This is a true story. The son of a wealthy Irish landowner falls in love with a poor country lass. She gets pregnant. They marry, and move to America. The young couple work hard, and become fabulously wealthy.
The young man was John Sullivan, born June 2, 1819 in Newmarket, County Cork, Ireland. The young woman was Margaret Grainy, born February 3, 1826 in nearby Kiskeam. “He was ‘lace curtain Irish’ and she was ‘shanty Irish,’” said their great-great grandson, Thomas L. Sullivan. They were among the first settlers of what is now Columbia Heights.
After discovering her pregnancy, Margaret and John married quietly in February 1850 at St. Mary’s in Newmarket; the baby, a girl, was born in April and was baptized. The little Sullivan family traveled to Liverpool, England, to catch a ship, the Parliament, to America. The baby made the voyage but soon died. The Sullivans landed in Boston on June 29, 1850.
They lived along the eastern seaboard for a time, then moved to Pennsylvania in 1855, where John bought some land for $300. The following year, he sold the land for $700 and he and Margaret, with three kids in tow – Michael and Joanna, born in New York and Daniel, born in Pennsylvania – moved to a growing village on the upper Mississippi River called St. Anthony, arriving in the fall of 1856, two years before Minnesota became a state. The family became early members of St. Anthony of Padua Church, then known as the “Eastside Church.” They lived and worked in the town until 1863, when John purchased land north of the city in an area known as Manomin.
Manomin County had a brief lifespan – one year. In 1857, a piece was bitten off of Ramsey County and Manomin County was created. It was the smallest county in the United States, 18 square miles. The following year, the county was dissolved and put under the administration of St. Louis County. In 1860, it was attached to Anoka County. In 1863, it was attached to Hennepin County. In 1870, all the attaching and detaching ended; the little rectangle of land that encompasses Fridley, Hilltop and Columbia Heights was absorbed into Anoka County, and Manomin County disappeared from the map of Minnesota.
Manomin Township, however, continued on. It was here that John Sullivan purchased a full section – 640 acres — of land.
His holdings ran from present-day 47th Avenue NE north to the southern tip of Moore Lake at 57th, and from 7th Street NE to Matterhorn Drive on the east. The farmhouse he and Margaret built still stands at 5037 Madison Street NE, one of the oldest frame houses in the area.
The Sullivans raised hay, oats, corn and barley on their farm located on the edge of the Anoka sand plain. They took their crops to Anoka or to Minneapolis in horse-drawn wagons, earning $14-15 per load. John also found time for civic duties. He was elected to the township board of supervisors in 1870. He served as the town treasurer of Manomin, which became Fridley in 1879, for 17 years, and was also elected sheriff.
Margaret, in the meantime, had her hands full raising children. The 1870 U. S. Census shows the family had expanded to include Catharine (Kate); John, Jr.; Margaret; Edmund; and William. By 1880, the older Sullivan children had left the farm, but family now included Cornelius, James, Patrick and Mary.
When John died in 1887, the Minneapolis Tribune noted, “Mr. Sullivan had been a citizen of Minnesota for 30 years and had amassed a large fortune as a farmer. He raised a family of 12 children and was known by all his neighbors as a kind and generous friend and an excellent citizen.”
His fortune was indeed large. Thomas L. Sullivan researched Anoka County probate records and found that his ancestor left an estate valued at $101,809 — $2.4 million in today’s currency. “Irish tradition was for the farm to go to the oldest son,” said Thomas. “John and Margaret had a different vision – to own a big enough farm to give 80 acres to each of their sons (enough for each to have a farm) and 40 acres to each of their daughters for them to sell.” Although he left a sizeable portion to Margaret, he divided the remaining land among his children.
Margaret continued to live on the homestead, but moved back to Northeast Minneapolis in her later years, living at 949 24th Avenue NE with one of her daughters. The area was then called the New Boston neighborhood, and they dwelt across the street from St. Clement Church, where her funeral was held.
The Sullivans’ decendants continued to shape the area.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the family may have presaged Sullivan Lake Park when they allowed people from around the area to picnic around the 17.8-acre lake on their property. It was smaller then, and probably shallower than its present nine-foot depth. (It has never held fish.) Thomas Sullivan said it was before his time, but “family lore” indicates harness races were held there, and early motorists also drove their Model Ts around the track.
John’s son William (Thomas L.’s grandfather) opened what might be the first convenience store in the area in the 1930s on his property which is now 50th and Central Avenue. The store building was originally used to store grain on the farm and was hauled by teams of horses to the site. Somewhat ahead of its time, it featured three gas pumps out in front. The store was later expanded and became a bar called Tycoons. One of Columbia Heights’ Top Valu municipal liquor stores stands there now.
Thomas L.’s second cousins Ed and Thomas E. once owned the first Shakey’s Pizza restaurant in Minnesota at 47th and Central, the Hill-Top Drive-in theater (where Grand Central Lofts are today) and the Hi-Lo Motel on 37th and Central (now CVS Pharmacy).
Thomas E. also owned The Hamburger Joint (originally a 3.2 beer restaurant) re-named Sully’s Pub at 2519 Central Avenue in Northeast. It closed in 2007 when Hennepin County enacted its indoor smoking ban. The Holy Land bakery, restaurant and deli fills the space now.
Several descendants of John and Margaret still live on or near the original farmstead property. One branch of the family has lived on it continuously since 1863. The Sullivan name is remembered on Sullivan Drive, Sullivan Way, Sullivan Shores and Sullivan Lake Park.
Interview with Thomas L. Sullivan, April 2021
“An Old Citizen: Sudden Death of John Sullivan, Minnesota Pioneer,” Minneapolis Tribune, March 24, 1887
“Came to St. Anthony in 1856: Mrs. Margaret Sullivan, Native of Ireland, Dies at 88”, Irish Standard, Oct. 31, 1914
Minnesota State Census, 1865
Sullivan, Thomas L., “A Year in the Life of the Sullivan Family Farm,” Probate and Farm Records 22 March 1887 to 09 Nov 1888, Oct. 29, 2015
Winchell, H.N., Neill, Edward Duffield, Williams, John Fletcher, Bryant, Charles S., History of the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1881
Below: Margaret Sullivan. No photos of John Sullivan have been found. 1888 plat map showing John Sullivan’s property, updated with the current Avenues for context. William Sullivan’s store at 50th and Central in 1932. His son-in-law Lyle Robinson is at the door. William J. Sullivan on the farm in 1938. (Photos provided by Thomas L. Sullivan)