James J Hill – the Empire Builder

James J Hill House

James J Hill House

Recently I re-visited the James J Hill house on Summit Avenue in St Paul, Minnesota. JJ Hill remains today one of the richest men ever. He amassed a fortune and built a huge house he and his family lived in for over 25 years.

James J Hill was born in Canada in 1838 to a successful Irish-Canadian farmer and his Scottish wife. He attended a Quaker school until he was 15 when his father died. He traveled to the US when he was 18 after hearing from a passing stranger that the US needed young men with spirit, like him.

After working in the shipping business in on the Mississippi River for twenty years, he, along with some other investors, were able to purchase the almost bankrupt St Paul and Pacific Railroad. He built the line to the west over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, often overseeing things personally. The name was changed to the Great Northern Railway in 1890. To this day the Empire Builder runs from Chicago to Seattle with lines going off it along the way. I rode it once from Minneapolis to Montana. By the time he died in 1916, he was one of the wealthiest men in America.

Mary Theresa Mehegan

Mary Theresa Mehegan

While working as a station agent, he ate his meals at the Merchants’ Hotel in St Paul where Mary Theresa Mehegan served him his meals. Once she agreed to marry him, he sent her away to school and paid for her education. They were married in 1867, when she returned. They had ten children. Peabody, Stearns and Furber built the house they moved into in 1891 to Hill’s specifications in the Romanesque style. It sits on the top of Summit Hill overlooking the Mississippi river and is now registered as a National Historic Landmark. The Minnesota Historical Society owns it and offers guided tours.

The house is massive with 36,000 square feet on five floors and includes 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, and a two-story art gallery with a skylight roof and a complete pipe organ. The house was fitted with both electricity, a new phenomenon at the time, and gas so if one failed the other would be available. The doors on the first floor all had hidden metal gates that were pulled shut at night and locked and electrified so if anybody tried to break in they would get a shock and it would alert the butler in the pantry through a buzzer system.

On the stairway there is a bank of stained glass windows. Tiffany submitted designs for these windows but Mr. Hill said they were anything but what he wanted and ended up using the A.B. Cutter Company from Boston.

The main hallway

The main hallway

The dining room has a gold leaf ceiling and hand tooled leather panels on the walls. A small hidden door leads to a large walk-in safe where the silver is housed. The table has 19 leaves.

The kitchen is at one end of the basement and a big boiler room at the other. The man who serviced the boiler was also called upon to pump the bellows for the organ during parties and recitals. A large laundry room included heated drying racks for the clean clothes.

JJ and his wife had adjoining bedrooms each with their own bathrooms. A balcony led off of Mary Theresa’s room. JJ’s bathroom had a shower in it. This was quite modern and some considered dangerous. It was advised that a doctor approve the use of such a thing since the force of the water could be harmful and women were discouraged from using it altogether since they were too delicate.

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On the third floor was a schoolroom with chalkboards on the walls. Legend has it that a couple of the older boys managed to get a pool table all the way up there without their mother knowing about it. That’s how big this house is. Each of the children had their own room with the exception of the eldest who was already married by the time they moved in.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St Paul and lived there off and on until 1920. The last house he lived in was Summit Terrace, eight blocks down the street from the James J Hill house. In chapter 9 of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby has died and his father, Mr Gatz, says “If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man. A man like James J Hill. He’d of helped.” Unfortunately the Great Mr Gatsby did none of those things in life.

JJ Hill had a large collection of nineteenth-century French Romantic and Realist art and was one of the founders of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, known as MIA today. Hill built several office buildings in downtown St Paul and the James J. Hill Reference Library, one of the best business research libraries in the country, was completed after his death. He also supported many schools and churches.

Baseball Fun in St Paul

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Last year the St Paul Saints minor league baseball team of St Paul, Minnesota, moved to downtown, St Paul, and a brand new stadium. Since it is a block from my home I was invited on a tour.

The stadium was built to AA standards but is much smaller than the Twins major league stadium in Minneapolis. It is intimate and there isn’t a bad seat in the place. There are plenty of bathrooms which is a welcome change compared to the old stadium.

Bill Murray is part owner of the team. His role is listed on their website as “Team Psychologist” and his duties include morale boosting and train spotting. He has been involved in the team since opening night 1993 when he was stationed at the entrance taking tickets and threw out the first pitch. He is kind of an urban legend. Everybody is sure they will see Bill Murray at the game.

