The St. Croix Falls Historical Society is hosting a program and presentation of this research on the evening of Thursday, October 27th at the St. Croix Falls Public Library at 6:30 pm. The public is invited to join.
I first hiked the Silverbrook trail in Interstate Park on Labor Day 2021. Before my visit, I read about the remnants of a defunct prospector’s mansion on the river bluff along the trail in “St. Croix Tales and Trails” by Rosemarie Vezina Braatz. I was in search of an adventure, the ruins, and the waterfall at the end of the trail. Small snakes guided me along the path, over tiny streams, and ultimately through a set of graffitied limestone gateposts of the vanished Silverbrook estate. The trail opened into a giant meadow full of purple wild aster, ruins of bubbling artisan wells, and man-made trout ponds which feed a spring that flows over a waterfall at the edge of the river bluff. Upon visiting, it was clear this land has a history – recorded energy of greatness. Something about its natural beauty and ephemeral remains of opulence encouraged me to learn the stories of those who may have been here before. This research project began as an exploration of what I thought might have been a haunted house, local lore, and legend. Search for “Silverbrook” and you will find rumors about the mansion as home to gangsters, a brothel, generations of teens trespassing for parties, and ultimately enough notoriety for a lifetime. However, this is not where my research guided me, and the truth is far more fascinating.
I obtained a type-written property history, the author of which is unknown, from an Interstate Park employee. There I found two names marked with an asterisk next to which it said:
“1958 – 1962* Annabelle and James Rideaux
Operated a drinking club for blacks from the cities.
* Information regarding ownership during this period is sketchy.”
This led me to my search for Annabelle and James Rideaux. First, I found James’ WII Draft Card with Annabelle listed as his wife, his employer listed as The University Club, a decades-old country club for the St. Paul elite, and his home address as 707 Rondo Avenue. An avenue that doesn’t exist today for tragic reasons. This is where the untold history of Silverbrook begins as a tale of two significant places demolished in the name of progress.
Hezekiah Holbert (b. 1842- d.1912) and his wife Fannie Holbert (b.1850- d.1918). Images courtesy of Ancestry.com.
Hezekiah and Fannie Holbert built the 19-room, limestone, mansion on over 200 acres in 1895 as a summer retreat from their home at 659 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hezekiah and Fannie along with three live-in servants, Hezekiah’s mother, and five children lived seasonally at Silverbrook. Hezekiah was a banker and grain broker, but he purchased this land to try his luck at speculating and established the Holbert Mining and Mercantile Company. Hezekiah was convinced there was a mineral fortune in what is now Interstate Park. You can visit the defunct copper mine and laboratory ruins while hiking the Silverbrook trail today. Hezekiah and Fannie only spent a few summers at the mansion. Interstate Park was established after much opposition from Holbert, and when it was clear he could not monetize the land, he sold Silverbrook in 1908. Thus began a long string of moderately wealthy landowners from the Twin Cities who used the property and mansion as a summer playground.
Photos that Robert Payne took of the Silverbrook property, 1940. Images courtesy of Interstate Park.
The same was true for Robert and Nina Payne from the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood in St. Paul, who purchased Silverbrook in 1929 and undertook the task of updating the property and installing a large stone fountain and wading pool, the remnants of which are still visible today. Robert and Nina created an informational booklet describing the property and its features shown here, and it has proved to be an invaluable resource to understand the immensity of the Silverbrook Estate.
Silverbrook on the St. Croix Booklet by Robert Payne. Image courtesy of Interstate Park.
After many years of enjoying their country retreat, the Paynes sold the property to Frank and Agnes Wukawitz who developed it into The Silverbrook Resort – a Swiss-style ski resort. They turned the mansion into a ski lodge with a cafe and clear-cut a ski hill, behind it down to the river promising a 100-foot drop. However, the resort operated for one season before Frank Wukawitz unexpectedly passed away and Agnes Wukawitz was unable to continue running the resort. Agnes sold the property to James and Annabelle Rideaux in 1956.
Annabelle and James Rideaux
Annabelle and James Rideaux were business owners, civil rights activists, socialites, and residents of St. Paul’s thriving, Black neighborhood Rondo. They were both born in 1906 in southern states, James in Louisiana, and Annabelle in Alabama. However, they did not meet until they both ventured north, to Minnesota in search of opportunity. Annabelle left Alabama in the late 1920s and moved to Minnesota with her baby daughter, Muriel, and her Mother. James and Annabelle married in St. Paul in 1935.
