Mad Hatters ~ Millineries of Deer River

4.10.2022 [archived ~ originally published 5.3.2018]

Wedding Party ~ All but the bride is wearing a hat [circa 1920]

In the early years, there were considerably more men than women living in the Deer River area. But once the village was established, more families moved in, and by the spring of 1903, there was welcome news for fashion-conscious women. “The ladies of Deer River and vicinity will be pleased to learn that a long felt want, a millinery store is about to be established here.   Mrs. W.J. Phifer, formerly of Duluth, an experienced ladies’ hatter, is proprietress.” [Itasca News 3-7-1903]

Until the arrival of Mrs. Garnett Phifer, for women wanting a hat, their choices were to send for it through a mail order catalog; makeover their existing hat with new ribbons and fresh feathers; or take the train from Deer River to Mrs. Katherine Lent’s millinery parlor in Grand Rapids.

“Milliners create hats for women; hat makers make hats for men. This is the nineteenth- and twentieth-century differentiation of the two trades, which, although related, require very different technical skills and working practices.” [Wikipedia] 

During about a twenty-year period when it was the fashion to update women’s hats every season, there were four women who tried their hand as a milliner in Deer River: Garnett Phifer, Helen Ryan, Minnie Tollefson and Mae Swanson. Their shops carried adorned and unadorned hats, ribbons, beads, feathers and silk flowers. Some also specialized in other clothing items exclusively for women.

Mrs. Garnett Phifer 1903 to 1909

Garnett married William Phifer, a barber in Iowa in 1902.  They moved to Duluth for a brief time before settling in Deer River.  Mrs. Phifer brought with her a stock of goods, upon arrival rented space, and established her business. 

Phifer’s first advertisement stated: “Announcement!  Having received my full stock of up-to-date millinery, I am now prepared to deliver at a cost not greater than is common in the cities, hats of the latest shapes and trimmings to suit the most fastidious of ladies.  In cheap hats, I have an abundant assortment.  They are durable, and I am sure you will be pleased with the assortment. I also take orders for tailor-made suits, made by the Edward B Grossman Co., Chicago.  Their make is the best. The ladies of Deer River and vicinity are respectfully invited to call. Yours to please, Mrs. W.J. Phifer” [Itasca News 3-28-1903]

Mrs. Phifer did a fine trade until January 1908 when a fire damaged several village businesses, including hers.  Within a week she had moved into the old Methodist Church building wear the remainder of her hats were sold for half price. By mid-April, the News noted, “Judging from the large sample trunks stacked almost every day in front of the local millinery the style of the ladies hats this spring will be wide, long and high.”

When the M.J. Baker store ran an ad announcing the opening of their new department of millinery in August, Mrs. Phifer countered with one stating, “At the only millinery store in the city.  Early fall hats.   Also, untrimmed shapes.  New styles received every week during the season.  Old hats made over to look like new.” This last item was important because M.J. Baker only had a limited number of ready-made hats from which to choose.

In January 1909 Mrs. Phifer filed for separation from her husband, alleging cruel and inhuman treatment, nonsupport, and drunkenness.  She also asked for the complete title to all the property holding in her name, an order to restrain the defendant from entering her house or interfering with her or her business pursuits.  After the fire, Mrs. Phifer had purchased her own building. When the divorce was final in September, she decided to move her millinery business out of the area.

Mrs. Helen Ryan 11-1909 to 10-1916

Shortly after Mrs. Phifer left, Helen Ryan, with the backing of her husband William, decided to open a millinery next to the post office.  Most of her advertisements included enticements of current trends, ostrich feathers and turbans, as well as waists, skirts, corsets, hose and ‘hair puffs.’

By 1911 Mrs. Ryan secured a better location and had a second store in Marble. I could not determine if she split her time between the two stores or had an assistant running one.  One possibility is that Garnett Phifer, who had returned to Deer River by 1910 according to the United States census, was managing one of the stores.  Garnett is shown living on her own, next to the Ryan family.  Her occupation, as well as Helen Ryan’s, is listed as a milliner in a store.

In late summer 1916, Helen and William Ryan made plans to move to Michigan. Mrs. Ryan consolidated her millinery and other stock at the Deer River store and sold it to George Herreid and Minnie Tollefson.  George, a well-known businessman, was a silent partner in the millinery establishment named the Style Shop.

Minnie E. Tollefson & George Herreid 10-1916 to 11-1917

George Herreid, along with his brother William, and their wives Agnes and Anna, were owners of a large general store and mortuary, and agents for the Ford Motor Company at this time.  I could find very little information on Miss Tollefson.  According to, no one by that name resided in Deer River in 1910 or 1920. There was a Minnie Tollefson living in Blackduck in 1910.  She was born in Norway in 1888 and immigrated in 1906. She was a waitress at the Olson’s Hotel.  It is possible she was in Deer River by 1916 (and maybe even working for Helen Ryan), or perhaps answered an advertisement for the business that I did not locate.

At any rate, I believe the arrangement was tentative and based on profitability.  On 9-29-1917, less than a year after the shop opened, a Notice of Dissolution appeared in the paper: “Notice is hereby given that the partnership lately existing between the undersigned, George H. Herreid and Minnie E. Tollefson, carrying on business of ladies’ wearing apparel and millinery store at Deer River, Minn., under the style of firm as the “Style Shop,” was on the 1st day of August, 1917, dissolved in the future will be carried on by the said George H. Herreid, who will pay and discharge all debts and liabilities of and receive all moneys due to said late firm.”

A ten-day ‘Quitting Business Sale’ including full-page advertisements was held in early November 1917. I found nothing more to indicate where Minnie Tollefson had gone.

End of an Era

Records are a bit sketchy after the Style Shop sold out.  Garnett Phifer apparently did start a millinery parlor again, but when an Airtight stove exploded, starting a fire in the store in April 1918, and she lost everything, she decided that was enough.

The last mention I found of a millinery in Deer River was an advertisement for the opening of Swanson’s Millinery Parlors ~ Opening March 21, 1919.  Mrs. Mae Swanson, the owner, was a widow with small children.  She married again and moved to Canada. During the twentieth century, women’s lives changed drastically and imposed a lifestyle not compatible with the beautiful hat creations. The twenty-first century has become a bare-headed era, and glamorous hats have become “special occasion wear,” only worn for weddings and high-society horse races.


  1. budandruth says:

    Hi Chris, Just wondering how your surgery went, and if you’re still planning to look into a story of “Little Oscar”. Let me know if there’s anything more you need. Bud Anderson


  2. Vickie says:

    Hats were such a big thing. I love costume movies where all the women wear amazing hats.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s