The Story of an Antique Fargo-Made Monson Flat Top Trunk

Some people like to fill their home with antiques, and I am one of them. Don’t get me wrong… I love modern furniture and architecture and minimalism as much as the next guy, but when I can afford it, I’m a sucker for antique tube radios, furniture, and anything else made of wood with the fine craftsmanship of years gone by. However, as much as I love antiques, where I really find joy is in teasing the story out of each piece. Where did this come from? Who owned it and when? What can we learn about this person who lived so long ago?

As you may know, I am a big fan of Fargo (the city, not necessarily the movie or the TV show) and wrote a book on the subject, so when my daughter said she had an antique trunk made by John Monson, I was immediately interested and wanted to know more.

John Monson

John Monson arrived in Fargo, Dakota Territory, from Lenox, Massachusetts in 1882 and opened a men’s furnishings store. In 1900, he founded Monson Trunk Factory at 618 “Front Street, the street which is today known as Main Avenue.

618 “Front Street” is the nondescript, two-story brown building in the center, and original home of Monson Trunk Factory. Image/Google Earth

The trunk industry was very prosperous at the time due to the booming railroad industry and Monson’s trunk company would be one of thousands. Mr. Monson was a savvy marketer and gained widespread attention in 1910 when he built “the world’s largest trunk,” which was later displayed at the Fargo Fairgrounds, and eventually used as a garage. Not surprisingly, the Monson Trunk Factory thrived.

In 1919, and again in 1921-22, Mr. Monson traveled with his wife to research other trunk makers and bring back fresh ideas. The story of their journeys was featured in the January, 1922 industry journal “Trunks, Leather Goods, and Umbrellas” Vol 49-50.

Man is naturally a roving animal and all of us occasionally feel the wanderlust calling us. With the development of the automobile into an exceptionally reliable means of transportation, gypsy tours have become quite popular with automobile owners. Collapsible tents, beds, and cooking utensils are now available to those who want to feel independent of prescribed schedules, high cost of railroading and rapacious bonifaces.
     During 1919, John Monson, president of the Monson Trunk Factory, Fargo, ND, made a trip with his wife to the coast, spending the winter there and returning in the summer of 1920, visiting many luggage shops en route. Evidently the wanderlust is strong within them, for this fall they left Fargo, driving along the Meridian Trail almost on a straight line to Texas, passing through Galveston and New Orleans to Florida, where they are spending the winter. The illustration shows the party camped for the night at a point along the route. The car is equipped so that at night it may be coverted into a Pullman berth by laying down the back of the front seat. Ample protection against weather conditions is atforded by the sedan top. The tent at the side covers the “kitchenette.” With a table, folding easy chairs, a bulb from the trouble-light cord to hang in the middle of the tent, and other conveniences, the touring home is very snug and comfortable of an evening.
     Mr. and Mrs. Monson will return by way of the old family home in Lenox, Massachusetts, arriving back in North Dakota about the middle of summer. They will call on some of the luggage shops in the East and hope to bring back some new ideas.

In 1937, John Monson’s son, J. Lloyd Monson, took over the business and moved the company, by then known as Monson Luggage Company, to 606 Front Street, which is today a pizza shop called Rhombus Guys, a gourmet pizzeria featuring rooftop seating. Monson Luggage Company eventually moved to West Acres Mall and continued as a business in Fargo until 1985.

The Trunk

In the course of researching this trunk, I learned a lot about trunks and luggage, including the fact that I had been erroneously referring to this a “steamer” trunk. The term “steamer” has been misappropriated in recent years and is frequently misused. A real steamer trunk would be smaller than this, due to the limited space on steam ships. This is simply a flat-top trunk of common construction with a wood interior and an exterior covered in coated canvas, then wrapped in wood slats for strength. It has brass fittings and a removable tray in the top to allow access to the main storage compartment.

When I opened the trunk, I was greeted by that beautiful smell from an antique that has been closed and dry for decades; a mixture of wood and dust and perhaps a hint of a cigar smoked in 1970s. On the underside of the tray lid, someone wrote a name and address in pencil. It appears to read “Haze, 1306 Harrison Street, Topeka, Kansas.”

I researched the address and came to two possible locations. Today, two different “1306 Harrison Street” addresses appear in Topeka, one is “Northwest” and the other is “Southwest”.

The northwest location appears to be in the midst of an intersection with a budget car dealership. Based on the street addresses and the layout of the roads, I don’t think the Haze home was there.

The southwest location seems to be a more residential area, but the address doesn’t point to a single-family home. To the contrary “1306 SW Harrison Street” is today, an apartment building.

1306 SW Harrison St, Topeka, Kansas. Image/Google Earth

That seems to be the end of the road in my search for information about this trunk. I know whom it was made by, but I wasn’t able to find much on the former owners. Where did they travel with it? What things did they see? It would certainly help to have a first name to go with the last name “Haze.”

As for it’s worth, I have no idea, but that’s not much of a concern to me anyway since I intend to store things in it, not sell it. It appears to be around 100 years old, and has been refinished at one time.

Do you know anything more about the Haze family of Topeka, Kansas, or John Monson’s Trunk Factory in Fargo? Please leave a comment.

Published by Troy Larson

Publisher, photographer, producer, husband and father. Cat person. Dog lover.