The framed photograph on the mantel shows an older-but-dashing man wearing a derby, three-piece suit and bow tie — the chain from a pocket watch dangling from his vest’s button hole.
Ebenezer Hodsdon, the last pioneer farmer along a Minneapolis city lake, was 81 when the photo was taken in 1902. He doesn’t look that old, perhaps because he’s firmly gripping the handlebar and seat of his beloved bicycle.
“The cool bearded guy with the bike looks down on us when we eat,” says Steffanie Musich, a Minneapolis Park Board member who lives across the street from what is now called Lake Nokomis.
When visitors ask about the guy with the bike on the mantel, Musich admits, “I get really animated — you have no idea.”
She first ran across Hodsdon’s picture in the Minneapolis Collection at the downtown Central Library a few years ago while researching the history of city lakes. That led to an online purchase of a hard-to-find family history, written in 1963 by Hodsdon’s granddaughter, Beatrice Morosco.
Turns out, Hodsdon was born on Maine’s rocky coast in 1820 and sailed the high seas on trading voyages between ages 14 and 26 — twice going around South America’s Cape Horn. He married Jane Wardwell in 1845 and she had other ideas.
“Grandma Jane insisted he settle down as a land lubber,” Morosco wrote in her book “The restless ones: a family history.”
Giving up the mast for the pulpit, Hodsdon became a preacher. In the 1850s, his aging uncle Isaac — who fought in the Revolutionary War — urged him to seek his fortune in the Minnesota Territory. Treaties with the Dakota people had opened up land for white settlers west of the Mississippi and an ad in a Maine newspaper boasted “ … the climate is as warm as California and cattle can graze all winter.”
The Hodsdons rode five trains, a stagecoach, river boat and an ox cart to reach St. Paul in 1852, according to their granddaughter, who relied on Hodsdon’s meticulous journals.
Ebenezer found work as a chaplain at the territorial Legislature and, his granddaughter wrote, “he also learned the falseness of advertising for, having disposed of warm clothing, they nearly froze to death that first winter.”
They went on to build the fifth pioneer house west of the Mississippi River, near what’s now the corner of Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue. At the post office one day, Hodsdon bumped into a guy named Jim Bragg who was carrying a stringer of perch.
He asked where he’d caught all the fish and Bragg said: Lake Amelia — which appeared on maps from around 1820 until 1910, when it was renamed Lake Nokomis. (Weird side note: Nokomis was Hiawatha’s grandmother in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was Jane Hodsdon’s second cousin back in Maine.)
The guy with the perch tipped Hodsdon to 94 acres for sale on the southwestern side of the lake. Longing to be back near water after all those years at sea, Hodsdon bought the parcel for $1,000. The family moved to the lakeside property in 1876. Ebenezer built sailboats and a boathouse, planted plum and apple trees and harvested cranberries in the swampy terrain.
Fast forward to the 1890s. Ebenezer was in his 70s when a new craze swept across Minneapolis and the nation: bicycling. “Almost over night bicycle paths spread out like ribbons along Minnehaha Creek, Lake of the Isles, Calhoun and Harriet,” his granddaughter wrote.
The first bike path around Lake Harriet dates back to 1896, when the Park Board built an enclosure to hold 800 bicycles. The day after Hodsdon’s grown son rode his new “wheel” out to the farm, his father plucked down $100 for a bike of his own, according to the family history. Lake Amelia had no bike path, so Ebenezer built his own with cinders down to Minnehaha Creek.
When his kids started talking about a big cycling race coming up on Labor Day, their father quietly began training — sometimes crossing the Lake Street bridge and pedaling to the fish hatcheries in St. Paul.
When Labor Day arrived, and spectators three deep crowded around Lake Harriet’s pavilion, the Hodsdon family saw dad lining up for the 3.5-mile race around the lake — “his white beard and shiny bald pate contrasting vividly with the younger men whose black mustachios were as curved as the handlebars of their bicycles,” according to Morosco’s “The Restless Ones.”
When his son focused his binoculars a few minutes later, he saw his father leading a pack of 20 riders. As a blue ribbon was pinned to Ebenezer’s chest at the finish line, he joked about comeuppance. “You expected me to make a fool of myself,” he said.
He kept riding in his 80s after the century turned. In 1907, Hodsdon sold a strip of his farmland to the Park Board for $3,000 — enabling the city to complete the boulevard system and widen the road around Lake Amelia.
When he signed the deed, the city’s attorney told him: “Congratulations, Mr. Hodsdon. You will be remembered as the last man to own a farm on a city lake.”
Later that fall, on the morning of Oct. 16, 1907, Hodsdon jotted in his journal: “Fair skies — spanking south wind — smooth sailing ahead.” He died later that night. He was 86 and is buried at Lakewood Cemetery.
Musich, a computer programmer in her first term on the Park Board, wrote about his life in a 2014 Friends of Lake Nokomis blog post (http://tinyurl.com/Hodsdon). She remains happily obsessed with the man on her mantel.
“I think he should be remembered as one who didn’t see his age as an inhibitor to learning something new,” she said.
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.