Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: The Dutiful Son: Louis W. Hill-Life in the Shadow of the Empire Builder James J. Hill by Biloine W. Young and Eileen R. McCormack (2010)

Book cover of The Dutiful Son: Louis W. Hill, by Biloine Young and Eileen McCormack, 2010. The cover shows Louis with his father, James J. Hill. The photo was taken in 1905 and was James's favorite photo of the two of them.

Being the son of famed Minnesota railroad builder James J. Hill must have been something of a burden for Louis W. Hill. It was Louis’ fate to follow in the footsteps of the man nicknamed “the Empire Builder,” as his father chose Louis to succeed him when he retired as the head of the Great Northern Railway. Louis had large shoes to fill, but he was a talented businessman in his own right who successfully expanded the reach of the Great Northern Railway. Louis W. Hill gets his due in a 2010 biography, The Dutiful Son: Life in the Shadow of the Empire Builder, written by Biloine (Billie) W. Young and Eileen R. McCormack. Young wrote the book, while McCormack handled the research. McCormack spent many years working with the Hill Family papers at the James J. Hill Reference Library in Saint Paul, and her expertise shows throughout the book.

The Dutiful Son is an excellent look at Louis Hill’s life and career. Young presents us with an overview of his business career, and she also sheds light on his personal life. Hill was one of the main forces behind the creation of Glacier National Park in Montana, and The Dutiful Son highlights his behind the scenes role. The book also focuses on Louis Hill’s leading role in reviving the Saint Paul Winter Carnival in 1916 and 1917.

The Dutiful Son also gives the reader lots of detail on the bitter disputes between Louis and his 8 siblings after their parents both died without wills. From the evidence presented in The Dutiful Son, it seems clear that both James J. and Mary Hill were more than comfortable giving Louis much more than a 1/9th share of their considerable estates. According to Louis, he had a conversation with his father shortly before his death about his wishes for his vast fortune. James J. made it clear that he intended to leave a great deal of it to Louis, saying, “You helped me make it; you helped me take care of it. {The others} had nothing to do with putting it together and they won’t have anything to do with keeping it together.” (The Dutiful Son, p.203) This made for some awkward feelings, and Louis’s siblings ended up suing him, disputing that their mother had really intended to give Louis the 5,000 acre farm at North Oaks. Incredibly, the siblings who sued Louis also wanted to rescind charitable donations that their mother had made in 1919, two years before her death, by claiming that she was of unsound mind when she donated the money. Those gifts were made to many Catholic institutions of higher learning, as well as Catholic charities like the Christian Brothers, and the Little Sisters of the Poor. (The Dutiful Son, p.257) Personally, I think that asking charities for money back is about the greediest thing I’ve ever heard of, especially when those asking for the money back were already set for life thanks to their father. 

Despite all the family squabbling, Louis Hill comes off very well in the book. Like his father, he combined pragmatism and idealism to skillfully work on projects that were important to him. Both James J. Hill and Louis Hill were excellent with detail work, but also had the big picture vision to imagine projects like Glacier National Park and the Great Northern Railway.

Like his father, Louis Hill was very engaged with many different Saint Paul charities. Louis did a lot for the city, and the book highlights his charitable giving, which was often done without people knowing who the benefactor was. Louis named his charitable foundation the Lexington Foundation so people wouldn’t know that one of Saint Paul’s leading citizens was behind it. Louis Hill led a very interesting life, and The Dutiful Son is an excellent read.

No comments: