A Devoted Architect

By Leah Kodner, Business Reference Librarian

The James J. Hill Center officially opened to the public on December 20, 1921. Construction had begun in 1913 and planning in 1911. From the beginning, New York architect Electus D. Litchfield was involved, drawing up the plans for Hill’s library and the adjoining St. Paul Public Library. At Hill’s request, Litchfield based his plans off those of J.P. Morgan’s New York library, and his designs spared no ornate detail. It would be expected that after 10 years of work, Litchfield would be thrilled at the library’s triumphant completion and eager for the opportunity to move on to other projects.

Interestingly enough, this was not the case. Though Litchfield did move on to other projects, his interest was piqued by his time working on the Hill Library. In a letter to librarian Helen K. Starr in 1937, Litchfield wrote, “I have built some ten or eleven libraries and I had felt that when I built the libraries in St. Paul, I was on my way to designing many others. But…I have never had another library to design.” Perhaps it was this disappointment at never designing another library that caused Litchfield to maintain both his interest in developments at the Hill Library and also his frequent contact with the various head librarians over the years.

Continuing to Provide Guidance

Throughout the decades that followed the opening of the library, Litchfield maintained avid correspondence with the first head librarian, Joseph G. Pyle and his successor, Helen K. Starr. His input was instrumental in the continual evolution of the building, and he was happy to offer his (usually solicited) advice on a number of issues.


Letter from Electus Litchfield to Joseph G. Pyle, June 20, 1929

In this 1929 letter, Litchfield responded to an earlier letter of Pyle’s asking for advice on the addition of new bookshelves on several floors of the library to accommodate the still-growing collection. Not only did Litchfield provide his own opinion on the matter, but he went so far as to consult one of the engineers at his architecture firm to ensure that he was giving sound advice. This was typical of the thoughtful and constructive advice which he gave to Pyle and later to Starr.

Long-Lasting Friendship

In 1930, when Helen K. Starr succeeded Pyle as head librarian, she and Litchfield began what would become an active and friendly correspondence over the remainder of their careers. Over the years, the two exchanged photographs of the library, discussed proposed changes and improvements, and enjoyed several reunions in New York and St. Paul.


Letter from Electus Litchfield to Helen K. Starr, October 30, 1935

This 1935 letter from Litchfield to Starr is a part of a long string of letters discussing a line of radiators that had been in the center of the Reading Room. Litchfield had considered the radiators an eyesore and a temporary necessity and felt that, had Hill lived, he would have approved of upgrading to a more discreet heating system. Earlier in 1935, in order to more comfortably accommodate the increased crowds who flocked to the library during the Great Depression, air conditioning had been installed in the building, and with it, an updated and more discreet heating system. Litchfield was pleased with the fact that his building was one of the first in the country to have central air conditioning and was even more pleased that the “eyesore” radiators had been removed. Now he could focus his attention on other issues, like the arrangement of the tables within the Reading Room. Starr’s letters to Litchfield show how much she appreciated his advice and guidance. She often took his suggestions when it was possible to do so, and if she did not she explained her reasoning. In this manner, they conversed for many years.

Electus D. Litchfield had many successes in his long career as an architect, but it is clear that The Hill held a special place in his heart. Though he was never given the opportunity to build another library, he was able to maintain a personal and professional relationship with The Hill and to continue to strive for perfection. If you have not seen Litchfield’s masterpiece in person, come pay us a visit. It is well worth a look.

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Then and Now: Hill Throughout History

“With my resignation today of the Chairmanship of the Board of Directors ends my active official participation in the conduct of the Great Northern Railway Company. The work begun nearly forty years ago has been substantially accomplished; though its results have been extended far beyond the foresight of any one at that time. I hope I have earned the leisure which every man looks for who has borne the burden and heat of life’s day.”

So shared James J. Hill on the day he wrote this letter to the stockholders of the Great Northern Railway Company. Forty years, same company from start-up to success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Things have changed since then, and stories are few and far between of individuals spending such a long career with one employer. In fact, The Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor tells us that today the number is just less than five years for average tenure with a single employer.

gnr logo

There are certainly plenty of pros and cons as to which might be a better option but it sure seems that we can go back to the words of Hill to find what people were looking for then or now: a sense of purpose and accomplishment. If they are there, both employer and employee are satisfied and maybe even happy. If not, people will leave to find something better elsewhere. No organizational behavior lectures, no best-selling business books or Top 10 lists, just straight talk from a guy who lived it.

