My Musical Family - Joy Riggs

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A blog about my family's adventures in making and appreciating music.
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The Hero, the Skeleton and the Bandmaster

Wed, 06/17/2015 - 4:49pm
My historic research worlds collided last night with a bang. Not a real bang, mind you—although a rifle and a pistol were involved. The discovery I made while attending the opening of the Wheeler Collection exhibit at the Northfield Historical Society museum sent my mind reeling, and it sent me scrambling today to connect a few more dots.

I will explain further, but here’s the gist of it: I think my great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs knew Henry Wheeler, one of the heroes who foiled the James-Younger gang’s attempted robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield on September 7, 1876.

A young Wheeler is pictured in the lower right corner of this event postcard.I first learned about Henry Wheeler ten years ago, two years before I started researching my great-grandfather’s life and career. The Northfield Historical Society was revising its museum exhibit on the bank raid, and I was recruited to write and edit the text for the panels on the wall.

I became immersed in the details of the raid, and Wheeler’s part in the story particularly interested me. He was at home on break from his medical studies at the University of Michigan the day brothers Jesse and Frank James and the six other gang members rode into Northfield. During the raid, a fight broke out in the street in front of the bank. Wheeler ran into the Dampier Hotel, grabbed an old Army carbine that belonged to the hotel owner and began firing out of an upper story window. The 23-year-old medical student killed Clell Miller and wounded Bob Younger. Another townsperson, A.R, Manning, shot and killed gang member Bill Chadwell, and the rest of the gang fled town.

The bodies of the two dead gang members were put on display in the town square and then buried in a shallow grave in a local cemetery. According to some accounts, Wheeler, who was required to provide or pay for his own cadavers at medical school, had the bodies dug up and shipped to the medical school. He eventually returned one body to relatives of the robber, but kept the other, and later displayed the skeleton in his doctor’s office in North Dakota, maintaining that it was that of Clell Miller (for more on the fate of the skeleton, read this Northfield News article).

Wheeler carried a Smith & Wesson pistol with him for the rest of his life, out of concern that he would be the target of a revenge killing. That revolver, the .50 caliber Smith Carbine, and the gold watch that the First National Bank presented to him are now on display at the NHS museum. You can read more about the exhibit here.

You can also read more about the raid, and the Scriver Building, which houses the museum, at the new NorthfieldHistorical site. I did some writing and editing for the site, which is also available as an app. It is a collaborative effort of the Northfield Historical Society, St. Olaf College and Carleton College.

So, you may be wondering, what’s the connection between Wheeler and my great-grandfather?

I’m glad you asked. The Wheeler collection also includes several black-and-white photos, a small trunk, and other memorabilia related to Wheeler’s later years as a doctor. As I examined the items last night, which were displayed in a glass case, it hit me: the city where Wheeler had spent the rest of his life after leaving Northfield was not just any old city in North Dakota. It was Grand Forks. He moved there in 1881, shortly after the death of his wife Adeline and infant child, and he remained there until his death in 1930.

This meant he was living in the city during the time my great-grandfather directed the Grand Forks city band, from April 1909 until April 1910.

Mind blown.

Today, I dug around to find out more about Wheeler’s life in Grand Forks. Although I have no document connecting Wheeler to my great-grandfather, I think it is reasonable to posit that they knew each other, especially considering their roles in the community, and the fact that the city’s population in 1909-1910 was only about 12,000 people.

Wheeler and his second wife, Josephine, built a house at 419 S. Fifth St. in the Central Park neighborhood. The house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places (and now has the address of 420 Franklin), is one block—a two-minute walk, according to Google Maps—from the house on Minnesota Avenue where G. Oliver and his family lived during most of their year in the city.

G. Oliver’s band played at the dedication of Central Park on August 22, 1909, which was attended by several thousand people. Perhaps the Wheelers were there?


Wheeler’s office, according to the 1909 city directory, was located at 2 1/2 South Third St., which is about a block from where G. Oliver had his band office in the Metropolitan Opera House building at 116 South Third St.


During the time G. Oliver lived in Grand Forks, Wheeler served on the city council and was the alderman representing Ward 1, where G. Oliver lived. Wheeler was a Mason and a member of the Elks, Oddfellows and Knights of Pythias, and in the early 1900s he served as vice president of the commercial club (a precursor to the Chamber of Commerce).

The commercial club was a big supporter of the band, and G. Oliver was admitted as a club member in October of 1909. I don’t know if G. Oliver belonged to the Grand Forks Masons, but I know he maintained a membership in the Crookston Masons lodge from 1906 until 1923, when he moved to Bemidji. He also played in at least a couple of different Elks-affiliated bands over the years. So, clearly, the two men would have had some common interests, if they had occasion to speak to each other.

G. Oliver left Grand Forks on April 1, 1910, to start a band in Tacoma, Washington. Four days later, Henry Wheeler lost the election for mayor of Grand Forks. He was later elected to that office in 1917, and he was reelected once. During his career as a physician, he served as the first dean of the medical school at the University of North Dakota. He also was a surgeon for the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railways.

Wheeler’s second wife died in 1914, and he married for the third time in 1922. He and his wife Mae had one son, Henry Wheeler Jr. A photo of the elder Wheeler with his young son is included in the collection now at NHS.

Wheeler died on April 13, 1930 (you can read his obituary here) and he is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery in Northfield.

The Wheeler Collection is the first step in the museum’s new multi-year effort to highlight the heroes of the raid, the townspeople, and shift the focus away from the villains. As far as I know, my great-grandfather is not connected to any of the other heroes. Time — and more research — will tell.
Categories: Citizens

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