As his career wound down in the second decade of the 20th century, Dr. James Quinn and his wife, Frances, began to spend their summers in a “vine-covered shack” on a farm at Larpenteur and Snelling avenues.
The 80-acre tract on the northeast corner of the intersection had been in the Quinn family since 1865, and by 1912 most of it was rented by the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Experiment Station for crop research.
In the warm months, the Quinns lived on the remaining five acres, residing in winter at a hotel in downtown St. Paul. It was a habit shared by several other residents in proximity of Snelling and Larpenteur, at that time beyond the reach of utility services.
“We both enjoy ‘roughing it,’ and our friends seem to also, for we always have a house full over the week end,” Mrs. Quinn told a reporter.
Quinn, invariably described as “popular” and “genial,” was a prominent physician, by that time chief surgeon with the Great Northern Railway. He also had served as Ramsey County coroner and president of the county medical society.
His father, William, was a Kentuckian who came to this area in 1846 and was counted among the “old settlers” along with the likes of Ramsey, Sibley, Larpenteur and Hoyt. William first farmed in the Merriam Park district and moved with his wife and 10-year-old James to the Snelling farm in newly organized Rose Township in 1865.
William was an officer in the North Star Grange, a political and social organization for farmers, a member of the county and state horticultural societies, a county commissioner and Republican Party activist.
James may have attended the one-room school that operated on the southeast corner of Snelling and Larpenteur at the time. It’s known for certain that he attended a Methodist seminary in Illinois before enrolling at the University of Minnesota. He earned his medical degree from Columbia University in New York City.
Dr. Quinn returned to St. Paul and joined the practice of Dr. John Murphy, a pioneer physician. It was an era when the railroads had begun hiring “surgeons” to treat the phenomenal number of injuries their workers incurred, and Quinn and Murphy gradually took on more and more of that type of work.
Quinn became a familiar figure on the streets of St. Paul, in a buggy pulled by his buckskin mare, Topsy.
During his stint as coroner, an elected position, Quinn was described as something of a dandy by a St. Paul Daily Globe reporter: “You rarely see him twice in succession with the same suit. He pays big money for his clothes and usually keeps pace with fashion’s requirements. . . . In winter the doctor wears a fine chinchilla overcoat so long that it almost drags the ground.”
A well-known sportsman, Quinn was president of the St. George’s Snowshoe Club, which participated in the early Winter Carnivals. In 1888, the club fielded a baseball team during the carnival and Quinn played centerfield in snowshoes.
He was an avid hunter and fisherman and helped found both the St. Paul Rod and Gun Club and the Mississippi Gun and Rod Club, the latter with a clubhouse and grounds at Balsam Lake, Wis. As a newspaper noted, “Besides playing a red-hot game of sinch [probably the card game Cinch], ‘doc’ can tell a story, sing a song or dance a jig with any of the boys. Now and then he takes his dogs and gun with him and goes off into the woods to shoot welch [sic] rarebits.”
Quinn also shot himself on one occasion. While groping through a closet in his office downtown, searching for a collar for one of his many hunting dogs, the doctor accidentally discharged an old pistol kept there. He had to have the index finger and a portion of his left hand amputated.
Possibly drawing on that experience, Quinn gave a talk on skin grafting at the North Dakota State Medical Association meeting in Grand Forks several months later.
By the time of his father’s death in 1895, the younger Quinn had left private practice for the employ of the Great Northern Railway. He rented out the Snelling property to a farmer until the university took over.
“It is doubtful if there is another as fine a piece of property in all of Ramsey County,” said Prof. Andrew Boss of the experiment station.
Quinn apparently was on good terms with Bill Kidder, the manager of the Curtiss Northwest Airport on the south side of Larpenteur, and in 1920 turned to Kidder for help when insects infested his apple trees.
In what Kidder later claimed was the first example anywhere of aerial crop dusting, one of his pilots sprayed lead arsenate, a commonly used insecticide at the time, on Quinn’s trees. (Lead arsenate was later replaced by the more benign DDT.) It worked, although Quinn had to pay for a neighbor’s chickens that were killed in the process.
In that same year, a newspaper described Quinn as “still young and active in heart and deed,” but his health soon began to fail. He died in late 1923 at his residence in the Marlborough Apartment Hotel downtown. St. Paul Mayor Laurence Hodgson spoke at his funeral.
“His genial, cordial and companionable disposition tolled up probably the largest acquaintance ever enjoyed by any physician in St. Paul . . . no society or association meeting seemed complete without him,” noted the journal, Minnesota Medicine.
The Quinn farm was rented to a truck gardener until a realty company put it on the market in 1933. The new addition was called “Falcon Heights,” an early use of the name that the new city would formally adopt in 1949.
“We hear on every side that this is a buyer’s market,” said the realtor’s ad as the Great Depression deepened. “It is our opinion that St. Paul buyers of home sites will take advantage of this new suburban opening. Prices are in keeping with the conditions and times.”