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Woodland: Small-town life with a Duluth ZIP code

Of the 16 states that still have a Piggly Wiggly, Minnesota just happens to be one of them. And, of the hundreds of cities in this fine state, only one has its own "Pigs": Duluth.

Its location at the "top" of Woodland Avenue (in the neighborhood of the same name) is no secret to locals, but, once word gets out to that special kind of visitor to the area, it's not uncommon to see a camera-wielding tourist out front, adding another "Look what I found!" snapshot to their photo album.

But the Woodland neighborhood isn't remarkable because of its rarity of a supermarket, it's remarkable because of its lack of spectacular or out-of-the-ordinary public attractions.

Outside of two institutions that we'll get to in a minute, what makes Woodland so special is its citizens and, perhaps more importantly, its citizens' stories.

'Woodland Remembrances'

It's hard to imagine anyone with a better sense of Woodland's roots than Diane Oesterreich, who's been conducting sit-down interviews with its older residents since the mid-'80s.

Oesterreich, now Woodland's de facto historian, first caught the "digging back" bug when she was putting on the Hartley Days events with Ramona Kruchowski.

The two wanted to take their neighborhood back into the 1900s, but still have fun in the process (meaning a celebration that included hot-air-balloon rides, a museum and a Victorian tea party, among other things).

"Ramona and I decided if we're going to know what Woodland was like, we've got to ask some people," said Oesterreich, herself a resident of the neighborhood since the age of 3.

So she went out and interviewed a handful of people.

"It got in my blood, I couldn't stop," she noted.

Soon enough, she had accumulated nearly 40 in-depth interviews.

"I never knew what was going to happen," Oesterreich said. "I just took a tape recorder, put it on a table, I would ask a few questions and out would come these stories that made me think, This should be on television."

While Oesterreich has dozens of amazing stories to tell, one of the strangest is the fact that Woodland had a bootleg fireworks factory in the '20s ... and it exploded.

"Terrific Blast of Fireworks Kills Duluthian at Woodland" screamed the Duluth Herald's front page on May 11, 1928. The blast, which occurred at 9 a.m. that morning, claimed the lives of 19-year-old John Erickson - if it's any indication of the sensationalistic news coverage of the day, a picture from the scene of the explosion included a cutline with the phrase "blown to pieces" to describe the young employee's tragic death - and owner Everett Campbell (he died at St. Luke's after the story went to print).

Numerous Woodland residents recounted the accident to Oesterreich. Some were in class at Cobb School at the time, and they reported windows being blown out and teachers having trouble getting their pupils back in their seats.

Elsewhere in town, Falk's Pharmacy was blown off its foundation, berries flew off bushes (according to one nature enthusiast) and Woodland's long-defunct trolley incurred a healthy rocking.

"They said it was like a war zone," Oesterreich said after describing the events of that fateful day.

Oh, and someone's cow -- which went by the name of Pinky -- died as a result of the blast.

"I like to get some of the details," Oesterreich beamed proudly as she relayed that last fact. "I didn't go into this to get facts and figures -- I figured that's for somebody else. That's not my brain, I'm a story brain; I love stories. I sat down with them and just tried to get them to talk as if they were sitting with somebody else."

Oesterreich has been compiling these Woodland anecdotes -- some of which she said she couldn't get to her computer fast enough to transcribe -- in the hopes that one of the publishers in town will be interested in sharing the neighborhood's stories with the rest of Duluth's citizens.

"If somebody else reads this, I want them to feel like they're sitting at the table with this person and they're hearing the stories," she said, in an interview conducted at her own kitchen table. "One of the things that I found out is that the art of visiting and stories and sharing and getting together with the neighbors for coffee, that's something gone, that you don't see as much -- and that was so much a part of life back then."

Woodland Hills

Speaking of "back then," the roots of Woodland Hills, one of the neighborhood's most prominent institutions, stretch all the way back to 1909. According to Cindy Finch, the organization's agency relations director, its original incarnation (St. James Home of Duluth) started out in the Lincoln Park neighborhood but soon outgrew its location's small size.

"A building was constructed in 1909 on a plot of nearly 200 acres boasting woodlands, Amity Creek, high ground and rich soil," Finch said of the space in Woodland her organization has occupied for just under a century.

In 1971, she continued, Woodland Hills restated its mission, became a private agency, adopted its current name and began operating as a residential treatment center.

"Today Woodland Hills operates five programs ranging from delinquency prevention and intervention to treatment and transition for at-risk youth ages 6 to 17," Finch said. "The main campus building remains, as does the tradition of helping youth and families in need."

The agency is also invested in the Woodland neighborhood in the sense that it quite possibly saved Cobb School from ruin in the late '90s.

"Talk of the school district's sale of the building raised concerns that it would be demolished or sold and converted into apartments by developers," Finch said. "Instead, Woodland Hills purchased the building in 1997, refurbished it and opened Woodland Hills Academy.

"The neighborhood has been extremely supportive of this effort."

Islamic Center of the Twin Ports

The Woodland neighborhood has also been extremely supportive of another endeavor just a few blocks away: the Islamic Center of the Twin Ports.

"It's been wonderful," said Zainudeen Popoola, ICTP's treasurer, of his organization's purchase of the former First Unitarian Church on Winona Street. "I think the neighborhood has really welcomed us.

"We have to thank the Unitarian Church that was there before. I think they had done a good job in creating a friendly environment within the neighborhood, and the people within that neighborhood have extended the same to us all."

In fact, given the opportunity, he said he would purchase a home in the area. Popoola, who's also the director of environmental services for the SMDC Health System, said the people Woodland attracts is one of its biggest draws.

"You get a lot of students, police officers and working-class people living within the area," he said. "Most of our members actually bought a home in the Woodland area so that we can be closer to the mosque and bring our children together (for prayer and social events)."

Not only is ICTP the first of its kind in the city, it's the only one of its kind in a nearly 150-mile radius.

"We are happy for the city of Duluth for allowing us," Popoola said. "... A lot of larger cities and communities don't have a building that's as big or as beautiful as what we have, so we think that alone is a blessing for the Duluth community.

"And, with the 15 to 20 families trying to pay the mortgage, trying to pay for all the maintenance -- along with the 30 to 40 students that come every time for us to pray together on Friday and fellowship every Friday -- it's been a wonderful thing."

To view the previous entries in the "Neighborhood Spotlight" series, click on the accompanying link.

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