Interesting improvements are in the works for a historic site on the Mississippi River in Little Falls.
You’re probably thinking it’s the Charles A. Lindbergh home, where the famous pilot spent his childhood summers and which is now operated as a visitor center by the Minnesota Historical Society.
No, I’m talking about Linden Hill, the two-mansion compound built on a bluff overlooking the river in 1898 by two lumbermen, Charles Weyerhaeuser and Richard Drew Musser.
The nine-acre estate — with both houses — was used by the Musser family until 20 years ago, and is now an event center run by the nonprofit Friends of Linden Hill. The group decorates the homes each Christmas and conducts tours; they also host receptions and teas. And visitors even can stay overnight in the bedrooms.
Both houses were designed by architect Clarence Johnston, who, a few years later, also designed the Congdon Mansion in Duluth. The Musser family began calling the estate “Linden Hill” in the 1920s, because of the many linden, or basswood, trees on the property. (In those days, wealthy Americans liked to name their estates, as they did in England. The Congdons in Duluth called their place “Glensheen.”)
One of the Linden Hill homes — the white one — had been virtually closed off after Musser’s death in 1958; when it was reopened decades later, his toothbrush and razor were still in place in the bathroom. Most of the furniture and furnishings remain intact and undamaged, making it a living museum of life for the upper class in the area during the early 20th century.
The green house has an extensive collection of old dolls and “Wizard of Oz” memorabilia.
Museum, event center, or both?
With so many museum-quality items in the homes — along with the historic significance of the location and its early owners — the nonprofit group is looking for ways to curate, manage and maintain the homes and their belongings.
The board’s goal is to continue developing the site as a historic educational center — basically trying to preserve the property and furnishings, much like a museum, while still letting people use the facility. Those can be conflicting goals, but the board is confident:
“We’re excited about expanding our community outreach and educational opportunities by improving access to our collections for not only local residents, but for out-of-town visitors on a regional, national and international level, while still offering the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors to actually stay in historic lodging right on the grounds,” said Pat Sharon of the board.
To help smooth the process, the board hired Terri Briggs as executive director, citing her education and experience in curatorship, collections management and museum organization.
And with a Minnesota Legacy Grant, the group brought in Neil Cockerline, a trained conservator from the nonprofit Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis, to assess the historically significant collections, prepare a report on their condition and recommend the best ways to preserve things, Sharon said.
Cockerline will provide the board a written report next month; it should help the board decide on priorities when figuring out how to use its limited budget to preserve the textiles, protect the glassware and keep the house and its contents in fine shape.
Special spot on the river
Long before the lumberman built on the river bank site, it had been a favored spot for American Indian tribes, said Marilyn Brown, a Linden Hill volunteer who’s well-versed in its history.
“They revered any place on the river near a falls, and this is just a hop, skip and jump from the falls,” Brown said.
And a big rock, still visible, was noted in the journals of explorer Joseph Nicollet, who traveled up the Mississippi River in the mid-1830s to its source at Lake Itasca.
So the young Weyerhaeuser and Musser couldn’t have found a better location for their side-by-side homes. They managed the Pine Tree Lumber Co., which had been founded by their lumber magnate fathers. Although the two were bachelors when they built the homes, Weyerhaeuser married later the same year and moved his bride into the green house. Musser lived next door alone until 1903, when he, too, married and started a family.
Weyerhaeuser was the more active of the two buddies, preferring to be out in the woods with the men, Brown said, while Musser was a pencil pusher, the inside guy on the team.
By 1920, though, the trees on their thousands of acres of nearby land were all cut, and Weyerhaeuser left town with his family, building a mansion on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue and working on other lumber business.
Turned over for a nickel
As the story goes, Weyerhaeuser turned over his share in the estate for a nickel to Musser, who stayed in town and went into the banking business. For the first few years, he let business associates live in the Weyerhaeuser home, but in the mid-1950s, Musser’s daughter Laura Jane moved out of her family’s home and into the green house next door.
Laura Jane — who’d closed up the white house after her father’s death — was quite the community cultural coordinator. She gave music and dance lessons to children, sometimes taking them to concerts in the Twin Cities. She brought famous musicians like pianist Van Cliburn and contralto Marian Anderson to Little Falls. The bed where Van Cliburn slept is one of the highlights of the house tours.
Laura Jane “updated” her house in the 1950s and 60s, so it doesn’t have the historic feel of the untouched white house.
Before she died in 1989, she made it clear she wanted the estate to be used for a public purpose, and her trust eventually donated it to the city. For many years it was used for an Elderhostel program, but costs increased and it was closed by the city in 2000. Officials decided to sell and solicited bids, but history-minded supporters of the house stepped in to stop the sale. When they succeeded, city officials basically said to the group: OK, you figure out what to do with it.
So the nonprofit Friends of Linden Hill was formed in 2007 and has worked to maintain the historic nature of the property, make repairs and needed, and is pursuing the new initiative to implement more museum-like procedures.
They’ve managed to break even in recent years, said board member Sharon. There are plans to work more Linden Hill material into history lessons for area school children, and provide more adult programming in the houses.
The longer-term goal, Sharon said, is to preserve the collections and share the estate’s historic bounty with the community.
“We know we’re facing some major changes, and we know it’s going to be a lot of work,” she said.
Joe Kimball writes about politics, St. Paul, Greater Minnesota and other topics.