Downton Abbey was a cultural phenomenon, with huge numbers of fans like myself tuning in to soak up the glamorous atmosphere surrounding that very wealthy family, its staff and its various pursuits. Presiding over them all with a queenly presence was elegant matriarch Violet Crawley, as portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith.
When, much to my dismay, the series ended, I started thinking about Minnesota’s history and realized that Downton Abbey was not the only estate with a matron presiding over it. Lake Minnetonka has had its fair share of grand dames, among them Eleanor Jerusha Lawler Pillsbury, Grace Bliss Dayton and Louise Heffelfinger Bell.
As the wives of successful men, these women wielded significant influence with wit, charm and intelligence. They shared many interests in which they delighted: the arts, fashion, travel, sports, philanthropy, and of course decorating and tending to their equally fantastic mansions. These grand dames of Lake Minnetonka will now take their rightful places in Minnesota history.
Eleanor Jerusha Lawler Pillsbury
By all standards, Eleanor Jerusha Lawler Pillsbury was the foremost grand dame of Lake Minnetonka. There was just something about the way she carried herself: elegant, gracious and beautiful.
Born in 1887 in Mitchell, South Dakota, Juty lost her beloved father in her early years. Soon after, she and her mother moved to St. Paul, where the widowed Mrs. Lawler met the president of the Soo Line railway, Edmund Pennington, and married again. She insisted on the very best education for Juty and sent her to three different convents, from St. Louis to Rome, where her grandmother wintered. Accompanied by her grandmother, Juty traveled around Europe and acquired knowledge of art and architecture.
Upon returning to St. Paul, the 20-year-old entered the debutante scene. Among her many possible suitors was an attractive man nine years her elder, John Sargent Pillsbury. He was immediately dazzled by her intelligence, her reserved nature and of course her striking beauty. Although Juty was hesitant about marriage at first, she soon discovered they shared many interests. They grew to know each other well and were wed in 1911.
Juty had opinions, good taste and unfailing determination to build the house of their dreams. She gave birth to six children: John Jr., Edmund, Ella, Charles, Jane and George. At the time, the family lived in an aging South Minneapolis mansion on Stevens Avenue. Come summer, they’d migrate to a small rented farmhouse near the big lake.
Knowing their home was too small for their brood, John began searching for lake property. While playing golf, he heard from an investor that the Dunwoody property, a large farm with some lakeshore, was available on short notice. Impulsively, he agreed to buy it.
That night, he tossed and turned; he really didn’t want a farm, but he had made a gentlemen’s agreement. Sensing his dilemma, Juty suggested they take out the Packard and see the property for themselves. Upon seeing that the old Dunwoody house sat right on the lakeshore, she came up with a solution for her husband’s quandary: to discuss the situation with his astute friend, Charles Bovey. Bovey thought the farmland was ideal for a much-needed golf course and arranged for its purchase and conversion into what is today the Woodhill Country Club. The Pillsburys, meanwhile, became the happy owners of the Bracketts Point land.
Finally, the time came to plan their new home, which Juty decided should be called Southways, because “you have to go south a ways from the country road to approach the house.” Now came the big decision: selecting the architect. Both John and Juty wanted the man who had designed America’s foremost country houses on the East Coast, Harrie T. Lindeberg.
Juty and Lindeberg began working on the plans together, but they didn’t always agree. He insisted, for example, that a large living room be built at the center of the house, while she preferred a smaller drawing room. He won in this case. The room featured floor-to-ceiling windows and elegant oriental rugs over curly pinewood floors.
He planned for walls of butternut, but Juty wanted them painted green. This became a matter of great dispute, and Lindeberg finally gave in. Juty sat for hours with a painter to select the perfect shade, settling on a teal color. As for furniture, according to her diary, “I never had a decorator, except for the powder room. And for the rest of the house, I collected furniture from New York City and London.”
She was especially proud of the front entryway, designed by top American ironworker Samuel Yellin, with its large wrought-iron peacock adorning the glass. Later, when it came time to decorate the living-room fireplace grill, Yellin’s granddaughter flew to Southways to design it.
To the right of the entrance, a long narrow hallway called the gallery served as a backdrop for Juty’s favorite artworks and continued outdoors, culminating in a beautiful garden. Off the gallery were a spacious, mahogany-paneled library and a summer porch, a beloved spot for the whole family.
Lindeberg worked from 1916 to 1918 designing the house to be timeless. He claimed that a country house could be elegant without being ostentatious. For the exterior, he used natural materials, expert proportioning and fine craftsmanship. From its long vista, the manse is reminiscent of an English estate, and yet, with beautiful Lake Minnetonka looming in the distance, it remains very Minnesotan.
