Apr 212010

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The Rest of the Story: George S. Burch

SpyTC.com: The original Burch Pharmacy, Minneapolis, in 1935; now Burch Pharmacy is closing in April 2010

The original Burch Pharmacy, at 22nd & Hennepin, in 1935. It started in 1910 as the Ball Pharmacy. See page 1 for more..


THE HISTORY OF BURCH PHARMACY has become so blurred over the years that even some of the pharmacists recently working there were uncertain whether there actually was a business forebear named Burch.

There was! He was George Samuel Burch, and he was 40 years old in 1913 when he founded the Minneapolis pharmacy that bears his name.

With the April 2010 closing of Burch Pharmacy, the history of Burch and the store he founded makes an especially timely and poignant tale. It’s also a great backstory for the century-old drugstore’s planned rebirth as Burch Steak in 2013—thrilling news announced in May 2012.

The pharmacy’s original location was exactly two blocks south of its current site, at 2200 Hennepin. If that address sounds familiar, it should: Burch’s site was the old Ball Pharmacy space, which he took over when the burned-out storefront was rebuilt by owner R.G. Winter in late 1912, according to information obtained from original city permits. The story of Ball Pharmacy starts on See page 1 for more.

George Burch, Druggist and Dilettante

If Ball became a wildly successful self-made man, Burch, in contrast, seems to have started out on top only to hit the skids. Born on Feb. 27, 1873, in Dubuque, Iowa, Burch was the scion of an eminent man and prominent family. His father, George Benjamin Burch (1836-1901), was a native of Lyons, New York, who became a lumber baron first in Necedah, Wisconsin—where, notably, he also made money in the pharmaceutical industry—, and then in Dubuque.

Besides presiding over lumber and manufacturing concerns in Wisconsin and Iowa, the elder Burch was a bank president, real estate magnate, and a politically liberal two-term mayor of Dubuque—”a highly respected and worthy gentleman,” as a national business publication called Dickerman’s put it after the senior Burch’s death in 1901.

Burch’s mother, Ellen Harriet Merrill Burch, was descended from a socially prominent Vermont family. She was also the sister of A.E. Merrill (Alfred Ellsworth Merrill, 1845–1909), a powerful Minneapolis civic leader, ward healer, and real estate titan who had started out working for the big Wisconsin lumber firm owned by George Burch’s father. It seems likely that great things were expected of the Burch children. Our George’s brother, James Merrill Burch, older by 12 years, graduated Harvard, married a Boston socialite, and became a big shot in the Burch family lumber and manufacturing interests.

SpyTwinCities.com photo of 2200 Hennepin (aka 2200 Dupont), Minneapolis, original Burch Pharmacy location

The original Burch Pharmacy (and Ball Pharmacy) venue at 2200 Hennepin as it looks today. It’s now home to Specs Optical and TaoNaturalFoods.

But whether from lack of ambition or mettle (or susceptibility to the corrupting influences of inherited wealth) George seems not to have realized anything close to his brother’s industry and success.

What we know of George Burch as a young man starts with his attendance at the Shattuck School in Faribault, the University of Minnesota, and graduation from the Minnesota Institute of Pharmacy (a private school in Minneapolis sometimes called the Drew College of Pharmacy, after its dean Charles Drew).

In 1895, George Burch married Maud[e] Lillian Pearson, a native of Ripon, Wisconsin. The marriage, which took place in Montevideo, Minn., where Maude then lived with her parents, was performed by one Rev. H.J. Gun—which seems prophetic in light of later events, but I’m getting ahead of ourselves.

The Very Busy Burches

Given the many newspaper reports in the ensuing years documenting “Mrs. George S. Burch’s” busy calendar in Minneapolis society circles (and beautiful outfits, such as the “brown panne velvet” number she wore to a “charity debutante ball at the West Hotel in 1906), Maude appeared to have enjoyed being the spouse of a connected and moneyed man.

George Burch was known as an avid bridge player, “an ardent sportsman,” and highly engaged “club man. He raised purebred pointers, voted Republican, raced motor cars, and was active in many business and social organizations such as the Minneapolis Civic & Commerce Association, as well as the Minneapolis Athletic Club, the Minneapolis Club, the Automobile Club, and the Interlachen Club.

