Summers on the Farm: Hill Family at North Oaks

1886 Hill Family at the Farm (Painting by Chelminski, Private collection
1886 Hill Family at the Farm (Painting by Chelminski, Private

North Oaks was the summer home of the James J. Hill family of Saint Paul, Minnesota. The farm was located ten miles north of Saint Paul, in a peaceful rural area, full of trees, lakes and wildlife. Hill purchased 3,000 acres of land from Charles Gilfillan in the fall of 1883. During the early months of his ownership Hill employed over 300 workers to clear sections of the land and ready the ground for planting, construct buildings for stock and farm operations and prepare the existing Gilfillan residence for his family.

In the spring of 1884, Mary Hill began making preparations to move her family of eight children to North Oaks for what would be the first of many summers they would spend there. Mary, pregnant with her last child and feeling ill much of the time, managed to order furnishing and supervise the renovations of the house.

Minnesota Historical Society

How do I know how Mary felt and what she did? Don’t tell anyone, but I read Mary’s diary. (You can, too. Mary Hill’s diaries are at the Minnesota Historical Society.) The best way to find out what was happening during those first years at the farm is to look at what Mary had to say. She writes in 1884, “Went to farm, a very hot forenoon but a delightful evening. Had a hard day there looking after the movements of 9 men besides the unpacking of crockery.”

Mary was particular about the renovations of the North Oaks home, down to which stoves she wanted, “We shall want seven in all, six links of pipe and two elbows for each.” Since she preserved fruit and made juice and wine, we can assume Mary also made the decisions as to the planting of apples, cherries, plums, gooseberries, currants, raspberries, blackberries and grapes that took place in those first summers.

The Hill family moved out to North Oaks on July 14, 1884, and the next day Mary writes, “A beautiful day. About twenty-five farmers from Dakota came to see stock…also County Commissioners. Papa stayed out all day.” Thus begins life at North Oaks – loving it, sharing it and showing it off. North Oaks becomes a destination for friends, family, and others interested in the progressive agriculture systems Hill employed on the farm.

Some visitors stayed for a few hours, some for a few days, but rarely was there a day without someone (or something) new on the farm. Mary’s diaries can read like a “Who’s Who” of 19th and 20th-century business and society, but all arrivals get a mention, “New cattle arrived… Our first tramp called today…” On October 13, 1885, “Baby Smith [Alma, daughter of blacksmith, Nels] born at 4p.m., first birth at North Oaks. Went over to see new baby, all well.”

PHS-Bldg-Cows008The Hill children enjoyed their days at North Oaks. James Norman and Louis began hunting with their father, “Papa came home early and took boys for their first shoot. Ducks were plentiful consequently all came home happy.” The teenage daughters, Mamie and Clara, went for walks and horseback riding. The little ones enjoyed the outdoors and the animals, “The children had a delightful day, enjoyed seeing the ducks get freedom. A happy day for all…little pony and cart came out to the joy of the children.”

Mary wrote extensively of the beauty of North Oaks, and of her joy in being able to experience it, “Picked some golden rod and a beautiful purple blossom…[Papa and I] went for such a delightful drive around the lake… beautiful Indian Summer weather, such glorious sunsets all the week.”

Mary’s love for North Oaks shines through in her diary accounts of the summers spent on the farm. Summers far from the dust and crowds of her home in Lowertown Saint Paul, special summers for Mary watching her children grow up and the entire family making lifetime memories.


HillFarmA few original buildings remain on the site of Hill’s farm at North Oaks: a barn/granary, the blacksmith shop and the dairy. Please visit the Hill Farm Historical Society for more about the history of North Oaks and how they are working to preserve “Hill’s legacy of innovation”. Guided tours are available by appointment or there is a self-guided tour on the website.


Follow me on Twitter as I peek at Mary’s diary throughout the dog days of August 1886. A typical Minnesotan, Mary always keeps us posted on the heat and the rain (or lack of it). Mamie, Mary’s eldest child, was an eighteen-year-old in the summer of 1886. Her youngest, Walter was just over a year. It would be five years before the Hill family moved into the house at 240 Summit Avenue.

Let’s see what Mary is up to…join me on Twitter and check back with the blog for more on Mary, James, and the rest of the Hill circle!


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