Last weekend, Ogre and I ran away for the day to have a summery date. We drove to the quaint town of Stillwater, Minnesota. Our goal was to score some fudge, taffy and turtle bars from two of the three hand-made candy shops there. (Hey, if a shop makes the best of a certain kind of thing, you’re a fool to not take advantage of it.)
When we arrived, it was such a gorgeous day that we decided to look for something else to do first. It turns out there is a historical trolley tour available during the summer. We hopped on and settled in.
Stillwater – which is on the St. Croix River which separates Minnesota from Wisconsin – was founded as a lumber town even before Minnesota became a state. Its proximity to the river- which was an excellent avenue for transporting the raw lumber to the mills, and the milled lumber to its destination – quickly turned it into a wealthy city. As we cruised up and down the steep hills of the city, we saw dozens of beautiful 19th century mansions. Each was proof of the prosperity Stillwater enjoyed in the years just before the last of the towering white pines of Minnesota were logged out.
[To get an idea of the kind of logging that was done here, you might want to check out a video I made last summer: 1895 Hinkley Minnesota Firestorm.]
Perhaps the most interesting bit of information we gleaned from our cheerful tour guide was a story about The Worst Husband in the World. Allow me to explain.
Bedrooms: 3 Bathrooms: 3.5 sq ft: 4,588 Year Built: 1882
Last Sold: Feb 2002 for $375,000
Isn’t it charming? It was built by a lumber baron, Edward Hersey, as a gift to his wife. But there’s a catch. Do you see that porch and the bay window? From either of those vantage points, you see the following view of the opposing house:
Bedrooms: 9 Bathrooms: 9 sq ft: 7,000 Year Built:1879
Last Sold: Mar 2004 for $810,660
This house – 319 Pine St. W – was the first house that Edward Hersey had built for his wife.
In 1879, the Stillwater Lumberman [local newspaper] noted “Edward Hersey about to build on lots at Pine and Sixth.” Behind those few words are numerous associations: the construction of another opulent home for another of Stillwater’s well-to-do lumber families, the possible involvement of architect George Orff in his second home for a Hersey brother, and the abundant use of large, eye-catching architectural elements. The Victorian home offers a virtual laundry list of stylistic elements: a tower, a veranda, a gable, a large chimney, and a two-story bay.
According to our guide, the wife (whose name was Mary, but we’ll take a look at that in more depth in a moment) had a great deal to do with the planning of this house. It seems that Hersey himself was not as thrilled with it as she was. He had dragged his feet about commissioning it in the first place, and didn’t care for it even after he had agreed to have it built.
As the house was nearing completion, Mary went abroad to purchase proper furnishings for her dream home.
Edward Hersey promptly lost the mansion to his business partner, Jacob Bean, to settle a debt. Some say this debt was actually a high-stakes poker game. (The home is now known at the Ann Bean Mansion, after Jacob Bean’s wife.)
When Mary returned to Stillwater, Edward had already commissioned the building of the much more modest 320 Pine W house … directly across the street.
The tour guide said that Mary refused to live there.
I could have shared that much of the story with you the night I returned from the daytrip, but I wanted to do a bit of research to confirm the facts. I was able to do that – for the most part anyway – but my digging also left me with some lingering questions.
Above, I mentioned that I wanted to come back to the identity of Edward Hersey’s wife, Mary. Edward actually married TWO women named Mary in his lifetime: Mary Merrill in 1877 and Mary Haskell in 1894. A quick look at the dates of construction of the houses will reveal that the woman in the Stillwater story must have been Mary Merrill.
Just to make this easy for everyone, here the math:
- Edward was 23 in 1877 when he married Mary Merrill.
- He was 25 in 1879 when construction began on the big house, 319 Pine W.
- He was 29 in 1882 when the small house, 320 Pine W, was completed.
- There is then an 11-year gap in the story until 1894.
- He was 40 in 1894 when he married 25 year old Mary Haskell.
- (In 1894, he did something else as well, but I’ll get to that in a sec.)
- He was only 54 when he died in 1908.
- Mary Haskell Hersey died in 1950, at the age of 81.
Armed with the knowledge of the second wife, I was left wondering what had happened to the first. My assumption was that she died, so I turned to FindAGrave to discover her fate. Sure enough, I found the Hersey family plot, where Edward was buried, in a nearby St. Paul cemetery. Several members of his family also rest there, including Mary HASKELL Hersey. As for Mary Merrill, though, there is no sign of her in the plot.
Of course it is possible that Mary Merrill did die, and that her body was sent back to Maine from where both families hailed. I did do a search for her at FindAGrave and came up with two possible results. One has very little info aside from the name Mary E. Hersey. The other grave bears the name Mary M. Hersey, but it is adjacent to a man named Melville Hersey. Neither of these women died before Edward married Mary Haskell.
I have been unable to find any further reference to Mary Merrill Hersey. Mary Haskell Hersey, however, was the darling of the society pages:
In 1896, the St. Paul Globe expressed admiration for the new bride: “Mrs. Edward L. Hersey, who, by her charming personality and culture has identified herself with society in St. Paul and Stillwater, is a brunette of a very lovely type. Her eyes are large and beautiful, of a dark brown, her lashes, brows and soft, luxuriant hair corresponding in color. She is possessed of an almost perfect figure, and her carriage is graceful and stately. In her address one notices a fascinating little accent, peculiar to the East.
I mentioned that Edward Hersey did something else besides marrying the charming Mary Haskell in 1894. He moved into this:
Bedrooms: 11 Bathrooms: 6 sq ft: 7,586 Year Built: 1894
Last Sold: Apr 1993 for $170,000
Estimated current value: $891,813
I guess he really like Mary Haskell.
PS: Just FYI, Summit Ave. was THE ritziest neighborhood in Minnesota at the turn of the century. (It’s still pretty swanky, though this house has been converted to a multi-family rental property.)
ALSO: Edward’s daughter, Marie Hersey was a chum of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Apparently he spent a lot of time in this house, back in the day.
POST postscript: I just ran into a thing called Storify and I’m playing with it. I tossed together a test and am attempting to embed it below, so I can see what it is and how it looks. Ignore at will.