I am teaching a class this March at the Irish College of Minnesota, a division of The Celtic Junction Arts Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The course will be conducted on Zoom, which means anyone, anywhere, can attend! I am looking forward to partnering with this fantastic organization.
This class is slightly different from other talks I’ve given or classes I’ve taught on the Hills. I will look at their lives – separate and together – with an eye on their heritage. James and Mary were both children of emigrants from the island of Ireland. How did this fact impact their lives?
From the Celtic Junction website:
This course explores the lives of Saint Paul’s James J. Hill (1838-1916) and Mary Theresa Mehegan Hill (1846-1921). James Hill was a railroad builder and one of the country’s most innovative and influential businessmen. Mary Mehegan Hill, his wife, and equal partner was intelligent, strong, patriotic, pious, and charitable. The class sessions will cover their Irish roots and early years, their life in early Saint Paul, and their philanthropic legacy.
From the Spring 2020 issue (Volume 55, Number 1) of Ramsey County History Magazine…
Women and Children First: The Volunteers of America and Louis W. Hill Build Fresh Air Rest Camp Authors: Eileen R. McCormack and Aine C. McCormack In the early 1920s, Irving and Martha Starr, a married couple employed by the Volunteers of America (VOA) approached St. Paul businessman Louis W. Hill with a proposition: They hoped to open and run a summertime Fresh Air Rest Camp for poor mothers and their children—on a portion of Hill’s North Oaks farm. Hill agreed wholeheartedly. Not only did he lease the land for $1 a year, he provided much of the funding to build cabins, administration buildings, two swimming pools, and more. Many of his wealthy friends and colleagues followed suit with their own monetary donations and services. For their part, the VOA provided wholesome meals, parenting and sewing classes, and indoor and outdoor entertainment and babysitting options for the children. The mother and daughter duo Eileen McCormack and Aine McCormack share the touching story of this community collaboration that gave young children and their tired mothers—most of whom worked as the primary breadwinners and caregivers—two weeks to rest, relax, and recuperate. The camp welcomed over 50,000 guests during its twenty-eight years at North Oaks.
I think most people who have lived in an old (maybe “vintage” is a more sympathetic term) house or apartment building have wondered about the structure. Who built the place? Why did they build it? Who once lived here? Whatever happened to them?
My daughter and I explore the history of a charming three-story brick apartment building in St. Paul, Minnesota. Constructed in 1918, condemned in the 1970s, and resurrected in 1980, The Tazewell found new life as a condominium in the heart of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood.
Read 100 YEARS AT THE TAZEWELL, my latest contribution to Ramsey County History magazine. Written with my daughter, Aine C. McCormack.
This article would not have happened if not for Kevin O’Brien who contributed his memories and musings on the history of The Tazewell. The hallways are much emptier now. Kevin passed away on September 25, 2020.
One could say that James and Mary Hill grew up with Saint Paul. They lived in Saint Paul prior to 1858 when statehood was conferred on the Minnesota Territory. Mary noted in her diary on May 21, 1903, “53 years ago today my father, mother, auntie (sister) and I arrived in the little village of Saint Paul, Minnesota. What changes since then! How few of the few who were here then can be found today.”
On May 29,1916, James Hill died. His widow, Mary, was seventy years old and in fragile health. That spring day, Mary lost her husband and friend of over fifty years. In the waning years of America’s Gilded Age, it would have been understood, almost expected, that Mary would spend the rest of her life in quiet, comfortable retirement surrounded by friends and family. However, while relying on her children and close advisors, Mary chose to devote much of her time to philanthropic activities.
EVOLUTION OF A PHILANTHROPIST
Neither James nor Mary established philanthropic foundations; all of their charity was self-directed. James Hill gave away millions of dollars. His philanthropy was wide-ranging and concentrated in the area where the Great Northern Railway ran, the northern tier of states from Minnesota to Washington. After her husband’s death, Mary sharply narrowed this scope, focussing on her lifelong charitable giving; organizations concerned with Saint Paul’s Catholic community and World War I relief agencies.
During the years of their marriage, most local Catholic organizations received yearly contributions from the Hills. In the case of Saint Joseph’s Hospital, it was usually $100 per year. Mary’s charity was of a much more personal nature. She visited the infirm and had a network of trusted acquaintances to keep her informed of needy people in the community.
Mary had close associations with both members of the clergy and the religious communities in Saint Paul. She was a member of the first class enrolled at the Sisters of Saint Joseph’s school established in 1851. Mary’s childhood friends, John Ireland and his sister, Ellen became the Archbishop of Saint Paul and the Mother Superior of the Saint Joseph order, respectively.
Mary’s giving may have come from the heart, but she was all business when evaluating need and planning her philanthropy. She had obviously learned a thing or two from her husband. Reviewing the documents associated with her philanthropic activities shows a precise attention to detail and a considerable amount of planning involved. Her individual gifts ranged from $25 to $10,000 and were given to most Catholic charitable organizations in Saint Paul and many parishes in the area. Most of Mary’s larger gifts ($10,000 to $200,000) were in the form of established and residual family trusts.
Saint Joseph’s Hospital was often mentioned in Mary’s diaries; usually when she visits the ill or when she gave them her homemade wine and hand knit garments. However, she also wrote about events at the hospital, “In the evening Charlotte, Mrs. Porter and I went to the Graduating exercises of the St. Joseph Hospital Trained Nurses, a class of eleven. We met there, Count Berrand Monti and his mother Madame Berrand Monti.” (Diary June 20, 1899)
Mary established the Saint Joseph’s Hospital Trust in September 1918 in the amount of $17,500. The trust agreement reads that the income from the investment will be used for the maintenance of a Free Room (hospital designated room 215 on the second floor), known as the Mrs. James J. Hill Free Room. This trust also had an interesting provision, “From time to time the Donor shall have the right to designate what person or persons shall be permitted to occupy said free room…”
In addition to giving money, Mary always gave her time and talents. Two diary entries in the last years of her life, show this clearly; “I sent some of my (homemade) wine to St. Joseph’s and St. Paul’s Hospitals today” and “Gave away my home-made socks today, 210 pairs of our collection…went to St. Joseph’s Hospital, City Hospital, Little Sisters of the Poor, St. Vincent’s Society.” (June 10, 1919, December 23, 1920)
Mary’s Catholic philanthropy totaled more than one million dollars ($13 million in 2015) during the five years following her husband’s death. Many of Mary’s trusts, given “In Her Own Name”, keep on giving to the people and institutions she cherished. And in an earlier diary entry, while writing about sewing that she and her daughters were doing for the poor, Mary provides us with her charitable philosophy, “After all, the greatest satisfaction comes from providing for the needy.” (December 19, 1900)
Mary’s daughters carried on their mother’s philanthropic relationship with Saint Joseph’s Hospital. From financial records held at the hospital, it seems at least three of her daughters, Rachel Hill Boeckmann, Clara Hill Lindley, and Gertrude Hill Gavin left significant bequests to Saint Joseph’s. Rachel’s gift was directed to the “Free Bed Fund”, previously endowed by her mother.
..On September 3, 1906, Mary Hill wrote in her diary:
Clara, Rachel, Mary M. and I went with Papa to the State Fair where he delivered an address and dedicated the new Agricultural Building. An immense crowd in attendance. Such disorder and bad manners.
The address? The Nation’s Future. Hill begins, “The highest conception of a nation is that of a trustee for posterity…” The published version of the address is thirty pages long and sets forth the challenges faced by the United States moving forward through the twentieth century.
Hill discusses population growth, immigration, industry and agriculture. He explores how understanding personal responsibility and man’s relationship to the natural world can be tools for confronting what ails society. In addition, Hill proposes practical adjustments to the current systems to achieve prosperity and a strong nation.
Sections on crop rotation, soil deterioration and livestock management would have interested many in attendance at the opening of the new building. Hill spoke of the tremendous potential in agriculture and how innovation and careful planning would allow the farms of the United States to feed a projected 200 million citizens by 1950. (Hill was a little off – U.S. population in 1950 was 152.3 million.)