SpyTwinCities.com - George Burch and Maud Burch - News Clippings Documenting Busy Social Life

The Entertaining Burches: A sampling of news clippings on the busy and high-profile social life of George and Maud Burch of Minneapolis.

Maybe it’s because of all of that clubbing that he couldn’t seem to get his groove on career-wise—or simply didn’t care (or need) to buckle down.

He may well have started out as a man with a plan: In 1898, he turns up on a list of those who passed the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy exam for assistant pharmacists; in 1899, he nailed the exam for pharmacists. By 1901, Burch was the owner of a drugstore at 717 Third 3rd Avenue S. in Minneapolis (near the current Hennepin County Government Center).

But at least at first, he didn’t stick with pharmacy long. Not long after traveling to Dubuque to bury his father in May 1901, Burch sold the 3rd Avenue store to L.C. Holmann & Co. Burch then shifted his focus to automobiles.

The Madly Motoring George S. Burch

Automobiles were still a novelty in 1906, often showcased in auto races. George Burch’s purchase of a 60-horsepower Thomas Flyer—the world’s fastest and most expensive car (costing $3,500, roughly $85,000 today) was of sufficient interest to make the daily newspaper in February 1906. By at least 1907, Burch was an investor-partner in the Barclay Auto Co., Minneapolis, which had its offices and showrooms in the old Minneapolis Auto Row, Hennepin Avenue and Harmon Place. By October, 1908, he was vice president of the firm.

Several newspaper stories take note of the wild drives he and the other partners took to test and demonstrate cars. An October 1908 outing to Mankato was described by the Minneapolis Tribune as a “mud fight … slippery and sliding” all the way; a subsequent outing was said to be a “two week’s tour of the principal towns and cities of the state … in a Chalmers-Dettoit ’30.'”

Among the city’s elite listed in The Dual City Blue Book, George and Maud continued to maintain an energetic social life. In 1905, they disbursed the then princely sum of $12,500 to the Tabour Realty Co. to move from 717 3rd Avenue S. into a newly built three-story home at 2219 Dupont Avenue S., Minneapolis (since razed)—just around the corner from the site where Burch would later establish Burch Pharmacy.

Burch’s father, the lumber baron, would appreciate the home’s fine “selected hardwoods,” including “quarter-sawed white oak, mahogany, and birch” on the first floor.” Presumably the indefatiguably entertaining George and Maude Burch loved the home’s “nine foot piazza … beautifully tiled.”

In 1906, the Burches held a grand party at their home for 100 guests to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary; guests danced, went to a show at the Minneapolis Orpheum Theatre, and then returned to the Burch abode for cards, according to an account in the Jan. 30, 1906, Minneapolis Morning Tribune. At year’s end, the Burches attended that aforementioned charity debutante ball at Minneapolis’s West Hotel, an event somewhat oddly recapped in the Tribune as having been “an occasion of a bewildering display of wealth and beauty.”

Over the years, local newspaper society pages documented a long string of soirees and card parties, dinners and dances, involving George and Maud Burch—as well as events centered around their son such as a mysteriously named “pillowcase party.”

The 1910 Census offers a quick snapshot of the Burch household at this juncture: George S. Burch, age 37, residing at 2219 Dupont Ave. S. with Maud L. Burch, wife, age 35, and son George P. Burch, age 8.

At Last: The Founding of Burch Pharmacy
SpyTwinCities - Burch Pharmacy interior, 2200 Hennepin, Minneapolis

Interior of the original Burch Pharmacy, 2200 Hennepin, Minneapolis, 1920s.

How George Burch went from Barclay auto veep to found Burch Pharmacy is unclear. Maybe the renovation of the burned-out Ball Pharmacy space at 2200 Hennepin, right around the corner from his residence, was just too hard to resist for this well-heeled pharmacy grad whose father, after all, had started his fortune in the drug business.

Whatever the case, in February 1913, George S. Burch of 2219 Dupont Ave., Minneapolis, opened the doors of his brand-new Burch Pharmacy, 2200 Hennepin (also referred to as 2200 Dupont Ave., reflecting the fact that Hennepin and Dupont meet in a triangle).