Some of the historical headlines look different and some may look familiar, but the James J. Hill Center is here to help business by delivering its non-profit mission of Supporting Business, Entrepreneurs, and Community. Learn more at www.jjhill.org.



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Startup Showcase: Monkey with a Mustache, LLC

By Lee George

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 29 industrialized nations’ high school students perform better than U.S. students in math. And according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018, 92 percent of traditional STEM jobs will be for those with at least some postsecondary education and training.

Jerry Belich, founder of Monkey with a Mustache LLC, and developer of The Choosatron, says that his programmable storytelling device is not about saving the world but about making education fun.

Jerry Belich
Jerry Belich

Teachers and employers alike are engaging in developing new ways to educate and train a workforce that will need STEM education to do its work. Through programming and storytelling, Jerry’s company and product introduce users to STEM education, and they have fun doing it. He may not be saving the world, but he is preparing its future workers.

Entrepreneur Snapshot

Founder: Jerry Belich

Age: 34

City you live in: Minneapolis

City of birth: Duluth

High school attended: Centennial High School, Circle Pines

College attended: Bethel University

Jerry Belich grew up around the Twin Cities. A lifelong storyteller, he studied computer science, theater and film in college. Jerry’s opportunities helped him marry technical and creative work into a single form. After creating The Choosatron, Jerry’s career took the sharp turn he had been waiting for. Now he is a game designer, story and narrative writer, and inventor.

Company Snapshot: Monkey with a Mustache, LLC

Primarily, Monkey with a Mustache is providing game design and development services. This work is realized in the form of code, script and dialogue writing, hardware development, and product development in any of those areas. The Choosatron is the first manufactured product, and one that continues to develop along with the company’s related work. The Choosatron Deluxe Adventure Matrix is a Wi-Fi connected Choose Your Own Adventure-inspired story printer, blending digital and analogue storytelling. It uses an inkless thermal printer, like a receipt machine, to print stories. The user can select options via a touchpad to choose where the story goes. It is designed to be easily assembled by kids into a small interactive game box, and encourage social reading, learning, and play. Users can interact with pre-loaded stories or create their own.

Business Start Date: January 2014

Number of Employees: 1

Number of Customers: 600+

Website: http://jerrytron.com

Twitter: @j3rrytron

Read the Q&A here.

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Then and Now: Hill Throughout History

By Barry Gisser, Hill Board Vice Chair

“Mr. President, I want to show you the best agricultural exhibit I ever saw” So started a speech by James J. Hill on President Taft’s Day at the Montana State Fair in Helena on September 27, 1909.

Given planting season will soon be upon us in Minnesota (and the State Fair will be here before you know it!) I figured it was worth exploring what else Mr. Hill had to say on that day:

“Now, at this particular period in the history of our country, there is great change coming. Ever since the first settlement at Jamestown and at Plymouth Rock we have had an unlimited public domain where every man might sit under his own vine and fig tree and raise his family in comfort, if not in affluence. That time and those conditions have changed and the change is becoming more and more emphasized every year.”

montana state fair

While doing so in the presence of the President and doing so in an oratorical style of respect and deference, Hill raises an issue that the U.S. has wrestled with for a long time. And, of note, he raises the issue without a single schoolyard taunt (or worse).

Some of the historical headlines look different and some may look familiar, but the James J. Hill Center is here to help business by delivering its non-profit mission of Supporting Business, Entrepreneurs, and Community. Learn more at www.jjhill.org.

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James J. Hill Center Board Selects Tamara Prato as New Executive Director

St. Paul, MN – March 8, 2016 – The James J. Hill Center in St. Paul is pleased to announce that Tamara Prato, currently Group Publisher at Tiger Oak Media, will become its Executive Director effective April 4.

