Glensheen’s new exhibit shows the Congdon family’s mysterious papers and morbid inkwell

Five years ago, the Guardians of Glensheen took a full inventory of the Congdon Collection – a first look at everything in their 30 years of operating the space. By combing through the storage spaces and opening the packaging hidden in plain sight, the idea for the current exhibition has taken root.

Glensheen Director Dan Hartman gently opens an ornate, hand-crafted wooden Japanese bento box in the Historic Estate’s Dining Room on Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Duluth. (Samantha Erkkila/[email protected])

Glensheen Obscura, which opens on June 4, is a showcase of a dozen handcrafted family memorabilia, homemade decorations and buffalo furs on display in several rooms of the mansion. Dan Hartman and staff offered a preview of the pieces to local media Thursday morning, with the museum director wearing green protective gloves and unable to leave the pieces in the formal dining room unattended.

“They’re definitely not your standard Glensheen problem,” Hartman said on his penultimate day on the staff at the mansion operated by the University of Minnesota Duluth. In a few weeks, he will take over the general management of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. “This is not an exhibition of Glensheen dresses. It’s not there to romanticize. They are strange, obscure and sometimes morbid pieces.

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“And I think that’s what’s funny about it.”

* * *

Chester Congdon’s Maori coat, purchased from a trader, according to the Patriarch’s Diary, features brown feather patterns highlighted in orange, with white and green along the edges of the rectangular piece. A handcrafted multi-section wooden Japanese bento box decorated with flowers and vines and featuring small metal flask-shaped containers – for soy sauce, Hartman speculated while handling the pieces, or better yet sake.

A Maori feather cloak purchased by Chester Congdon while in New Zealand in 1914 lies on the table in the Glensheen Dining Room on Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Duluth.  The cape is made of six kinds of bird feathers.  (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)

A Maori feather cloak purchased by Chester Congdon while in New Zealand in 1914 lies on the table in the Glensheen Dining Room on Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Duluth. The cape is made of six kinds of bird feathers. (Samantha Erkkila/[email protected])

It’s the inkwell, not quite a necessity in this post-quill era, that has been brought to the fore in promotional material – a palm-sized wooden skull with an ivory snake coiling up. through a hole in the eyeball and around the forehead.

“A cool piece that you can easily see on the smokehouse desk while Chester signs a backstage deal,” Hartman said, offering a possible visual.

On the ground floor of the house, staff set up an exhibit of Angklung Congdon bought in Indonesia for 8 guilders, which would cost around $ 115 now. The musical instrument is made of bamboo tubes which are shaken and played in tandem with others, to create tunes.

A large buffalo fur robe is draped in Glensheen's master bedroom on Thursday, June 3, 2021. The fur was used by the Congdon family as warmth on winter sleigh rides.  By the time this piece was brought home, noted marketing manager Jane Pederson Jandl, buffaloes were on the verge of extinction.  (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)

A large buffalo fur robe is draped in Glensheen’s master bedroom on Thursday, June 3, 2021. The fur was used by the Congdon family as warmth on winter sleigh rides. By the time this piece was brought home, noted marketing manager Jane Pederson Jandl, buffaloes were on the verge of extinction. (Samantha Erkkila/[email protected])

Congdon’s furry buffalo robe was spread out in the master bedroom – a piece that would have been placed over the knees of the sled drivers. At the time in history this was brought home, noted marketing manager Jane Pederson Jandl, buffaloes were on the verge of extinction.

Helen Congdon’s bedroom has long had its own quirk on display.

“Evangeline,” Jandl said. “Our famous doll.”

The German toy has eyelids that close when his chair rocks and a head full of human hair. For this exhibit, she is joined by two anonymous friends: one naked with cracks in her skin, the other missing 75 percent of her face and an eyeball.

A beloved doll is on display in Helen Congdon's bedroom as part of the Historic Estate's new exhibit showcasing the Congdon family's lesser-seen artifacts.  (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)

A beloved doll is on display in Helen Congdon’s bedroom as part of the Historic Estate’s new exhibit showcasing the Congdon family’s lesser-seen artifacts. (Samantha Erkkila/[email protected])

The Panama Canal papers, which were packaged in multiple volumes, were discovered by a former Glensheen employee who wanted to know the contents of a package on a shelf. Hartman opened them – and has been struck by the mystery ever since.

Why would Chester Congdon have these plans?

* * *

The Congdons built the 20,000 square foot Jacobean mansion on 22 acres along the shores of Lake Superior between 1905 and 08. Chester Congdon was a lawyer involved in the mining industry and later a politician. Clara Congdon studied art in college, taught briefly, and managed the family and home.

Asked about their personalities, if the Congdons were in any way “freaks” who could celebrate gruesome memories, Hartman replied no.

“This is part of the surprise for us, the staff too,” he said. “They are, it sounds like an evasion, but they are rightfully humble and calm people. “

On a trip to six countries in the Pacific Ocean in 1914, Chester Congdon purchased an Indonesian bamboo instrument called an angklung.  A video of how the instrument is played is on display next to this room on the ground floor of Glensheen.  (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)

On a trip to six countries in the Pacific Ocean in 1914, Chester Congdon purchased an Indonesian bamboo instrument called an angklung. A video of how the instrument is played is on display next to this room on the ground floor of Glensheen. (Samantha Erkkila/[email protected])

This, he added, made it difficult to learn more about the Congdons – including the origin stories of the pieces in the collection.

There are more fun finds in the collection, enough to create more exhibits. Hartman looked over to a hutch in the dining room and indicated that there is a room in the house that people pass by every day that has a cool story.

“We’re not going to get into that now,” he said, then refused to budge.

As of Thursday morning, the estate was bustling with tourists – a return for the property which, like other museums in the state, closed during part of the pandemic and then returned on a limited basis.

“This is what a normal summer day would look like,” Jandl said.


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