Memories Into Greatness

by

Mark L. Baldwin, Jr.

Senior High Division

 

Two angels guide

The path of man, both aged and yet young,

On one he leans: some caller Memory,

And some Tradition; and her voice is sweet,

With deep mysterious accords: the other,

Floating above, holds down a lamp which streams

A light divine and searching on the earth,

Compelling eyes and footsteps. Memory yields,

Yet clings with loving cheek, and shines anew,

Reflecting all the rays of that bright lamp

Our angel Reason holds. We had not walked

But for tradition; we walk evermore

To higher paths by brightening Reason's lamp. (1)

 

A few years ago a decrepit old man (2) was seen wandering around the remains of the Walter Hill farm in Northcote, Minnesota. What was he searching for? Gold, treasure, antiques? No, he was searching for something more valuable than all of these things put together. He was searching for his past. He had once been a hired hand for Walter Hill; back in the days when the Hill farm was referred to as the largest farm in the state if not the entire nation. When people spoke of the Hill farm a sense of awe came over them.

Now, the greatness was gone. His tear-filled eyes swept slowly over the bleak and barren landscape, searching for a familiar landmark. Even the manor house had been changed by time. A new roof line, a brick addition, a two car garage, a different driveway, a swimming pool, and the main entrance was on the other side of the house; one side which used to be referred to as the servant's entrance.

But where were the barns in which he had toiled and sweat and cursed? Where were the tile houses the Dutch families had once occupied? Where was the greatness and the splendor and the glory that once was the Walter Hill farm?

As the old man was standing there, staring at the landscape, an image began to form in his mind. It was hazy at first, but slowly the clouds drifted away time, and the picture became reality. The man was once again in his youth. Strength and vitality seemed to seep into his weary old bones. The story of his past began to unravel, and with it he restored greatness to this dismal scene. Perhaps this is the story his mind was trying to recall: (A story momentarily hidden from time's destroying grasp).

To the public, James J. Hill was an energetic business tycoon whose determination made the Great Northern Railway an almost unequaled success. To his son, Walter, he was a busy man with very little time for his large family and even less time to listen to a little boy's hopes and dreams.

Walter Hill's life-long ambition was to lead the wild, carefree life of a cowboy. This dream, which was never approved of by his father, led to many a family quarrel. James J. Hill expected all his sons to settle down to a life in the railroad business, however, Walter flatly refused. Walter's escapades and devilish pranks were a constant source of embarrassment to the Hill family.

Finally, Walter agreed to settle down, and in his late twenties he married Dorthy Barrows. His father finally realized that any attempt to bring Walter into the railroad business was futile. And, in an attempt to give Walter a fresh start on life, he gave him a 2,200 acre farming the Red River Valley. James Hill figured this beautiful and fertile farmland could easily be built into a profitable business.

The site of the farm was in Northcote, Minnesota, about15 miles from the Canadian Border. The construction of his farm buildings began in 1913. And, before he was through, these buildings would cost his father over $500,000!!!

The three story manor house was one of the first buildings erected. It was made of solid red brick. The interior walls were six inches thick. The shingles were made of tile, and the interior was made up largely of black walnut and mahogany. There were three fireplaces located through the house, and Carnival glass fixtures adorned the lights, along with a large glass chandelier in the dining room. It also had a very large servants quarters in the rear. The house was built at a cost exceeding $49,000!!

Walter then bought 400 head of purebred Aberdeen Angus and Short horned cattle. (These breeds were very rare in the country, but proved to be very successful in later years). He also bought 299 horses to pull farm machinery and to satisfy his cowboy instincts. He decided that his livestock should be the best cared for in the world, and he had his workers start construction of a very large root cellar with enormous conveyors and root cutters. Here turnips and mangels were cut up for feed and conveyed to the silos.

Next came a huge brick cattle barn which was capable of holding several hundred head of cattle. Attached to the brick barn was a twin concrete silo. These double silos are still referred to as the largest in the world. (3) The cattle barn and double silos are still standing today.

The farm was completely self-sufficient. A dam and water tower provided a fresh water supply. And electricity was generated by a small gas engine. There was also a bunkhouse, several blacksmith shops, a slaughterhouse, a cook house, a twin hay barn with electric winches to life the hay into the loft, a sheep shed, an enormous hog barn, four smaller silos, a wooden elevator, a bridge, and three enormous ponds for the cattle. These were only the buildings located in Northcote. Walter Hill also owned a large farm in Humboldt, Minnesota, about five miles away. Here too, there was a huge barn, a bunkhouse, a chicken coop, cook house, and several other small sheds.

In the early 1900's, most of the farming chores had to be done by hand. And this huge operation required up to 250 hired hands during harvest, the busiest time of year. Nearly all farm machines were horse powered and required at least two people to operate.

The advent of the steam engine and the gas powered caterpillars only slightly lessened the labor problems. And, since international affairs were leading to World War One, man power was hard to come by. So, Walter Hill arranged for six Dutch families to come to America to work on his farm. He paid all their expenses plus $35 - $45 a month; which was very good wages in those days.

The houses Hill had built for them were constructed of tiles which were plastered inside and covered with cement on the outside. Walter had twelve houses built, but fortunately his father had convinced him to experiment before he expanded.

The arrival of the Dutch families signaled the beginning of Walter's financial problems. Language was a serious barrier to overcome. Furthermore, the Dutch didn't know anything about the huge machinery or the large scale on which all the work had to be done. Walter finally arranged for them to live in a Dutch settlement in New Holland, Minnesota.

Lack of experienced laborers, poor management, and bad weather conditions took their toll. The farm, which Walter had pictured as a dream come true, turned into a financial nightmare. And, James J. Hill's$500,000 investment didn't seem to be paying off.

Because of these complications and worries, Walter found himself trapped in an executive position behind a desk - the exact thing he had been trying to avoid. He became very sullen and depressed. Walter began drinking more and more until his wife and daughter moved back to Minneapolis.

With his family gone, the farm became meaningless and heavy burden. He left the farm in 1920 after six and a half years in the Red River Valley.

This is the part of the story the old man may have recalled. In his eyes, the Hill farm will always remain the magnificent spectacle it had once been.

There is a sense of sadness in the old man's heart as he turns and walks away. For he knows the glory that once was the Hill farm shall soon be forgotten and forever lost in the wells of time.

(1) George Elliot, "Spanish Gypsy", Book II,source: Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Practical Quotations, 1940 p. 658

(2) Based on an actual person's revisitation, (ad. lib.)

(3) Kittson County Enterprise, 50th Anniversary Edition,p. 27

Bibliography

Baldwin, Lee; Interviewed, January 7, 1975

Blegen, Theodore C.: "Build Minnesota", D. C.Heath and Co. 1938 p. 246

Docken, Harriet; Interviewed, February 3, 1975

Hanson, Marva; Interviewed, July 20, 1974

Kittson County Enterprise 50th Anniversary Edition p. 27

Matthew, Silas; Interviewed, January 14, 1975

Yates, Clifford; Interviewed, January 11, 1975

thew, Silas; Interviewed, January 14, 1975

Yates, Clifford; Interviewed, January 11, 1975