Creator of First Avenue motif diesWhen Denny Moen and Ray Widen announced an ambitious downtown revitalization project to the Two Harbors City Council on Oct. 9, 1979, they were coy about the man behind the plan.
By: Mike Creger, Lake County News Chronicle
When Denny Moen and Ray Widen announced an ambitious downtown revitalization project to the Two Harbors City Council on Oct. 9, 1979, they were coy about the man behind the plan. The developer went unnamed, but the business owners assured the council that he was “well known” across the state.
After eight years of visiting the North Shore at the family cabin on Crow Creek, Bob Williams had also became well known in Two Harbors as well.
He was “an interesting conversationalist,” Moen said this week after learning that Williams had died at age 77 on Christmas Eve in the Twin Cities area, where he lived. Thirty years ago, Williams was changing the face of Two Harbors and its downtown, often sketching plans for building facades in Moen’s place on First Avenue, called Denny’s Lunch, or up on Seventh at Miller’s Café.
He couldn’t help himself, even while getting away from a busy professional life in the Twin Cities area.
Williams was the designer of the Valleyfair amusement park in Shakopee, which opened in 1976, and an artist who worked with Charles Schultz and several magazines and advertising agencies. He designed product packaging for Dudley Easter and Kooky Spooks Halloween costumes.
In short, Williams had a creative mind. And he didn’t turn it off when he went to the cabin on the North Shore.
He had a vision for downtown. Some called it “gingerbread” while others called it an “old-new Victorian” design.
Ray Widen said he was willing to give his shoe store a makeover by the end of 1979 after several talks with Williams, “the instigator.”
“I said, ‘nothing fancy’ and told him to draw up something,” Widen said. “It looked pretty good.”
Ray’s Shoes became Ray’s Shoe Emporium with a cutout of a shoe hanging out front and a peaked roof with a cupola. It would serve as a model for his neighbors of what could be done relatively cheaply, Widen said. “It was a nice looking front.”
And Williams never took a dime for his work. That they could trust someone who “wasn’t from there,” was a testament to his outsized personality, his wife, Kathy, said Tuesday. “It was something fun for him to do.”
The facades were made by Vern Ehlen and, for a time, Dick Cooter, in the basement of the old Sonju Motors building that is now the American Legion.
Ehlen lived near the Williams cabin and they understood each other, Moen said. He put a plan together for each store and Vern would put it to use. Williams would get a “grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye,” Moen said.
Moen remembers Ehlen working all night in the old garage and Williams coming up on weekends to see how things were going. “This wasn’t a two or three-year process,” Moen said. “It was a few months.”
The business owners didn’t go to the city council for permission. They wanted to let members know they were going to improve the look downtown and something needed to be done with the Sonju building being used as a city garage. By 1984, the building would be revamped and blend into the remade avenue.
Moen said the project led to new streetlights built by the owners along with window boxes, planting the current city Christmas tree and other touches.
“It was a fun project,” Moen said. “It did look cute.”
“We were all real proud of downtown then,” Widen said. “We were community-minded.”
Whether or not Williams could pull off such a project today could be debated. Much of the Williams touch is gone from the downtown area. The faux peak roof of Ray’s, now part of the sprawling True Value Hardware, remains. The top of the corner drug store and other buildings show signs of the last big change along the street.
Businesses changed hands and many simply closed as the area was hit hard by recession and the continuing loss of jobs in mining and railroading. Of the 28 businesses named as part of the streetlight effort, only a handful remain today.
While the remodel didn’t last the economic realities of the time, Moen said it was “ahead of its time.” He said if a group could get together and spruce up downtown again, it would be a “smashing success.” He said more attractions at Agate Bay and the seasonal excursion trains bring more sightseers downtown.
“Did we do it wrong? Nah,” Moen said.
First Avenue is poised again for a makeover as the street undergoes complete reconstruction this summer. Business owners are putting ideas together. “Charm and appeal are always needed,” Moen said, and in the 1980s it worked for a while. “I don’t regret it at all.”
Lyle Northey, the mayor at the time, said his focus in the early 1980s was on the waterfront, and the Williams plan fit nicely into it. In 1982, the first talk began about a marina in Two Harbors. “Until something happened at the harbor, there was nothing to sustain it,” he said of downtown and the Williams effort. He said it would have been nice to see some of Williams’ magic rub off when it came to developing the harbor. “There was nobody to bulldog it through like he did.”
Widen said his generation is fading fast and the spirit that got the Williams project off the ground kept many interested in the vitality of the city. He and others got going on projects all over town. He doubts the same cohesive effort could be replicated today.
The Williams family sold the cabin in 2000 when Bob became too ill to make trips up. He died of chronic lung disease and congestive heart failure.
Daughter Laurie Esau said Two Harbors was a “magical place” for her father. She remembers those marathon coffee sessions at Miller’s, Denny’s, and, closer to home, the Rustic Inn.
She and Kathy recalled Bob playing tricks on Moen by adding “specials,” like fried bat and fish lips, to his table tent menus. He wrote them in the same lettering style and the ruse was difficult to detect, they said.
“He was good at art,” Kathy said.
And silly, Moen said. He was reminded of the menu trick Tuesday. “He had a good sense of humor.” Williams would take to a booth in the back corner, his “office,” Moen said, “armed with a pencil and legal pad.”
“I don’t know if you could do anything with Bob without laughing,” Beth Sullivan said. She and her husband, Jim, enjoyed him holding court at their Rustic Inn Café. “He knew everyone and had stories,” she said.
“We ate there a lot,” Kathy Williams said. “He liked to eat out.”
Williams designed a children’s menu at Rustic and used local children in the art, Sullivan said. Those kids, adults now, still come back today to see if there are copies left of that menu.
Sullivan’s cherished memory is from the year she was surprisingly delegated to make the area Girl Scouts float for Duluth’s Christmas City of the North parade. She said when Williams heard, he quickly designed a gingerbread house float with giant lollipops and candy canes. Like the Two Harbors downtown, he kept expenses in mind, Sullivan said. “He did it in one day, I think, while having coffee,” she said. The float won an award in the parade that year.
Finding a place
The couple yearned for a place on “the lake” after growing up on lakes as children. Bob was from Leech Lake and Kathy from White Bear. They would come up the shore and look for property and visited friends in the Encampment area. In 1971 they found a good spot, 30 acres to split with some other investors. They converted a barn into a cabin, “cute” Kathy said, incredibly “clever and neat,” Beth Sullivan said.
Sullivan said Bob and Kathy were good neighbors, always watching out and visiting, especially the older folks. “They were a talented couple and a conscientious couple,” she said.
Bob’s fondness for the area was brought up at his service Monday. “He couldn’t wait to get out of the Twin Cities,” his daughter Laurie said. She said the service was uplifting and even “fun” with talk of “all the things he loved.”
She said he was driven to make Two Harbors an attraction like the Brainerd lakes area was at the time. She said tourism on the North Shore wasn’t what it is today. “He wanted Two Harbors to promote itself, and now it’s a wonderful destination,” she said.
And he did most of his creative part in the local cafes, Kathy said with a laugh at the fond memories. “He did most of it on the back of placemats.”