“I am thrilled to be back in St. Paul and have the opportunity to lead an organization that has been serving the public for nearly 100 years” said Ms. Prato. “The Hill Center’s mission of connecting business, entrepreneurs, and community is more important than ever as St. Paul and the surrounding metro look to accelerate economic development and job growth. With all of the momentum at The Hill I could not be joining at a better time.”

“Tamara has more than twenty years’ successful management, community commitment, and marketing experience with a demonstrated track record of business success. Her experiences at Tiger Oak Media, Twin Cities Public Television, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press will serve us well at The Hill” said Patrick H. O’Neill Jr., The James J. Hill Center’s newly elected Board Chair. “The process we used to select Tamara, led by Board member Sandi Schmiesing and facilitated by our external search partners, was absolutely top notch” added O’Neill.

Ms. Prato received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire and completed post-graduate work at The University of St. Thomas. She spent more than six years in advertising and marketing at Twin Cities Public Television and The St. Paul Pioneer Press before becoming the group publisher at Tiger Oak Media. In that role she had general management oversight of more than a dozen magazines including Minnesota Business, Saint Paul Magazine, and Minnesota Bride. “As the new Executive Director at The Hill I will bring my passion and skills back to St. Paul and look forward to working with the many stakeholders who are vested in the ongoing success of the non-profit that is all about continuing the legacy of one of America’s finest entrepreneurs. I feel the organization is well positioned to succeed today and accelerate future growth.”

About the James J. Hill Center – Opened in 1921, the James J. Hill Center supports the legacy of one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs. Today, The Hill’s focus is supporting business, entrepreneurship, and community. It delivers its mission by providing an iconic place to learn, convene and connect – in the community, business, and the arts. Our goal is to build sustainable and lasting relationships that enable entrepreneurial activities and economic prosperity by providing services, programming, and events. Learn more at www.jjhill.org. or find us on LinkedIn and on Twitter @JJHillCenter .

James J Hill Center Selects Tamara Prato as Executive Director – PDF

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“St. Paul investment fund seeks to build on James J. Hill legacy”

A Pioneer Press article reports on the Hill Capital Corporation, a group based at The Hill that seeks to fund small businesses in the Midwest:

More than a century ago, an empire was built along railroad tracks stretching across the Upper Midwest. The founder of the Great Northern Railway was James J. Hill, and the empire consisted of towns and businesses the railroad spurred across the northern plains and Rockies to the Pacific Northwest.

Now, a group is being formed in Hill’s name that sees still-untapped opportunities in the region. The vehicle this time is not steel and steam but capital, and the home base is the James J. Hill Center, the ornate business research library on downtown
St. Paul’s Rice Park.

In the idea stage for several years, Hill Capital Corp. is just now gauging interest from investors in creating an investment fund that would support growing small businesses in the region Hill’s railroad ran through. It will start in western Wisconsin, Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas and eventually move west.

Urban areas on either end of the line, Chicago/Milwaukee and Seattle, have fully organic clusters of business and funding. The Twin Cities, in between, does as well. But looking west, there are few major population centers or sources of capital willing to take a risk on a small business.

Read the full article here.

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Startup Showcase: Fresh Vine

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. These organizations hold an immense amount of data about their constituents, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders. And their effectiveness often relies on effectively keeping track of all of these records.

There are numerous nonprofit databases created to assist other nonprofits in managing this data. In a crowded market, Minneapolis-based Fresh Vine focuses on simplicity to differentiate itself.

Paul Prins is founder of Fresh Vine, Minneapolis. (Courtesy photo)
Paul Prins is founder of Fresh Vine, Minneapolis. (Courtesy photo)

Entrepreneur Snapshot

Founder: Paul Prins

Age: 31

City you live in: Minneapolis

City of birth: St. Louis Park

High school attended: Eden Prairie High School

College attended: UW Stout

To run Fresh Vine and help nonprofits succeed, Paul Prins harnessed his lifelong experience participating in social programs like the Boy Scouts of America, youth sports, collegiate organizations — and observing his mother’s involvement with leading the programs he was in. Through this experience he saw a need for a system that allowed organizations to manage information easily and to leverage it to meet their goals. This idea formed into Fresh Vine.

Company Snapshot: Fresh Vine

Fresh Vine is nonprofit membership software used to manage rosters, receive and track donations, and manage events and email campaigns.

