“If only those walls could talk,” a middle-aged woman remarked aloud to several others standing on the hill of the library. They were gathered in small, socially distanced groups, sadly gazing at the iconic Archer House the day after the devastating fire, which started Nov. 12. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement. Of course, many in the surrounding Northfield community hold dear memories or personal connections to the historic landmark.
Built in 1877 by James D. Archer, a year after the attempted bank raid by the James-Younger gang, the Archer House’s 50 guest rooms offered first-class accommodations to lodgers. It also provided room and board to St. Olaf and Carleton students under the same roof until the early 1900s. According to town lore, one of the more famous visitors was none other than rising literary giant Mark Twain, who registered at the hotel while working on his book “Life on the Mississippi” (1883). But few are aware of the mostly forgotten, but fascinating narratives that occurred within the painted red brick walls. Stories of intrigue, life, death, calamity and tolerance abound during the hotel’s earliest years.
The Rossa Affair
A Feb. 2, 1885, an attempted assassination in New York City had implications tied to the Archer House. The following day, the New York Tribune front page headline trumpeted “Rossa Shot by Woman.” The man in question, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, was a native of Ireland and a dedicated leader in the quest to establish an independent Irish Republic. His assailant, a young English woman, fired five erratic shots from a revolver, hitting him once in the back. Newspapers throughout the country carried the story of Rossa’s recovery and a mysterious letter found in Northfield.
Apparently two days before the murderous attempt on the Irishman’s life, J.A. Lawrence, proprietor of the Archer House, picked up a letter from the hotel’s writing table. The correspondence supposedly had been composed the week before in Chicago. He put it in his coat pocket with the intention of taking the missive to his office until it was claimed. At some point Lawrence changed coats and the letter slipped from his memory until rediscovered three weeks later when he wore the coat again.
The letter, which later proved inconsequential, read as follows (with certain omissions Lawrence made “for obvious reasons”):
Chicago, Jan. 21, 1885
The life of Mr. Rossa will soon have run its course. We have five persons on his track watching the opportunity to rid him of his loathsome life. As soon as I am sure that the deed is done I shall start for my home. I live at ____ street, Liverpool, England, where I shall remain until July 4, 1885. As you will see, I am here in this awful country freezing to death almost. If my intentions do not fail me I shall be the receiver of a handsome fortune if the above act is executed to the will of ____. I leave here tomorrow. I am well.
The great blaze of 1890
In the early morning hours on April 30, 1890, the home of widow Mary Bierman, located a few feet south of the Archer House, was found on fire. Although the fire alarm was sounded, most of the sleeping firemen did not immediately awake to the frantic bell ringing. They claimed they could not hear the clanging because the bell was placed in the lower levels of the City Hall building (currently the Northfield Arts Guild building).
Chief George Bush and his hook-and-ladder volunteers arrived on the scene with their apparatus, consisting of two horse wagons outfitted with hand pump steam engines. The men laid out the hoses only to discover that one had burst. By this time, the flames had reached the mansard roof of the hotel, which was feared impossible to save. Undeterred, the brave men moved quickly, replacing the hose and vanquishing the flames licking the Archer House’s edifice.
The Kahler family, which operated the hotel at that time, estimated their damages exceeded $500 from fire and water. Insurance covered the repairs. However, Bierman had neglected to carry any insurance on her house, which was a total loss of $1,500. A few years later in 1894, the firefighters bid goodbye to hand pumping when the city installed the waterworks and fire hydrants. Their wish for a bell tower was eventually granted and placed atop City Hall.
Hospitality in the face of racism
For young Arthur Roberts, nearly 12, shining boots and running errands was simply a way to earn a little pocket money. His parents, who managed the Archer House in 1900, were expecting an extremely influential man as an overnight guest Jan. 17. Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Industrial Institute in Alabama, was expected to deliver a speech at the behest of Carleton students.
In his book, “Up From Slavery” (1901), Washington wrote about the many occurrences where he suffered indignities based solely on the color of his skin, particularly when trying to get a hotel room for the night. Even after he was nationally known, hotel proprietors continued the practice of rejecting him. Such was the case on the day when he was to speak in Northfield. En route from Duluth, Washington was to be feted at the Ryan Hotel in St. Paul by the city’s Commercial Club. Again he faced racial intolerance when the hotel abruptly and without explanation turned him and his entourage away. Unlike the Ryan Hotel, the Archer House welcomed its esteemed guest with pride.
Washington’s talk in Northfield on Jan. 17 at the Congregational Church was undoubtedly the first time ever in the city’s history that an African-American speaker addressed a gathering. The Northfield News noted that the crowd taxed the capacity of the building. With the seats full, nearly 100 people stood the entire time listening intently to the talented orator’s two-hour lecture, “The Negro Problem of the South.” No admission was charged, but donations were accepted to aid the Tuskegee school.
Effusive praise for Washington came from all quarters of town, including the Carleton student newspaper: “How completely has this great man overcome race prejudice! … Not one left until the hearty applause subsided.” Years later, Roberts remembered with fondness not the lecture, but having the privilege of shining Washington’s shoes.
First cries and last breaths
Baby girl Healy is buried in an unmarked grave in Northfield Cemetery (across from the high school) among strangers like the Johnsons, Olsons and Leivestads. She has the distinction of being the only person to ever live her entire life in the Archer House.
Her story began when her mother, who identified herself as “Mrs. Healy,” was reportedly taken ill while journeying from Waukon, Iowa, to Minneapolis. When the train reached Northfield on Friday night, July 24, 1903, she was compelled to recover at the Archer House. On Sunday morning, Healy surprisingly gave birth to a baby girl. Tragically, the infant died Tuesday evening and was buried the next day; after which her mother left Northfield for good.
As a matter of note, over its first few decades, the venerable Archer House hosted thousands of itinerant travelers, some of whom were familiar to the staff, while others were merely passing through town. Occasionally a guest would take their last breath at the hotel. Such was the case for Charles Crawford in 1889 or the likable salesman, Frank Peck, who died of pneumonia the following year. If authorities were unsure where to return the body, the individual was buried in a pauper’s grave in one of the local cemeteries.
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