Thursday, February 29, 2024

A Dreamy Look at Historic Houses in a Small Town


Do you ever go wandering down the rabbit hole of looking at old houses online? Do you hop onto Pinterest or Facebook into those pages that have you wandering through photographs of the insides of homes and castles and all the cool old buildings? Or do you yourself live in one of those Victorian masterpieces? If you do, I'd love to hear about it!

Occasionally, while writing a novel, I spend time either online or by driving around neighborhoods in my story setting, hoping for likely homes my characters might reside in, or deciding where an imaginary home could be placed. This was especially fun to do when I wrote Polly (Apron Strings, Book One), and part of the reason why I chose Hudson, Wisconsin, as my story's location, rather than one of the other small towns along the northern Mississippi. 

In fact, Hudson is located on the St. Croix River, where it flows from northern Wisconsin and then meets the mighty Mississippi. The Willow River is a tributary of the St. Croix which also conjoins there, offering a state park with scenic trails and views of graceful waterfalls, as well as good fishing.

This confluence of navigable rivers is the location early settlers chose to establish a trading post first, and later, lumber mills. As the setting was so prime for the development of the lumber and railroad industries, and so conveniently located to nearby developing St. Paul, it became a natural place for wealthy businessmen and founders to build stately homes, a number of which have been added to the Register of Historic Places. Let's take a look at a few of them.

Fredric L. Darling House / Darling-O'Brien House

The first we'll visit is the Fredric L. Darling House, built in 1857 by architects Amasah and Ammah Andrews. The Andrews twins were transplants from New York, and it was said that their style "Hellenized Hudson". They built this home for Mr. Silas Staples the same year that Hudson was incorporated into a city. 

Staples had immigrated from Maine and became engaged in the St. Croix Valley lumber industry. He eventually became Hudson's third mayor, but sold the house to Fredric Darling in 1865. Darling had arrived from Vermont and came to Hudson to open a dry goods store.

When Darling died in 1899, having become known as a gentleman merchant and one of the last pioneer merchants of the county, the home came into the hands of cigarmaker and insurance man-turned-county sheriff, Cornelius O'Brien, and has remained in the O'Brien family. So the home eventually became known as the Darling-O'Brien House.

The home's style is Greek Revival. It stands in an L-shape two stories above a stone foundation. The style is most notable for it's gable portico and four octagonal columns.

Herman L. Humphrey House

William Dwelley House

Less imposing but important because they showed the mid-18th century influence of the Italianate style of architecture at the time, are the Herman L. Humphrey House, home to U.S. Representative Herman L. Humphrey, and the William Dwelley House, another pioneer who made his fortune in Wisconsin's pine lumber industry after he arrived from Maine in 1850.

And then there are the Grand Dames of the town. First, there's the Phipps mansion:

William H. Phipps House - Phipps Inn Bed & Breakfast

One of Hudson's prizes is the William H. Phipps house, a beautiful, Queen Anne Victorian now operating as a B&B. Here are a just a few of the interior photos from Trip Advisor


With it's verandas, balconies, and octagonal tower, it's hard to not have fanciful dreams about living in such a house, and it makes me wonder what it would have been like back in 1884, when it was first constructed, although it is said that not too many alterations were made between then and the time it landed on the National Register a hundred years later. The butlers pantry became a laundry room, the kitchen was updated, and both fire alarm and sprinkler systems were added for safety. The front sidewalk was replaced with brick. 

As one of the most significant residents of the home, it was named after William Henry Phipps for his many contributions to the welfare of Hudson. Both he and his son were known for their philanthropies. Of Phipps, it is said, he was an "energetic, progressive citizen, never doing things by halves but a believer in the doctrine that what is worth doing is worth doing with one's might." 

Phipps was born in England, but he and his family emigrated to Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1855. After several years, he took a position in the state's treasury office in Madison. In 1875 he became a land commissioner of the North Wisconsin Railroad Company, and settled in Hudson. In Hudson, William acquired considerable wealth as a land commissioner and lumberman.

During his time in Hudson, William also served in a number of governmental capacities, from county board of commissioners, to mayor, and to Wisconsin State Senate. He held other town board offices as well, including bank president to the First National Bank of Hudson for thirty years.

Phipps was also involved in his church as Sunday School Superintendent, and when he saw the need for a public library, he took action. In 1904, after meeting with Andrew Carnegie, he led the way to Hudson having one of the earliest Carnegie-funded libraries completed in the state.

There were many other contributions to Hudson made by William Henry Phipps, industrialist, lumber barren, politician, and philanthropist. Benevolent, religious, and civic-minded, Phipps died in the garden of his home in July, 1924.

He would have been an elderly man, enjoying his residence at the time my heroine Polly lived in Hudson. I wish I'd written him into the story!

There are many historic homes in Hudson, but let's look at one more iconic work of architecture.
The John S. Moffat House - Octagon House Museum

The John S. Moffat House, Hudson's Octagon House (not to be confused with the Watertown, Wisconsin Octagon House) was built in 1855 by Judge John Shaw Moffet. It is on beautiful grounds directly across the road from the Phipps house, and is surrounded by garden landscape, garden house, and carriage house. 