James found work in St. Paul in affluent white country clubs like the University Club and the Town and Country Club. Later, he worked for the railroad. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was a Red Cap Night Captain at Union Depot. He used his position as a Red Cap to help Black travelers find safe lodging – often sending them to Rondo where Annabelle ran a boarding house for travelers. This is an example of his commitment to combating racial injustice and the struggle for Civil Rights for Black Americans. His commitment radiated and impacted everyone in his circle. Most Notably, his brother, Woodrow Rideaux, was the President of the Los Angeles, Watts Chapter, NAACP in the 1970s and ’80s. After James died in 1990, he was awarded the Roy Wilkins Award for his service to the cause of Civil Rights. Both Annabelle and James were also devoted to their Church. In 1945 James was appointed the President of the Brotherhood of Camphor United Methodist Church. Later, he was appointed a member of the board of trustees.
Shortly after moving to Minnesota, Annabelle’s name started appearing in the society column of the St. Paul Recorder and Minneapolis Spokesman. She was a gifted seamstress and taught community homemaking and sewing classes at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center and Welcome Hall. Her descendants also believe she tailored suits for notorious Chicago Gangster, John Dillinger, who is known to have spent significant time in Saint Paul. However, there is no way to verify this. Annabelle was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, St. Anthony Hill Garden Club, the St. Paul Urban League, the Cameo Social Club, and was the Housing Committee Chair for the NAACP National Convention in 1960. In 1963 she owned and operated “Annabelle’s” dress shop in Minneapolis.
For most of their married life, James and Annabelle hosted friends, family, and community at their home at 707 Rondo Avenue. The Rondo neighborhood was a mixed-income neighborhood with a prospering middle class. It was home to 80% of St. Paul’s African American population. However, in 1959 they were forced to relocate by the City of St. Paul. During this time, the City was implementing plans for Interstate 94 and demolishing Rondo to make way for the infrastructure in the name of Urban Renewal. Residents were offered inadequate compensation for their properties, and the initiative lead to a massive loss of wealth, public space, and culture for the Rondo community. Families and business owners watched as all they worked for was systemically destroyed. The November 13th, 1959, issue of the Minneapolis Spokesman announces James and Annabelle’s move,
“Come December 1, Mr. and Mrs. James Rideaux of 707 Rondo Ave., will be greeting their friends in their newly decorated and remodeled home at 765 Marshall Ave.”
Their home was one of approximately 700 family homes demolished by the City of St. Paul. During this time, while their home and the homes and gathering places of Rondo were in jeopardy, they were operating the St. Croix Valley Country Club. This made their work in providing a place of rest, relaxation, and community even more important.
The St. Croix Valley Country Club
Annabelle spent 1956 redecorating the Silverbrook mansion and readying it for weekend guests. James quietly maintained the property and prepared gardens for Annabelle to plant and grow flowers. They renamed Silverbrook, “The St. Croix Valley Country Club.” This was the beginning of their dream of owning and operating a country club. The first public mention of the St. Croix Valley Country Club is in the society column of the January 18th, 1957, issue of the St. Paul Recorder.
The St. Croix Valley Country Club served as a satellite community meeting place for Rondo social and civic clubs like the Cameo Social Club, Credjafawn Club, and the Twin City Forty Club. These clubs were created in the early twentieth century because of the prejudice Black St. Paul residents experienced. They were not welcome in white society or to patronize many of the city’s restaurants, bars, hotels, and clubs. Instead, Black residents gathered at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, churches, living rooms, rumpus rooms, and backyards. A Country Club, an escape from the city and to the St. Croix River Valley, would have been a welcome addition to the venues of Rondo. A weekend at the country club meant socializing, hiking, fishing, archery, and an ongoing game of pinochle with Annabelle on the back porch overlooking Silverbrook Falls.
The St. Croix Valley Country Club was also home to NAACP chapter meetings and celebrations. Most notably, an event was held on January 20th, 1957, where the St. Paul Branch of the NAACP installed new officers and discussed the moral aspects of segregated housing. Two notable attendees of this event were Reverend Floyd Massey Jr. and Reverend Denzil A. Carty who were both NAACP board members. Both Reverend Massey and Carty were local civil rights activists and leaders who fought for not only housing equity, but equity in public schools and the workplace. Reverend Carty lobbied for the passage of the Minnesota Fair Housing act in 1961 which legally prohibited housing discrimination in the state of Minnesota. Reverand Floyd Massey Jr. was the first Black man in the United States to be elected Chairman of the State Pastor’s Conference in 1957.
Images courtesy of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center Archive and the Minnesota Historical Society.
The image below is from January 21, 1957- the day after the NAACP Officer’s dinner at the St. Croix Valley Country Club. This photo was taken in Reverend Massey’s home after his formal induction as Chairman of the State Pastor’s Conference, an event at which Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave an address. Reverend Massey is seated next to Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Carty is standing behind him. In looking at these two events, it becomes clear that the struggle for civil rights was very much alive in Minnesota and Wisconsin and had gained tremendous momentum by 1957. Annabelle and James’ country club on the St. Croix river bluff housed crucial discussions and leaders of this movement during its most critical time.
