The Wilder Foundation is the namesake of Amherst H. Wilder, a businessman who ventured from his home in upstate New York to the frontier river town of Saint Paul in 1859, made a fortune and left a legacy of sharing.
The Foundation, formed in 1906, has long outlasted Mr. Wilder and his few descendants. But it has kept true to the family's long-ago commitment to help the poor, the elderly and the ailing lead healthy, meaningful lives.
Amherst Wilder inspired many generations of people to follow his example of giving back to the community he called home.
Amherst H. Wilder's Early Years
The Wilder story began on July 7, 1828, when Amherst Holcomb Wilder was born on the family homestead at Lewis, N.Y. in the Adirondack Mountains near Lake Champlain. His father was an iron maker and later a county sheriff.
Mr. Wilder worked in his father's business as a young man. In 1850, a cousin, James Crawford Burbank, moved to Minnesota Territory and a fledgling community on the Mississippi River called Saint Paul. Three years later, brother Henry Burbank also migrated to Saint Paul.
James Burbank established mail and package stage lines on newly built roads east of the Mississippi from northwest Illinois to Saint Paul – a much needed alternative to steamboat travel on the river and the challenges of winter ice.
Burbanks' transportation business grew along with Saint Paul and in 1857 he and his brother expanded into businesses such as storage and wholesale groceries. James Burbank persuaded Mr. Wilder to move to Saint Paul and become business partner.
The Burbank-Wilder enterprise grew ever-larger and in the mid 1860s, Mr. Wilder began branching out into lucrative railroad, lumber, banking, insurance, real estate and merchandising interests. He would become one of Saint Paul's most prominent and wealthy citizens, living in a castle-like mansion on Summit Avenue across from the Saint Paul Cathedral.
Marriage to Fanny Spencer
Shortly after moving to Saint Paul, Mr. Wilder met Fanny Spencer, the daughter of a lawyer and one-time mayor of Utica, N.Y. She had traveled in 1860 from New York to Saint Paul, where her brother was a lawyer. She and Mr. Wilder married on Sept. 18, 1861 in Catskill, N.Y.
The Wilders had their only child, Cornelia Day Wilder, in 1868. She grew up in privilege but had a passion for volunteer work and charitable causes. Cornelia is believed to have been a strong influence on her father in aiding the less fortunate, a tendency Amherst Wilder had already shown.
In 1873, Mr. Wilder became a trustee in the new Children’s Hospital and Orphans' Home, which was meant to care for increasing numbers of people injured in rail, steamboat and construction accidents in booming Saint Paul, according to a 1981 biography, “Amherst H, Wilder and His Enduring Legacy to Saint Paul,” by Merrill E. Jarchow.
Mr. Wilder was also a donor and lifelong adviser to the St. Paul Protestant Orphans Asylum and a contributor to many civic causes to benefit Saint Paul residents, according to the Jarchow book. In 1889, before sailing with his family on a visit to Europe, Mr. Wilder had a will prepared that included disposition of much of his assets to charity.
Establishment of the Wilder Charity
Mr. Wilder established a trust fund in his will that would “relieve, aid and assist the poor, sick and needy people of the city of St. Paul.” It would be called the Amherst H. Wilder Charity.
Mr. Wilder directed that part of the fund be used to build a home or hospital for the needy “without regard to their nationality, place of residence, sex, color or religious prejudices.”
Author Jarchow observed that Mr. Wilder “was clearly ahead of his time” in wanting to make sure no one of any background was left out of his charitable intentions. That would come to be a hallmark of the Wilder Foundation.
Mr. Wilder's health deteriorated in the early 1890s, partially due to a non-paralyzing stroke after a fall in 1891. He died on Nov. 11, 1894 at age 66 at his home on Summit. He was hailed as a visionary businessman who advanced the Northwest frontier while sharing the bounty of his successes with many worthy causes in the Saint Paul area.
Cornelia Day and Fanny Spencer survived Amherst Wilder and helped oversee the charity. In 1897, Cornelia married a physician, Dr. T.E.W. Villiers Appleby, whom she met while working as a volunteer clerk at the St. Paul Free Dispensary. Appleby renounced any claim to his wife's estate.
On Jan. 20, 1903, at age 34, Cornelia died of pneumonia following gall bladder surgery. Three months later, her mother died at age 65. She had suffered a heart condition. In a period of less than ten years, the whole Wilder family had passed on.
Fanny Wilder and daughter Cornelia left their fortunes to establish separate Wilder Charity corporations in memory of their husband and father, respectively. This was in addition to existing endowment for the Amherst H. Wilder Charity.
The first expenditure from one of the two new charities was made on July 7, 1906 to a widow in Saint Paul with two children. In December 1910, under an act of the state legislature, the three Wilder charities were merged into the Amherst H. Wilder Charity, with total assets of $2.6 million.
So began what has become more than a century of Wilder-sponsored health and human services programs – better than 300 in all. The Foundation would touch countless people and their families over the decades.
Early Services of Amherst H. Wilder Charity
Many of the services were available no place else in Saint Paul. They included:
Public Health Nursing. Trained nurses visited ill people in their homes for 37 years until the Ramsey County nursing program took over.
The Wilder Relief Department. Cash relief was given to persons suffering chronic illness and the effects of aging, or what was then termed, "worthless husbands."
Wilder Baths and Pool. Opened in 1914, the baths were designed to meet the needs of the many Saint Paul residents without adequate bathing facilities. It offered 85 shower baths and a 35- by 70-foot swimming pool. The baths were operated for 60 years.
Wilder Dispensary. It provided free medical and dental care to persons without financial resources when it opened its door in 1924. Physicians and residents worked free of charge. A headline from the Saint Paul Pioneer Press heralded the dispensary to be “…one of the most modern and best equipped in the world.” It remained a viable Wilder program until 1960 when it was taken over by a hospital association.
Wilder Child Guidance Clinic. The Child Guidance Clinic is an outpatient psychiatric clinic for children and their families. The clinic is nationally known as a treatment and training center and is one of the oldest continuously operated children’s clinics in the country serving emotionally disturbed children.
In 1953, the name of the Amherst H. Wilder Charity was changed to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. It has, to this day, continued a strong, innovative spirit and a willingness to adapt to the changing needs of the community.