Oldenburg House Emerging as a Northland Hot Spot
by Ed Newman
It was spring 2013 when I discovered the Oldenburg House Bed & Breakfast. Located within walking distance from the heart of Carlton it served as the birthplace of Jay Cooke State Park, a story that I’ll elaborate on further along here. Oldenburg House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, bordering not only the park but also the Willard Munger State Trail, the National Kayak and Canoe Center and Thompson Reservoir. Even Adam and Eve would be jealous of the beauty that surrounds you here.
In addition to being adjacent to a corner of North Country paradise, Oldenburg House is also host to music and arts events, weddings and other special occasions. This summer newlyweds Glenn and Emily, and Helen “Mama” Swanson completed remodeling the first floor to create a new space they have christened The Carlton Room, a space designed to feature upscale jazz/blues entertainment in an atmosphere of fine dining.
As one guest of the bed & breakfast commented, “I’ve seen what you’ve done with the house and the house is grateful.” Indeed. And the community is supportive not only of the renovations but also of the Swanson’s vision for the historic property’s future.
IN THE BEGINNING
Though the Oldenburg House was built in 1894, the man who put it there arrived ten years earlier after earning his law degree at the University of Wisconsin. Henry Oldenburg, who served as a legal adviser for the Weyerhaeuser lumber interests, must have been awed by the natural beauty in the region for as a Minnesota politician he was one of the first to be labeled a “conservationist.” He’d actually begun writing about the protection of forests as early as 1876.
In 1915 the St. Louis Power Company, now Minnesota Power, sought to donate 2,350 acres (9.5 km2) to the state, but there was a snag. $18,000 in back taxes were owed. A meeting at the Oldenburg’s home resulted in what was probably an unexpected and generous solution. Henry Oldenburg led a group of businessmen to remove the last impediment by covering the back taxes, $435,000 in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation, and thus enable the land to be preserved for a state park. No chump change there, pal. In 1926, a few years after his passing, a boulder monument commemorating this contribution to the creation of Jay Cooke State Park was placed at Oldenburg Point, marking this primo spot for a scenic panorama of the St. Louis River Valley.
The second family to live in this house also had ties to the logging industry. Alfred Lee, who served as county sheriff, owned a lumberyard in Carlton. Alfred and Rosina Lee owned the house from 1931 to 1968.
When Leslie and Helen Swanson purchased the home in 1968 it seemed like a perfect setting in which to raise a family with four boys and a daughter. The house was suitably large and the backdrop deliriously alluring. The Swansons soon undertook an extensive restoration with the aim of preserving the property’s historic details while providing a haven for their brood.
The house itself, built in the Classical Revival style, is not the only unique feature of the property, which is marked by several distinctive moss-covered rock outcroppings, ferns, white pines and foliage. In the valleys between the outcroppings one finds groomed lawns and domesticated perennials. Nestled between one pair of outcroppings is the famed “Morning Glory Pool,” approximately 32 feet in diameter with a fountain in the center. The setting is accessible by concrete walkways set in place by Cloquet contractor E.E. Durkee in 1911.
Leslie and Helen Swanson were only the third family to occupy the home since its foundations were laid with. Like the Oldenburgs, they had a strong partiality to nature. Les also had an ear for music and a passion for steel guitar, gaining a reputation as a performer with the KDAL Stringbusters and a lifetime member of the Duluth Musicians Association, Local #18. It’s no wonder then that music is a central feature in the lives of several of the children, most prominently first-born Keith -- a music teacher for 39 years at Hermantown as well as conductor of the Itasca Symphony and local opera involvements – and second-born Glenn, a tech professional and jazz drummer.
Les Swanson took great pains to restore the house and property to its original dignity with the gratifying result that on December 27, 2006, after a year of visits by architects and historians, the Swanson home was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places. The designation is a certification of the significance of Henry Oldenburg’s contributions to Carlton County history, as a community leader and a conservationist. No doubt the senior Swanson’s labors and commitment helped make this possible.
In May 2011 Mr. Swanson passed away at age 88, three weeks after the couple’s 61st anniversary. Second-born son Glenn returned to the Northland to help maintain the property. During the following year he and his mother hatched a plan to make the property available to others, turning the place into Carlton’s first bed and breakfast as well as a bridal destination. A conditional use permit was issued to also allow a coffee house or small restaurant to be developed.
