Written by Julie Jo Larson
DOWNTOWN BRAINERD SHOWCASES some of Crow Wing County’s oldest buildings. Over a dozen buildings more than one hundred years old lie within a mile radius of each other. These stately treasures tower above the downtown skyline and now house retail stores, cafes, apartments, saloons, county offices, city agencies, and more. Rumors abound that hidden tunnels lie beneath these mammoth-sized gems. Two area residents and I toured many of these buildings in order to discover what really lurks underneath the brick, concrete, and steel that we see at street level.
One of the most recognized and oldest of these is the W.W. Hartley Building, more commonly known as the First National Bank Building. “Baby Face” Nelson and his gang held up this bank in October 1933. After showering 6th Street with gunfire, the bandits escaped with a total of $32,000. Spattered amongst the building’s letters high above the street are bullet holes, which still can be seen.
Steve and Julie Foy, owners of Design and Consign, remodeled the entire first floor and uncovered many original features, including the large wood-framed windows and tin moldings sporting more bullet holes. The building is owned by the Aurora Masonic Lodge No. 100, which has been active in Brainerd since 1872. Secretary Steve Johnson gave us a firsthand look at the 1882 building.
The structure is wood with Schwartz Cream brick, wood, and concrete. Below ground, room after room of forgotten treasures abound. The old steps leading to the street are still present, although the entrance has been closed off for years. A conveyor belt sits quietly along a wall, all that remains of the grocery store which once was located in the basement. Three safes, two which are from the First National Bank’s early years, are hidden in the maze of rooms. Despite the dampness, the lettering on both is easily read, and the doors, flanked by oak trim, are still open. The most modern safe is a large free-standing giant, its contents and the combination lost to time.
Several large, majestic wooden-framed windows dot a hallway. Why they are below ground is a mystery. From the hallway, one can only see dirt and concrete behind them. Several rooms appear to be stuck in time, including a cinder room for coal chards, a remnant from the turn-of-the-last-century’s heating system. Many pieces of furniture and other historic objects are spread through the lower rooms, but no tunnels were discovered.
The Parker Building on Laurel Street was the location of the first Citizen’s Bank and later the Rexall Drug Store. It was built of Brainerd Red Brick in 1909. E.L.Menk Jewelers and U-Trinkets are on the street level today. The building was purchased by Edwin and Mary Menk in the 1980s, after it was placed on the National Historic Registry. Mary was kind enough to be our tour guide for the upper levels. The grandeur of the large third floor ballroom can be seen beneath years of dust. One can easily imagine “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” playing while couples danced the night away. The upper floors have been closed off since 1986, when the water and heat systems failed. Upgrading both systems to the registry’s codes is currently too expensive, so only the lower two levels of the building are used at this time. Ed Menk conducted the tour of the lowest level. Beneath the jewelry store lies a workshop where gold, silver, and gemstones become modern-day treasures for discerning patrons. An ancient safe is hidden from view, its location a secret that remains from the bank’s time. The pristine lettering and original doors are reminders of bygone days when the Citizen’s Bank was in operation at ground level. Security remains as tight for the jewelry store as it was for the bank. Despite rumors that this lovely building was connected to others via tunnels during prohibition, none were found. Ed assured me that there are no tunnels in the area around his store.
The Last Turn Saloon has been located in the Lakeland Building since the 1980s. It is a replica of the original saloon which, in 1872, was on 4th Street. Historians will recall that the earlier saloon was the sight of the lynching of two brothers, members of the White Earth Nation, by a local mob. A plaque at that location was erected this past summer and a healing ceremony was held to commemorate the two men who were hanged before a trial could take place.
The current saloon houses a turn-of-the-20thcentury bar from the Pillsbury Mansion in St. Paul, tall wooden booths, stained glass lights, a phone booth, and some of the area’s most active spirits. Beneath all the nostalgic furnishings is the dirt covered boiler room, heaps of coal cinders, and two cement tunnels, which are now closed off with concrete bricks. Several saloon patrons insist that alcohol was smuggled through the tunnels during prohibition, and that mobsters hid in them while law enforcement searched the downtown area. Rumors of prostitution in the tunnels also surface from other patrons. Brainerd’s early years were rather colorful, even for a railroad town, so much so that some people compare it to the Wild West. We are on our third courthouse, a testament to our busy past.
The Elk’s Building not only had a restaurant and hotel rooms when it was built in 1926, but also a bowling alley. This sturdy Laurel Street structure is not showing its age as much some of the other downtown buildings. Owner Randy Moore shared some of the building’s history and showed me the upper floors. He stated that the Elks erected the building by using steel beams and poured concrete. It was more costly, but made to last. The floors are not wood, but rather trazzle, a mixture of pebbled stones and poured concrete which are ground down to a smooth finish.
In addition to the Northwind Grille, Coco Moon, Cat Tales Books, The Stop Bicycle Shop, and eleven apartments, the building hosts Empire Tattoo in the lower level. Julie Charpentier pointed out the cobblestone floor and refinished steel beams from the 1920s, and also where the bowling alley and a music stage were located. Once again, there were no tunnels to be found in the lower level.