Northfield mourns burned hotel that reached back 143 years

A little piece of Barb Budd’s family history, spanning four generations in Northfield, Minn., went up in flames this month.

Budd’s great-grandmother worked as a housekeeper in the late 1870s at the Archer House, a 143-year-old inn that was extensively damaged Nov. 12 after a kitchen fire spread through the structure. It’s closed at least through 2021 as owners determine if anything can be saved.

“It’s as devastating for me as for any of us,” said Budd, who’s lived in Northfield for all of her 64 years. “It’s such a tragedy, just so sad to see a beautiful, iconic and long-lived building go up like this — or come down for new development.”

Budd cherishes a brief about her great-grandparents’ wedding in the Northfield News on Nov. 29, 1879:

T.H. Budd, the west side barber, was married in Hastings on Tuesday, to Miss Nellie McGuire, an accomplished maid at the Archer House, this city. The happy pair returned to Northfield Tuesday night.

The T.H. should have read H.T., as in 21-year-old Henry Talford Budd, who in 1938 would be declared the “Oldest Active Barber in the U.S.A.” by Ripley’s Believe It or Not after working 68 years in the same Northfield shop.

Like Henry, Nellie was the child of Irish émigrés, arriving in Hastings with her large family in the 1850s. James Archer, the inn’s founder, had provided pioneer lodging on the stagecoach road near Hastings, and Jim McGuire of Minneapolis, a descendant of Nellie’s, assumes Archer brought her to Northfield when he opened the Archer House in 1877.

“I suspect Ellen was one of the original staff at the hotel, but I can’t prove it,” McGuire said. He notes the 1879 wedding blurb calls her an “accomplished maid” at a time when the Archer House was only two years old.

The 1880 federal census lists Nellie’s occupation as “Keeping house,” apparently her own home, meaning she no longer worked as a maid at the inn. Henry and Nellie had six children, including Barb Budd’s grandfather.

It’s those connections that can make a burned-out inn more than charred wreckage.

“It really was the heart of the community,” said Northfield historian Susan Hvistendahl, who wrote about the inn’s long history in 2011 (tinyurl.com/ArcherHouse).

One of the hotel’s owners, Brett Reese of Rebound Hospitality, told local radio station KYMN the day after the fire: “It’s very sad. We’re in mourning.” His thoughts were echoed by the president of the Northfield Chamber of Commerce, Lisa Peterson, who told the Star Tribune: “It feels like a death. It’s hard to think of it not being there.”

Northfield Fire Chief Gerry Franek told the Northfield News that the fire spread from a kitchen smoker through the walls, areas designed for pipes and cables, and hidden spots that fire crews couldn’t reach.

The hotel originally cost $13,000 to build, nearly $260,000 in today’s dollars. It opened with 50 rooms and a lavish gala on Aug. 23, 1877, only a year after citizens drove the James-Younger gang out of town after an attempted bank robbery, and just as two young colleges — Carleton and St. Olaf — began to define the town on the Cannon River 45 miles south of the Twin Cities.

A newspaper writer in 1877 credited Archer, the original owner, with filling “the terribly apparent vacuum” in Northfield “of sufficient accommodations [that] has been a great detriment to the growth and prosperity of our young city.”

Within a couple of years, Archer sold the four-story, red brick inn built in the French Second Empire style, and his name disappeared from the shingle for a century. A manager’s son remembered shining the shoes of Black educator Booker T. Washington, who stayed at the hotel during a visit to Carleton. Over the next 100 years, the hotel passed through several owners and names: the Manawa, Ball’s, the Hotel Stuart.

In 1981, Northfield contractor Dallas Haas re-christened it the Archer House, saved it from condemnation and rehabbed it. He suffered a fatal heart attack there in 1995 at the age of 56 during a washroom repair emergency.

In 1889, the inn was sold to Henry Kahler, a family name known in later years for its hotel in Rochester near Mayo Clinic. According to a centennial history of the hotel in 1977, Kahler was considered “genial, dapper, and a bit of a show-off” who enjoyed waltzing around the dining room while balancing dishes on a tray with one hand. Once he danced too close to the kitchen door just as a stout waitress named Emma came through. “Henry, dishes and tray flew in all directions,” the story goes. “It was Henry’s final performance.”

Now the Archer House River Inn may have taken its final bow. It had been closed this spring and summer, partly due to the pandemic, and owners used the time for a $150,000 renovation project before reopening in late summer.

The Northfield Downtown Development Corp. has launched an Archer House Relief Fund at bit.ly/35veKzU. It has raised more than $11,000 for owners and tenants.

“It’s an icon,” Franek said.

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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