An 85-year-old man shuffled into the Midway Cafe in St. Paul in 1915. A new group called the Pioneer Rivermen's Association had arranged a dinner meeting, spreading word that it hoped to recruit members who'd worked the riverboats in the early years.
"Soon a rather stoop shouldered, somewhat aged, but stocky and alert, man came in and looked around in a hesitating manner as though not quite sure he was in the right place," recalled riverboat captain Fred A. Bill, the group's secretary.
In a thick Scottish brogue, the old-timer said his name was Bill Cairncross. None of the river men had heard of him, so they asked when he'd quit working the riverboats. Cairncross said, "1856," stunning the others. That was a decade before any of them had ventured up the Mississippi to Minnesota.
A week after the dinner meeting, Cairncross and his son stopped by Bill's house. They'd seen a flier about the Pioneer Rivermen's group, which required details of river experience to gain membership.
"With that he handed us a roll of manuscript," Bill said. "We regard it as one of the most remarkable river articles published."
Cairncross' memories, written by hand in a red and white cloth-covered book, "comprise one of the most interesting stories ever compiled of life on the rivers and lakes and canals of America," according to a 1919 St. Paul Pioneer Press article published on his 90th birthday.
Cairncross sailed from Scotland to Canada as a 16-year-old in 1845. He'd been working in a linen factory for 50 cents a week and attained only two years of schooling.
His writings, understandably littered with misspellings, intimately capture working life on the river boats — from abusive captains with whips to cures for cholera: "a hot dose" of brandy and red pepper.
His river narratives meander from Lake Superior to Buffalo, St. Louis to New Orleans and nearly every dock between. There's even the tale of a prank pulled on a young boat pilot named Sam Clemens, later known as Mark Twain.
"Mark was awful afraid of fire," Cairncross told one newspaperman, recalling how a deckhand ignited some trash in a pipe leading to the pilot house.
"The smoke rolled out of the top of the pipe and Mark thought the boat was on fire and he run her ashore. Yes, sir! He never heard the last of it."
Beside literary acclaim and fame, Cairncross differed from Twain in another way.
"His river stories are unique from the fact that he never held a higher position than second mate and his viewpoint is always that of the lower deck," that 1919 Pioneer Press story said. "So far as the old river men of St. Paul know, he is the only writer of river tales, who did not approach his subject from a point of command."
When Cairncross died at 91 in 1921, his obituary ran on the front page of the Pioneer Press. "Hale and vigorous almost to the last day," he'd planted a garden at 1202 Sherburne Avenue in St. Paul and played the card game solitaire before succumbing to pneumonia.
"While he had a turbulent career and was quick with his fists — and efficient too — he was one of the mildest men and never sought a quarrel but was a stickler for his rights as well as those of the other fellow when that other fellow was unable to breast the storm ahead of him," Bill wrote in a obituary.
Cairncross' wife of nearly 50 years, Cathern, died eight years before he did. He left behind their six sons, four daughters, 49 grandchildren, 43 great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild — more than 100 descendants in all.
One of them, great-granddaughter Jean Hartle, recently rekindled Cairncross' writings — transcribing the undated accounts and publishing a small number of books for family members.
"He did so many things with his limited education and wrote it all down for his descendants," said Hartle, 73. "His life was one adventure after another."
Hartle inherited Cairncross' marine gene. She's been an accountant for more than 20 years at Wayzata Marine. She lives in a brick Victorian home built in Minneapolis in 1893 — the same time Cairncross, long retired from his river days, moved to St. Paul. He'd spent nearly 30 years farming and delivering wagonloads of grain across western Minnesota from his homes in Henderson and the Big Woods near Green Isle about 50 miles southwest of the Twin Cities.
Cairncross first stepped foot in Minnesota when it was still a territory — running into ice on Lake Pepin and tying up at Read's Landing in March, 1849. He'd read and heard about the great prairies. "I wanted to see them, so I started up the bluff and wandered about the country about five miles back from the river. I was very much surprised to see such a beautiful country and not a living thing on it and to think that it extended west for thousands of miles. Would it ever be settled and cultivated like the older states?"
Some 70 years later, in the early 1900s, he went to California — marveling at all the cities and towns that had sprung up.
"What a change in one short life-time," he wrote, recalling early predictions that white people would never settle west of the Minnesota River because "the vermin were numerous in the summer and the winter so cold."
That first glimpse of the unsettled prairie, "just as God and nature had made it," Cairncross reminisced, "was a sight never to be seen again."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book "Frozen in History" at startribune.com/ebooks.