The final lines of the address are typical of the language throughout:
…the sober dignity with which a whole nation rises to the winning of its broad and permanent prosperity, will depend the individual well-being of millions of this and many generations. Largely by this method will posterity, our fit and righteous judge, determine whether what issues from the crucible of this twentieth century is a bit of rejected dross to be cast aside or a drop of golden metal to shine forever upon the rosary of the years.
Now, we don’t know whether the “disorder and bad manners” of which Mary writes refers to the crowd at her husband’s speech or at the Fair in general. Maybe they were just excited to see the new building. Certainly, such behavior would never be exhibited by today’s Fair-goers!
Throughout August, I am tracing Mary Hill’s summer of 1886 by highlighting her daily diary entries – follow me on Twitter to see what Mary, her family and all the visitors are up to at the Hill family’s summer estate and farm, North Oaks.
Since the Minnesota State Fair begins today, I thought it would be fun to see what Mary had to say about the Fair in her diaries. Mary was proud to be an early Saint Paul settler, moving with her family to the Minnesota Territory in 1850 – eight years before Minnesota became a state.
On September 10, 1885, Mary writes: “Went in to City to Fair with Mrs. Swan, Emma, Mamie and boys…saw Annie and family at Fair.” Mary came to the Fair from the family’s summer place at North Oaks, bringing her children (Mamie, Jimmie and Louis). The Hills made the trip with neighbor Mrs. Swan and her daughter Emma. Mary even saw her sister Annie. The Fair was bringing family and friends together long before the Fair was formerly called the “Great Minnesota Get-together”!
As a Saint Paul resident living not far from the fairgrounds, I can understand what Mary is saying in the first sentence of her September 10, 1903, entry: “St. Paul seems filled with strangers. Fair is a great success first two days. Philippine veterans have a reunion here and a parade today.” The tradition of honoring the military continues with special events for veterans and their families (Military Appreciation Day).
Like many grandparents today, taking the grandchildren to the Fair was a tradition. Mary writes on September 7, 1910: “This forenoon Maud, little Louis, Maudie and I went to the Fair. In the afternoon we went to hear Papa’s address, a crowd greeted him.” Unlike most children, I suppose, little Louis and Maudie got to see their grandpa give a speech to a crowd at the Fair!
(James J. Hill gave several addresses at the Minnesota State Fair – I will cover that in my next post.)
Mary thought highly of the produce she saw in 1913, writing on September 3rd: “About eleven a.m. Clara and I went to the Fair. I thought the display of Minnesota apples remarkable, really fine, and vegetables equaled any I have seen anywhere.”
The Hill farm at North Oaks sent animals to the Fair. Mary’s pride for these animals comes through in her entry of September 2, 1916: “We have sent the Suffolk Punch horses and several Ayrshire beasts to the Fair, the latter are beauties.” Later in the week, Mary reports that the “Ayeshires won many prizes”.
On September 2, 1918, Mary writes: “I have not felt well this week. This is State Fair week.” She follows it up with this entry the next day: “Today was airships day at the Fair. As I am indisposed slightly…I shall have to forego the Fair.”
The promise of airships must have been too much. On September 6th she writes: “Went to State Fair saw War Exhibit, Womans Bldg., Serbian Exhibit, and Dunwoody Workings in airships, etc. Home and tired by 4 0’clock.”
There is no mention of Mary attending the Fair in 1919, but she made certain those who worked for her had the opportunity: “This is State Fair week, so each [farm worker/servant] one must have a chance to go. Campbell and Lena today.”
The tradition endures today with some employers giving their staff a free afternoon or day off of work to attend the Fair. When I worked at the James J. Hill Reference Library, we were given a half-day to go to the Fair. I always thought of Mary’s diary entry. It is great for staff morale!
I will share more of Mary’s Fair observations throughout its twelve-day run on Twitter. Click here to see my tweets!