Back in the 1800’s the area now known as St Paul was called Pig’s Eye Landing after French Canadian fur trader and bootlegger Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant’s popular tavern. The Minnesota territory was formed in 1849 and the soldiers at Fort Snelling evicted Pig’s Eye. Father Lucien Galtier, a French priest, renamed the settlement St Paul after Paul the Apostle.

The St Paul Saints have a mascot that honors Pig’s Eye. It is a live trained pig that takes balls to the umpire between innings and is named via a fan contest every year. This year the pig’s name is Little Red Porkette in honor of Prince and it is dressed in purple. A portion of the street directly in front of the stadium has recently been named Prince Street.

Each year a new piglet weighing in at about 20 lbs. is introduced and by the end of the season the pig goes into retirement at over 200 lbs. They also have a bright pink two-legged mascot called Mudonna T Pig along with several other ‘entertainers’.

The team’s locker room is comfortable and spacious. The guide took us down to the field so we could see the dugout and the small concrete area for the pig. She also pointed out Bill Murray’s yellow spray painted signature just behind home base. She said he was such a perfectionist he wanted to do it over but they wouldn’t let him.

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Bill Murray’s signature behind home base

It is one of the greenest stadiums in the country with solar panels and mechanisms to capture and reuse rainwater. Because of the recycled water, the city of St Paul insists they put up signs in the bathrooms saying ‘Do not drink from the toilet’.

The stadium was built on the site of the old Gillette factory. The foundation and several walls from that building are being reused in the current structure. The guide said about half of the materials used to build the stadium were either salvaged or recycled.

Last night I went to see the St Paul Saints vs. Winnipeg Goldeyes so we started out listening to the Canadian national anthem along with the Stars and Stripes. The game had a slow start but by the end we were all biting our nails as they tied it up at 10-10 in the 9th inning and the Saints finally won it in the 10th inning 12 to 11 on a wild pitch. I think both teams went through at least six pitchers.

Saints games are unpredictable and fun. It was the thirtieth anniversary of the movie Top Gun so there was entertainment throughout the game around that theme in the form of quizzes, competitions and running commentary. Each game has a theme. One game I went to had a Grateful Dead theme and all the players were wearing tie-dyed uniforms.

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Grateful Dead tie-dyed uniforms

Little Red Porkette would trot out on a leash between innings carrying fresh balls in its saddlebags to the umpire. The umpire would feed the pig something in a baby bottle and chat with the pig’s trainer. One time the pig had Kermit the Frog riding along on its back and another time it had Mr. M&M.

During the 7th inning stretch we all got up and sang Take Me Out To The Ballgame and bags on peanuts came showering down on us from the press box above. This was followed by lively polka music. It gave me my second wind.

The food was good, the beer was good, the company was good and it was a great night. Go if you get the chance!

 

 

Windmills, Pipes and Petroglyphs – PART THREE

PART THREE – JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS

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Jeffers Petroglyphs is a Minnesota Historical Site about one and a half hours east of Pipestone. The rock here is also Sioux Quartzite and the area is called Red Rock Ridge which is about 250 yards wide and up to 50 feet high. It is part of a ridge that extends 23 miles across Cottonwood County.

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As we approach the Visitor Center we are welcomed by a sign that says “Landscaped by Mother Earth”. The area is 160 acres of prairie, 33 acres are native and 127 were reconstructed. The Prairie Bush Clover is a federally-designated threatened species that thrives at the site. There are about 300 species of prairie plants. Our guide pulled up some wild garlic and mint for us to smell. Really lovely.

On the rock face there are over 5,000 carvings, some as old as 7,000 years. It is a spiritual place where Native Americans came, and still come, to offer prayers and honor Grandmother Earth. It is still used for prayers and religious ceremonies throughout the year.

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The earliest carvings show bison and atlatls. The atlatls were something that helped spear or dart throwers by giving the dart leverage to send it farther. These would have been long before the bow and arrow became common 1,200 years ago. At the Visitor Center you can try your hand at throwing an atlatl at a target. We watched as several people struggled and nobody came close to the target.

The Center offers tours at 10:30 am, 11:30 am, 1, 2, 3, and 4 PM. We made it in time for the 1 pm. It was over 90 degrees and not a piece of shade in sight. The guide pointed out eight different sections of rock highlighting the drawings from different eras. We started with the bison 7,000 years ago and worked our way up to more recent ones from 250 years ago.

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In order for us to be able to see the drawings the guide sprayed water on the area she was highlighting. It was so bright and they are so faint they were hard to see otherwise. We saw thunderbirds, turtles, stick figures of people doing various things including dancing, other animals such as deer and moose. We also saw fossilized sand ripples that became rock 1.6 million years ago and scars left by the glacier that passed through 14,000 years ago. It is hard to imagine how old that is.

