Tag Archives: philanthropy

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.


Mary T. Hill: Philanthropy and St. Joseph’s Hospital

James and Mary, 1915. Photo: MInnesota Historical Society.
James and Mary, 1915. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

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.



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.

St. Joseph's Hospital. Photo: St. Joseph's website (click image).
St. Joseph’s Hospital. Photo: St. Joseph’s website (click image).

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.

Nurses, 1896. Photo: St. Joseph's website (click image)
Nurses, 1896. Photo: St. Joseph’s website (click image)

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.

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. (www.wikipedia.com)
Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (www.wikipedia.com)

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.