Isn’t she Grand?
My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was born in County Fermanagh, near Clones in Northern Ireland. Like so many at that time, he came to this country when there was little left in Ireland —after the Potato Famines, from 1847 to 1852—just in time to be drafted into the Union Army. He was wounded twice, and when the Civil War ended, he went to work in St. Paul building James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway.
The first folk song I learned to play on the guitar was “Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill”:
Every morning at seven o’clock
There’s twenty tarriers a workin at the rock
The boss comes along and he says, “Keep still
And come down heavy on the cast iron drill.”
Chorus: So drill, ye tarriers, drill
And drill, ye tarriers, drill
Oh it’s work all day for the sugar in your tay
Down beyond the railway
So drill, ye tarriers, drill
The boss was a fine man down to the ground
And he married a lady six feet ’round
She baked good bread and she baked it well
But she baked it harder than the hobs of Hell.
Our new foreman is John Mc-Cann
By God, He was a blamed mean man
Last week a premature blast went off
And a mile in the air went big Jim Goff.
Next time payday comes around
Jim Goff was short one buck he found
“What for?” asked he then this reply
“You were docked for the time you were up in the sky.”
Tarriers live on work and sweat
There ain’t no tarrier got rich yet
Sleep and work, then work some more
We’ll drill right through the devil’s door.
So drill, Ye tarriers, drill.
My great-grandfather did get rich by Irish standards. He put away enough money building Mr. Hill’s railroad to buy a small farm in Shieldsville, Minn., near Northfield.
Mr. Hill, of course, got rich by a much higher standard. When he died in 1916 he was worth $53 million, or almost $3 billion in today’s dollars.
Most of the money he made was in real estate speculation. He would buy land, put a railroad next to it, then sell it to immigrants for farm land. This also insured that he had agricultural products to ship on his railroads. State legislatures recognized the value in having a train run through their state so they granted him free land on either side of his right of way. He earned the title Empire Builder for his clever business sense building railroads.
When he had earned the bulk of his fortune, in 1882, he bought three lots on Summit Avenue and built his mansion. It was the most magnificent home in Minnesota, and it stood at the top of the hill, the summit, overlooking downtown St. Paul and his railroad and steamship companies.
James J. Hill, the Empire Builder
Whether because his wife was Catholic, or because he knew that a solid relationship with the Archbishop would stand him in good graces with his Irish-Catholic workers, he donated the land and helped build the Cathedral in St. Paul that is almost across the street from his mansion. The design for the St. Paul Cathedral is almost a miniature of Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican.
With the construction of these two monuments, Summit Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood, Crocus Hill, became the center of wealth, and it was where new millionaires wanted to build their mansions.
Grand Avenue grew up as the supportive sister to Summit. Apartment buildings were built for the servants and craftsmen necessary to maintain the lifestyle on Summit. Shops sprung up to service and maintain the mansions.
Today, the characters of these two sisters have changed. Many of the more famous mansions on Summit have become institutionalized. The James J. Hill House is now owned by the Minnesota Historical Society and open for public tours. One mansion was donated to the State of Minnesota as a residence for the governor, and another became the University Club. Some were turned into offices, and, so, while the architecture hasn’t changed all that much, the function and character of the buildings and the neighborhood has changed dramatically.
St. Paul Cathedral
Likewise, Grand Avenue has changed. Beginning as the submissive stepsister to an elegant fortune, Cinderella has blossomed into a confident and beautiful heir to her own destiny, the destination of choice for the hip and fashionable. Garrison Keillor once complained that there were so many boutiques and coffee houses in the area it was becoming difficult to find a hardware store. But, last time I checked, he was still in the neighborhood, and his bookstore, Common Good Books, is just around the corner.