Home / Personal Essay / North Country Girl: Chapter 12 — Country Club Days

North Country Girl: Chapter 12 — Country Club Days

Published: August 9, 2017

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week. 

My sister Lani and I arrived home to the big news that my dad had switched country clubs. For years he had played golf at Ridgeway Country Club, a mysterious place with a ramshackle clubhouse that I had only glimpsed from the outside when my mom dropped off my dad and his club. Ridgeway members golfed, drank, smoked, and played cards; there were no Ladies’ Days or children’s programs. 

Now my dad was a member at Northland Country Club, about as waspy a place as could be in Duluth. No Jews of course, and the inclination would probably have been to exclude Catholics as well, except that Duluth had a deep base of Norwegians who were local business and government bigwigs, as well as supporters of the Church. 

Northland’s clubhouse was a gleaming white pseudo-mansion that would not have looked out of place on an antebellum plantation, complete with porte-cochere in the front and a two-story columned patio on the side. There was even a guardhouse at the turn off of Superior Street where you had to stop to have your name checked against the membership roll before proceeding up the long driveway. At the top, nestled beside the clubhouse, was a (semi-) heated pool. After being frog marched into the frigid water of Hanging Horn Lake for swimming lessons at camp, Lani and I took the Northland pool as if it were the Caribbean. The only other pool I had been to in Duluth was the indoor one at Woodland Junior High, where I was forced to take swimming lessons year after year, never passing into a higher category than Minnow. It was impossible to learn to swim in that over-chlorinated, dimly lit Woodland pool. It had a ledge all around it made of concrete mixed with pumice and bits of sandpaper that would take the skin off your legs and arms, and was surrounded by tiles so slippery that anything faster than a trudge resulted in immediate expulsion from the swimming class. And since the pool was inside the school, it was thought not necessary to heat it. 

Thrilled with the chance to swim in water that was over 70 degrees, Lani and I spent the rest of the summer begging, “Can we go to the pool? Can we go to the pool?” from the time we woke up. When we got to Northland, Lani and I (always having to wait the mandatory thirty minutes if we were there after lunch) gleefully plunged into the pool, tossing beach balls, playing water tag, having breath holding contests, going off the diving board (only allowed after you proved you could swim the length of the pool) and staying in the water all afternoon, emerging at five when the pool closed, blue-lipped and prune-fingered.   

Oddly enough, none of my classmates’ families belonged to Northland and most of the kids who were regulars at the pool were younger than I. Lani’s best friend Julie Luster often joined us while her mother golfed or drank at the club bar on Ladies’ Day. Children were not allowed to be at the pool by themselves. Your mother or another member had to sign you in and stay there, so there was always a circle of trapped moms trying to get a hint of a tan from the weak Minnesota sun while regularly being drenched by kids cannon-balling or getting in a forbidden game of chicken while the lifeguard’s back was turned. 

Resort

Vintage Stock Photos 

Northland’s pool, snack bar, hamburgers and fries served on the patio — along with  family Fourth of July parties with sack races, hot dogs, and fireworks — was heaven enough for me. But my parents wanted me to enjoy all the benefits of Northland membership, which included golf and tennis lessons for kids. I had learned to hate tennis at camp, but golf brought me to new levels of wishing I never had to do anything besides sit on the sofa and read. Mini-golf was fun; colored balls, little windmills, a chance to hit your sister with the putter. Golf lessons were ten weeks spent just on my stance, swinging the club at an imaginary ball, then having my body manipulated by a creepy assistant golf pro so I could swing at nothing again. When I was finally given a real golf ball, I managed to sideswipe it, knocking the ball off the tee onto the grass. I was ordered back to stance school, at which point I put my club and feet down and refused to go to golf lessons ever again.  

*** 

In fifth grade I was one of the white mice in another of Duluth’s experiments in education. As a result of all that testing the year before, it was determined that five Congdon fifth graders — me and four boys — deserved “enrichment education.” We would spend our mornings in a special class at Endion Elementary and afternoons at Congdon. I have no idea how my Congdon teacher, the huge Miss Johnson, felt about this. During all my previous elementary school years, there was never any schedule for the day. After we said the Pledge of Allegiance, we might have math or social studies or reading, whatever the teacher felt like teaching. We would go weeks without taking out our music books and then sing for an hour every day for three weeks. But because the five of us would receive “enriched” instruction in English and social studies, Miss Johnson was forced to structure her day to cover those subjects in the morning. In the afternoons, when we were back at Congdon, Miss Johnson would teach math, a smidgen of science (none of those spinster teachers cared about science at all), art, music, and whatever else needed to be taught. 

Since there were five of us, the five mothers each took a day of the week to pick all of us up (two kids in the front, three in the back, and please please please don’t let me be squeezed between two boys) in the morning, then shuttle us back to Congdon in time for lunch. It was kind of a requirement for our enriched education, as no other form of transport was offered. My mother bitched — as probably the other four mothers did — every time her day to drive came around. 

