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Walter Hill: Red River Valley Cowboy


Cindy Baldwin

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 Red River Valley. James Hill had acquired 50,000 acres from the government in northwestern Minnesota in 1878. This beautiful and fertile farm land could be built into a profitable farming business. Walter saw this gift as an opportunity to make his boyhood dream come true, and enthusiastically he set out to make the farm a real bonanza.

With his father's backing, Walter began to build a farm near Northcote, Minnesota in 1913. He bought 400 head of purebred Aberdeen Angus and Shorthorn cattle and 200 horses. Then he built a huge root cellar that contained enormous conveyors and root cutters for chopping up turnips and mangels to feed the cattle. A brick barn was constructed along with two brick silos. These twin silos are still mentioned as the largest double silos in the world. Walter Hill's dream of having one of the biggest and most productive farms in the Midwest was almost a reality. At harvest, which is the busiest season on a farm, there were 250 men working on the Hill farm. (1)

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 Montana cattle, and he was very pleased with all of them except a young, mean bull. In fact, he was the orneriest bull Oscar had ever seen. The bull kept pawing the ground and charging at anyone who came near. When Mr. Hill heard about his friend's problem, he rode his horse over to Oscar's farm, expertly roped the bull, and put a ring with a broom-stick attached in the bull's nose. That way, whenever Mr. Younggren wanted to discipline the bull, he just had to pull the broom handle. (3)

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 Minneapolis.

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 Red River Valley.

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 Red River Valley. His restless search led him to Montana - - to the vanishing "Wild West."

There, in Montana, Walter Hill died in 1958. During his life he witnessed the advancement of cars and the invention of the airplane. He died at the threshold of a new frontier - - space exploration. Yet Walter Hill will not be remembered as a person lived to see the space age. He was- - above all else - - devoted to the American Wild West and to the exciting and romantic life of the cowboy adventurer. His death did not mark the coming of a new phase of American adventure, but the ending on one of the most interesting chapters of the United States history.

(1) Ernie McFarlane. Interviewed February 13, 1968

(2) Ruth Younggren. Interviewed January 21, 1968

(3) Ruth Younggren. Interviewed February 12, 1968

(4) Ibid.

Also see Walter HillFarm

(4) Ibid.

Also see Walter HillFarm