To the public, James J. Hill was an energetic businessman who was determined to make the Great Northern Railroad a success. To his son, Walter, he was a busy man who had little time to spend with his large family and even less time to listen to one little boy's hopes and dreams. Walter Hill's fondest dream was to lead the wild, carefree life of a cowboy. This dream, which his father never really understood, was the reason why Walter Hill's life turned out to be one of restlessness and sorrow.
Walter Hill, like many youths who seek attention and understanding, rebelled against his parents authority. Unfortunately, this only promoted a wider gap between Walter and his father. James hill insisted that his sons settle down and help him in the railroad business while Walter stubbornly refused to work behind a desk. Walter's escapades and devil-may-care attitude were a constant embarrassment to the Hill family, and the rift between father and son became worse and worse.
Finally, when Walter was married to Dorothy
Barrows in his late twenties, his father decided to give him a fresh start by giving
him a farm in the
With his father's backing, Walter began to
build a farm near
These early days on the farm were very happy ones for Walter, his wife and his daughter Dorothy. Often during harvest, all three of them would hitch up a four horse team to the hayrack and bring in a load of hay before the evening dew. They would drive slowly in from the fields, singing and laughing and enjoying the beauty of the sunset. (2)
Walter was fairly satisfied with the farm at first - -- mainly because he could spend much of his time in the saddle. Yes, it was almost a dream come true. Although it was not quite the "Wild West” he had dreamed about, it did offer many opportunities to show his skill as a cowboy.
Oscar Younger, a close friend of Walter's, often told of one
unusual incident where Walter Hill's skill and ingenuity as a cowboy really
paid off. Oscar had just bought some
Yes, those days were happy ones for Walter and his family. He played the role of a cowboy while his wife and daughter got acquainted with their neighbors and learned about the many chores of country women. Mrs. Hill, who had grown up in a city, enjoyed her role as a homemaker and was very pleased when she finally learned to make bread for her family. She, like her husband, loved to ride horses. Her favorite bridle was trimmed with chimes and when she went riding, her friends recognized her first of all by the tinkle of the bells.
This happiness and joy was soon overshadowed
by pressure and worry. The farm, which Walter had pictured as a dream come
true, turned into a financial nightmare, and the $500,000 which James J. Hill
had spent on the farm didn't seem to be paying off. The crops which had been planted
were very low yielding because of weather conditions. The labor which he had
intended on using on his farm were six Dutch families who spoke very little
English and did not know how to use the huge conveyors of the Hill farm.
Needless to say, farm labor became quite a headache. Because of these
complications and worries, Walter found less and less time to spend in the
saddle. This farm which he had anticipated as a place where he could forget
about financial worries had trapped him in an executive position behind a desk
- - the exact thing he had been trying to avoid! He became very sullen and
depressed. His family was also affected by his moodiness. The laughter and joy
was replaced by quarreling and unhappiness. Walter began drinking more and more
until finally his wife and daughter left him and moved to
With his family gone, the farm became a
meaningless and heavy burden. He left the farm in 1920 after six and a half
years in the
Again, Walter Hill was an outcast - - an embarrassment
to his family - - a loser. Yet, he still had his heart rendering dream; a dream
of living the wild, carefree life of a cowboy. The only happiness he had found
in life had come by following that dream. Battered, scarred, and older, Walter
Hill left the
(1) Ernie McFarlane. Interviewed
(2) Ruth Younggren. Interviewed
(3) Ruth Younggren. Interviewed
Also see Walter HillFarm
Also see Walter HillFarm