Burch, who had inherited a bundle when his wealthy father died in 1901 (news items noted that his sizable estate had been divvied among his children), spared no expense with the new Burch Pharmacy. This was likely appreciated by the upwardly mobile neighbors of Lowry Hill. The Northwestern Druggist’s account of his store opening reported:

“Mr. Geo. S. Burch is opening one of the finest drug stores in Minneapolis at 2200 Dupont. The store fixtures are being made of selected mahogany, and every modern convenience in drug store equipment is being installed. He has placed an order for an Acorn Sanitaire Fountain of all white imported glass, which will be strictly in keeping with the other attractive features of his modern store.”

The snazziness of Burch’s store unfortunately did nothing to keep the thieving drug fiends at bay, although it may have attracted a better class of burglars.

Within months of his store’s opening, “stylish thieves in an automobile” broke his plate-glass window and spirited away the store’s stamp machine and postage—a heist evidently so interesting it merited a front-page story (albeit a small one) in the Minneapolis Tribune.

A Burglar Magnet
Burch Pharmacy’s history with nefarious men in the ensuing years was hardly more run of the mill. In April 1914, Burch Pharmacy clerk L.M. Hay “grabbed a revolver and joined a crowd in pursuit” of a gun-wielding burglar who had victimized the nextdoor J.M. Goldstein store (a successor or possibly sibling to the Winter jewelry store), 2204 Dupont, according to an account in the Minneapolis Tribune. Hay pursued the man from Dupont to Franklin, to Colfax and then to Summit Avenue, exchanging shots with the fugitive and hitting him in the wrist.

The man wound up in the basement of one Robert F. Pack’s home at 922 Summit. There, a roomer named Miss Alice Dunnage, who happened to be a nurse, bandaged the burglar’s arm—and then turned the man over to the police.

The very next night, Burch himself gave chase with a gun after his store was invaded by a serial robber dubbed “the Bearded Bandit.” The thief, who had been knocking over small shops in both Minneapolis and St. Paul since March, was “a greedy man behind a big false beard,” according to local newspapers—a gruff man given to grunting locutions such as “got any dough?,” “I’ve a mind to kill you,” and “Git.”

After robbing Burch and two customers in his store, the bandit robbed two pedestrians on the street and was looking for fresh victims when Burch … well, best to cut to the newspaper account of the James Cagney scene:

“Just then Burch, proprietor of the drug store, rushed out and opened fire with an automatic. [Ed. note: An automatic?] The holdup man wheeled, returned the fire, the broke into a run down Hennepin avenue. … He took to his heels, Burch after him, until the automatic was empty and the holdup shooting back over his shoulder. Then he deserted the street for an alley [along Franklin].”

Newspaper clippings of "the Bearded Bandit" who held up Minneapolis drugstores, 1914

After a spree of robberies and a murder, “The Bearded Bandit” was a wanted man in 1914.

A dozen cops showed up, but the Bearded Bandit got away. Within two months, he’d struck Burch Pharmacy again, making off with $17 on June 10. By then he’d been implicated in 10 burglaries since April (7 pharmacies, 2 saloons, and a shoe store)—as well as the murder of John Ernest Erickson, the owner of the shoe store at 1721 East Franklin.

The Bearded Bandit was finally caught in July, three weeks after Minneapolis Mayor Wallace Nye offered a $250 reward for his capture, dead or alive. It fell to William Fischer, the 14-year-old son of druggist W. M. Fischer (3952 Lyndale, where the LaRue’s boutique is now), to positively identify the bandit, having gotten a good look at him when the man’s whiskers fell off during an April robbery at this father’s store.

Burch and other victims weren’t certain the captured man was indeed the bewhiskered desperado, but the Bearded Banditry did stop with the man’s arrest. At Burch Pharmacy, however, other bandits rushed to fill the void.

“George S. Burch, the druggist at 2200 Dupont Avenue South, believes that his store bears some favorable mark known to the burglar fraternity,” reported Northwestern Druggist in spring 1915. “A few days ago his pharmacy was broken into, making the third robbery there since April 1st, and the second within a month. The burglar, this time, bored a hole in the door, threw back the lock, and after gaining entrance, carried away cigars and toilet article to the amount of $150. They took the same class of goods valued at $500 three weeks ago.”

