Joseph Graham could so easily have been forgotten.
A former slave, Graham arrived in Eden Prairie around 1870 and spent his last 30 years there. He drove horses for a Shakopee doctor who made house calls and steered a carriage back and forth from the train depot and the Goodrich Hotel on Staring Lake — handling guests’ luggage, working in the kitchen and tending to the boats and lawns.
Affectionately known as Old Joe, he died of cancer in 1900, according to an old leather ledger that recorded early Eden Prairie settlers’ births and deaths.
The Goodrich family, owners of the hotel, planned a “fine marker” to replace the small wooden cross over Graham’s grave at the Eden Prairie Cemetery.
“[F]or some unknown reason it was never erected in the cemetery,” descendant Helen Goodrich Mastin recalled in a 1979 book on Eden Prairie’s first century. “As time passed, the grass grew up and there was no sign of Old Joe’s grave.”
About 80 years passed and Graham all but faded into history. Then Katherine Case grew curious. She read Mastin’s four-paragraph recollection in the 1979 book — which said Old Joe first lived with Frank Rivers before moving into the home of her grandfather, Horace Goodrich.
The passage failed to mention Joe’s last name. But Case, longtime president of the Eden Prairie Historical Society, knew Rivers had changed his name from Francois La Rivier. The French Canadian settler made barrels, farmed and raised stallions in early Eden Prairie. Case knew all that because she and her husband bought the 1874 Rivier farmhouse in the 1980s.
“When I learned that Old Joe once lived in our attic, I became fascinated,” said Case, 61, a part-time CPR trainer.
The upper level of her story-and-half house has since been converted to bedrooms with a bathroom. “But I once met two sisters who rented it in the 1920s,” Case said. “They used the attic to hang and dry clothes. You can see where the chimney was for the old wood-burning stove.”
She found the early Eden Prairie ledger at the Minnesota History Center, and it mentioned Joe Graham’s death. Now she had a last name. But census rolls told conflicting accounts.
An 1875 census listed a black man living in Eden Prairie named Joseph Graham, born in Missouri, 35 years old — his name recorded just below 11 members of the Goodrich family, with whom he lived and worked.
Five years later, the census listed Graham as a servant, 10 years younger and born in Wisconsin. And by 1885, census records show Graham with an “e” on the end of name, born in Alabama.
“No one seems to know how he came to Eden Prairie,” Mastin said.
But Case has a theory, passed down in oral histories from Eden Prairie old-timers whose ancestors grew up in what would become a popular Minneapolis suburb. Those old-timers served on the historical society when Case joined in 1989.
“Their great-grandfathers passed down anecdotal stories that said Jonas Staring, an early settler, had gone to Memphis to buy a horse,” Case said.
Staring reportedly promised Joe Graham that he would find him work in Minnesota if Joe would ride north on the train with the horse in a livestock car.
Fifteen years ago, Case led an effort to turn her research into something more tangible. An engraved headstone was erected to memorialize Joseph Graham 103 years after he died. It sits on the north side of Eden Prairie Cemetery.
With his approximate birth year of 1840 and the 1900 year of his death etched in the granite, Graham is remembered as a farmer and laborer “freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.”
The Huber Funeral Home footed most of the bill, with $250 from the Eden Prairie Historical Society and a spot for the marker offered by the nonprofit Eden Prairie Cemetery Association.
“Rumors from the original layouts placed him outside on the north side, but we really don’t know where his remains are,” said Mike Rogers, the cemetery association’s third-generation president.
He said various projects to add lanes and water pipes on and under Eden Prairie Road have been monitored closely. But excavation inspectors found no signs of Graham’s remains.
“We don’t know exactly where he is, but we know his remains have not been disturbed,” Rogers said.
And Case is glad to know the man who once lived in her attic has been remembered.
“I feel he can rest in peace now, “ Case told the Eden Prairie News when the new gravestone went up in 2003. “I feel good that he will be remembered. He has a place in our history.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.