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'Cheers' opening montage featured this wild Minnesota logging town

It's now a ghost town, yet in its heyday, everyone might have known your name in Craigville, Minnesota. But their saloons were also reportedly some of the rowdiest and most unruly in the state.

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This photo taken at a bar in Craigville, Minnesota in 1937 is featured in the opening of the TV show "Cheers."
Russell Lee/Library of Congress
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CRAIGVILLE, Minn. — Every Thursday for 11 years, from 1982 to 1993, millions of Americans settled into their sofas as the notes started playing: “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got…”

The theme song to the sitcom “Cheers” was recently ranked by “Rolling Stone” magazine as the 13th best. Writers praised the song for its initial “somber” lyrics about life’s challenges to its “rousing” conclusion about the simple beauty of going somewhere warm and welcoming where "they’re always glad you came.”

“Like the show’s dark wooden fixtures and golden lighting, it helped make ‘Cheers’ feel like your Thursday-night home away from home,” said Rolling Stone’s Sean T. Collins.

Minnesota's Cheers connection: Where every felon knew your name
Tue Jan 03 17:53:00 EST 2023
Every Thursday for 11 years, from 1982 to 1993, millions of Americans settled into their sofas as the notes started playing: “Making your world in the world today takes everything you’ve got…”

The theme song to the sitcom “Cheers” was recently ranked by “Rolling Stone” magazine as the 13th best. Writers praised the song for its initial “somber” lyrics about life’s challenges to its “rousing” conclusion about the simple beauty of going somewhere warm and welcoming where "they’re always glad you came.”

For people in northern Minnesota, another element of that open feels like home. One of the photos in the opening montage was taken at a bar in Craigville, Minnesota in 1937.   By Tracy Briggs https://www.inforum.com/news/the-vault/cheers-opening-montage-featured-this-wild-minnesota-logging-town  

For people in northern Minnesota, another element of that open feels like home. One of the photos in the opening montage was taken at a bar in Craigville, Minnesota in 1937. You can see the colorized version here on the screen with John Ratzenberger’s name.

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This photo was originally taken in Craigville, Minn. in 1937 and colorized for the title sequence for the situation comedy "Cheers."
Russell Lee/Library of Congress - Original Image.<br/>Charles/Burrows/Charles Productions/Paramount Network Television/NBC/CBS Television Distribution - Enhanced Image for "Cheers" title sequence.

But just because the photo preceded episodes of one of the funniest comedies of all time, don’t assume the Minnesota bar was anything like Sam Malone’s tame, "meet-me-for-happy-hour" Cheers. Forget about finding softies like beer-loving accountant Norm Peterson or know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin bellied up to the bar. In Craigville, you were more likely to find hooligans, troublemakers and felons.

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Where is Craigville?

Aaron Brown is an author, radio producer and college instructor, who writes about the people, news and culture of northern Minnesota for both the Mesabi Tribune and on his blog Minnesota Brown. He says to call Craigville (sometimes just called Craig) a town “would be a stretch.”

It was a little blip in the middle of nowhere “wild and untamed, and largely outside the reach of authorities,” Brown said.

Craigville was located about four miles north of Effie in the Koochiching State Forest. Sitting on the Koochiching County side of the border with Itasca county, its isolation and treacherous terrain left law enforcement officers in the early 20th century wondering if it was really worth the effort to make the trek just to bust a few drunks and prostitutes. Most of the time, the answer was “no.”

“Frankly, it was just kind of understood that you mostly left this place alone,” Brown said.

For the thousands of lumberjacks who came to town every winter, that might have been part of the appeal.

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Loggers moved into Craigville during the winter months from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
Russell Lee/Library of Congress

Life in a northern logging camp

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, logging was in full swing in Minnesota as early as 1849 and continued well into the 20th century.

“The tradition was young men able to do this would work the winter in the forest logging and then when the ground started to thaw, the mines would open. And so they would work the summer in the mines,” Brown said.

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The men would stay in temporary logging camps where life was tough and rustic. They would sometimes sleep two to a bunk on prickly mattresses made of hay, as many as 70 men to one bunkhouse or crowded into squatters’ shacks.

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This is a serving table in the inside of a logging mess hall. The camps were rustic and often crowded.
Russell Lee/Library of Congress<br/>

“When I say shack, I mean, take what you think a shack is, and reduce your expectations. They would literally take some scrap wood, make four walls and a roof, and maybe have a little stove or something, some place for a fire for warmth. And that's it,” Brown said.

The loggers labored long hours six days a week.

“The bosses didn't want a lot of idle time because time was of the essence. But also because every time you let the guys go to a place like Craigville, you risk them not coming back. Maybe they're too drunk, maybe they left. Maybe they got killed. And so, you know, that was just bad for business,” said Brown.