John Shaw Moffet worked in New York primarily as a storekeeper until 1854. Then, on the advice of his brother-in-law he emigrated to Hudson, Wisconsin. He arrived with his wife and ten-year-old daughter by train, riverboat, and lastly horse and wagon (much like the journey of characters in my novel The Green Veil, Empire in Pine, Book One, who came from Michigan to the Wisconsin woods).

Shortly after arriving, he became a police justice in Hudson
. In 1867, he was admitted to the bar, and he became a county judge in 1869, a position he held until 1877. While a judge, in 1871, he went into a law partnership with his son-in-law, Thomas Hughes. Moffat practiced law until his death in 1903. But that's not all. He also became director and later president of the Hudson/St. Croix Valley Produce Company. 

If you tour the Moffat Octagon House Museum, you will find many of the artifacts, family photos, and historic furnishings intact. To see more pictures of this interesting home, visit the St. Croix Valley Historical site.

In writing Polly, I imagined that her grandfather had also gained his financial success in the lumber industry. He too "built" his lovely Queen Anne Victorian in Hudson--all imaginary of course!

Just for fun, would you like to see how I imagined Polly's home, with a few modifications?

I wanted Polly's home to have a porch, but not a wrap-around. I wanted her home to be big and beautiful, but not grander than the Phipps House. If you look at the plan for the lower level, it was nearly just so, with her sitting room and dining room to the left of the entry hall becoming serving rooms in Polly's Tea House, and the Parlor becoming her gift shop. I put reversed the kitchen and back porch, and allowed the hall to continue straight out the back. I visualized a small butler's pantry between the dining room and kitchen. 

The second floor was just as in the novel. I don't think I spell it out directly, as to which room belongs to whom, but I would imagine the largest room with the bay window to have been her grandfather's room, the one she turns into a sitting room for her and Mrs. Adams and where she shares invites Ross to rest after his personal tragedy. 

The exterior of Polly's Queen Anne is a painted in various shades of beige with white trim. Do you find the Queen Anne style to be romantic, or would you prefer something more like the Italianate, or something as unique as an octagon house? Or something else entirely? 

If a Queen Anne suits you, or you just like to daydream, you might enjoy this picture gallery of Queen Anne architecture

Have you read Polly yet? I hope you'll enjoy wandering through her stately home and Holloway House, the name of her tea house. Nellie, book two, in the Apron Strings series just released on February 15, and Book Three, Priscilla, comes out on March 15. Get ready to follow Mrs. Canfield's Cookery Book through the decades from 2020-1920, one new title each month!


  1. I love looking at old homes, online and in person. A wonderful article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for posting today. That Octagon House is so unique!!

    1. I think I need to do a writer up about the other Octagon House in Wisconsin, more famous.

  3. I, too, enjoy looking at old homes/buildings/barns in my area and online. I can spend a large amount of time daydreaming about them and what secrets they hold! I love this post and I'm going to buy Polly! Thanks for telling us about it, Naomi!

    1. Thank you so much, Karen! They do hearken to the imagination.!

  4. I remember visiting the Moffat Museum, as my mom was an antiquer and we tried to visit all the octagon houses in Wisconsin. It was lovely and Hudson was lovely, I did a few art shows there in the 70's.
    It's interesting that you chose the Queen Anne for your story----we owned a 1902 very similar home in Menomonie, Wisconsin. It had stained glass and leaded windows everywhere and a three story full size (12 foot wide turret). Of course it had been broken into apartments during the 30's and we attempted to continue restorations begun by the previous owner. The original builder/owner was a lumber man and in construction---so there were lots of wood built-ins in the original plan.
    Sadly we moved to Chicagoland and couldn't take it with us...but it was definitely a money pit, and on a teacher's salary not practical.
    All the homes you chose for this article were very interesting. We planning on visiting N. Wisconsin this summer and I will put Hudson on our list! Sandi

    1. You have so many cool connections! Wow, I'd love to Google earth the address to the home you lived in and look at it now. Menominee has a lot of interesting architecture. Thanks for jotting your message and I hope you have a wonderful summer trip!

  5. My brother and I often join tours in Milwaukee of old homes. We also visited the Watertown octagon house. Houses built a century or longer ago have fanciness that missing today. Stained glass windows, molding trim, little nooks and crannies.

    1. I haven't taken a tour in a long time, but it does make me want to. Yes to the nooks and crannies. I visited the Watertown Octagon house when I was in grade school, and it's still very visual to me. My grandpa grew up in Watertown! I live outside Superior now, and here we have Fairlawn Mansion, and just over the bridge in Duluth is Glensheen Mansion. Spectacular houses to see if you're ever up this way.

  6. A Victorian Queen Anne is my dream house, and I enjoyed this post so much. It was a pleasure reading it.

    1. I am very drawn to the Queen Anne style too (clearly). They're fun to imagine living in. Seems most of my characters live in cabins or on farms, so Polly's house was a real treat to create.