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Memory of Park Point legend outlasts sands of time

By ABEL GUSTAFSON
DCN Correspondent

In 1934, Mira Southworth planted her feet deep in the Park Point sand, settling down in a house near the end of the Point.

She named her house "Outermost House," since it was the closest house on the Point to the shore of Lake Superior. From there, she devoted her life to teaching and photography. She touched thousands of lives along the way.

Southworth spent much of her childhood in Minneapolis, after moving from Massachusetts when she was about 9 years old.

After receiving her B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1909, Southworth took a job teaching English at Duluth Central High School. She took a brief hiatus in 1926 to return to the East Coast to earn her Master’s of Education degree at Harvard University. It was not long before Southworth was back at the front of a Central classroom.

She would often pack her car full of students who would hitch a ride to school with her. Margaret "Mugs" McGillis, a lifelong friend of Southworth, reminisced from her rocking chair: "She always took us to school if it was raining. She taught us all to drive even though she didn't drive too good herself, racing up that hill."

John DeRosier, a life-long Duluthian and one of Southworth’s former students, wrote in a 1999 letter to the Park Point Community Club, “When the new school year started, and the students were setting up their programs, Miss Southworth’s room was filled with students trying to get into one of her classes. Every seat was taken and the students were standing, completely lining the four walls. Miss Southworth would put the names of each student on a piece of paper, put the papers in a waste basket, and have someone draw out names of those allowed to stay. I was one of the lucky ones. The losers had to go to a different teacher. Believe me, there were many tears shed in that room.?

Along with her passion for teaching, Southworth had a love for photography. Founding Central's Camera Club in 1923, she served as the club's advisor for almost 30 years.

Her prolific collection of works feature breathtaking scenes from the Park Point area, the North Shore, and other locations along Lake Superior. Always accompanied by a crowd of young friends and followers, Southworth would roam the shores of Lake Superior, recording the changing landscapes and scenery, documenting history as it happened.
Mira_Southworth_004[1].JPG
Photo by Mira Southworth.
"When we were kids, we used to go out and hold the light meter for her," said McGillis. "She could make a picture out of anything, even a blade of grass."

Southworth occasionally composed verses of poetry to accompany her work, writing them on the back of the photograph. Still more photographs have hand-written captions. Many of her photographs are tilted slightly to the left, as Southworth had a limp, causing her to stand unevenly.

During World War II, Southworth created postcards out of her photographs and sent more than 300 of them to servicemen from the Duluth area. An entire collection of her photography survives to this day in the house and care of "Mugs" McGillis.

Southworth retired from teaching in 1951, but continued to photograph the Lake Superior scenery she knew so well. She died in 1975 at the age of 92.

Southworth's outstanding work in the schools and in photography was memorialized on May 14th, 1999, when the Southworth Marsh, a small scenic wetland, was named after her.

The Park Point Community Club chose this date and place because May 14th was Southworth's birthday. The marsh is located right across the street from Outermost House.

Dave Johnson, former president of the community club, said that many of Southworth’s photos were taken in and around the marsh that now bears her name.

“She took some of the earliest photos of (Southworth Marsh),? Johnson said. “Her photos have an Ansel Adams look to them. She should be a local or regional legend.?

A Park Pointer to the end, Southworth spent her final days at the Surf & Sand Nursing Home, just three blocks from Outermost House.

McGillis smiled to herself knowingly, "Once you get sand in your feet, you can't leave.?

Comments

Miss Southworth was a very Close Friend of my Grandparents and Parents and was also my Godmother. I used to help my Grandfather and Father instal her storm windows in the fall, and shovel the snow for her. I always got cookies. I also have some of her photos. They are beautiful as is her handwriting on the backs. I belive at some point all the photos should be collected and preserved for everyone to see.

Miss Southworth - and that's who she was to me - was something more than the story tells. As a first or second grader, what mattered to me was knowing the best neighborhood doors to knock on. There were several in my few blocks at the end of Park Point. The well beaten path extended from McGillis', to Elsie's, to Miss Southworth's door. Those doors were always good for a cookie or some candy, and the kind of attention that was worth more than everything else. At Miss Southworth's door there was always something to go with the goody. There was always a "Now you remember this (some precious bit for a young mind.)" I can't tell you what those bits were. I only remember owning something new that I trusted to be precious. Whatever they were, I am very sure those bits are built into who I have been these sixty years since.
Dave Wakefield