About Alice About Alice O'Brien

Alice M. O’Brien was born in 1891 to a family involved in the lumber business in the St. Croix River Valley.  She was one of St. Paul’s most active and visible leaders in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Her extensive travels included a roadster trip from California to Minnesota, a visit to China, a 7,000 mile expedition through Africa, and serving the wounded in France during World War I.  She devoted her time, money and organizational talents to the Women’s City Club, the Children’s Hospital, the National Prohibition Reform movement, and the presidential campaign of Wendell Wilkie.  Her flair for publicity included training Great Dane dogs to deliver opera tickets to city dignitaries and throwing free opera tickets from a plane flying over the city. She donated land in Marine on St. Croix to the state, which became the William O’Brien State Park, named after her father.

Alice Marie O’Brien Timeline

1891 Alice Marie O’Brien is born, daughter of William O’Brien and Julia Mullery, of 77 Virginia St. in Summit Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. She was the oldest of 3 children. Brothers were William J. (“Jack”) and Robert.

1900-1908 Alice attends Backus School for Girls and Visitation Convent, in St. Paul.

1911 Alice graduates from Bennett, a finishing school in New York; she drives a roadster from California to Minnesota.

1906 William O’Brien builds 1034 Summit Ave.(next to the current governor’s mansion) for his family. (photo)

1918 A skilled driver and mechanic, Alice  volunteers  as American Fund French Wounded (AFFW) motor repair worker during World War I. She travels with her friends Marguerite Davis from St. Paul and Doris Kellogg, from Bennett. They transfer to the American Red Cross, where they perform a variety of duties at or near the war zone, helping wounded and working in the canteen. (photo) Her letters to her family which describe in detail the work that they did were published by her nephew Thomond under the title, Somewhere in France.

1919 William O’Brien purchases farm house in Marine on St. Croix for family. Alice lives there, for part of each year, until she dies.  Alice’s great niece still lives in the family home.

1924 Alice’s brother Robert dies in a car accident in Daytona Beach, Florida.

1925 Alice’s father dies and Alice takes over presidency of Putnam Lumber Company, in Shamrock Florida.

1920’s (exact date unknown) Alice travels to Peking, China, taking many photographs of the villages, tradesman, farms and countryside. She purchases Chinese paintings, sculptures, bronzes of superb quality. (Several pieces are part of the permanent collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.)

1927 Alice travels to Africa, landing in Dakar, Senegal and travelling up the Congo River as well as other areas, a trip of more than 7,000 miles in 5 months. She travels in a party of five, including Grace Flandreau, who wrote Then I Saw the Congo, a detailed day-by-day account of the adventure. The book was one of the first books in English about travel in that area of Africa. Another member of the group, Charles E.  Bell, shot more than 28,000 feet of film, which eventually became a movie that was translated into 8 languages and distributed widely in 1930.

1930s-1940’s Focusing on civic and philanthropic matters, Alice becomes president of the Women’s City Club and is instrumental in raising funds for the construction of its landmark building, located at 305 St. Peter St., St. Paul. (Her nephew Thomond wrote an article about Alice’s role in the Women’s City Club, which was published by the Minnesota Historical Society, link). She also spends considerable time and effort on behalf of the Children’s Hospital, which at the time was the only Children’s Hospital between Chicago and the west coast. She served on the Board of Trustees and started the first Children’s Hospital Association, to raise money for the free bed fund.

1945 Alice donates 180 acres of rolling woodland just north of Marine on St. Croix to the State of Minnesota. She gives the land in memory of her father, creating the William O’Brien State Park, one of the most visited parks in the state.

1950 Alice launches the Wanigan III, a 72 foot long yacht with a crew of 3. (photo) She enjoys yachting and spending winters in Captiva Island, Florida.  Jay N. (Ding) Darling, a friend of Alice, donated the land for the Ding Darling Wildlife Sanctuary, in Sanibel, Florida. (link to photo of Ding, Alice and Ding’s wife, Penny)

1951 Alice starts the Alice M. O’Brien Foundation, a non-profit organization that has donated to the Children’s Hospital, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Little Sisters of the Poor, Minnesota Medical Foundation, Neighborhood House, to list only a few.

1958 Alice’s brother Jack dies in plane crash in Egypt.

1962 Alice dies of an aneurism in Iowa, where she stopped to attend a board meeting of the Ding Darling Foundation, while travelling from Minnesota to Florida.

 

No silly spoiled rich girl a la Paris Hilton, she volunteered to go overseas during WWI in order to contribute to the war effort. She left for Paris in 1918, working first as an auto mechanic and auxiliary nurse before heading to the American Red Cross canteen behind French lines.