Arriving in St. Paul last week to give a program based on my book, I drove directly to the James J. Hill House, a 42-room mansion built in 1891 on a bluff overlooking downtown, to visit an heirloom. I love historic sites and was quite entranced with this one when my son Michael and I toured it during a college visit trip in 2009.
James J. Hill was born in Canada in 1838, came to Minnesota as a young man, and began work for a steamboat company. During the Civil War, he organized supplies and learned the business of buying, transporting and selling goods; afterward he worked for the railroad and later started a business to sell coal to railroads as fuel. Hill went on to amass a huge fortune developing the Great Northern Railroad from St. Paul all the way to the Pacific. Critics called it “Hill’s Folly,” but he proved them wrong after its completion in 1893.
For last week’s visit I had emailed ahead, so the young woman at the reception desk recognized my name and gestured toward the music room in welcome. The semi-circle of folding chairs was not in use by a tour group at that moment, so I was able to enjoy a quiet view of the gold-plated fireplace fender that Joe and I had delivered to the Hill House two summers ago, now returned to its proper home. Four decades earlier, this fireplace fender had traveled from Crosslake, MN, to Cincinnati in the trunk of my dad’s Buick, a gift from his maternal uncle, and it graced our family’s fireplaces in two different homes for nearly 25 years. From time to time, my dad would note with pride that the fireplace fender was from the James J. Hill House, the founder of the Great Northern Railroad. Always I could repeat that refrain, without thought to its meaning or wonder at how we happened to possess this fireplace fender.
As we walked through the house on tour in 2009, the guide’s stories conjured the Downton Abbey-like lifestyle of the Hill family from the early 1890s through 1920s. James had married Mary Theresa Mehegan, daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, in 1867, and they had 10 children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood. Employing a staff of 10-12, Mary Hill also kept detailed diaries and records of household activity, including grocery bills and party menus. The Hills were early photography enthusiasts, and many walls feature vintage black and white images depicting the rooms as they were during their tenure. Mary Hill was a committed Catholic, active in many Church-related charitable and philanthropic activities, an example that several of her adult children followed.
The conspicuous absence of furniture in the house prompted a question from someone in the group. The guide explained that many of the original furnishings had been custom-designed for the house, in keeping with Hill’s rising prominence as a businessman. James died in 1916, and after Mary’s death in 1921, the family eventually purchased the mansion from the estate and donated it, furnished, to the Catholic archdiocese of St. Paul. The Church variously used it as a school, offices and residence for the next 50 years, over the course of which the furnishings were dispersed. When the house was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978, they opted not to use period furniture since the originals had been so distinct.
That’s when the penny dropped: My dad’s uncle had been a priest of the St. Paul archdiocese and worked in the chancery.
Thus began a series of conversations about returning the fireplace fender to its original home. My parents had been living in a condo without a fireplace for more than ten years by this point, and none of my siblings had a place to use it either. Though my dad resisted sentiment regarding material possessions, it would not be easy to let go of this treasured item. Ultimately the decision felt bittersweet, because the diminishing effects of dementia impacted my dad’s capabilities. How fully he understood the matter was unclear. But even so, I am glad we completed the gift process before he died in June 2013.
At the Hill House last week, gazing at the music room fireplace now re-outfitted with its shiny gold fender, I smiled to imagine how Al might have groused about this donation, possibly even claiming that a precious item had been seized without his permission. But his twinkling eyes and teasing grin would reveal laughter lurking just beneath the words of protest. In fact, he would relish – for years — having such a tale of his mistreatment to recount to friends and family at any opportunity. As I will long savor the memory of this encounter.