I loved the Endion Elementary enrichment classes, and I adored our teacher. Miss Steinbeck, a classicist, took us through ancient history, from Egypt to Rome. We wrote stories set in those eras, acted out Greek myths, built a tiny Acropolis, studied sculpture and urns and pyramids. It was a geek’s paradise. 

Parthenon

The Parthenon. (Tim Bekaert, Wikimedia Commons) 

It was also the perfect way to make a socially awkward girl like me even more so. Just being out of my regular Congdon class half the day made me an oddball. When I had nothing more exciting to report to my classmates about the mysterious doings of our morning enrichment class than “We looked at hieroglyphics,” I went back to being ignored and then even further alienated from fifth grade girls’ society. 

The educational powers that be weren’t done yet. Several students were also pulled out of Miss Johnson’s room one afternoon a week for a special creative writing class, including Nancy Erman, the one friend I had left. I was consumed with jealousy, as it was universally accepted that I was the best writer in fifth grade. Being told that the only reason I didn’t get to go to creative writing was because I was already pulled out of class half the day did not make me feel any better, and I am afraid I was a snotty little bitch to Nancy for quite a while. 

Because I was not enough of a weirdo, there came the afternoon when Miss Johnson escorted the girls out of the classroom and down to the gym. Everyone, she announced, “except Gay. Your mother didn’t sign the permission slip.” Every eye, boy and girl, turned towards me as I tried to will myself invisible. Two hours later, the girls returned, giggling and pinching each other. I was too humiliated to ask what I had missed. 

I finally got Nancy to tell me. It was a movie about menstruation, sponsored by Modess sanitary pads, starring a caterpillar who turns into a butterfly. Obviously all the other girls would now metamorphose into butterflies while I would remain a lowly caterpillar.  I held back my tears till I got home, where my hysterics were poo-pooed by my mother, the cause of my shame. She had received the letter from the school about the movie, decided I was too young to learn about these things (I had kept the info shared by the Applebaum cousins to myself), and tossed the permission slip into the garbage. “I didn’t know you’d be the only one,” she shrugged. 

My sex education was complete enough to be equally thrilled and embarrassed when my mother announced that she was pregnant. To me, my mother always seemed much younger than other moms; Nancy Erman had a brother and sister who were in college and her grey-haired mother seemed as old as my grandmothers. The year before my parents had been photographed for the Duluth Tribune learning to do that new dance craze, the Twist. The world had not yet been turned over to teen-agers; thirty-year-olds could still be cool. 

Gay Huabner's parents dancing

My parents doing the Twist. 

Around the time my mother’s pregnancy began to show, other women started asking with suspicious frequency how old she was. Mom, who had always been paranoid about revealing her age, thought they were hinting about getting pregnant at her advanced age, and refused to answer. I heard her constantly griping, “Old biddies, why do they want to know how old I am?” Someone clued her in to the fact she was being vetted for the Junior League, a club that believed itself to be the pinnacle of high society among Duluth women. My mom had been nominated for Junior League but there was a hitch: you had to be under 35 to join the Junior League. But no one came out and said that why she was asking about my mom’s age, I guess in case my mom got blackballed, so she wouldn’t have hurt feelings.  

Duluthians of that time loved joining things: churches (everyone belong to some church, Catholic, Lutheran, Congregationalist, even the mysterious Jewish temple), country clubs, Elks, Moose, Rotary, Lion’s Club, the weird Knights of Columbus and the even odder Masons. My mother was a member of the Women’s Dental Auxiliary and drove around the county distributing toothbrushes and toothpaste to rural schools. My Carlton grandmother was a member of the hoity-toity Kitchi Gammi club, where I was once invited to lunch with her in its cavernous, echoing dining room.  

Postcard

The Kitchi Gammi Club.

I must have done something wrong — pushed my soup spoon the wrong way or stained the snowy table cloth — as the invitation was not repeated. Grandma Marie was also a member of the Women’s Club, the mother organization to the Junior League, a bunch of do-gooders who were best known for the Duluth Women’s Club Parade of Homes, a chance to poke around in other people’s over-decorated houses for charity. 

Why my grandmother Marie couldn’t have just shepherded my mom into Junior League is a mystery. Maybe she was too much of a snob and thought a house painter’s daughter from Aberdeen, South Dakota, even if she was her daughter-in-law, wasn’t good enough to raise money for the Duluth Symphony or the Leif Erickson Park rose gardens.  

Alas, my mother never became a Junior Leaguer. Even in an organization composed entirely of women, the husbands had to be considered. My father missed the mandatory Saturday breakfast meeting where my mother was to be interviewed for inclusion in the club; he was too hung over. The Junior League gave him a second chance, he missed that one too. 

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  • Joyce Thompson

    I need to relay another Miss Johnson memory. It’s hard to be a plump older spinster grade school teacher. Some boys would tear pieces of cloth when she would sit down at her desk and the rest of the class would try to not to laugh. A couple of them even responded to your memoir, so I want to remind them of their shameful behavior. I hope they know better now. I also have another memory about the Northland problem. My friend Linda Binger told me she could not go to Nancy Erman’s birthday party at Northland because she was Jewish. Nancy had invited the entire class. She was very disappointed and I felt very bad for her.

