Oakwood is significant as the, finest remaining home of Utah’s famed Silver Queen, Susanna Emery-Holmes, a major figure in the state’s mining economy whose flamboyance caught arid still holds the public’s attention. The large house is a good example of an Eastlake Style summer “cottage”, the best surviving home of the era in the Mill Creek area. The site and house reflect Utah’s changing economy over a century and a quarter, illustrating changes in land use along Mill Creek from an area of water powered mills, to an isolated cluster of country homes for Salt Lake’s nouveau riche mining millionaires, to a suburb of Salt Lake City.
Long before the Silver Queen entertained lavishly at Oakwood, John Neff built Utah’s first grist mill on this site. The Neff mill was first, of many flour, and sawmills to be located in this area. Between 1850 and 1880 more than 20 mills were in operation here, and the area was appropriately named, Mill Creek.
The former millpond and Mill Creek, running through the Oakwood estate, are visible reminders of the first chapter of the site’s history. The end of the nineteenth century saw a deemphasis of the early Mormon ideal of self-sufficiency as once-isolated Utah became integrated into the economy of the United States. & major cause of these socioeconomic changes was the development of a booming mining industry in the mountains around Salt Lake City. Camps located at Park City and Tintic, both now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as Bingham Canyon, Alta, Mercur, and many smaller locations produced vast quantities of gold, silver, lead, copper, and dozens of trace minerals. By 1904, Utah was producing over twenty percent of the nation’s metal.
The changing economy meant the end of the water-powered mills along Mill Creek, and simultaneously brought into being a new leisure class of nouveau riche mining millionaires. Several of these saw the wooded dale along Mill Creek, far south of Salt Lake City, as an ideal place to build country homes to supplement their city palaces on South Temple Street (nominated to the Register).
In 1891, William H.H. Spafford, a wealthy mine owner and real estate magnate, purchased the mill site and machinery for $4500. He tore down part of the mill and remodeled it into a dance hall. Edward H. Air is bought the property in 1898, paying $8000 for the mill site, water power, and water rights. Airis was Secretary of the Mercur Gold Mining Company and had real estate holdings in Salt Lake City. The mill was completely destroyed some time between 1898 and 1905. Part of the mill burr was saved and set in a monument in front of the East Mill Creek Ward LDS Church, one half block east of the site. The mill pond, used for many years for LDS baptisms, was cemented in and still survives as the Oakwood estate’s swimming pool, located northeast of the house.
In 1904, the Neff mill site was purchased by Mrs. Susanna Bransford Emery-Holmes, the most famous of the new mining millionaires. Mrs. Holmes was known throughout he world as the Silver Queen, due to her first husband’s investments in the Silver King mine in Park City, Utah. It was Mrs. Holmes who built this house as her summer retreat and named it Oakwood.
Mrs. Holmes had humble beginnings in Richmond, Missouri, where she was born in 1859. Her family moved to the new mining camp at Park City, Utah, five years later. In 1884 she married the first of her four husbands, Albion B. Emery. He was an early speaker of the Utah House of Representatives and had nine holdings. At the time of his death in 1899, his mining stocks were declared worthless. Mrs. Emery refused to sell the stocks and parlayed her holdings into a huge fortune. She eventually owned an interest in every major mine in Utah. Because of her mining successes and her elegant arties she was given the title the “Silver Queen”.
In 1900 she married Col. Edwin B. Holmes, a millionaire from Detroit. The couple lived at the Amelia Palace (now demolished) on South Temple Street in Salt Lake City, the former home of one of Brigham Young’s wives. The Holmes were leaders of Salt Lake Society and entertained lavishly at the Amelia Palace and in Washington, D.C. They traveled around the world many times and were received by Pope Leo, Queen Victoria and Russian royalty.
At Oakwood the Silver Queen built this house to serve as her summer residence. It is a large frame Victorian home with Eastlake Style decoration, the finest home of its era in Mill Creek. The frame construction is not common in Utah, and the 1904 date makes it a very, late example of Eastlake architecture, popular in the 1880’s. The architecture may represent a desire to be old-fashioned and “countrified”, or it may indicate the house was an attempt to emulate the earlier homes of wealthy eastern capitalists.
The estate is heavily wooded and had beautifully landscaped grounds. Over the creek and irrigation canals Mrs. Holmes built many small wood bridges. A small house built behind the main house produced electricity for Oakwood until about 1927 when the power company lines reached the Mill Creek area. The “power house” now sits in a corner of the Oakwood estate. Oakwood was the site of many of the summer tea parties, luncheons and other entertainments that made the Silver Queen famous.
In 1919, the Silver Queen gave Oakwood to her nephew, Harold B. Lamb. Mr. Lamb’s mother died in childbirth and Mrs. Holmes treated him as her own son. Harold Lamb was married to Grizelle Houston of Salt Lake City. The couple had three children, James, Susan, and Harold, Jr. Harold B. Lamb, Jr. was a self-trained landscape architect who received his early experience working on the grounds of Oakwood. He worked with the noted Utah architectural firm of Walter E. Ware and Alberto O. Treganza creating the gardens surrounding Salt Lake’s finest homes, as well as the Salt Lake Golf Course. In 1925, Mr. Lamb died suddenly and Oakwood was divided among Mrs. Lamb and her children.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Mill Creek area was no longer an isolated group of country homes, opening the third chapter in Oakwood’s history. Salt Lake’s growing economy pushed residential development far south down the Salt Lake Valley, and Mill Creek became a suburb of the city. Dr. Harold Lamb, Jr. and his brother now live in modern homes on the edge of the Oakwood estate. The house and tree-shaded grounds have been kept largely intact by Mrs. William 0’Conner, widow of Harold Lamb, Sr., who lived there till her death in 1978. The brothers plan to restore the old estate and rent it as a single family residence.