These days, the trip from St. Paul to Red Wing, Minnesota takes a little more than an hour on U.S. Highway 61, the road passing through rolling hills and small towns along the way. Ignore the fast food and sport utility vehicles and the scenery is much as it was a century ago; though the nearby Mississippi River is only glimpsed occasionally, its presence is felt in the carved bluffs and fertile farmland out the window until it rounds the bend below Barn Bluff in downtown Red Wing.
In 1915, this trip would have been slower, by horse-drawn carriage, train or paddlewheel steamer, but at the end of the journey, one could look forward to a glass of ale, a fine meal and a clean bed at the St. James Hotel which by then was already a 40-year old institution in downtown Red Wing. Some things haven’t changed. The St. James still anchors the corner of Main and Bush Streets, a short walk from both the train depot and the boat docks, and now Highway 61, welcoming guests from St. Paul and beyond.
The history of the St. James is inextricably bound with the history of Red Wing itself. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Red Wing was at the outer edge of the frontier known as the Great Northwest, a territory known for its vast forests, fertile ground and numerous lakes and rivers. This was a land settled by entrepreneurs and farmers who left the Old Money dynasties of the East to find their own success and carve out new lives. The fields surrounding Red Wing and the bluff country of southern Minnesota were ideal for growing wheat and the nearby Mississippi became the ideal way to transport it. The big river was a pulsing artery connecting the mills to the cities of St. Louis and New Orleans further south. As a natural stopover on this important trade route, Red Wing needed a hotel.
In 1875, a group of 11 civic leaders proposed a grand building to accommodate the town’s flow of visitors. No expense was spared in the construction of the four-story Italianate building, which was furnished with the finest America and Europe had to offer—carpets, wallpaper, furniture—in addition to modern conveniences like steam heat and hot water taps in the bathrooms. This attention to detail paid off; the St. James quickly became the hub of social life in Red Wing, hosting dignitaries, politicians and captains of industry alike. It also brought tourists, who rode the train or paddlewheel boats to Red Wing seeking cool respite from the heat of the cities.
Of course, fine furnishings only go so far. From its opening day, on which a Thanksgiving feast was hosted, food service was a top priority at the St. James. Aided by a state of the art kitchen, ingredients were locally grown, canned, baked and roasted a century before the term “farm to table” came into common parlance. The grand dining room of the St. James hosted regular banquets known for lavish menus and often ending with the specialty of the house: homemade bread pudding that was liberal with its brandy sauce.
No history of the St. James Hotel is complete without the Lillyblad name. Charles Lillyblad took ownership in 1909 and the family owned the hotel until the mid-1970s. But it was Clara, Charles’s wife, whose legendary hospitality and high standards pervaded every corner of the St. James for much of the 20th century and whose spirit remains a muse. Clara was known for her tough white glove inspections and her willingness to roll up her sleeves and scrub pots, but also for her kindness, especially to those who may not have been able to afford a meal or a room at the hotel.
If Clara Lillyblad walked into the St. James Hotel today, she would still recognize it. There’s less traffic from the train station and docks these days, so the hotel’s lobby has been moved to the Main Street side of the building, but just around the corner is the original one, quietly preserved, facing Bush Street. The 19th century pipe organ is ready to be played by anyone brave enough and the library with its stained glass windows, dark wood paneling and warm fireplace invites one to pull a book from the shelf and while away a chilly winter afternoon. The winding main staircase is lined with portraits of the hotel’s founders, and the upstairs hallways bear evidence of Red Wing’s history, from newspaper clippings about long past local events to a memorial for a boating tragedy downriver. The lighting is now electric but sconces and ticking clocks remind visitors of this place’s golden age, when one might pass a senator or a visiting polar explorer in the hallway on the way to Sunday dinner.
Over the past century, much has changed in Red Wing. Main Street is less muddy and the wheat trade has been overtaken by pottery, shoes, ice skates and tourism as the town’s main industries. But the St. James remains, still welcoming guests in much the same way it did 100 years earlier, a bastion of unwavering warmth and civility in the frontier town that has grown up around it. Peeling away its century and a half of hospitality and charm is like pulling back its ornate wallpaper to find another, equally exquisite layer beneath it.