The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park. Part 1.

The Park Board was slow to remove some of the people who lived in Minnehaha Park.  Once the land was officially in their control, some people were evicted, but for unclear reasons, not everyone was forced to leave.

In fact, the Park Board had a house in the park for the caretaker (the park policeman) to live in.  It was located close to the west end of today’s bridge to the Soldiers’ Home. In the early years, having a policeman live in the park made some sense, as the board had a particular concern about rowdy behavior at the dance halls and saloons in the area, and they had a zoo that needed daily management.  But two “hermits” are known to have lived in the park.  The St. Paul Globe newspaper claimed, at his death, that one of these men was named Samuel McNott.  That’s probably incorrect.

a color postcard showing a small shack, labeled "The Hermit Below Minnehaha"
This postcard may show the home of the “hermit” who probably was named James McKnight. It was mailed in 1909, during the postcard craze of the early 20th century. It is not known when this picture was taken.

Little is known of him.  He was such a mystery that his actual name was not known until his death is still uncertain.  He was called “Old Jim,” and “Mississippi Jim,” and his last name was thought to be Knight, or Knights, or McKnight.

He was destitute.  And a proud man, unwilling to let his family know just how low his fortunes had fallen.  He had been a carriage painter, and had separated from his wife around 1882.  He outlived her, in any event. There was a daughter, Laura, who had married but was perhaps separated from her husband.

After parting from his wife, he lived in a shack by the Mississippi River, across Minnehaha Creek from the Soldiers’ Home.  He scraped out a living by selling bottles of colored sand collected from the sandstone banks of Minnehaha Creek.  He hunted and fished to feed himself; sometimes he sold fish.  When things had gotten especially bad for him, the other “hermit” in the park–the more famed and respected William Herrick–tried to locate McKnight’s family.

Herrick believed that McKnight’s name was James Knight, and that he had a brother in the furniture business in Sedalia, Missouri.  In 1898, Herrick wrote to Sedalia’s chief of police, to ask for help locating the brother.  Unfortunately, no one in Sedalia recognized the story.

“Old Jim” was a well-known resident in Minnehaha Park.  For years, the town of Richfield (which used to include Minnehaha Falls in its boundaries) contributed $5 a month to him.  When he became unwell in July of 1900, he first went to the Poor Farm for help.  He soon returned to his river bank, claiming that the food at the Poor Farm was so disgusting that he could not eat it.  As he became more ill, he found his way to a neighbor’s house on Minnehaha Avenue. He was weak, unsteady, and bleeding.  He had fallen and broken his nose.

The neighbor called the city hospital for an ambulance, but none came.  The hospital was quarantined.  A doctor was supposed to come, but didn’t.  Eventually, “Old Jim” was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital, where he lasted for 3 months before he ultimately died on September 22, 1900.

The news of his illness and death made all the papers. The stories made a point that death was a welcome relief from the illnesses of neglect and age.  He was more than 70 years old, and “died as he lived, unloved and alone.”  But the newspapers also said that the children who visited the river bank had lost “a boon companion and friend” and that they would be his only mourners. Attempts were made to locate his daughter, but it is not known if she were turned up.

James McKnight was to be “buried in the Potter’s Field.”  Many indigent people were buried in Layman’s Cemetery on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Lake Street. Cemetery historian Sue Hunter-Weir reports no burial record at Layman’s Cemetery by any of the possible names.  Finding his final resting place will require more diligence and search.

But the curious thing, to the curious researcher, is that no one in Minneapolis or Richfield named Samuel or James or Jim McNott or McKnight or Knight or Knights is listed in the 1880 or 1900 censuses.  (The 1890 Census was accidentally lost in a fire.)  is locating James McKnight in the 1900 Census.  People who lived in Minnehaha Park are listed by name in the 1900 Census, and the Census was taken before his illness. Those people living in the park were the park caretaker and his family. The other “hermit,” William Herrick, is listed nearby and so is the Haas family on whose doorstep the sick and dying “old Jim” appeared. But McKnight is not listed as being in the area.

[Update]  Thanks to curious reader Steve Leigh, who found James McKnight in that 1900 Census.  He was a fisherman, was born in July of 1828 in Scotland to Scots parents, had spent forty-four years in the U.S. of A. He was the 179th household listed of the 180 households in Richfield.  Immediately above McKnight is listed the Howard C. Odell family.  And that is interesting because H. C. Odell was the Census-taker.

