union disolvements in the 1920s and all-around chaos around unions through the 1930s. And despite the jaundiced political eye pointed toward unions today, Cloquet’s celebration endures as not just an ode to labor but also as the ceremonial last day of summer.

“Way back when, people held onto traditions, to community,” Kuitu said. It’s harder now, he said, but the tradition holds.

Parrott said there will be a new beer garden at Veterans Park. That’s where the carnival for kids is located. “We wanted something for the adults as well,” he said. Rep. Mike Sundin is being honored as grand marshal in the parade.

Dianne Barkos was sweating on the final details for the event this week. She’s a co-chair of the celebration committee. “It gets really busy Sunday and Monday,” she said. As for the debate on the number of celebrations that have been held, she too was amused. “That’s pretty cool,” she said. “We’re actually older than we thought.”


Carlton County Labor Day weekend schedule


Old Timers Banquet, 12-4 p.m., Four Seasons Event Center, Carlton.

Monday, Labor Day

Lost Forester and other races, 8:30 a.m., Pine Valley Park

Car show, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., The NorthEastern on Dunlap Island

Parade, 11 a.m., Cloquet Avenue

Picnic, 12-2 p.m., inside Labor Temple, 1403 Ave. C

Carnival, 12-3 p.m., Veterans Park


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