WEDDINGS AND A NEW MARRIAGE
When Glenn and his mother Helen, whom everyone calls “Mama,” began visioning the next five years, two events that modified the plans a little. The first: Mama had a heart attack. On January 1,2015 commercial operations at Oldenburg House were suspended. The second event - Glenn and Emily met. They married and in January 2017 purchased the house from Mama where she continues to reside. As Helen recounts, “I told them I came with the property!”
Emily Fuerste Swanson became a welcome addition to the Oldenburg House vision, bringing a range of gifts into the equation. A former healthcare administrator, she has a gift for hospitality that is an added benefit for B&B guests as well as the events, weddings and other activities that are being scheduled even as I write this.
Since the purchase of Oldenburg House, Glenn and Emily have worked tirelessly on the renovations necessary for the implementation of their plans. This included adding porch supports, removal of walls and the placement of a small stage perfectly sized to intimately showcase performers, most significantly Pippi Ardennia, Billy Peterson and their jazz band extraordinaire, in what has been designated the new Carlton Room.
THE CARLTON ROOM:
Cookin’ at the O
The Swanson’s objective is to create events and activities that are contemporary, local in context and global in scope. One weekend a month the Carlton Room is slated to serve up world-class blues/jazz, great food, drink and fun. It’s a concert dining experience blending unforgettable performances and memorable cuisine. Their Cookin’ at the O jazz series is billing itself as a uniquely modern American music series rooted in global tradition and interpreted by some of Minnesota’s most skilled practitioners.
“Our aim is to contribute to this region’s vitality through artistic expression and cultural exchange,” Emily Swanson explained, referencing the geography, ecology, heritage, cultural wisdom and talent that abundantly surrounds us. “We plan to create events and activities that are contemporary, local in context, and global in scope.”
Here’s a rundown on the performers.
Lead vocalist Pippi Ardennia performed in Chicago’s most respected jazz clubs before migrating to Minnesota where she’s not only been a headliner in every Twin Cities jazz venue, she’s also been active in youth programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul through her PipJazz Foundation, which she co-founded with Glenn Swanson. Award-winning bass player Billy Peterson has established himself as a composer, arranger, performer and producer. He’s well-known in Dylan circles as bassist on several cuts of Blood On The Tracks. But his fame is crosses all genres whether it be rock, pop, R&B, soul, blues, jazz, folk or country. Name-dropping would be jaw-dropping if we listed everyone he’s played with. The same can be said for keyboardist Brian Neilson, who performed with Steve Smith of Journey and Al Dimeola of Return to Forever. Genesis, Prince and Justin Timberlake are just a few of the cats he’s played with over a 40-year career.
And then there’s Glenn Swanson. At an early age, Glenn became one of the Twin Cities’ leading drummers in both live venues and the studio.
The remarkable thing is that when you are with these people you don’t smell any egos here. They’re in love with the music, celebrating the joyous energy that comes with the act of creation.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a good run with Dylan and the people you mention,” said Peterson when I asked what it was like to perform with Dylan, Neil Young, Carlos Santana and others of their ilk. It was only natural for him to pursue a music career. His parents were both jazz musicians on CBS Radio in Minneapolis-St. Paul on WCCO in the 30s, 40s and 50s. “At 14 years old my dad started hiring me on jobbing dates and I was real lucky to play with my dad’s band. So that’s how I got into jazz, from my parents influence and also my cousins – Tom, Russ and Bobby Peterson were brilliant jazz musicians and they were a big influence on me too at a young, young age.”
I asked how he hooked up with Glenn and Pippi.
“Glenn Swanson and I go back 45 years or so. Glenn played with my family members years and years ago, when we were very young. Glenn’s a virtuoso chameleon who can play every kind of music,” said Peterson. “I met Pippi through Glenn when she moved up from Chicago, probably eight or nine years ago. It’s very special performing with those two because they perform in the moment at all times. They’re all about the music in whatever situation it is. Any form of music, mostly jazz, but it’s all about the music, and that’s what I’m all about, too, so I’m fortunate to be playing with them. They’re always stretching the envelope.”
Oldenburg House has the potential of becoming a touchstone for life-changing experiences. It began with the Oldenburgs dreams for a better region. It became a home where dreams were nurtured. And it is now becoming a venue for events that will awaken the dormant dreams of those who come and experience the energy here.
I like the slogan or motto that the Swansons have selected: Find Your Nature.
While talking with Pippi Ardennia a few weeks back the same sentiment was articulated in a different way. “If you don’t become your true self,” she said, “there will be a thousand people that won’t be inspired to become their true selves.”
That sentiment touches the heart of what this place is all about.