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Where In the World Is Esko?

Esko is a small place in northeastern Minnesota between the cities of Duluth, about 10 miles to the east, and Cloquet, about five miles to the west. It’s less than a 20-minute drive on Interstate 35 to go over Thompson Hill (or, if you prefer, Spirit Mountain) and then down about 600 feet to the Port of Duluth-Superior on the western tip of Lake Superior.

Settled primarily by Finnish immigrants between the 1870s and early 1900s, the community (meaning the hamlet of Esko and greater Thomson Township) continues to have a significant Finnish presence, but the majority of today’s residents are of varied ethnic and cultural origins. Once a state leader in dairy farming, the township has seen its barnyards, hayfields and cow paths give way to housing developments, hobby farms and paved roads.

But while it has some commonality with other bedroom suburbs—far more residents have jobs in Duluth and Cloquet than within the community—Esko still has its own rustic character. Fishing boats, snowmobiles and four-wheelers line rural driveways; deer hunting and icefishing are almost sanctified rituals; many folks harvest and cut their own firewood; a high percentage of homes have outdoor or indoor saunas.

It’s also a scenic place. Nearly half the township lies within the valley of the Midway River, running from northeast to southwest. Part of the western boundary is marked by the shoreline of the St. Louis River. Part of the southern boundary is adjacent to the Willard Munger State Trail and Jay Cooke State Park, where the sometimes turbulent St. Louis River tumbles through nearly 10,000 acres of dense forest and jagged ravines on its urgent course to the Duluth-Superior Harbor and, ultimately, mighty Lake Superior.

Although Esko has its own post office and high school—renowned for academic and extracurricular excellence—and many small businesses, it is neither city nor village (the State of Minnesota no longer recognizes “villages” as units of government). It is part of the Town of Thomson, more commonly known as Thomson Township and not to be confused (though it often is) with the nearby City of Thomson, population 153. (In 2013, the cities of Thomson and adjacent Carlton agreed to a formal merger that will occur in 2014.) Governmental services such as road maintenance, zoning regulation, police protection and sewer service (where available) are overseen by a five-member township board of supervisors assisted by a full-time town clerk and assistant clerk.

The township’s population, per the 2010 census, is 5,003. In 2012, the state demographer estimated the number of households at 1,838.

In 2008, the Esko Historical Society held a series of public meetings to discuss ways and means of producing a written history of Esko and Thomson Township. Out of those meetings, a group of volunteers emerged who—with the aid, encouragement and support of the historical society—agreed to research, write and raise adequate funds to publish a community history.

 

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