The landscaping was crucial. Trees of all varieties dotted the property, but new gardens had to be planned. Juty, who admittedly didn’t have much of a green thumb, wanted English gardens but knew she would need an expert to tend to them. She found one in Brunnie Mayr, the wife of their superintendent. At first, Juty tried doing some weeding herself but wound up with a rash. Nevertheless, she joined the early Lake Minnetonka Garden Club and won a medal for her collection of blooms.
In her diary, Juty wrote of the many games she planned for the children and later of the activities in which they indulged: sailing, swimming and tennis. The Pillsburys enjoyed entertaining, and she excelled at planning very special parties, from jovial athletic affairs to royal visits.
After her husband’s death in 1968, Juty sought the advice of a local contractor, thinking perhaps she should shrink or replace the house. He immediately responded that her home could never be replaced; she should enjoy it as is. Which she did, although she did decide to downsize the home in practical, tasteful ways.
Juty continued to support her community throughout her life, contributing to such organizations as the Lake Minnetonka Garden Club, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota Orchestra. She continued her philanthropy and her healthy pursuits, such as swimming, until she died in 1991 at 104 years old.
Grace Bliss Dayton
Grace Caruthers Bliss was enjoying her senior year at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, when she was formally introduced to George Nelson Dayton in 1911. Properly impressed by the pretty young brunette and her obvious intelligence, the bachelor farmer found himself taking many train trips to visit her, occasions requiring the presence of one parent at all times and ending promptly at 10 p.m. One evening, he overstayed until 10:30 and proposed. Though pleased, Grace insisted she could not marry him until after she graduated. By October 1912, they were wed.
Although Grace was a devout Methodist, she agreed to join his church, Westminster Presbyterian. Back in Minneapolis, George arranged for their first home on Blaisdell Avenue next door to his parents, George Draper and Emma Chadwick Dayton. Grace faced a challenging new world in the Twin Cities, which she tackled with dedication and enthusiasm.
Having spent his boyhood on the family farm in Worthington, George had an apparent love of farming. Armed with a degree from the University of Minnesota School of Agriculture, he managed the Oak Leaf stock farm in Anoka County for several years. At that same time, his father and brother embarked on a new venture, purchasing Goodfellow’s department store in downtown Minneapolis. Reluctantly, George gave up the farm business to join his family in running what became known as the Dayton Dry Goods Company.
In the hectic years ahead, Grace gave birth to five lively sons: Donald, Bruce, Wallace, Kenneth and Douglas. For the five growing boys, the best news came in 1926 when their father bought the 90-acre Rose Farm, the Longyear property on Upper Lake Minnetonka. They promptly renamed it Boulder Bridge Farm for the bridge that crossed the lagoon. A gentleman’s farm, it had all the attributes the boys craved; now they could swim, horseback ride, operate small boats, play with their Newfoundland dog and even work on the farm. Both parents went horseback riding every Saturday and Sunday, too, and Grace became a skilled equestrienne.
For his part, George modernized the farm, transforming it into a place to breed 200 champion Guernsey cows, 70 Belgian horses and many other animals. For horse breeding, he procured top-quality stallions and mares, and added more acreage, bringing the property to a total of 900 acres.
The house, with its 20 rooms, suited the family quite well. Designed by J.M. Lyton Architects, the enormous wood-frame Dutch Colonial boasted two gambrel roofs stretching out 125 linear feet over its hillside site. A favorite place for the family was the sprawling open porch that partially wrapped around the house, revealing great views of the lake.
Boulder Bridge gave Grace the chance to exercise her green thumb, and she worked with the landscape crew to plan the gardens and greenhouses. Wildflowers were her particular passion, and as such, the stream garden was planted with trillium and violets. In 1956, the Men’s Garden Club of Minneapolis helped organize the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Two years later, working with the Lake Minnetonka Garden Club, Grace provided funding for addition acreage for the project. Years later after her passing, her sons established the Grace B. Dayton Wildflower Garden there as a way to honor and memorialize her.
Dayton’s, which George oversaw as president, kept growing and growing. Always aware of her position in society, the ever-modest Grace gave substantial financial support to a number of cultural, educational and social-welfare institutions. She was especially active in the church, served as a trustee of both the Dayton and the Dakota Wesleyan University foundations, and during both World War I and World War II spent many hours volunteering for the American Red Cross.
Music was one of her many interests, and she joined the advisory board to the Women’s Association of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. She also served on boards and committees for such organizations as the American Association of University Women, Friends of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and the United Negro College Fund.
Seeing the world became Grace’s great passion after George’s death in 1950, as he had never really enjoyed traveling. She and friend Oscar Webber, of the Hudson’s department store of Detroit, would often travel together by ocean liner. And every fall, she visited her niece, Grace Bliss, in New York City, where they enjoyed shopping and theatergoing.
