Back in Time: Keeping peace in a lumberjack town

Old-time lumberjacks pose for a photo at the 1935 Stilwater Lumberjack Days. From left, they are Patrick Fitzgerald, Patrick Connors, Sheriff Thomas Maher, John Sullivan and Lyman Sutton. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

Old-time lumberjacks pose for a photo at the 1935 Stilwater Lumberjack Days. From left, they are Patrick Fitzgerald, Patrick Connors, Sheriff Thomas Maher, John Sullivan and Lyman Sutton. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

Sheriff Thomas Maher spends 30 years as the county’s top lawman

Peterson

Peterson

BY BRENT PETERSON – GAZETTE COLUMNIST

Keeping the peace in some of the rowdiest and wildest areas of Minnesota was not easy. There was gunfire in the streets when the lumberjacks returned from the woods, fights in saloons spilled into the streets. During Prohibition, some of the finest moonshine was made here in Washington County.

Law enforcement officers were everywhere, but in the early 20th century, one of the most recognizable lawmen’s names in the St. Croix Valley and throughout Washington County was Sheriff Thomas Maher.

Maher was born in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, April 24, 1866. His parents, Michael and Phoebe Ann (Fitzpatrick) Maher were natives of Ireland. Thomas Maher was educated in Quebec, attending school until age of 14. He then started out in life for himself as a lumberjack. From 1880 until 1902, he was employed in the logging camps of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. During that time, Maher was employed as a swamper, cutting out roads, and later a log loader, teamster and foreman. He moved to Stillwater in 1882.

In 1902, Maher switched careers from the woods to the Stillwater Police force. He started as a patrolman and was later promoted to night captain.

The Nov. 8, 1915, death of Washington County Sheriff Louis D. Jarchow left a hole for the top law enforcement officer in the County. Washington County Coroner E.E. Wells assumed charge of the department until the board of county commissioners appointed Maher sheriff Nov. 10, 1915. He was well-trained for his career in law enforcement with his stints as a lumberjack in the north woods and his time with the Stillwater Police Department.

During Maher’s tenure as sheriff — during the Prohibition days – there were many times Maher figured in “shooting affrays in the line of duty” and had a reputation for fearlessness on and off duty. After nearly 30 years as sheriff, the longest tenure to that point of anyone in that office, Maher retired. Reuben Granquist replaced Maher as sheriff, and Granquist would also serve for nearly three decades.

On Sept. 20, 1892, Maher married Mary Ellen Kent, who was the daughter of James Kent of Stillwater. Together the couple had one child, James Emmett Maher, who was born April 23, 1894. Mrs. Maher died July 7, 1951.

Maher was involved in the community through his membership in the local Elks Lodge, Eagles, Independent Order of Foresters, Central Police Association, vice president of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, St. Paul Park Rod & Gun Club and Lions Club. He was also an organizer of the Stillwater Lumberjack Days celebration and during World War I, was the chairman of the Washington County Draft Board.

At age 88, Maher became ill and, after several weeks at Lakeview Hospital, died Oct. 11, 1954. It was said of this local hometown hero “from an early age Mr. Maher was manifested a courageous and independent spirit and he has never shirked a responsibility, discharging to the best of his ability every task that he has undertaken.”

To control the crowds, the fights, the lumberjacks and keep the respect of the average citizen was difficult to do, but Sheriff Thomas Maher did it and served to Washington County as sheriff for nearly 30 years.

Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society in Stillwater.

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