On a cold day in January 1876, Mahala Fisk Pillsbury of Minneapolis, a prominent community member and philanthropist, took on a new title: Minnesota’s First Lady. Her husband of twenty years, businessman John Sargent Pillsbury, had just been elected for his first of three terms as Minnesota’s governor.
This gown, worn by Mrs. Pillsbury at one of her husband’s inaugurations, most likely that first one, came to Hennepin History Museum many decades later after being carefully packed away and preserved by family members as a memento of the occasion.
Mrs. Pillsbury. Hennepin History Museum collection. Chalk on paper.
A founding member and president of the Stevens Square home for elderly women and children, Mahala Fisk Pillsbury was a formidable force in the world of Minneapolis social services and public welfare. She was equally at home wearing a ballgown in her role as the governor’s wife or with her shirt sleeves rolled up as an active participant in the activities of the social services organizations that she founded.
You can see the gown now at Hennepin History Museum, where it is a centerpiece of Behind the Ballot Box, an exhibit exploring election on the 1st floor. The exhibit is open now through February 5.
This fez belonged to Henry Sparby, who was a member of the Zuhrah Temple and the Minnesota Consistory No. 2 as early as 1920. The model for Mr. Sparby’s fez is our own George H. Christian—first owner and overseer of construction of the Christian mansion where Hennepin History Museum is now located.
The Zuhrah Temple is the local chapter of the fraternal system known as Shriners International. With over 2,000 members, the Zuhrah Temple is the largest shrine in the Midwest region.
Today, the order is based in Minnetonka, but it has a long history. It was one of the first centers in the Midwest, obtaining a charter in 1886 along with St. Paul, Chicago, St. Louis, Cedar Rapids, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids.
The Zuhrah Temple is proud that the first uniformed marching unit was the Zuhrah Patrol, meaning the long tradition of Shriners marching in parades began here in Hennepin County. There have also been three leaders (“Potentates”) in Zuhrah history to become national leaders (“Imperial Potentates”).
Shriner fraternities, like the Zuhrah Temple, are dedicated to fellowship and philanthropy. They work to improve their communities by giving back through service and financial support. Across the country, Shriners are particularly known for establishing hospitals in their communities. The Zuhrah Temple completed the Twin Cities Shrine Hospital in 1923.
The fez was donated by the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.
“”Mrs. George Chase Christian is notable among the women of Minneapolis for the wide scope and variety of her interests, nearly all of which are dedicated to the welfare of the community and its people. Not that Mrs. Christian lacks hobbies and recreation; she is fond of reading and of travel, for example, and enjoys society, but regards it as only one item and not the most important in her scheme of life.”
Hennepin History magazine, July 1957
Our beautiful home has been a museum since 1958, but prior to that it was the residence of local philanthropist Carolyn McKnight Christian. We’ll be sharing more about the Christian family and their many contributions to Hennepin County life during the coming months. To start things off, however, we’d like to share five fun facts about Mrs. Christian:
- She had a large golden retriever named Dennis; he was trained to put his paws on her shoulders and “dance” around the dining room and the living room! (How appropriate that the dining room in question is now a gallery home to Hennepin County Wags its Tail: 150 Years of People and their Pets, an exhibition up through September 18; we hope Dennis would approve!)
- A supporter of the arts and a patron of our neighbor, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Mrs. Christian was the first president of the Friends of the Institute.
- While she made her home at 2303 Third Avenue her primary residence for 36 years, Mrs. Christian was no stranger to moving: she moved 11 times as a child, as her father’s business took them across the Midwest and to the West Coast, before settling down in Minnesota.
- She loved music, and often hosted concerts in her home. The stage in Hennepin History Museum’s fireplace room is original to the house, and the room designed with musical performances in mind.
- While Mrs. Christian had no children of her own, she had seven nieces and nephews, as well as cared for three American orphaned children she and her husband met in Paris. Later in her life, she was known to her extended family as “Nana,” and took on the role as family matriarch.
There’s far more to say about Carolyn Christian, her life, and especially about her tremendous impact on our community, and we look forward to sharing these stories in coming months.
Photo: Carolyn McKnight Christian, wedding picture, April 1897