Tonics, Cigars, Soaps, and Sodas
Like other drugstores of the era, the Burch Pharmacy was part apothecary and part general store. It was in fact a recognizable, if quainter, version of today’s drugstores. Besides its prescription counter, Burch featured cigars and tobacco, soaps and perfumes, shaving and toilet articles, candies, and novelty items.

He also featured the usual over-the-counter patent medicines that were common in drugstores of the era, from “stomach bitters” and “blood tonics” to remedies for asthma, wrinkles, consumption, and more. Such proprietary medicines sometimes included hefty amounts of alcohol. Some remedies sold over the counter for chest colds or  indigestion might be compounded with heroin, cannabis, or, more frequently, cocaine; baby syrups routinely were laced with opium.

Photo of Sanitaire Soda Fountain at a drugstore in Plymouth, Wisconsin.

George Burch installed in his pharmacy the elegant Acorn Sanitaire soda fountain like this one in Bade’s Drug Store in Plymouth, Wisc. (Sheboygan C. Historical Society)

Drugstore soda fountains in the early 20th century were large marble or glass box-and-counter fixtures with cooling systems as well as spigots to mix carbonated water with flavored syrups. Originally, drugstores installed fountains primarily to mix sweet drinks that would mask the taste of bitter tasting medicinal remedies. Coca Cola, for example, was originally a cocaine-and-caffeine patent medicine for headache, dyspepsia, and neurasthenia (as well as a certain male issue alluded to today in oceans of spam).

By the time Burch opened in 1913, drugstore soda fountains were catching on as neighborhood hangouts serving flavored sodas and ice cream sundaes. Pharmacy owners soon were adjusting to the Harrison Narcotic Act which, passed by Congress in 1914, placed restrictions on the use of opiates in over-the-counter products. And with momentum growing for the Temperance movement that would lead to Prohibition in 1920, soda fountains were beginning to supplant saloons in popularity.

Burch’s money had bought his pharmacy one of the finest soda fountains to be had. His elegant store, with its carriage trade clientele, was the only pharmacy in town to have the handsome iceless Acorn Sanitaire fountain—“in cool, rich marble,” white glass, and silver—although one could be found 150 miles north at the grand Glass Block department store in Duluth.

Exit George Burch … Enter Ben Cohen

Especially considering that the pharmacy bearing his name would last for nearly a century, George Burch’s association with the pharmacy that bears his name was remarkably short lived.

In late 1917, a few months after the United States entered the First World War, Burch sold the store to Ben M. Cohen, a 25-year-old pharmacist who had started working at the store a year after it opened.

As for George Burch’s motivations, all we have is an item in an early 1918 issue of the NARD (National Association of Retail Druggists) Journal: “George S. Burch, of Minneapolis, sold his pharmacy that he might take up the duties of purchasing agent of drugs for the American Red Cross. He will soon leave for France.”

If wartime service was Burch’s reason for giving up his pharmacy, a similar commitment didn’t stop Ben Cohen. Within the year, Cohen, too, was bound for France, serving with a medical unit that ultimately saw no combat. His return in 1919 was noted in the ever-attentive Northwestern Druggist, which reported, “Ben Cohen, proprietor of the Burch Pharmacy, 2200 Hennepin Avenue is again taking charge of the store.”

Presumably the man Cohen left in charge while he was overseas was none too happy to see him. “Mr. [Leslie] Lord, manager during his absence, has left,” the item cryptically concluded.

1922 city directory listing for Burch Pharmacy at 2200 Hennepin, proprietor B.M. Cohen--just before the store moved to Franklin and Hennepin

Directory listing for Burch Pharmacy, with Ben Cohen as proprietor, at 2200 Hennepin … eight years before a second Burch began operating at Franklin and Hennepin.

Unlike Burch, Cohen would stick around. Within a decade, he would establish the Burch Pharmacy that would become a mainstay at Franklin & Hennepin. He would guide the pharmacy’s growth through the eventful years of the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, another World War, and the Postwar 1950s that saw cities lose their oomph to suburbs.

And Cohen’s tenure would overlap with that of Gene Johnson, another young man who would enter the Burch story in a minor role and end up a leading player—the man who would prove as pivotal in Burch’s last six decades as Cohen was in its first four.

The Ben Cohen Era Begins
Cohen of course had to contend with the usual pesky burglars, albeit with some interesting twists.

Newspaper clip, Burch Pharmacy burglary, January 1921.