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In 1966 the Minnesota Historical Society purchased the area from Mr. Jeffers in order to protect the sacred site. They are studying the drawings and dating them and provide very interesting and informative tours. They work with elders and members of the Dakota, Ioway, Cheyenne and Ojibwe tribes to help them understand the drawings and the spiritual significance of the place.

A 1.2 mile trail winds through the prairie at the back of the rock so we worked our way back to the Visitor Center on this uneven path. It was so hot and humid I was not sure I was going to make it but we forged through and it really was beautiful with wild flowers and purple clover dotting the landscape.

Back at the Center after drinking copious amounts of water, we wandered through the small gift shop and I even bought a t-shirt. They had some nice ones.

It was great fun driving the small roads in south Minnesota. We passed through Florence, Delhi, and Darfur. We were seeing the world. We started to see more lakes as we turned north and one that really caught our eye was a large and beautiful lake called Lake Elysian. In Greek mythology, Elysian is the final resting place of the souls of the virtuous and heroic. Somehow it was the perfect ending to our trip.

 

Windmills, Pipes and Petroglyphs – PART TWO

PART TWO – Pipestone National Monument

Pipestone

Pipestone National Monument was created by an act of Congress in 1937 on 300 acres just outside the city of Pipestone, in southwestern Minnesota. Its main purpose is to preserve the pipestone quarries unique to the area. It is a sacred area to Native Americans and is home to spiritual and cultural activities throughout the year. Our first stop was at the site of the Three Maidens, considered to be the guardian spirits of the pipestone quarries. They are very different from other rock in the area. They are granite and came from far away, deposited by the glacier when it melted thousands of years ago.

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The Three Maidens

We arrived at the visitor center soon after it opened and were in time to see the beginning of a 20 minute film about the site. The color red is sacred to the Native Americans and the red stone found at Pipestone has been quarried for over 2,000 years. This was the preferred location for the Plains tribes to quarry the stone since it is of a high quality. All tribes, even enemies, would work here in peace. The pipes made from this stone were used to mark rituals, ceremonies, prepare for war and trade agreements. The smoke from the pipes is thought to carry prayers up to the spirits.

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Native Americans in this area did not originally have tobacco so they would smoke something called Kinnikinnick which means “that which is mixed”. It is still in use and available today. It is a mixture of herbs often unique to the pipe owner. It can contain red willow bark, bearberry leaves, dogwood, sumac and tobacco among others.

You could tell this was a spiritual place from all the colored cloth prayers tied to trees along the path. A three-quarter mile Circle Path takes you through the area around active quarries, a quartzite cliff, native grassland and Winnewissa Falls. If you follow the creek from the waterfall you will see Lake Hiawatha, home to many turtles. Unfortunately we didn’t see any.

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Today only Native Americans of federally-recognized tribes can get a permit to quarry at Pipestone and there are currently only about 30 to 40 permits issued. The majority of the people who quarry here come from the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and other central areas of the US.

All the work is done by hand. The particular pipestone found at this location is known as catlinite. It is found in veins inside the Sioux Quartzite rock predominant in the area. The rock is one of the hardest on earth. In order to get to the pipestone it is necessary to work your way through the Sioux Quartzite with hammer and chisel until you reach a pipestone vein. This can take weeks. The pipestone is sandwiched in-between the quartzite and can be10-15 feet down into the rock.

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It had just rained so many of the quarries were flooded.

Another interesting thing about the 300 acre monument is the tall grass prairie covering it. It is native prairie that has never been plowed. Less than 1% of the prairie that once covered 200 million acres of North America exists today and some of it is here. It contains over 70 types of grasses and hundreds of plants and wildflowers. The Minnesota DNR Scientific and Natural Areas Program and The Nature Conservancy have established programs to protect and expand the native prairie.

There is a small museum with artifacts, carvings and tools on display at the Visitor Center. The Pipestone Indian Shrine Association has a small shop within the Visitor Center. They are a non-profit cooperating association established in 1955 to preserve the art of pipemaking and help with the programs at Pipestone National Monument. There are a couple of stations where you can watch artisans at work. If you are interested in history, art, nature – this is a great place to spend an afternoon.

As we were leaving we saw a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of tools and a large cooler accompanied by his two children make his way down the path to his quarry. We agreed it was a good thing he had a large cooler since it was going to be a very hot day.

From there we headed to Jeffers Petroglyphs, about an hour and a half away. Stay tuned for part three!

