By the 1880s, Duluth pioneer Luther Mendenhall had become on of the city’s most prominent citizens. The Civil War veteran came to Duluth in 1869 as an agent for the Western Land Company. His objective was to help the frontier community grow into a thriving shipping port. In turn, the growth of the city would line the pockets of Mendenhall and his investors at the Western Land Company.
Mendenhall recognized that Duluth’s natural harbor gave it an advantage that other cities didn’t have. His background as a lawyer and businessman in Pennsylvania gave him creditability in the community, and quickly brought new opportunities to the people of Duluth. First, Mendenhall helped establish the first railroads in the area and was instrumental in starting one of Duluth’s first banks—The Duluth National Bank. Mendenhall served at the first president of the bank beginning in 1882. From there he worked to establish a streetcar system and newspaper. During this time, Mendenhall was also serving as president of the Duluth Park System and had been a longtime member of the Duluth Board of Education along with several other prominent Duluth businessmen and friends.
As the number of wealthy families increased in the city, the Duluth Board of Education realized the need for a women’s preparatory school that would prepare young ladies to go on to east coast colleges like Vassar and Wellesley. In January of 1890 the Board and other prominent citizens invited Miss Katherine Belle Hardy of Eau Claire to Duluth to discuss such a school. Hardy’s school in Eau Claire had gained a reputation as the best of its kind in the midwest, but Hardy was looking to move her school to a larger city with more wealthy families. Hardy was impressed with Duluth and its residents. Later that year, she moved her school to Duluth and temporarily opened in a rented home on Third Street.
Within a year, Hardy gained financial backing from Mendenhall to build a new school building. Mendenhall quickly hired the firm of Traphagen and Fitzpatrick to design the school on a lot along Woodland Avenue. For $50,000, Fitzpatrick designed a four-story, Shingle-style building. The first floor of the exterior was encased in local fieldstone, and thick stone pillars supported a front porch. The upper levels were covered in dark red shingles. The school had steeply-sloping, olive-colored roofs with many dormers, a Palladian window in the front gable, and a wide balcony. Inside, there were twelve classrooms, including a kindergarten, and dormitories for students. An apartment for Miss Hardy was located on the top floor of the school.
The Hardy School offered special programs in art and music, and employed native speaking French and German teachers for the required language courses. Students attended class in wood-paneled classrooms with ornate fireplaces to keep them warm. Instructors from all over the country came to Duluth in order to teach at the prestigious Hardy School. Many of them took the experience they gained to become principals at prep schools on the east coast.
Miss Hardy had earned a reputation among her students and their parents for being easy to converse with and quite charming. Some residents remarked that she had a handsome face and lovely figure for a school mistress. She turned the heads of several men in the city, but it was Luther Mendenhall that captured her attention. The fact that Mendenhall was married didn’t stop the two from pursuing a personal relationship. Mrs. Ella Mendenhall noticed how much time her husband was spending at the school with Hardy, and soon caught wind of the affair. She sued for divorce in 1895.
Needless to say, the divorce proceedings of a prominent businessman who was having an affair with a school mistress was top fodder for local newspapers. Each day, the papers splashed headlines about eyewitness accounts of Mendenhall favoring the company of Hardy over his wife across their front page. One witness recounted a scene in which Mendenhall “turned his back on his wife” and “talked with Miss Hardy the entire evening.” Later in the proceedings, a Hardy School handyman testified that he had seen Mendenhall and Hardy in a “compromising position” at the school. The validity of these witnesses was put into question when Ella Mendenhall’s attorney was accused of witness tampering by Luther Mendenhall’s attorney, W. W. Billson—law partner of Chester Congdon. Whether the eyewitness accounts were accurate or not, Luther Mendenhall still had enough power within the community to be acquitted of the affair. The Mendenhall’s were granted a consensual divorce.
After the divorce, Mendenhall and Hardy’s reputations were both tarnished by the affair and trial. They were married in 1898 but were never invited to the caliber of parties they had been before the trial. Once Hardy was demoted to co-principal of her school, the couple settled into a home at 1412 East Superior Street and waited for the gossip about their affair to blow over. Meanwhile, Miss Laura Jones and Louise Mitchell took over the operation of the school, which they renamed Maynard School in an effort to distance itself from the scandal.
Enrollment continued to decline and in 1897, Miss Jones was forced to move the school into a much smaller building. The Hardy School building was then leased by Reverend John Mason Duncan, who opened it under the name Craggencroft School in the fall of 1898. Craggencroft was initially as successful as the Hardy School had been, but it couldn’t sustain enrollment. It was forced to close after the 1902 school year.
Mendenhall still owned the building and entertained proposals for several new ventures that would reuse the old school building, but none came to fruition. Several people claimed that the building was cursed by Mendenhall and Hardy’s affair, and any business that moved into the building would fail because of it. In a final attempt to rid himself of the scandal, Mendenhall had the entire building disassembled in 1907. He then hired Duluth architects Frederick German and A. Werner Lignell to build three houses on the property along Woodland Avenue that reused materials from the school building. The curse must have died with the dismantling of the school—Luther and Kate lived happily in one of the homes until Luther’s death in 1929. Since then, several happy families have called these three homes their own.
Luther Mendenhall’s reputation as a prominent member of Duluth society never recovered. His legacy has nearly been written out of history. Mendenhall’s contemporaries, and one-time friends, such as Guilford Hartley, Chester Congdon, and Jay Cooke went on to become recognizable names throughout the state while Luther Mendenhall’s vast contributions to the growth and prosperity of Duluth have been hidden away because of a personal indiscretion that took place more than one hundred years ago.
In closing, it’s important to note that in 1899, the Hardy School handyman who testified that he had seen Mendenhall and Hardy in a “compromising position” at the school admitted that he had been coerced to lie on the stand by Ella Mendenhall’s attorney. On his deathbed, he confessed to his family that he had a weakness for drink during this time of his life and that the lawyer and his associates had kept him in cash and liquor throughout the nearly two-month trial.
This article was updated on February 17, 2015 to add new information about the hardy and Craggencroft Schools. The original article from January, 2011 is below.
On the northeast corner of Hardy Street and Woodland Avenue in Duluth once stood the prestigious Hardy School. The private school was founded in 1891 to help young ladies prepare for college – a certificate from The Hardy School would guarantee admittance into collages such as Smith or Wellesley. Hardy offered special programs in art and music, and employed native speaking French and German instructors for their language courses. Students would attend class in wood paneled classrooms with ornate fireplaces to keep them warm. Instructors from all over the United States came to Duluth to teach at Hardy, many took the experience they gained at the school and became principals at prep schools on the east coast.
The school changed its name at the beginning of the 1895 school year. It became known as The Craggencroft School for Young Ladies. Unfortunately, the school only operated for another seven years before Craggencroft shuttered its doors in 1902. The handsomely appointed building sat empty until it was demolished in 1907.