Friday, July 14, 2017

"Saturday Night in a Saloon"

"Saturday Night in a Saloon"
Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress
Recently I was doing some research and I came across this famous Minnesota picture. I knew it was taken in Minnesota, but I didn't know much about I had to investigate further. It was taken in 1937 in Craigville, Minnesota in Koochiching County by Russell Lee.

Can you place it?

This iconic picture was used in the opening credits for the television show Cheers. A seemingly lighthearted photograph, this picture actually reveals a great deal about a town in Northern Minnesota that wasn't so idyllic.

Main street. Craigville, Minnesota, 1937
Main Street, Craigville, Minnesota 1937
Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress
Upon further research, I discovered this picture of Main Street in Craigville, Minnesota in 1937. It wasn't much. Most of the buildings weren't even finished. Logging was its main industry until 1952. During the logging season anywhere between 5,000-7,000 loggers would come into town.

Lumberjack with bandaged head after being beaten up and "rolled" in a saloon on Saturday night in Craigsville Minnesota, 1937
A lumberjack after a brawl in a saloon on Saturday night.
Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress
With the influx of loggers (and their hard earned money), the town was filled with all sorts of criminal activity. Prostitution, murder, theft and bootlegging--to name a few. It was so bad, no one could do anything about it. The town had a terrible reputation, not only in Minnesota, but across the USA.

Lumberjack and two "attendants" in saloon of Craigsville Minnesota, 1937
A lumberjack with two "attendants."
Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress
In 1937, photographer Russell Lee visited Craigville and documented the "seedy" lifestyle of the loggers, prostitutes, bootleggers and business owners. If you look closely, this man and his two "attendants" are the same people in the "Saturday Night in a Saloon" picture.

Researching can be an interesting adventure. You never know what you're going to unearth. Some of the stories I read about Craigville made me cringe. It was a dangerous town. I wanted to cry when I read about the prostitutes who inhabited the rough buildings. I always wonder what would lead a woman into such a sad choice. I don't think I'll ever look at this picture the same way.

Craigville is now a ghost town in Northern Minnesota. Some buildings remain, but they're falling apart and overgrown with weeds. The town that brought so much pain, to so many people, is now decaying in the Koochiching Forest.
Photographer Russell Lee
Russell Lee was an American photographer, best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration. He traveled around the United States between 1936 and 1943 documenting various American classes and cultures. Apparently he heard about the notorious town of Cragiville, Minnesota. Many of his photos are in the Library of Congress.

I wonder if Russell Lee had any idea how famous his "Saturday Night in a Saloon" photo would become?

In the words of Paul Harvey: "And now you know the rest of the story."

Have you seen the photo "Saturday Night in a Saloon" before? Did you have any idea what the real story was behind it?

Gabrielle Meyer lives in central Minnesota on the banks of the Upper Mississippi River with her husband and four children. As an employee of the Minnesota Historical Society, she fell in love with the rich history of her state and enjoys writing historical fiction inspired by real people, places, and events. 

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  1. I cannot recall seeing the picture of Saturday Night in a Saloon before. So much sadness from events that happened in saloons as portrayed in various old westerns. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I have never seen that photo of "Saturday Night in a Saloon". Very interesting. :-)

  3. Fascinating post! I love the connection to Cheers (I live in New England). I'm in MN for a wedding this weekend, so it was fun to read a bit of history about the state. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thank you for sharing your interesting post. I have never seen the picture "Saturday Night in a Saloon." I would guess many a man bellied up to that bar!

  5. I never heard of Craigville, Minnesota before or it's notorious
    reputation, though we've driven through northern Minnesota.
    I do remember the iconic photo from Cheers. You never know
    the real story behind a picture just from first impressions,
    that's for sure. Very interesting post, Gabrielle!

  6. No, I hadn't seen this before and I enjoyed learning about it. Thanks for sharing!