Howard Odell was a Territorial Pioneer, having come to Minnesota as a small boy in 1857.  His father George settled in Richfield and lived on his farm there for the rest of his days.  Howard, an only child, inherited his father’s land which was close to what is today 55th St. and Lyndale.   Both George and Howard were active in local politics.  (Perhaps the Odells’ leadership in Richfield affairs helped provide that $5 monthly stipend to James McKnight.) Over his long career, George served in nearly every civic office Richfield had.  His son Howard repeatedly served as a Richfield delegate “from the country precincts” to Republican conventions.  He served on various committees during campaign seasons.  He also worked as a survey inspector for Hennepin County, and on at least 2 occasions, he served as a census taker.

In those days, Minnesota did a census independent of the Federal every-ten-years headcount.  In 1895, Howard Odell was appointed to enumerate the populations of Richfield and “Fort Snelling Village.”  There he counted James McKnight, 58 years old, born in Scotland, a painter, and a veteran of the War of the Rebellion.  The age doesn’t match up with the next Census of McKnight, in 1900.   Combing through 100s of Civil War records is not a task within the current activities of urbancreek.com.

In 1900, Odell was the Federal Census taker for Richfield.   It was not his job to count the people of Minneapolis’ 12th ward, including Minnehaha Falls.  That was the job of Wm. H. Smith, and Smith accomplished it in the first 2 weeks of June, 1900.  Odell took a full 27 days to finish his Richfield census count.  Nothing is known at this writing of William H. Smith except that he seems not to have done the thorough job required. At the end of his tally is another page with a few more people, counted by “James Atchison, ‘Special’ Enumerator.”

Unlike William Smith or James Atchison, who noted the locations of the households they were counting, Odell didn’t bother to describe where people lived.   But we know that he was aware of James McKnight: he’d counted him in the Minnesota Census 5 years before.  It is possible that he–an experienced field worker and someone who had lived in the area for decades–looked over Smith’s work, and possibly Atchison’s, and noticed yet more people missing and then added James McKnight to the Richfield tally. The Minneapolis ward 12 Census was completed by then.

The Minneapolis City Directories show no a faint trail of breadcrumbs that this man was ever a part of the city.  The entries found so far show that he lived near the falls, though the description of his home varies.  There is no listing for him in 1887, but in 1888, James McKnight lived “nr mouth Minnehaha Creek.” In 1889, 1890, and 1891, James McKnight was listed as a trapper residing at “52nd near 49th Ave.”  But there is no 49th Ave. on today’s map.  That “intersection” is pretty much exactly the mouth of Minnehaha Creek, on the south side.  Maybe this was a City Directory compiler’s joke, which only lasted as long as his editor didn’t notice it. After 1891, James McKnight is not listed in the City Directory.

No on-line birth or death records appear for McKnight by any of his possible names, so to learn more, the physical records must be gone through.  Some newspaper stories reported that he had been born in Nova Scotia and had moved to Iowa with his parents, but no records illuminating this have been uncovered.  Two censuses reported that he and his parents were born in Scotland.

And so he continues a mystery, casting no more than a faint shadow on the veil of history.  He is almost entirely lost to the century that has passed since he lived for as much as 20 years in a shack on the riverbank in Minnehaha Park.


(“The ‘Hermit’ of Minnehaha Park.  Part 1.” was posted originally on 14 August 2016; and was substantially revised on 17 August 2016)

 

 

4 thoughts on “The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park. Part 1.”

  1. FWIW, I checked on ancestry.com, and there is a James McKnight listed in the 1900 Federal Census for Richfield Township in Minneapolis, 71 years of age, listed as being born in Scotland in 1828 and immigrating in 1856, widowed, and whose occupation is listed as “Fisherman.” Any remote chance this is your person? (I could take a screen shot of the page and send it to you…)

  2. OK, that is superbly interesting. Thank you for finding that little bit more.

    My search of the Census was limited by going to the pages of all the people who lived in the park and in the area. I didn’t find the hermit by any of his names. That’ll teach me not to be thorough.

    In 1900, Minnehaha Park was within the city limits of Minneapolis, and was not in Richfield. That Census page is fascinating because the name listed right above McKnight’s is Howard C. Odell. And lo and behold, Odell was also the Census Taker. More above; I am adding a revision to the post.

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