North Dakota man once created the world's largest trunk and turned it into a garage

Mar. 13—FARGO — When it came to promotion and publicity, P.T. Barnum himself had nothing on Fargo businessman John Monson.

He was a seller of luggage, trunks, and valises, but showmanship and illusion were also his game, most notably creating the world's largest trunk and eventually turning it into a garage.

But that is just one chapter in a very interesting life.

John Monson was born near Neenah, Wisconsin, Feb. 4, 1853. As a young man, he worked in logging camps in the white pine forests along the Wolf and Wisconsin rivers, according to his obituary.

Later he rafted the logs down the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers to the city ports and sawmill cities downstream. After stops in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon he found his way to what was then Dakota Territory to make a name for himself.

In March 1882, he came to Fargo to open a men's furnishings store on Broadway. In 1886, he married Mattie Judd, who was a school teacher in Wisconsin before the couple married.

By 1900, John established the Monson Trunk Factory setting up shop at 614 Front Street (the current location of The Front Street Taproom). It later moved to 606 Main Avenue where it became Monson's Luggage.

By 1910, the Fargo Census shows Monson living at 1024 University Drive South with Mattie and sons Leigh, 23; Lloyd, 21; and Fern, 15.

That was also the year Monson and his business achieved international fame by constructing what he purported to be the "largest trunk in the world." It was 18 feet in length, 10 1/2 feet high, and 10 feet long.

Monson had the image placed on promotional postcards that seemingly invited people to come see his shop.

The trunk was on display for a time at the Fairgrounds in Fargo.

It's unclear when Monson's trunk lost its promotional appeal. But when it did Monson had a plan. He moved the trunk to the backyard of his home and converted it into a garage.

Three years later, Monson must have figured he was due for another promotional stunt.

In an advertisement (which reads more like a newspaper story) from June 6, 1913, people were encouraged to come to downtown Fargo for "one of the most unique features of the entire week."

At 2 p.m. Saturday, June 7th, Monson planned to throw one of his trunks off the top of the 5-story Waldorf Hotel, not far from his shop.

The high dive stunt was meant to show the durability of Monson's trunks. The ad goes on to say, "Moving pictures of this act will be taken and all who wish to get into the 'movies' should be on hand at that time."

So far, we haven't been able to find the film or any reports about the success of Monson's stunt. However, the company continued to operate in downtown Fargo.

In 1919, John Monson turned over his business to his son who changed the name to the Monson Luggage Company and in the late 1930s to Monson's Luggage. Eventually the store relocated to the West Acres Mall. It appears that both sons Lloyd and Fern worked for the company, while oldest son Leigh was listed in the census as working in police management and later as an attorney.

In the meantime, John and Mattie Monson weren't content to just sit around. For the next few years they traveled around the country in their car. They eventually returned to Fargo in 1924, having logged over 42,000 miles.

According to his obituary, "They remained in Fargo only a very short time, as Monson had opened an elaborate tourist camp in the grapefruit area of Lake Alfred, Florida."

He worked almost to the day of his death at his home at Lake Alfred in May 1945.

Mrs. Monson died January 6, 1943 at Lake Alfred.

Perhaps one of the most surprising elements of this story is just how long that trunk-turned-garage lasted.

According to Dana Cook, the current owner of the former Monson home, the garage stood until 2005, shortly before she and her husband bought the property from her coworker.

"My coworker still parked her car in it until she was told it would have to be removed. She drove a (Honda) Odyssey and it just barely fit," said Cook.

Cook said the financing wouldn't go through for the property unless the old structure was taken down. So the former owner and her husband spent a weekend with a chainsaw tearing it down and putting the remains into a dumpster.

It was hardly a glorious end to an internationally acclaimed trunk. But it survived for 95 years through snowstorms, hailstorms and all that Fargo's weather had to dish out. Old John Monson would have been proud.