Want to read more on the history of the Fair?Click here to visit the Minnesota State Fair history page, with links to their digital archive.
Mary’s entry On This Day in 1886 cannot be confined to just one or two tweets. Such a busy day, Mary needed to write on three pages!
Another just as hot day up in the nineties. Went in to City to see Tourists and Mamie off. Took Mamie to Dr. Hand she not well at all. They get off at four. Papa and I went up far as Minneapolis with others. And to opening of Exposition. Oh it was so hot there we returned to St. Paul six and drove to North Oaks. So glad to have it to go to. Chelminski went to day to St. Paul.
[Entry continues on 6/13/1886 page] Aug. 23rd Mrs. Goodkind Mrs. Wirley Miss Goodkind drove out. Missed them.
[Entry continued on 6/14/1886 page] North Oaks Aug. 23rd. Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy Mr. and Mrs. Thorn Miss Thorn Miss Weed Mr. S. Weed Wm. Thorn Rev Dr. Schoffler Mrs. Schoffler Mamie Hill Started for Yellowstone Park to day.
It’s no secret that James J. Hill was a workaholic. According to biographer Albro Martin, Hill regularly put off vacation offers from friends and business associates, “But, from 1884, when he regretfully declined the Earl of Latham’s invitation to visit his famous breeding farms, to 1889, when he refused George Stephen’s offer of a trip through the Highlands of Scotland, it was always next year.”
Hill did not begrudge others a holiday. Martin describes the 1886 trip to Yellowstone:
Meanwhile, he cheerfully arranged junkets for others, sometimes promising that he would go along, then , at the last minute, deciding to stay at work. In the summer of 1886 he bundled New York politico Smith M. Weed, the Thornes, Mamie, and even Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy into a private car for a trip out west…(317)
Mary had entertained some combination of Thornes, Kennedys and Weeds at North Oaks for a week or more leading up to their departure for Yellowstone. The painter Chelminski left for Saint Paul. After enduring crushing crowds at the opening of the Industrial Exposition in record heat, Mary was happy to reach North Oaks, “So glad to have it to come to.”
Perhaps things at the farm might settle down for a spell? Only time will tell…Follow me on Twitter for further developments! I am sure Mary will soon get word on the progress of the Tourists…
Mary Hill’s diary entry for Friday, August 20, 1886: “A cool morning cloudy very hot day. We went out to Hotel Lafayette and spent the night there with Thornes and Kennedys. Fearful storm in the night. Mamie Phelps Sarah and Mamie came out on train.”
A change of scenery was in order. Visiting from New York, the Thornes and the Kennedys were good friends of the Hills, not just James J. Hill’s business associates. Mary Hill was very proud of the family farm at North Oaks, but it was her job to show her visitors from the East coast all the beauty Minnesota had to offer!
James J. Hill opened the Hotel Lafayette in 1882 on Lake Minnetonka’s Crystal Bay. The hotel was the largest on the lake: 800-feet long and five stories high with over 400 rooms. The parlors, dining and reception rooms were ornately decorated and wide wooden porches faced the lake.
The luxury hotel became a popular destination for wealthy Americans, prominent politicians, and even European royalty. For more than a decade the hotel which had served as the site of many lavish banquets and idyllic summer getaways, burned down after the close of the season, in October 1897.
But on August 20, 1886, the Hotel Lafayette was the perfect backdrop for good friends and family to gather and enjoy a day at Lake Minnetonka. You will see in tomorrow’s diary entry that one night away was plenty for Mary. She was happy to return to her own North Oaks.
Click here to go to my Twitter feed and see what Mary has to say every day in August as I post her daily diary entries. If you are on Twitter, please follow me and check these out: #OTD #MaryTHill.
ln May of 1896 a reporter from the Saint Paul Globe traveled to North Oaks, the farm of James J. Hill, and wrote about the visit in an article for the paper. The author had nothing but good things to say about the farm. In fact, he gushed over the place, raving about everything from the cleanliness of the horse barn to the idyllic beauty of Pleasant Lake.
