Those who traveled by train or steamship out of Stillwater in the first half of the 20th century likely bought their tickets from Joseph “Papa Joe” Carroll.
Carroll, who worked at the Stillwater Union Depot for almost five decades, was 105 when he died on March 11, 1979.
Besides being the local ticket agent, Carroll operated the depot’s telegraph machine. An expert in Morse Code, he shared his customers’ joys and sorrows via telegram from 1903 to 1948.
When the Union Depot closed in 1954, Carroll, then 81, was given the telegraphy machine, a training machine, an instruction manual and other items.
After Carroll died, the equipment passed on to his son, Mark, who died in 2003.
Now, the equipment belongs to the Washington County Historical Society — thanks to Mark Carroll’s five children.
“We wanted it to stay in Stillwater,” said Jodi Anderson, one of Carroll’s daughters. “That’s what Grandpa would have wanted.”
When Joseph Carroll acquired the equipment, his son mounted the battery-operated telegraphy machine to the arm of his favorite chair, said Anderson, who lives in Houlton, Wis.
“He would tick, tick, tick away on the machine like he was still at work,” she said. “He never forgot how to use it. He said he could have gone back to work the next day. He wasn’t sending messages to anybody; he was just doing that to stay in practice.”
Carroll, whom everyone knew as “Papa Joe,” was one of those individuals “who just grab the heart of the entire community,” said Brent Peterson, the historical society’s executive director. “Receiving these (gifts) is keeping his memory alive for another generation.”
There is even a rooftop restaurant – Papa’s – named after him at the Water Street Inn in downtown Stillwater, Peterson said.
LEFT CANADA AT 12
Born in 1873 in Sainte-Flavie, Quebec, Carroll grew up speaking only French. When he was 12, he was sent to Minneapolis to visit an uncle — a visit that lasted three years, according to Peterson.
During that time, he attended school, learned to speak English and worked part time at the Bemis Bros. bag factory and delivering messages on bicycle for Western Union.
After returning to Quebec, he learned telegraphy at the railroad station near his home. He later worked as a telegraph operator for the Great Northern Railroad in Stanley, N.D., Fort Benton, Mont., and Butte, Mont.
The family of longtime Stillwater telegraph operator Joseph “Papa Joe” Carroll recently donated Carroll’s equipment to the Washington County Historical Society. Executive Director Brent Peterson demonstrated how it works on Thursday, Aug. 18. It will be on display until Sept. 30. pic.twitter.com/exUbDTtaR2
— Mary Divine (@MaryEDivine) August 18, 2022
Carroll was laid off in 1896 and returned to the Twin Cities to work at a sawmill. Within a year, however, he was working as a telegraph operator for the Northern Pacific Railroad. He was stationed in Carlton, Duluth, Cloquet, Rutledge, Hinckley, Rush City and White Bear Lake before landing in Stillwater in 1903.
“I sold train tickets by the hundreds and steamship tickets to all over the world,” Carroll told the Stillwater Gazette in 1965. “I got so just by looking at someone, I could tell what they wanted. I liked to take charge and do everything I could for them, except put them on the train.”
As a part of his job, Carroll arranged for his customers’ visas and passports. He told the Gazette about “going through a great deal of red tape in getting one man back to Italy to marry his old sweetheart and bring her back to the U.S.”
“When he got back there, his old sweetheart didn’t look so good, and he wanted to marry someone else,” Carroll said. “We … really sweated blood before he got home with the second one.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION
Carroll and his wife, Margaret, and their 10 children moved to an apartment on the second floor of the Union Depot in 1936. They lived there until he retired.
When he was 97, Carroll wrote a book, “Exploring the Great Northwest and the St. Croix Valley.” In 1973, at the age of 100, he was named grand marshal of Stillwater’s Lumberjack Days parade.
Anderson remembers her grandfather running down a hill at her high school graduation party in 1978. “He was 105 years old,” she said. “He liked being the center of attention. He liked to stand on chairs and dance and sing. He drank a shot of brandy every day.”
Instead of smoking a cigar or smoking a pipe, Carroll would “cut a cigar in half and put it in his pipe and smoke it through the pipe,” she said. “I have no idea why he did that.”
Carroll never learned to drive a car, she said.
“He taught telegraphy at the Quonset huts (in Houlton), and he walked across the (Stillwater Lift) Bridge all the time,” she said. “Even when he was 100, he would walk up and down the Main Street stairs.”
Anderson’s uncle, Bernard Carroll, suffered from tuberculosis and was quarantined to an island in the middle of the St. Croix River, she said. “My grandfather would walk from downtown Stillwater up to where the Boom Site is,” she said. “Then he would row a canoe across the river to bring my uncle supplies. He did a lot of walking. He was always walking.”
Carroll lived at his house on South First Street until his death. When he was 104, he spent a month at the Maple Manor Care Center in Stillwater, but he wasn’t happy about being in a nursing home, she said.
“He would say, ‘When is Mark coming up with the machine’ – he called the car a machine – ‘to take me home? I have to get out of here. There are too many old people in here,’” she said. “He was 104, and he thought there were too many old people in the nursing home.”
Carroll’s equipment will be part of a rotating exhibit on display at the Washington County Heritage Center in Stillwater. The center opened last fall.
IF YOU GO
Joseph “Papa Joe” Carroll’s telegraphy equipment will be on display at the Washington County Heritage Center in Stillwater until Sept. 30. The center at 1862 S. Greeley St., is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is $8 for adults, $3 for kids 6-17 and free for kids 5 and under. Members of the Washington County Historical Society get free admission to all WCHS historic sites. For more information, contact the Historical Society at 651-439-5956 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.