A 1929 home on the Dellwood Peninsula hasn’t changed much in nearly 100 years, both inside and out. The same family owns the property, using it as a summer home just like its original owner, Francis G. Okie, described as a “distracted” inventor who became a member of 3M’s first dream team.
It is likely that Lucius Ordway, a 3M investor who spent the summer in Dellwood in the late 1880s, convinced a few fellow leaders to settle in the rural community, including Edgar Ober, chairman, and Okie, l man responsible for waterproof sandpaper. His invention helped revive the struggling St. Paul business, known at the time as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing.
Okie’s grandson, Jesse Okie, official custodian of the remarkable property, shared both his grandfather’s success story and the house’s unique story – one with a connection to F. Scott Fitzgerald – during a rare visit to the residence.
Francis “Frank” Okie was working in the ink business in Philadelphia in 1920 when he wrote to 3M vice president William McKnight (another Dellwood summer resident). He had an idea for sandpaper that could be used with water to reduce dust that caused lung disease among workers in auto assembly lines. Would the company provide sand samples?
“Mr. McKnight saw an opportunity,” Okie said. “3M hired my grandfather and acquired his sandpaper patents.”
So the family of seven, with his wife Rebecca and all but the oldest of five, left the East Coast and moved to St. Paul’s Lincoln Avenue. This was in 1922. Okie started the research department, where he was joined by Dick Drew, the inventor of the Scottish ribbon, and Richard Carlton.
In the book “A Century of Innovation – The Story of 3M”, the three men were dubbed the Dream Team, each bringing unique skills to the growing company. Okie has been described as “the accomplished inventor, open to new ideas; bright, but distracted.
He often had eight to ten hats on his hat tree at the office because he forgot to wear them at home at night, according to the book. Jesse Okie added that his grandfather would drive one of his two Packards to work, be driven home by a colleague, via the golf course, and drive the second car the next day, ending up with both vehicles in 3M parking lot. and none at home the next morning.
Francis and Rebecca Okie bought the Dellwood property in 1924 to use as a summer cottage. After burning down five years later, the couple learned that two 1890s cottages near the Yacht Club were due to be demolished.
The Obers were building a new house south of the clubhouse that required clearing two of the oldest remaining cabins in Dellwood. They belonged to Laura Read and Alfred Clarks. Rather than raze them, Ober gave the cabins to the Okies.
It was his grandmother, Jesse said, who noticed the similarity between the gables of the two cottages and saw the potential to bring the two together.
A photo of the winter move appears in Paul Clifford Larson’s book, “A Walk Through Dellwood”. Trucks and horse teams pulled the houses through the ice and up to the site at the top of the hill. St. Paul architect Edwin Lundie was enlisted to help unite the two chalets in a style described as neo-colonial.
As with many houses in Dellwood, the Okie Cottage had a connection to Fitzgerald. He was a close friend of Cecil Read, son of Laura Read, who put the novelist and his wife Zelda for a time in the cottage before he moved.
The connection always catches the interest of the house, which is included in several books from Fitzgerald sites in St. Paul and White Bear Lake.
The old-fashioned interior and eclectic furnishings of the house haven’t changed much over the century. Francis Okie’s collections of American glass, fossils and rocks, rare books and Native American art are on display throughout the house. Her favorite rocker still sits in the elegant living room next to a marble inlaid fireplace. The expansive library can be viewed from a staircase overlooking the Ober half of the house, a feature designed by Lundie. The beautiful Ponderosa pine solidifies a double wall connecting the two chalets and makes the living room and dining room warm and inviting.
His grandfather died in 1975; Rebecca in 1949, when Jesse was 2 years old. Their son Richardson and his wife Susan, Jesse’s parents, also lived in the house until their death.
Guardianship of the family heirloom, co-owned with two sisters who live in the East, now rests with Jesse, a retired architect with an education in Princeton, who lives on Lake Avenue. One day he might build his own chalet on the site, he said, in the dell overlooking the lake. It would face west toward the setting sun, a sight Fitzgerald would have seen before leaving Minnesota for good in 1922 for Paris and New York. The inspiration for the “Great Gatsby”, the main reason we still talk about today, was already brewing in his head.