Archaic local laws that should be repealed

June 10, 2015

 

Lawrance Bernabo
The Sneezing Opossum

In the history of every city, there are stupid laws that are passed and eventually forgotten, but still remain on the books. Here are some archaic Duluth laws (in chronological order) that should be repealed:


Norwegians are not allowed on the sidewalk (1882). Aspiring to be mayor of Duluth, Swedish immigrant Oscar Nilsson had his name put on the ballot as Oskar Nilsen, hoping to persuade voters he was Norwegian.


The subterfuge was uncovered, and Nilsson was forced to flee to Chicago, where he was killed four years later in a dispute during a game of kubb.


Sentiment against Swedes in Duluth ran high for the next year, at which point the Sons of the Nökken, a secret society of Swedish lumberjacks, posted public notices that Norwegians were not allowed on the sidewalks. While this was never officially a law, the Norwegians obeyed it out a sense of civic duty.


By the time Duluth actually had sidewalks, the prohibition was largely forgotten, while the local constabulary only enforced it after midnight and only when there was no snow on the ground. However, the fake law was included in a 1898 list of city ordinances and, therefore, it technically remains on the books.


On Duluth public beaches, males may not reveal chest hair longer than one and a quarter inches (1902). This law was passed when men’s bathing fashions started to include plunging necklines. Police were issued squares of wood, cut to the proscribed measurement, and barber’s scissors. Those not in compliance had the offending hair snipped and were fined $10.


Little known fact: The money collected from these fines was used to double the operating budget of the Seventh Avenue West Incline Railroad.


Duluth sidewalks may not be painted red (1926). In 1924, Arthur Wesley Hall patented the method of constructing sidewalk ribbons by cross-lying strain-relief grooves at regular intervals. The City of Duluth embraced this new-fangled change, but, when students from Central High School started painting West Duluth sidewalks red, angry Denfeld parents demanded action, resulting in this ordinance.


The following year, East High School opened with red and grey as its school colors, thereby allowing them to claim all the sidewalks in the city.


It’s illegal to bring more than two pounds of bacon a year into Duluth from Superior (1928). The “Bacon War” of 1928-32 began when farmers in Superior attempted to corner the local bacon market by undercutting the prices used by Minnesota farmers.


Having become the nation’s leader in cheese, Wisconsin was seeking to expand pork production under Governor Fred R. Zimmerman’s ambitious plan to make the state “First in Cheese, First in Beer, and First in Bacon.”


Inspectors routinely checked Duluth homes to document all bacon purchases and make sure citizens were in compliance. Zimmerman’s plan succeeded in making Wisconsin #16 in bacon production, just slightly behind Iowa, which produces 32 times more pork each year.  


By the early 1930s, most Duluthians had established a preference for sausage, and the Bacon War was essentially over. The law remains on the books, even though no one has brought a pound of bacon over from Superior since 1956. This archaic law should be purged before things get ugly after a Vikings-Packers game.


Undergarments must be worn by all city employees (1929). This ordinance was passed in the wake of the infamous Tomlinson incident during the administration of Mayor Samuel F. Snively. Then again, maybe we do not want the mayor or city council going commando, so this one might be a keeper.


It’s illegal to toss Canadian coins into the fountain in front of City Hall (1954). Canadian visitors, offended by this law, made a point of stopping by the Civic Center and carefully placing their coins in the fountain.


Mayor George D. Johnson (not be confused with his predecessor, George W. Johnson) ordered the Canadian coins be collected and saved until a delegation from Duluth visited its Sister City of Thunder Bay. The confiscated coins were used to pay the delegation’s expenses.


The plays of Edward Albee cannot be performed in city parks on Tuesdays (1966). Offended by a Childrens Theatre Association production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, City Councilor Samuel “Babbling Bill” Gustafson wanted to ban all of Albee’s plays forever.


Over a period of seven months, Gustafson proposed a total of 56 ordinances, each watering down his initial proposal until finally a coalition of council members, needing Gustafson’s vote for a new gumball machine in City Hall, passed his latest proposal.


Unaware of this bizarre local statute, four members of the East High School drama club were briefly imprisoned for violating it in the summer of 1987.


There are other archaic laws that we can do without, but we will save their excoriation for another day.
 

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