“If you can read this sign you should take a tour!” “#BolderNorth,” boasts the banners lining the fence surrounding The Glensheen Mansion.
Built in 1908, the 39-room mansion which sits on 12 acres of Lake Superior shoreline property is shrouded in history and lore. Chester and Clara Congdon and then their family lived in the mansion into the 70’s. It’s now operated by the University of Minnesota.
The first thing I wondered was how on earth the Congdons made all of that money. Fortunately, it’s one of the first questions the tour guide answers. Chester Congdon, a self-taught lawyer invested in mining, steel, orchards, and banks. He and his wife Clara met in college. Clara was also an accomplished painter and one of a few number of women in her graduating class, as it wasn’t typical for women to attend college at that time.
Opulence. This is the one word I’d use to describe the mansion. How else do you describe mahogany furniture, a ceiling room made with gold leaf, all of that stained glass, and a fireplace hearth made from extinct red marble?
A main reason why I wanted to tour the Glensheen Mansion is because one of our relatives once worked as a maid here. We don’t know a lot about her experience. She mentioned the Congdons had high expectations but treated their staff well. Our tour guide compared the salaries of maids to less than minimum wage today, but mentioned the staff had more time off than most people in their positions during that time. The family also provided them with transportation on their days off.
Similar to Downton Abbey’s portrayal, employees here had to be single. Unlike what I imagined, the Congdons invited staff to sit down and eat full portions of whatever meals they enjoyed before meal service.
Chester Congdon died only eight years after moving in to the mansion. Chester and Clara’s daughter Elizabeth was the last child to live here until she and her nurse were murdered in 1977. Elizabeth’s daughter Marjorie was acquitted while her ex-spouse served five years.
Marjorie lives in Arizona. News articles mention her proximity to more people’s deaths and charges of fraud and theft. She also plead guilty to arsonry. The tour guides don’t mention the murder in honor of the family’s desire that people remember the family and visit the home for more than just the murders. For example, the guide mentioned their contribution to the Scenic Highway 61.
However, there is a book on the matter in the ticket office building where you can wait before the tour.
The stained glass windows in this dining room feature oak leaves. In fact, the whole room is themed around the oak tree. There’s even a special fountain built into the wall that trickled local spring water.
These days, guests can rent parts of the mansion such as the terrace facing the lake or basement amusement room for parties and events. We giggled imagining guests at a wedding reception dancing and mingling among the bookshelves in the amusement room which features such items a copy of the Panama Canal plan papers Eisenhower gave to the family.
After the tour, we gingerly wandered around the back terrace. The waves crashed against the shore littered with broken slabs of ice.
Regardless of the season, The Glensheen Mansion is worth a visit. Authors have written numerous books about the mansion and the family which might be worth a read before visiting.
Before you visit:
- There are multiple tour options. We went on the classic tour which takes you through the basement + the two levels of the home. You can also wander around the grounds. Tickets cost $15 each for adults and we felt it was well worth the admission. Reserve your tickets online or take your chances at the ticket office.
- More deluxe tours include Full Mansion, Nooks & Cranies & kayak tour. There’s also a flashlight tour for adults that includes a flashlight, beverage in a special sippy cup, and third floor access.
- You are allowed to take as many photos as you’d like.
- Use the bathroom FIRST. At the end of the tour, the guide will invite you to use bathrooms on the way into the kitchen. However, if you have to use the bathroom before the tour, you will have to use the porta potties outside the ticket office. In seven degree weather, this was a memorable experience.
- “40 Years Later, Glensheen Murders Still Grip Duluth,” by Dan Kraker, MPR, 2017
- “Congdon Family Comes Back to Glensheen,” by Candace Renails, Duluth News Tribune, 2010
- “My Weekend with Marjorie Congdon,” published in Artfully Living, 2017
- Blog post tour recap from Highway Highlights blog, 2014
- “Why You Don’t Hear About The Murders When You Tour The Glensheen Mansion” by Melissa Turntinen, MN, GoMN
Have you visited the mansion before? Feel free to leave any thoughts or comments below.