Travel Bloggers North America Conference (TBEX)

I recently attended the TBEX North America conference in Bloomington, Minnesota. More specifically at the Mall of America Radisson Blu hotel.

It is billed as “the largest conference and networking event for travel bloggers, online travel journalists, new media content creators, travel brands and industry professionals.”

It was two days packed with seminars, keynote speakers, networking, and meetings with “destinations.”  I learned a lot.

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They had several pre-conference activities including parties, all-day tours, and a trip down the Mississippi river. I went on the river boat. We left from Harriet Island across the river from downtown St Paul at 2 p.m. and were back at the dock at 4 p.m. It was a two-story boat with the top open air and a closed cabin downstairs with a concession stand selling popcorn, hotdogs, beer and soda. We slowly cruised down river with the captain highlighting historical sites and points of interest over the loud speaker. Unfortunately it was a rainy day but not cold so not too bad.

Lou Mongello

Lou Mongello

I don’t consider myself a travel blogger per se. I write about all kinds of things as well as travel. Many of these people live and breathe travel. A recurring theme was how much time they spend working. But they don’t really consider it work because they love what they do. Lou Mongello was the first speaker. He lives and breathes Disney. That is all he writes about.

He is a successful blogger. He actually makes a living. Of course he is a former lawyer so I’m sure there is more to the story. But he is living his dream. I met several people who were former lawyers or IT programmers. They must have made good money. But it is rare to find a travel blogger who makes money at all let alone good money.

So the first day I learned about Cleaning out the Blogging Closet and Focusing on What Matters Most. I don’t remember a thing. Then I went to Keys to Successful Blogger Outreach. I guess I was in the wrong place because the speaker was talking to the business people who actually use bloggers. It was my first conference. I had no idea what I was doing.

The second day was better. The previous night, the local 10 pm news covered the conference and interviewed a guy attending the conference. The next morning I saw that the keynote speaker was that same guy who was interviewed, Johnny “Jet” DiScala. Apparently he is well known in the industry and several people got up and sang his praises. He was accompanied by his beautiful wife, Natalie, who is pregnant. They both spoke about traveling constantly and working all the time. I did some research on him and he does get around and attends all kinds of events and conferences and does press trips and makes a living. They certainly are an engaging couple.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the birth of their child will change their dynamic. Of course, I was that person who dragged her son around the world. He went everywhere with us and often crashed out on restaurant table-tops. But once they have to go to school, it gets a bit more difficult.

My first seminar of the day was How to Build your Community Around your Niche Brand led by Bret Love and Mary Gabbett. They are a couple specializing in eco-travel. They have been doing it for a while so they got in just as the whole eco/adventure travel became popular. Okay, I’m going to make a confession. I lost my notes. What I remember is they write newspaper articles and a weekly column. And teach. They have a pretty cool blog at Green Global Travel.

Next I went to How to Monetize your blog with Print on Demand led by Betsy and Pete Wuebker. They currently live in Hawaii and blog at Passing Thru. They supplement their income with an online print-on-demand store on Zazzle.com. They use the their travel photos to make postcards, phone covers, t-shirts and various travel accessories and sell them through an online store. I’m not sure it is a huge money maker but they seemed to be pretty happy with it. It looks easy enough to do.

The last seminar of my day was called Midwest Travel Bloggers: Challenges & Opportunities led by Lisa Trudell (The Walking Tourists ) and Sara Broers (Travel with Sara ). It was all about building community and getting ahead by reaching out to other bloggers and going to conferences. That was another recurring theme. Networking.

Travelocity gnome

Travelocity gnome

Booths were set up in a large room with people from Trip Advisor, Explore Minnesota, Viator, Great Britain, St Paul, Roseville, CJ Affiliate and many others. They all had cool give aways and we did get a goodie bag. I met with several of them over the two days and learned what an affiliate is and what a ‘destination’ means. I’m still trying to work it all out. It seems it is possible to make some money at blogging but it is lots and lots of work.

The closing speaker was Andrew Zimmern. Plenty of people were super excited about that. I don’t exactly consider him a blogger since he is more of a TV personality but he is from Minnesota and he does write about travel. My dirty confession is I am not a huge fan. I was beat, I didn’t stay for it.

 

 

Theater in the Twin Cities

The Orpheum Theater opened in downtown Minneapolis in 1921. It was designed after the Beaux Arts style and seats about 2,500 people. The first performers included the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny and Fanny Brice. In the 1940’s it became a major cinema theater. Over the next thirty years it showed movies and touring productions such as My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof. It became run down and eventually closed.