  • Paul

    Mike. Thanks for your correction. My fifty-years-ago sources were obviously not correct – kudos to your father for his willingness to take that burden on.

  • Michael Laskin

    I’m correcting Paul’s comment here. My father, Sylvester Laskin, was the first Jewish member of NCC. It was a big deal in my family because my dad was not sure – at all – that joining was a good move. He did not want to be the token Jew. So, as a condition of joining, he got assurances that Jews would not be discriminated against and would also be asked to join. Subsequently, there were additional Jewish club members. He anguished over this decision, and consulted friends and family. My dad was CEO of Minnesota Power & Light (now, Allete) at the time. It was VERY rare at that time for there to be a Jewish corporate CEO….almost unheard of. He straddled both worlds: being an observant Jew and interfacing with all kinds of people, even in places where there was institutional anti-semitism, like NCC (prior to his joining).

  • Dana Bach

    I cut greens at Northland in the summers of 10th and 11th grade (a great summer job, by the way). John Koskinen got me the job, his father was a member, so we hung around quite a bit for a few years. I still remember his pa telling us about the quota for Jews, and I can’t remember now if it was one or two allowed, but it wasn’t more than that. So that would’ve been the summers of ’69 and ’70. Also, I was at Endion, had no idea they had an enriched class. In 5th grade I was in a split 5th-6th grade class, Orrin Hieb was the teacher, and he lived right across from the newer addition on 2nd Street.

  • Randi

    I lived on the ‘wrong side’ of Northland, by four houses. We proles had our own Fourth of July excitement, roasting pigs in a hole in the backyard and watching NCC’s fireworks. NCC was also the best place to buys cigs, the machine was unguarded in the entryway – $.90/pack. Later on, I did enjoy Midnight Membership, although the snack shack was closed… Your enrichment class sounds dreamy, by the way.

  • Kay Harris

    I remember that 5th grade film. My gf and I walked home from Congdon and sat in my bedroom to read the pamphlet they handed out. But we misread the word “pubic” as “public”! We howled over the idea of the “public area”. Why would they ever call it that?!

  • Paul

    I’m pretty sure that Bert Pollan was the first Jew admitted to membership at Northland, circa 1965. Being a pioneer in that milieu couldn’t have been all smooth sailing. Great photo of your parents!

  • Linda Forsberg

    I appreciate your update Lois. I remember with great amusement those ballroom dance lessons at Northland. Ugh “Arm and arm, please be seated”

  • David Monson

    Hi again,

    Totally unaware of the Jewish discrimination, but then our family didn’t belong to clubs other than AAA at Pike’s Lake. You got the Woodland Jr. swimming pool right for sure. I went to Woodland, we had swim class in the middle of winter, cold water for sure, and then of course the boys’ class had to swim naked, we didn’t get suits. Something about how it would make it harder to keep the pool water clean by wearing swimsuits. Of we used to go skinny dipping back in the 60’s as kids in several of the local creeks, so it didn’t really seem unusual to swim naked. It did seeme kind of funny how often the girls’ gym teacher had to come in and talk to our gym teacher about something or other while we were in swimming class though!

  • Lois Backscheider

    Hi Gay! I do not mean to pester you, but I had to write once again to tell you about our parallel lives!

    I do not know how long it is since you have been back to Duluth, so I thought I would give you a bit of an update on some of the “institutions” you mentioned!

    Ridgeview Country Club (not Ridgeway) has a new clubhouse with a great chef; this past Friday night my great nephew’s wedding rehearsal dinner was held there! Women are an integral part of the club, thank goodness!

    I love your series so much

    Best,
    Lois

    The Kitchi Gammi Club is still there in all it’s refurbished splendor; my great nephew’s wedding reception was held there this past Saturday night! Some things never change in Duluth! But others do! Women are members and can even enjoy cigars in the men’s smoking lounge. However, even though women are allowed to rent a sleeping room, not one on the men’s floor–too scandalous!

    Northland Country Club’s former clubhouse was torn down and rebuilt several years ago; the exterior looks exactly as it always did, but it is bigger. We belonged to the club, even though my father didn’t play golf, for business purposes, and even though my parents and I were incensed that Jews were not allowed. My two best friends in grade school were Jewish, and I would sneak them into the pool. By the time we were in November 9th grade, the Jewish kids were allowed to take the ballroom dance lessons, but the kids with physical disabilities were out of luck because there was no elevator to take them upstairs. The new clubhouse is handicap accessible. Of course, women are members. In fact, my niece was the first woman president of the club! However, members considered her pretty radical and haven’t elected another female officer since! The Jewish religion is also well represented in the membership. And the pool?

  • Mike Cohen

    I hear Northland has gone all to hell and actually take Jews as members.

    AAA’s little course on Pike Lake also did not permit Jews. I know it was just the locals and just the golf course, but for much of my life I could not bring myself to join AAA.