Business Start Date: 2011

Number of Employees: 2

Number of Customers: 130 Nonprofit Accounts

Website: https://freshvine.co/

Twitter: @FreshVine

Read the Q&A here.

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Then and Now: Hill Throughout History

By Barry Gisser, Hill Board Vice Chair

It was early March of 1910 and James J. Hill was home to give a speech at the Minnesota Agricultural Congress in St. Paul. The location was the St. Paul Auditorium on 5th Street in downtown St. Paul. But Hill’s topic had nothing to do with concerts, theater, or circuses. That night he had a message that was a little more serious and related to a hot topic of the day – taxes.


Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

“The effect of national waste of capital is felt immediately in the added weight of taxation. One of the last things men learn is that every dollar paid out by the government must first have been paid in by the community. The income raised by any tax save those on articles of pure luxury is so much taken from productive industry; and, where not utilized for public protection, in that narrow range of activity which alone is either proper or profitable for the state, is as truly wasted as if it were spent on public games or childish bonfires.”

Some of the historical headlines look different and some may look familiar, but the James J. Hill Center is here to help business by delivering its non-profit mission of Supporting Business, Entrepreneurs, and Community. Learn more at www.jjhill.org.




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Startup Showcase: Homi

By Lee George

It is no secret that many industries face a workforce shortage. In the health care field alone, the World Health Organization estimates a global shortage of 12.9 million workers by 2035. The ability for companies to engage in developing their future employees and for young workers to engage with mentors is paramount.

Enter Homi.

Homi uses a digital platform to help students and alumni from colleges and universities build a mentor-mentee relationship. Conversation on Homi has the potential to assist students in choosing a career path. And companies have an opportunity to introduce their brand and work culture to a future employee.


Homi founder Philip Xiao (Courtesy photo)
Homi founder Philip Xiao (Courtesy photo)

Founder: Philip Xiao
Age: 22
City you live in: Minneapolis
High school attended: Troy High School
College attended: Carleton College
Philip Xiao was working toward a career in business and finance. After leveraging Carleton College’s alumni network and getting informational interviews with senior insurance bankers, he had the idea for Homi.


Homi is a student-alumni Q&A platform that helps employers make data-driven hiring decisions. We have built the HomiScore, comparable to a credit score for networking, which helps companies hire more effectively from schools where they would not traditionally recruit. We help companies rebrand to millennials through alumni career stories. This organic content is different from a job posting or a banner ad — it’s real people telling stories of how they fell into an industry and built their careers.

Business start date: February 2015
Number of employees: 6
Number of customers: 1,200
Website: www.homi.io
Twitter: @Homitweets

Read the Q&A here.

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Then and Now: Hill Throughout History

By Barry Gisser, James J. Hill Center Board Member

It’s important to celebrate progress along the entrepreneurial business path because goodness knows there are a multitude of missteps along the way. That said, sometimes it might seem like we’d prefer tweeting our latest multi-“emojied” update than evaluating and learning from the latest backward steps.

Leave it to the Empire Builder to ground us on the topic:

“The history of our trade with the Orient is a tale of lost opportunity. Yet so much more popular are facts that tickle our pride than those hinting of neglect or mistake. Comparatively few people today appreciate what this opportunity was, and to what extent and why we have lost it.”

Highways of Progress by James J. Hill, 1910 (bold added)

Until you can respond constructively to the wins and the losses you won’t take your business where you think it can go. If you want to leverage our network to help you keep your feet planted, join us for 1 Million Cups St. Paul at the James J. Hill Center every Wednesday morning at 9. We might not cover Asian trade but can guarantee a collaborative environment in which you’ll get great input to help you grow your business.

Some of the historical headlines look different and some may look familiar, but the James J. Hill Center is here to help business by delivering its non-profit mission of Supporting Business, Entrepreneurs, and Community. Learn more at www.jjhill.org.





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Patrons with accessibility needs please access our ground floor elevator entrance via Kellogg Ave at the back of the building. Please ring the doorbell on the right hand side of door and a Hill staff member will assist you. If you have questions or concerns please call 651.265.5500. We look forward to having you visit.