The country club was a place of respite, Black excellence, and luxury – Debutantes, birthday parties, and relaxation were plentiful. From 1957 to approximately 1961, the Cameo Social Club held Cotillion events like charm school, luncheons, and slumber parties at the country club. The Cameo Club would organize a bus to transport young debutantes from Rondo to spend a weekend at the country club before the culminating Cotillion ball at the end of the season. Typically, the ball was hosted in a rented ballroom of a hotel in Minneapolis or St. Paul. The Cameo Social Club’s Cotillion program was the first of its kind in the upper Midwest. Many of the debutantes in Annabelle’s care went on to have impactful careers and carried on the tradition of serving their communities. Joyce Ann Hughes, shown in the photo below, was the first Black woman to teach at the University of Minnesota Law School and to receive a tenure track position at any historically white institution. Joyce Ann also went on to serve on the Board of Directors of the National Urban League.
Annabelle’s descendants described her as the quintessential high society hostess, and she was the driving force behind the St. Croix Valley Country Club. James was quiet, enjoyed the club’s solitude, and liked hunting on the property. A local hunter paid Annabelle to hunt mink on the property regularly and once gifted her a mink fur coat. For Annabelle, minding your manners was a way of life and her grandsons say that because of her influence, they will never leave a room with a bed unmade without mitered corners.
While Annabelle and James worked hard to establish their country home-away-from-home, their work and their community were in St. Paul. The distance from St. Paul to the country club proved to be challenging and as Rondo splintered to make way for the new interstate, they foreclosed on the Silverbrook property in 1962.
After the foreclosure, a Los Angeles-based real estate developer purchased the property. Vandals were especially tough on the mansion, even going so far as to cut a hole in the roof, and the developer hired a local family to live in the home and maintain it. In 1970, the developer sold Silverbrook to the State of Wisconsin and it remained vacant. The State of Wisconsin determined it did not have the resources to maintain the property and declared it a hazard in 1974. They burned the mansion down and removed any remnants of what it once was. They removed marble columns from the veranda and filled the poured concrete foundation with earth and rubble.
For the past year, I have been completely enthralled with the legacy of Silverbrook and Annabelle’s spirit- A Black woman, a beloved matriarch, and a graceful leader who thrived for herself and others. Because of a chance encounter on Ancestry.com, I met and befriended her great-granddaughter, Cherrelle Swain, who is currently working on a documentary about her ancestral healing process and the story of her remarkable great-grandmother. My research work continues by supporting her.
On Memorial Day 2022, Cherrelle, her brother JJ, and her uncles, Gordon and Joel, met me in the gravel parking lot near the crumbling gates to Silverbrook on highway S in Osceola. We covered ourselves in mosquito spray and walked down the steep gravel driveway to the clearing where the mansion used to be. Gordon and Joel fondly remembered spending summertime at the St. Croix Valley Country Club with their grandparents, Annabelle and James. They were surprised at how much the landscape has changed since then. Trees now blocked what used to be a clear path down to the St. Croix River, where they fished from a dock. They also said that Silverbrook falls flowed a lot stronger then, likely because of the dammed spring and pumphouse on the property, and they spent afternoons playing behind the waterfall. They spoke warmly of their memories of following the mink hunter around the property and learning to hunt. And reminisced with laughter and disgust at their grandfather roasting a raccoon with onions and carrots. A few hikers stopped us to ask what we were doing and if we could give them directions to the falls Joel was the first to reply,” This all used to be ours.” Cherrelle and JJ all the while listening, filming, and learning family history from their uncles who expressed so much pride in not only the family’s past but the future. I was able to witness a family reconnect with each other and the land that once meant so much to them. I feel both unworthy and endlessly fortunate for that experience.
However, this is not the end. As Annabelle guides us forward, research continues, and I am committed to ensuring others who hike the Silverbrook Trail know about the remarkable Rideauxs who did so much for their community, their people, and refused to be erased.
I would like to extend a special thank you to the following organizations that have helped me so far in my research: The Minnesota Historical Society, Hallie Q. Brown Community Center Archives, the Rondo Center of Diverse Expression, ReConnect Rondo, the St. Croix Falls Historical Society, the Polk County Historical Society, Interstate Park, and the Swain Family. Thank you for your time and resources in helping me to share the history of this remarkable pGordon, Annabelle and James’ grandson, holds a printed copy of photos of the St. Croix Valley Country Club, 2022.lace in the river valley. To learn more about the efforts to restore Rondo and preserve the neighborhood’s history please visit the Rondo Center of Diverse Expression, ReConnect Rondo, and the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center Archives.