Category Archives: JamesJHill Gifts

Beautiful North Oaks

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.

The article is quite long, so I will share a few excerpts. The full article is available at the Minnesota Historical Society.

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…

PHS-NOFarm-Field009After 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.

1883 HOME

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 Twitterfollow me  and see what she did #OTD (On This Day) in 1886.

All Images: Hill Family Collection, Minnesota Historical Society


Cherokee Park: James J. Hill’s gift to Saint Paul

CherokeeParkRealized as a potential recreational and natural green space in the early 1900s, Cherokee Regional Park has since developed into one of Saint Paul’s most visited parks, bringing in over 300,000 visitors a year.

(City of Saint Paul website)



James J. Hill is known as the Empire Builder for his vast network of railway, extending from Saint Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest, which created prosperous towns and cities along the way, changing lives and offering opportunities. Emphasis on Hill’s personal financial success overshadows what he gave back to build communities – gifts to institutions, groups, and individuals, along the railway, throughout the country, and especially at home in Saint Paul.

In October 1905, James J. Hill gave $13,000 ($335,364 in 2016 dollars) to the City of Saint Paul. Hill donated the money for the express purpose of “…acquiring by purchase or condemnation, for park and parkway purposes, a certain strip of land lying…west of the High Bridge, east of Chippewa Avenue, and between Cherokee Avenue and the foot of the bluff on the south side of the Mississippi River.”

A donation letter, dated October 23, 1905, outlines the specifications of the gift. Hill kept precise records of all financial transactions – taking as much care to document a ten-cent travel reimbursement as he did for a $13,000 donation. It is fascinating to see the “rough draft” of this letter, with handwritten edits and notes in Hill’s own hand, as well as that of Hill’s private secretary, John Toomey. If the City of Saint Paul Board of Park Commissioners was unable to secure the site and establish a park within two years, the money would need to be returned to Hill.

This would not be necessary. Fresh air and open space welcomed the citizens of Saint Paul to Cherokee Park. The original park plan included camping areas, a bathhouse, picnic shelter and plenty of trees. Later improvements to the park included basketball and tennis courts, a playground, two large picnic shelters and walking trails.

Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (
Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (

The spectacular views from the Mississippi River bluff are a focal point of Cherokee Park. These views existed long before James J. Hill sent his check to the Board of Park Commissioners, and they are the same views visitors enjoy today. The City of Saint Paul was important to Hill. He was committed to giving back to the town which had given him so much. Cherokee Park stands today as tangible evidence of Hill’s dedication to the city and her residents.

The donation acceptance letter from the Board of Park Commissioners sums up the importance of the both the gift and the giver:

RESOLVED, That it is the confident expectation of the Board that, with the help of this generous donation, the land in question will be soon acquired for a parkway; and that thus, this portion of the west side bluff, which is one of the most conspicuous of the natural beauties of St. Paul, will be preserved to its people for all time to come; and add one more to the many benefactions which owe to the bountiful good will of Mr. Hill towards the City, which has been so long his home, and the primary center of his activities in building up the northwest; and which have so greatly benefited this City as the terminus of his great Continental Railway System.

(Hill Family Collection, Minnesota Historical Society)



  • Click here for current information on amenities and facilities of Cherokee Park.
  • To see a lovely photograph of present-day Cherokee Park, as well as photos of other Saint Paul parks, click here.
  • For the fascinating history of the Smith Avenue High Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River near Cherokee Park, click here.