In 1914, Clara Nelson of Fergus Falls, Minn., began waiting tables at the St. James, and quickly caught the eye of owner Charles Lillyblad. She caught his heart as well, and the two were soon married.
It didn’t take Clara long to place her personal stamp on the hotel. She was a marvelous cook and quickly gained a reputation for outstanding food and hostess etiquette. Clara insisted on the highest-quality ingredients for her homemade recipes, buying produce from local farmers and meats and roasts from local butchers. The home cooked meals were so popular that the St. James became known as “Clara’s Place” and travelers came from miles around just to sample the food. The railroad even adjusted its schedules so that disembarking passengers would arrive in time to take a meal at “Clara’s Place.”
Clara ran the hotel with an iron fist and a heart of gold, even before Charles’ death in 1932. She demanded meticulous attention to detail from both the kitchen and housekeeping staff. Under her leadership, guestrooms sparkled and silverware glistened. Extremely industrious, Clara did whatever was needed to keep the hotel running smoothly, whether that meant baking pies, scrubbing pots, or supervising carpenters. Though she kept strict standards, Clara was also incredibly generous, and she never hesitated to help those in need. Legend has it that a rural couple once came to the St. James for their honeymoon and spent nearly all of their money on their room. At dinner time the couple ordered the least expensive item on the menu – two plates of hash. When the server mentioned this odd order in the kitchen, Clara insisted that she bring the newlyweds the finest dinner available that evening, but only charge them for hash.
The holidays brought out the best in Clara, and she took extra care of folks around these times, from customers to friends to her staff. If a friend became widowed, she would send over a complete turkey dinner with all the trimmings for Christmas. On holidays when most restaurants were closed, she instructed her cooks to serve a complimentary meal to any passerby who asked if food was available. Every year she threw an extravagant Christmas party for her employees, using the finest décor and cooking up a meal fit for royalty.
It’s only fitting that Clara’s son, Art, was born in the hotel. Another generation of Lillyblad service began in 1916 in what is now room 208. Art began helping out as a bellhop at age 7 and eventually took over the hotel completely upon Clara’s death in 1972.
Today the St. James continues to bear the mark of Clara Lillyblad, offering excellent personalized service and serving as a pillar in the Red Wing community. And of course, people still travel long distances to sample the fine cuisine at “Clara’s Place.”