Bob Dylan and his brother David purchased it as an investment in 1979. They gave it a light facelift and then brought A Chorus Line to be the opening show. In 1988 they sold it to the Minneapolis Community Development Agency who spent $10 million to restore the theater. It re-opened in 1993 and in 2005 it was transferred to the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

During the renovation they found some gems including six Pompeiian friezes that had been hidden under fake window grids and a false wall. The chandelier that dominates the main auditorium is 15 feet high and weighs 2,000 pounds. Today the Orpheum shows theater productions and concerts.

IMG_4079-300x300[1]The hallway ceiling at the Orpheum We went to the Orpheum recently to see the Book of Mormon, a funny musical written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. It irreverently pokes fun at the young Mormons who are sent out into the world to proselytize without really knowing anything about the places they are being sent to. This particular group ends up in Africa and is faced with war lords, aids and female circumcision.

It has some dark moments as most satire does but everything turns out okay in the end and lessons are learned. During one scene a missionary has a dream about Hell and my favorite part are the two dancing Starbucks coffee cups.

The following week we saw something very different.

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American Swedish Institute in Minnesota

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Six major Swedish-American museums and institutions are in the United States, according to the Consulate General of Sweden in New York. The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is number three on the list after New York City and Philadelphia.

Christina Nilsson Turnblad was born in Sweden in 1861. Her father left Sweden with one of his sons in 1875 and settled in Murray County, Minnesota. He sent for Christina and her brother, Simon, a year later. At age 15, she went into service for a banker named Smith where she received no pay but was compensated with instruction in language and domestic chores. From 1879 to 1880 she worked as a dining room girl and moved to Minneapolis in 1882. She married Swan Turnblad in 1883, and their only child, Lillian Zenobia, was born September 2, 1884.

Swan Turnblad was born in Sweden in 1860 and emigrated to the United states when he was 8 years old settling in Vasa, Minnesota. In 1879 he moved to Minneapolis and started working at a newspaper.

In 1885 the Swedish American Publishing Company (Svenska Amerikanska Posten) was incorporated. It was a Swedish language newspaper focusing on temperance. Turnblad started to buy up the stock as the paper neared bankruptcy. He quickly became a Board Member and soon after was appointed Manager. He was an early adopter of the Linotype machine and the use of color printing for illustrations. Under his management he increased the circulation from 1,400 to 40,000 and changed the focus from prohibition to independent Democratic. He also became the major stockholder.

Turnblad was a prominent member of society often reported on in the Minneapolis Journal. He served on several Boards and was a delegate at large to the Democratic national convention in 1904 and again in 1908. He was a Mason, a Shriner and an Elk. In 1892 he built an apartment complex call the Cecil Flats and lived on the first floor, renting out the other apartments. A barn was built to house the first automobile in Minneapolis, an electric Waverly he purchased around 1900.

InIMG_3844-225x300[1] 1908 their 33 room mansion was finished and soon thereafter the stockholders filed a lawsuit against the Turnblad family. Swan was accused of using company funds to build his new house. He denied this saying his wife had inherited the money from her father’s investments in Sweden, something they were never able to prove. The appeals went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court but ended in a settlement.

Christina died in 1929 from cancer and later that year Swan donated the mansion to the American Swedish Institute. Today it is a cultural center, museum, art center, and gathering place for anybody interested in Swedish and Nordic culture. It also houses the Minneaplolis based Consulate General of Sweden’s offices and provides Consular services by appointment. The mansion is a landmark that has been placed on the national, state and city registers of historical places.

In 2012, a 34,000 square foot addition known as the Nelson Cultural Center opened. It is a gathering place that houses the café, the art gallery, studio and crafts classrooms, and event spaces.

The mansion was designed after the French Chateauesque style and took five years to build. An artist trained at the Chicago Art Institute was commissioned to do the plaster details on all the ceilings.I recently spent the day lunching in the café and touring the mansion. The café’s name is FIKA which means a daily break with coffee and small dishes. It gets rave reviews and I have to say the food was very good. The menu is inspired by Nordic traditions and did include Swedish meatballs which of course we compared to Ikea’s meatballs. These were better.

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Eighteen craftsmen woodcarvers worked on the interior as well.

Some of the woodcarvings are highly detailed and required special artists. Eleven porcelain stoves were shipped from Sweden, no two alike. These were probably decorative since there was central heating in the house.

The house has 33 rooms including a large dining room and a ballroom with an elevated stage and skylights. The three Turnblads lived in the mansion from 1908 to 1929. They entertained once.

My favorite room was the large glassed in sun room above the entrance.