So some of the young men, many immigrants from other countries saving money to bring their families to America, would choose to play it safe and stay in camp. However, others couldn’t resist the siren call to Craigville and its booze, women, and wild times.

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Two men walk in front of Big Charlies, one of Craigvilles saloons.
Russell Lee/Library of Congress

Rootin’ tootin’ lumber town

Brown said the “rootin’ tootin’ lumber town,” had very few people living there year-round, the exception being the bar owners and the prostitutes. But even they were largely transient. The population would swell to about 5,000 during logging season.

Craigville kept a post office from 1915 until 1952, and supported several hotels and saloons, one of which is seen in the photo featured on “Cheers.” At least one of the saloons became one of Northern Minnesota’s best-known brothels.

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During prohibition, considerable amounts of depression-era moonshine passed through Craigville.

“Prohibition in Craigville was a mild inconvenience at most,” said Brown.

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A lumberjack sleeping one off near what appears to be a jug of booze on Craigville, Minn on a Saturday night in 1937.
Russell Lee/Library of Congress

Federal agents could choose to make the trek to Craigville, but the people would figure out they’d be coming and it was relatively easy to conceal what was going on there.

“I remember an old timer telling me about Craigville, saying that the place was practically daring for a raid, but was protected by the surrounding wilderness,” Brown said.

But the shenanigans in Craigville went far beyond prostitution, moonshine and simple bar fights. Brown said it was the site of both solved and unsolved murders.

'Enclave for misfits and backwoods folks'

One such murder happened in April of 1926. A man named Joe McGinty, also known as Dick Franklin, was killed by a man with the last name of Cunningham.

According to a story from the time, in The Hibbing Daily Tribune, the slaying of Franklin was the result of a weeks-long feud between the men in the logging camp near Craigville. A witness named A. Goodrich claimed it started when a young boy was being beaten up in a camp brawl. Franklin, a former boxer, jumped in to help save the boy. Somehow Cunningham jumped into the fight and joined two other lumberjacks in beating up the boy and Franklin.

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A lumberjack with a bandaged head after being beaten up and rolled in a saloon on Saturday night in Craigville, Minn. Most of the violence in Craigville during its heyday remained simple bar room brawls, but occasionally the violence escalated to murder.
Russell Lee/Library of Congress

Franklin was so badly injured he was taken to the hospital. (The story does not say anything about the boy’s condition). When Franklin was released from the hospital he challenged Cunningham to another fight. Cunningham refused but told him to go get a gun and they would fight it out that way.

Franklin did and they met in the Gem Cafe where Cunningham shot and killed Franklin.

“So this was kind of the stuff that would happen up there,” Brown said. “Craigville was kind of an enclave for misfits and backwoods folks.”

Defending Craigville

But not everyone bought Craigville’s rowdy and unruly reputation. Brown said the founder of the town, James Reid, “went to his grave angry over the tarnishing of Craigville’s reputation.” He said the town was run by “upstanding men.” He said tales of trouble in Craigville were overexaggerated and blown out of proportion.

Brown said bad things happened and those things probably stoked the reputation of the place for years.

“They might have only happened once in a while, but the legend of them became part of the story,” Brown said. “And so, you assume it happens every weekend when maybe it only happened once a year.”

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These three people also appeared in the famous "Cheers" photo. Lee calls all the women in his Craigville photos "attendants" which might be his way of implying they were prostitutes.
Russell Lee/Library of Congress

The wild days of Craigville were cyclical and appear to have settled down after about 1930. Prohibition had ended and with pine harvests growing smaller, logging in Minnesota was fading. Thus, the loggers who came to Craigville to blow off steam had moved away.

By the 1950s, people in surrounding areas or even curiosity seekers who had heard of the town's reputation might drive to Craigville for an occasional night of fun, but the heyday was over. Brown believes the last of the bars were torn down in the ‘80s or ‘90s.

“It's a ghost town. You'll find some foundations, maybe a few outbuildings that are still there with trees growing up through the roof and things like that,” Brown said.

He said for awhile you could find old whiskey bottles strewn about the area, but those have mostly been taken as souvenirs by visitors to town.

Craigville's life in photos

While the “Cheers” photo is the most famous photo taken in Craigville, it’s certainly not the only one.

Dozens of photos were snapped by Russell Lee. During the Great Depression and in the years to follow, he and other photographers were awarded grants by the Works Progress Administration to document American life. Lee came to Craigville during the tail end of the town’s wild years.

All of the photos in this story are from him and are available from the Library of Congress .

For Brown, who spends his days documenting Minnesota life today, finding the photo and hearing about the story behind it was a pleasant surprise.

“During the entire run of “Cheers” I did not know that that particular picture was from Minnesota, or that it was from northern Minnesota not far from where I live. So that was pretty exciting.”

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Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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