Cops and robbers: Mpls Morning Tribune, 1/30/1921

“Three bandits held up and robbed B.M. Cohen, proprietor of the Burch Pharmacy, 2200 Hennepin Avenue, of $200,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported Jan. 30, 1921. Before leaving, two of the perps “nearly spoiled their undertaking by engaging in a fistfight over a division of the money.” The third bandit stopped the fight, the paper went on to report, “and the three left in an automobile.”

Cohen is said to have taken a keen interest in the growth of the pharmacy profession. He held leadership roles in the Minnesota State Pharmaceutical Association; as early as 1921, he was chairman for Hennepin and Anoka Counties.

Burch, meanwhile, had gone on to be vice president (which may have meant he was a money man) for an auto windshield company, Comfort Windshield, that may have been a spinoff of Barclay Auto, the company he’d been involved with before launching Burch Pharmacy. Because he continued to reside right around the corner from his old store, he likely visited or ran into Cohen on occasion. Society pages continued to chronicle his and Maud’s lively social life: dances, bridge parties, trips to Chicago or Detroit.

In January 1921, the Burches celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a grand soiree for 20 at their home—dinner “followed by a dancing party,” complete with stringed orchestra. (“Mrs. Burch wore her wedding gown of white satin and carried an arm bouquet of white roses and lillies of the valley.” No word on what George wore.)

The Scandalous End of George S. Burch
SpyTwinCities - George Burch obituary

George Burch’s death on May 4, 1922, was front-page news—although the ‘accident’ would be ruled a suicide by Burch’s life insurance company.

When Burch made the paper in May 1922, it was not in the society section but in a long news story emblazoned at the top of the front page. On May 4, 1922, George Burch, then age 49, left Maud entertaining friends at dinner, went upstairs to his study, and shot himself to death with a .45-caliber pistol.

The doctor and coroner summoned to the house “investigated the circumstances,” according to the Minneapolis Morning Tribune. They did so with impressive alacrity, fast enough to meet the deadline for the paper’s morning edition. The swift ruling: Burch, an avid sportsman and gun enthusiast, had accidentally shot himself—straight through the heart—while cleaning his gun.

Whether the coroner was seeking to spare the prominent Burches from scandal is an open question. The physician who examined the body was a family friend who lost no time determining that Burch–described by the newspaper as “an expert with firearms”–“had taken the pistol in one hand, and … while he was reaching for the brush or the oil the hammer had been caught on the edge of the desk, discharging the pistol.” This remarkably detailed narrative was, Dr. E.Z. Wanous said, “evident.”

It is also worth noting that the Guardian Life Insurance company declined to pay Maud Burch’s double indemnity claim because of its own determination that Burch committed suicide. The Minneapolis newspaper reported that Burch left an estate valued at $23,000—roughly $294,000 in today’s dollars. Still, in September 1922, Maud sued the insurance company, trying to force payment of a $48,000 claim. It’s unclear whether she prevailed. (In an ironic coda, the Burch home at 2219 Dupont was torn down in 1948 to make way for Welander Quist funeral home, now Washburn McReavy.)

Photo of George S. Burch grave marker, Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis

George S. Burch is buried at Minneapolis Lakewood Cemetery, his gravesite far more obscure than the Burch Pharmacy mainstay he never lived to see. The family plot for the prominent Minneapolis Merrill family, to which he had been related by marriage, lie some distance away.

And so ended the tragically short life of George Samuel Burch, “prominent clubman,” as his obituary headline put it. A man who started out with many advantages—prominent name, money, connections, high-profile family business interests, good schools—but who, unlike his high-achieving brother, never quite seemed to Live Up to His Potential.

Whatever the scandalous gossip may have surrounded Burch’s death, it does not seem to have caused Ben Cohen to rethink the value of the Burch name. Burch Pharmacy at 2200 Hennepin remained Burch Pharmacy.

What’s more, in 1930, when Cohen opened a second store—yes, at 1942 Hennepin Avenue—the name Burch Pharmacy went on that marquee. It is, of course, a sad irony that Burch himself never saw the pharmacy at Franklin & Hennepin that would bear his name into the 21st century.

