Tag Archives: farm

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


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!