Tag Archives: North Oaks

Louis W. Hill and the Fresh Air Rest Camp at North Oaks

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.

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Lake Minnetonka with the Hills and Friends

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.”

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

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.

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

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.

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

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.

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.

PHS-Bldg-Cows008

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