I should mention that Hill purchased the Saint Paul Globe in 1896. Although I know that the farm at North Oaks was a wonderful mix of picturesque landscape and modern ingenuity, and James J. Hill approached every aspect of his life and business with the precision of a perfectionist and exquisite good taste, the account printed in the paper may have overstated some aspects of the farm. Or not – it is likely the farm was spectacular. (Perhaps I am the biased author!)
Clearly, this article was meant as a promotional piece, to highlight Hill’s methods and practices on the farm as ones which were best employed on farms all along the westward expanse of the railway. North Oaks stood as the ideal, the type of successful farm which would strengthen the railroad. Hill took full advantage of ownership of the newspaper to spread the word of his accomplishments.
Among the many delightful drives about the environs of the city, few, if any, present greater attractions than the ten-mile jaunt out Rice street, which brings up at the entrance gate to North Oaks, JJ Hill’s dairy and stock farm. The road, though of constant ascent, is of easy grade and generally well made. The directness of the route, lying, as it does, along the north and south section lines, is robbed of any semblance of sameness or monotony by the constantly changing, but uniformly beautiful, scenery of the district…
After this introduction the author provides the general layout of the North Oaks estate, description of the roads and the lakes, going into some detail about the water levels and supply.
A goodly growth of fair timber chiefly oak, from which the farm takes its name, affords ample shade and shelter for the stock and fuel for the farm. The pastures, notwithstanding their large area, as well as the fields and yards about the farm, are all enclosed with pine panel fences, in which not a broken board or sagging post may be seen. They are amply provided with kim-hung gates and stout stiles, and there is therefore no need of open sections or other unsightly places of passage. And here, it may be said, that this neatness and orderly condition is a characteristic of everything about North Oaks, which must strike the most casual observer. There is a place for everything and everything is in it. On the occasion of my visit there last week, I saw not so much as a shingle nail astray…
One would expect no less from James J. Hill’s farm! The author goes on to describe the outbuildings, “neat in appearance, and of imposing size…” including the office and the stables. Each building, “wears a coat of the proverbial farm red, with white trimmings”.
One of the best structures on the place is the barn for horses, which occupies the further end of the left row. It is 100 feet wide and 200 feet deep, with a height to correspond. It is arranged in two stories. The first, or ground floor, is taken up by the stalls, of which there are over a hundred, single and double, besides a score of stall rooms for brood mares and their foals. The stalls, walls and ceiling bear fresh coats of whitewash, everything is scrupulously clean, and the air is as fresh and pure and free from stable odors as it is on the hill tops. The second floor holds the hay loft,fodder rooms, oat bins, etc. In a wing at the other side is the feed room, where the diet for 165 horses is prepared daily. The feed is a mixture in due proportions of bran, ground oats and chopped hay, a healthful and economical method of preparing and administering it. Necessary machinery for its preparation is here, and is operated by a long shaft extending under ground from the engine house, twenty rods distant. The stock in the barn is very fine, and includes several beautiful Cleveland bay brood mares.
Next is the “commodious, but unpretentious” residence. The author points out that the Hill family spent the majority of their summer at North Oaks, where not even the railroad “dare intrude on the tranquility of this peaceful place”. The nearest railroad is two miles away.
A vineyard of California grapes (in a hothouse during the winter), 2000 “fleecy sheep”, and even a herd of buffalo populated the acreage at North Oaks. The author, “disliked to leave so fair a scene and such pleasant surroundings,” but he had to return to St Paul in the afternoon.
With the memory of this visit fresh upon me, I have endeavored to sketch here a hurried picture of North Oaks, with its beauties and points of excellence; but as I glance over what has been written, I am brought to realize that the portrait falls far short of the reality, and that it may well be said in closing that “the half hath not been told.” –C- J- W.
If North Oaks was half as delightful as this reporter described, I can understand why the Hills loved their summers on the farm so much. I am sharing Mary Hill’s diary entries from 130 years ago all month on Twitter – follow me and see what she did #OTD (On This Day) in 1886.
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.
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.”
The 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.
A 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!