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The Honorable James Beach Wakefield

(1828- 1910)

                      By A.B. Russ


     James Wakefield was born in 1828 into a very well respected family in Winsted, Connecticut.  His father, Dr. Lumen Wakefield, was a wealthy and distinguished physician of that state.  Since his father was well to do he was able to give his son James, the opportunity of receiving a preparatory education at Westfield, Massachusetts and Jamesville, New York and in 1843 at the age of 15, James entered Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.  He graduated in 1846 at the age of 18.

     Wakefield took up the law and followed that vocation until his death in 1910.  He began his career in Painesville, Ohio and here he studied the law under his future brother-in-law until 1853.  He seemed to have suffered from wanderlust because he kept moving westward looking for that perfect place to set up shop.  After a short stay in Indiana he finally ended up in Shakopee, in what was then the Territory of Minnesota in April of 1854.  He practiced law for a couple of years and dreamed of getting in on the movement of pioneers and in making some money off the rush to settle southern Minnesota.

      By 1856 the Sioux tribes in southern Minnesota had lost the vast majority of their territory through a series of unequal treaties basically imposed on them by the government.  James Wakefield and three other gentlemen, Henry Constans, Spier Spencer and Samuel Hibler plotted and then planned to head out on the prairie during the winter of 1856 to lay claim to what is now the City of Blue Earth and establish the County of Faribault with the City of Blue Earth as it’s county seat.  This was no easy task traveling on treeless grasslands in deep snow and the never-ending winds blowing out of the northwest.  The towns like Mankato and St. Peter were small dorfs in the early 1850’s so once one was out on the open prairie you were pretty much at the mercy of the elements.  The partners hoped they could stake their claims and when the settlers turned up in the spring they would be set to cash in and start selling lots in the new town.

      When they arrived in present day Faribault County they found that there was another settler already there.  He was Moses Sailor who had moved north from Iowa looking for good land.  The Sailor family had built a small cabin on the banks of the Blue Earth River and they were waiting for spring.  The four land speculators moved in with the widowed Moses and his mostly grown children.  It wasn’t long before the unexpected guests caused a problem.  They were quickly going to be short of food to make it through the winter.  It was decided that Wakefield and Spencer would return to Shakopee to get more supplies.  When they got to St. Paul they discovered that the territorial legislature was in session.  Wakefield was able to get the legislature to pass an enabling bill establishing Faribault County and naming the City of Blue Earth it’s temporary county seat.

      He returned to Blue Earth in February and built a wood frame house in the southwestern part of town.  After he was married he would build a grand home made of brick manufactured in Blue Earth.  This home was built in 1868 and in what was called the Italian renaissance revival style.  Today it is the oldest building in the community and the home to the Faribault County Historical Society since 1948.

      He married Nannette Rinehart in 1864.  They were both in their mid- thirties and the marriage produced no children.  Nannette died in 1899 after a long illness and her funeral was in the parlor of their lovely home.  She is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Blue Earth.  In 1907 James married again and this time he married his sweetheart dating back to the days when he practiced law in Painesville, Ohio.  His new bride, Lydia Phelps Noble, died a year later and her mortal remains were returned to Ohio for burial.

      What was the man James Beach Wakefield like?  Well, he was a very political man for sure.  He was a Republican and had been one since the party had been created.  He held many government offices over his life span and was not bashful when they handed out the political spoils when his party came into power.  These are the offices he held while a resident of Blue Earth.  He was the first Faribault County Commissioner, was on the board and was its chairman. He was Judge of Probate Court, Register of Deeds, (now called County Recorder), County Attorney, member of the Territorial House of Representatives 1857-58, Deputy Indian Agent, Lower Sioux Agency, 1861-62, Provost Marshal during the Indian Wars 1863-66, Minnesota House of Representatives 1863-66, Speaker of the House 1866, Minnesota State Senate 1867-69, Federal Land Office 1869-75, Lt. Governor in the Pillsbury administration 1875-79 and member of the United States House of Representatives in Washington D. C. 1882-1886.  When he was in town he had an office where he could follow his vocation and practice law.

       By 1907 James was living in the Constans Hotel because he could no longer navigate the steep steps of his fine home on East 6th and North Ramsey Street.  Henry Constans, the proprietor of the hotel, had been one of James Wakefield’s long time friends and was a partner during the early days.  At the Constans Hotel he received three meals a day, a clean room and a roof over his head plus some good company.  

       When he died on August 25, 1910, he had let it be known that he wanted to be buried with his first love back in Ohio.  At Riverside Cemetery stands a very large and lovely light gray headstone with Wakefield carved on the stone but only one person is buried there, his first wife, Nanette Wakefield.  Some might say it was a bitter sweet love story being that he chose to be buried with his first love while others could say he wasn’t very kind to the memory of his first wife, Nannette.