At last: The launch of Burch Pharmacy at Hennepin & Franklin: Continue reading on next page»

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  12 Responses to “Vanishing Minneapolis: The End of Burch Pharmacy”

  1. Nice article……I just want to say that my father, is also a huge part of Burch’s history. He began his career there 60 years ago as a delivery person, worked his way through pharmacy school and then worked as a pharmacist/manager/and ultimately owner. He deserves credit and recognition for his 60 years of service there, in addition to many of the other long time, very dedicated employees.

  2. I have been compiling information on Burch Pharmacy for Hill and Lake Press – but mainly for the folks at Burch who have become very dear to me over the years. I am putting together a scrap book for them and was enthralled by the photos in your article about the Burch closing. The photo of Cal is something I would like to put in an article I am doing for Hill and Lake next month. I have seen Cal in that position a hundred times. Makes me want to cry – but it is a wonderful memory for many of us to be able to keep. I would of course give credit to Spy Twin Cities.

    Great article!!!!!

  3. Thanks so much for commenting. We’re especially honored and pleased that you wrote because of course your father must be Gene Johnson, the excellent “Mr. J.” who WAS Burch Pharmacy for so many years (and who continued to open the store nearly every morning until the bitter end). One of the true unsung heroes of city life, one of those truly indispensable, hard-working, caring, neighborly, and infinitely valuable people whose shops weave the fabric of neighborhoods and sustain generations.

    We know, too, that he links the earliest Burch Pharmacy (the Ben Cohen era) to the recent years (Cal Mathieson). Definitely a central part of “the rest of the story,” which we will in time be able to get posted here. We’ve also sat down recently to learn more from Gene himself.

  4. What a fascinating story! It reads like a well-paced thriller, complete with thugs, misfits, drugs, poisonings, suicide, mild debauchery, and all manner of mystery, mischief, and mayhem. In the end, though, it’s a wonderful tribute to a noble place that has now gone the way of etiquette and urbanity, card catalogs, Walnettos, and bowler hats. This is journalism and history writing at its best. Can’t wait to see what you take on next.

    RIP, Burch Pharmacy! We’ll miss you!

  5. Hello Spy Twin Cities. I just read your very nice comments about my Dad, and read them out loud to him this weekend. Thank you! I think they will bring him comfort during this sad time. I look forward to reading more of your article. Any chance we could get a copy of the photo of him with Burch’s in the background! dj

  6. Sorry, that last post should have had a question mark when I asked about getting a copy of the photo, or any others you might have of “Mister J”. We are more than happy to pay you for them……thanks

  7. Wonderful article- but waiting for the follow-up.

    Also- I posted a link to this article on the Facebook site “Old Minneapolis”, where I’m certain there will be many more comments, their seems to be quite a number of history buffs in this town, eager for as much information they can get. I’m one of them…

  8. I lived across the street from Dupont Elementary in 1969. An uncle visited and told me that when he belonged to the Masons, while in school at the U of M in the 40’s, that they’d met upstairs of the drug store. I was always aware of the large Mason Hall on Franklin and Dupont, also.

    When my daughter was still a student at Macalester, in the early 2000’s, she would attend Saturday, African Dance Classes led by Morris Johnson in what was also the famous Cassandra, the Middle Eastern Dancer’s Jawaahir studio, which I came to realize was probably the very room the Free-Masons had once met in.

    I used to purchase many a variety of things in that store when I lived in the neighborhood. Wonderful cards, address books, X-mas presents–games for my younger brothers … in that store. The window displays, indeed, were always eye-catching-interesting and lovely. What a shocker, last summer, to drive by and see the building gutted. Another lost Twin Cities story.

  9. The author should note, I believe it was in the mid-1970’s, a robber was walking out of the store and encountered a Minneapolis police officer responding on the silent alarm call. Gunfire was exchanged. The robber lost.

  10. Is there any chance that the author of this article can let us know when he/she might be able to write the rest of the story? I am one of those very interested in hearing it. Many thanks for what has been written so far. It has been very fascinating.

  11. Thanks for your comment–your interest is a welcome shot in the arm. Have loved researching the Burch story and have lots more material to share. Aiming to carve out time by fall.

  12. Regarding Carol’s comment, that school was Douglas Elementary School. Minneapolis never had a school by the name of Dupont and Douglas was the only school in the immediate area. But it was on Dupont Avenue (at Franklin. Now townhomes).

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