Grace Bliss Dayton was, in every sense of the term, a grand dame. Raising five boys who went on to become some of the Twin Cities’ most successful businessmen is just one of the many reasons why. Among the others: her stamina and courage when sorrows arose, her impressive abilities working with all kinds of people, and finally her dignity, stature and beauty that shone wherever she went.
Louise Heffelfinger Bell
Like her friends Juty Pillsbury and Grace Dayton, Louise Heffelfinger Bell married well, becoming Mrs. James Ford Bell in 1902. Her husband was known not only as the founder of General Mills but also for his magnificent library, which he eventually donated to the University of Minnesota. Nevertheless, Louise was far from the glamorous grand-dame type, according to her grandchildren.
In contrast, she was known for her engaging personality, her fun-loving disposition and her great parties. Short and stocky, she was a natural athlete, readily vanquishing male opponents on the tennis court. She even learned how to load and shoot a gun to hunt grouse and quail, activities quite unusual for women at the time. Despite developing arthritis later in life, she continued to play tennis with her cane in one hand and her racket in the other.
Born in 1878 in Minneapolis, Louise attended a private boarding school for girls in Philadelphia, where she qualified for the girls’ baseball (more likely softball) team. Meanwhile, her brother, William Walter “Pudge” Heffelfinger, a star athlete at Yale, became the first professional football player in the country.
Soon after her wedding, Louise gave birth to four children: James Jr., Charles, Samuel and Sally. All four were born at the family home, Belford, where there was plenty of household staff on hand to help, including a nanny, a butler, a cook, maids, a chauffeur and a gardener.
Sited high on a hill overlooking Lake Minnetonka, Belford was perfect for outdoor sports: boating and sailing in summer and sledding in winter. When the children were young, neighbors would join them for popular toboggan competitions, pushing off from a tower to pick up speed on the iced track. When conditions were right, they would glide right over to Breezy Point then have to lug their toboggans all the way back.
Come summer, Louise liked to take guests out on Loafden, her 44-foot flat-bottomed motorboat. For entertainment, she would bring her little piano out to the boat deck and have popular Twin Cities pianist Sid Williams play their favorite tunes. Her husband decided this was not safe, so she moved her little piano back inside. But they did bring Loafden along to Rainy Lake, a beloved family retreat.
In addition to sports, Louise loved theater and music, most of all the performers. During World War II when the circus came to town, she invited the cast to Belford, charging an admission fee of donated cigarettes for the troops.
The original estate was built in 1908 by the first Bell, James Stroud Bell, who came to Minneapolis from Philadelphia to head the Washburn-Crosby Company. His architect, William Channing Whitney, created a Mediterranean-style country manor of gleaming white stucco and red tile. Bell promptly named it Belford, combining his name and that of his wife, Sallie Montgomery Ford. Next to inherit the estate was James Ford Bell, who transformed it from a summer house into a three-story, year-round residence.
In 1964, James Ford Bell Jr. became the third Bell to occupy the home, along with his wife, Elinor Watson, a talented pianist and music lover. They decided to remove the third floor, which had been added for the household staff. The still spacious interior offered enough room for two grand pianos and comfortable seating in the drawing room as well as a separate formal dining room, handsome library, sunroom, kitchen and bath.
The exterior of Belford retained much of its neoclassical façade, featuring a symmetrical design with two wings projecting out from the center. The lakeside terrace showcased the European influences with its Corinthian columns, balustrade and arched windows. Alongside the house were gardens blooming with Louise’s favorite flower, pink peonies. The upper terrace boasted a series of tall, round columns, reminiscent of a Roman forum, that framed another garden. On the other side of the drive was the large rectangular swimming pool, also framed with tall white columns, as well as a plaza for Louise’s piano and seating for guests.
Throughout her life, Louise loved to throw parties, often out by the pool, where Williams would play her piano. For big events, she would invite upward of 75 guests to the cabin in the nearby woods, a special treat and a complete escape from the formality of Belford. There, guests would feast on festive dinners and dance the night away.
Above all, Louise was a show-biz fanatic. She often accompanied her husband on business trips to New York City, where she would indulge in the latest Broadway hits and nightclub music. It was said that when Cole Porter was impoverished, she helped keep him alive with financial support. Louise visited Manhattan so often that she established her own circle there, including many prominent New Yorkers.
In her later life, she continued her philanthropy and, despite her arthritis, kept right on traveling to Rainy Lake, New York City and other favorite haunts. Enjoying herself as usual, she died suddenly of a heart attack in 1961 just miles from her beloved Belford. And while she might not have called herself a grand dame, Louise Heffelfinger Bell most certainly left a legacy to sing about.
Celebrated Wayzata writer Bette Hammel is the author of such books as Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka, Legendary Homes of the Minneapolis Lakes and Wild About Architecture.