Saturday, June 18, 2016


In Minnesota, irises abound in the Spring.

Behold,  Mark and Mary's garden.

Two of the best tour guides in Minnesota treated me to a tour  of the J.J. Hill house. 

I had never heard of him until this visit to his extremely modest abode. (Sarcasm here)  Hill was a contemporary of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan and founded the Great Northern Railroad.

His mansion sits on several acres of prime property in the heart of the city and he surely was a member of the 1% of his day.

Hill was known as an "Empire Builder" and, in addition to the railroad, he pursued a vast network of related businesses: coal and iron ore mining, electric and water power development, Great Lakes and Pacific Ocean shipping, agriculture and milling, banking and finance, and he built the St. Paul Public Library.  He amassed a personal fortune of $63 million, and when he died in 1916 he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures of America's Gilded Age.

A block away from the mansion sits the cathedral that Hill also helped build for the Catholic Church.  

Hill was born in southern Canada in 1838 and began his career in transportation as a 17-year-old 'mud clerk' on the bustling St. Paul levee.  (Mud clerks were the lowest positions aboard the steamships on the river, were paid only room and board and were charged with the dirtiest jobs aboard the ships.)  He spent 20 years in the shipping business on the Mississippi and Red Rivers, and in 1878, along with several other investors, purchased the nearly bankrupt St Paul and Pacific Railroad.  Hill toiled ceaselessly during the next two decades to push the line north to Canada and then west across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

This is where our tour of the parlors.  Almost every room had a wood burning fireplace...

...even though every room had heat from a humungous boiler in the basement.  The vents were all elaborately fashioned in bronze. 

The furniture in the house is all the original that has come back from various family members. There is hope that more furniture will return to the house in the future.

The doors, door frames, staircases and fireplace frames were all carved from fine woods; every frame is different and all are works of art.  This reveals a portrait of the artist himself.

The mistress of the house (I have forgotten her name) produced 10 children, 2 boys and 8 girls.

To manage this enormous house required many servants and it all fell to Mrs. Hill to keep everything running smoothly.

The dining room table sat 44 people.  Eleven family members plus the wealthiest in the country at that time including financiers, presidents and foreign dignitaries were often seated at the table.
A menu was on display that dated from that time.  The first course was squab!  That meant the kitchen had to pluck 44 pigeons!  For just one meal!  And that was just for starters!

The silverware was solid gold and had to be counted and locked up in a safe each night.  (the safe was behind a secret panel in the wall.)  The pieces you see here were merely one individual place setting.  

This kitchen produced 6 meals per day--3 for the family and friends and 3 for the staff plus afternoon tea, snacks, etc.  The kitchen was state-of-the-art for its time.

The dishwasher.

The laundry.

The mangle.

 Oh, my aching back.

This is how clothes were dried.

That giant boiler that also produced hot running water throughout the house (an almost unheard of extravagance for its time)

The music room had a pipe organ to rival most churches.

There was indoor plumbing with running water--absolutely awesome in 1900.

Yes, these are the original fixtures that date to the turn of the last century.

There were many innovations in the house that were unknown anywhere else at that time:
 * A security system throughout
 * A silent call system to summon a maid or footman to any room in the house. The Hills considered noisy bell cords to be so beneath them.
 * Electric lights two years before electricity was introduced at the World's Fair.   Hill had it put in--side by side with the gas lamps-- in case electricity turned out to be a passing fad.
 * An elevator, a dumb waiter

After Hill died the family kept the house for a while then gifted it to the Catholic Church.  It became a residence for the clergy and nuns--who regularly roller skated on the basement tile floor where the servants had slept.
Then, in the 1990s the city bought the house from the church for (drum roll please) $250,000! I think I might have been able to purchase it at that price--someone should question that appraiser.

"Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure.  This railway is mine, " wrote James J. Hill to the Great Northern Railway employees upon his retirement in 1912.  Throughout his long working life Hill remained a titanic force in the economic transformation of the Northwest as his railroads encouraged immigrant settlements, agricultural development and commercial expansion. 
"When we are all dead and gone," Hill declared of the renamed Great Northern railroad, "the sun will shine, the rain will fall, and this railroad will run as usual."

(Italics compliment of the literature handed out on the tour)

Thanks, Mark and Mary, it was another great day.

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