In the last two years there has been a tremendous amount of renewed interest in the Congdon murders of 1977, mostly because of a very successful and acclaimed play at the History Theatre and now the 40th anniversary of that tragic night.
It really has reopened the question to many — Why doesn’t Glensheen talk more about the double homicide that occurred in the home? And what I believe their real question is… Why isn’t it the central theme of the tour since the murders are why everyone goes to Glensheen.
Let’s clear this up.
1. Most who visit Glensheen don’t come for the homicide. In fact, many are too young to know about it.
According to surveys taken just prior to guests taking the tour, around 70% of our audience comes for reasons other than the murder. Part of the reason is because our audience is so young. We have more 18–25 year old visitors than 65+. Our average visitor is 35 to 45. Most of our visitor ship was either not alive or too young to remember the incident.
Guests mostly come for what we call… the ‘big and beautiful’ — A gorgeous 39-room mansion on the shore of Lake Superior. Most architectural historians in Minnesota consider it one of the highest quality homes ever built in our state.
2. We do talk about the murder, if asked. We just don’t make it a central theme.
We talk more about the murder than we ever have. Why? Because we are a history museum and we feel it is our role not to hide from history. Which is why if asked, our tour guides will answer. Typically, we will answer at the end of the tour, where it is a better fit with our existing narration and to keep small children on our tours from being subjected to bald and specific questions about these homicides.
Why not make it a central theme?
As a part of the University of Minnesota and being MN’s most visited house museum we have a responsibility as a museum to better the world through our engagement with the public.
Hence, why our new mission statement is “To inspire Minnesota pride by preserving and sharing the legacy of Glensheen and to serve as an incubator for positive change.”
What does the public gain by us focusing our tour on a sad, grisly and horrific event? We think there is enough sensationalism and morbid stories in the world to go around.
3. Chester Congdon should be a household MN name. Unfortunately, he is not because of the public’s love for the sensational.
How many know that Chester Congdon is responsible for the North Shore Drive? (Learn more here)
How many know that Chester was central in the early development of the Mesabi Iron Range and to complete it, he picked a fight with John D. Rockefeller?
He won by the way.
Both of those stories are central to our state’s great arc of history. Yet, they have been forgotten.
Why? Because of one night in 1977.
Do you know there is not a single plaque or historic marker on the entire North Shore Drive dedicated to him or Congdon family? Even though 1/3 of the road to Two Harbors was paid for outright by the Congdon family. The only indicator you have is the name “Congdon Blvd” on a short span of the drive.
Most of us at Glensheen today and in the past have felt a responsibility to get this history out into Minnesota. We don’t want you to forget.
4. The Estate is amazing and collection is complete. Still.
It is a 39-room mansion built by one of MN’s best architects, Clarence Johnston. The interiors were designed by MN’s best interior designers, William A. French and John S. Bradstreet. One of which is of international fame (Bradstreet). The landscape was designed by one of the best landscape designers in US history, Charles Leavitt. In fact, he started the first landscape design school in the nation at Columbia.
In addition, our object collection rivals the best house museums in the nation for quality and historical significance.
And, it’s almost all there —intact from 1910.
When we bring museum specialists in to make repairs they are amazed at the overall quality of the collection. Frankly, they are surprised. Why?
To quote one of the museum conservators that visited Glensheen. “Sorry, we weren’t excited to work at the murder house, but wow, your collection is better than any house museum I have ever been to —we apologize for not knowing.”
5. Lastly, we do better when we don’t focus on it.
We know from tour data that visitors who come for the murder as their primary reason, come once. Visitors who come for the house or the history, come back multiple times.
A big part of Glensheen’s recent turn-around is us focusing on new ways to celebrate the architecture and other elements of Glensheen’s history. It has worked. We have more than doubled our attendance in three years and last year we received the award of excellence from Explore MN.
Which is why it is also in our economic interest to not focus on the murder. There is always a short term gain connected to it, but not the needed longterm one.
Ticket sales is what covers 90% of our operational costs and in successful years we use surplus dollars to make repairs to the estate. Unlike most museums in the U of M we don’t rely on monies from the U of M for year to year operational support. Any U of M and other outside support we receive goes to restoration efforts. Which is great, but also makes us more focused on getting visitors. It is not an exaggeration when we say your visit to Glensheen keeps us open.
Our goal of this post is not to make you feel guilty for your curiosity, but rather for you to understand why we continue to make the estate and family the central theme of the tour. We hope you now agree with our intention.
Lastly, we hope you understand our passion and excitement to get those other stories out there. Because they also do deserve a space in the books of Minnesota History. Not just the morbid.