Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Pardon Me, Sam Hill


For years I’ve been exclaiming, “What in the Sam Hill….?” I’m sure it’s an unconscious minced oath, keeping me from another phrase using the word “hell,” which I know I should not yell.

Recently I listened to myself and began wondering whose name I was taking in vain. I knew Mr. Hill was a character out of the history of the Northwest and that his museum overlooks the Columbia River on the Washington side. Considering all I have been saying about him, I was glad he was dead.

With so many academic resources at my fingertips, I went straight to Wikipedia. I was richly rewarded. Apparently, the oath has nothing to do with the historical character. One theory has it that the phrase appeared in the early 1830s and combines the term Solomon (the “Sam” part”) with the word hell (or “Hill”). Go figure. The early dating leads to the possibility that Sam Hill’s mother could have perversely named her son after the saying.

In my case, whenever I use the term, I am referring to a person, and it isn’t Solomon. So next I went to the entry for Samuel Hill himself, and right off the bat I learn he was born into a Quaker family from North Carolina. Somehow that makes my desecration of his name even more offensive. Haverford and Harvard educated Sam in math, science, literature, logic, and politics.

He moved to the Northwest and became a first-class entrepreneur. His diverse enterprises included railroads, electricity, coal, iron, telephones, and, especially road construction. This latter was his passion and he is famous for building the first paved road in the Northwest, near his own property in Washington and at his own expense. One of the bridges that spans the Colombia River, connecting Oregon and Washington, is named the Sam Hill Memorial Bridge.

World travel was another passion and Sam formed friendships around the globe, counting the likes of King Albert of Belgium and Queen Marie of Romania among his pals.

Sam Hill seemed tireless in his many projects, but he was not successful at all he attempted. In 1907 he bought a large plot of land in Washington, overlooking the Columbia River, named it Maryhill after his wife and daughter, and attempted to begin a Quaker farming community. This never happened, partly because he was apparently the only Quaker around that part of the country. But he did manage to set up a successful golf course and restaurant near the border with Canada. The restaurant flourished during the years of the Prohibition, being located slightly over the border on the Canadian side.

Another of his famous constructions is a replica of Stonehenge set up on the Maryhill property. He dedicated it to those men lost in World War I, a rather large Quaker gesture to the peace testimony. He contributed other museums and a Peace Arch.

Sam Hill was not an easy man to get along with. He married Mary Hill, daughter of his early boss and railroad magnate James Hill.  (In later years his wife referred to herself as Mary Hill Hill.) Sam took Mary to settle in Seattle, but after a few years Mary decided that she did not take to the Northwest, so she and the two kids moved back to Minneapolis. (One suspects that Mary did not take to Sam Hill, and that was really why she moved.) They lived forever after in the two separate cities, although Sam visited Mary at least twice a year. He visited other women, too, but he recognized his illegitimate children, setting up a trust fund for each one. (Perhaps this was his Quaker background kicking in.)

His biographer offers the opinion that Sam Hill suffered from manic-depressive disorder, as well as paranoia, thus partially accounting for his unusual life.

At any rate, I now repent for having taken in vain the name of this interesting and somewhat Quaker person. If I ever get the chance to visit the museum at Maryhill, I will whisper an apology to his image.

In the meantime, and in the interest of gender equality, I will adopt his wife’s interesting name. I can just imagine myself saying to a grandson, “Just what in the Mary Hill Hill do you think you’re doing?!”