Gideon Truesdell: Profile of a Nineteenth Century Wisconsin Lumber Baron

Gideon Truesdell: Profile of a Nineteenth Century Wisconsin Lumber Baron: Every generation has a story to tell, and Gideon Truesdells (1811-1882) life is an interesting retrospective of American history. He amassed a million dollar lumber fortune during the erratic Civil War economy, and crossed paths with several historic 19th century figures. He also lived one step removed from significant historical events, and his path frequently crossed with historical men. Almost from the beginning, Durkee-Truesdell & Company was a big financial success, and an extraordinary rags-to-riches story for Gideon Truesdell. And without question the Durkee wealth and influence propelled Truesdell into the mainstream of Chicago industry and finance. Charles Durkee was the first republican elected to the United States Senate, and the author of two historic anti-slavery speeches. He was on a first-name basis with Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, and during the Civil War his brother-in-law ran a station in the Underground Railroad. In 1865, Andrew Johnson appointed Charles Durkee Territorial Governor of the Utah, and he played a significant role in the completion of the trans-continental railroad. Truesdells other influential friend was Chicago attorney Henry Blodgett, an expert in railroad bankruptcies, mergers, and acquisitions.

The Biography of Gideon Truesdell

 

       In 1974, Alex Haley published an interesting multi-generational biography about his ancestors, and Roots became an instant bestseller. It also inspired millions of people to step into the past and investigate their familys roots, including a wealthy California real estate developer named Patrick D. Truesdell. He financed an exhaustive research project that brought back to life a distant relative and a fascinating group of his friends and associates. Every generation has a story to tell, and Gideon Truesdells (1811-1882) life is an interesting retrospective of American history. He amassed a million dollar lumber fortune during the erratic Civil War economy, and crossed paths with several historic 19th century figures. He also lived one step removed from significant historical events, and his path frequently crossed with historical men. Almost from the beginning, Durkee-Truesdell & Company was a big financial success, and an extraordinary rags-to-riches story for Gideon Truesdell. And without question the Durkee wealth and influence propelled Truesdell into the mainstream of Chicago industry and finance. Charles Durkee was the first republican elected to the United States Senate, and the author of two historic anti-slavery speeches. He was on a first-name basis with Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, and during the Civil War his brother-in-law ran a station in the Underground Railroad. In 1865, Andrew Johnson appointed Charles Durkee Territorial Governor of the Utah, and he played a significant role in the completion of the trans-continental railroad. Truesdells other influential friend was Chicago attorney Henry Blodgett, an expert in railroad bankruptcies, mergers, and acquisitions. He represented the Chicago & Northwestern, Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, Michigan Southern, and Fort Wayne & Pittsburgh. Blodgett began his career clerking in the offices of Scammon & Judd, and subsequently became a close associate of William B. Ogden, the first Mayor of Chicago and the president of the Union Pacific railroad. Blodgett was also a political friend of Abraham Lincolns, and their paths often crossed in courtrooms and as members of the Illinois Whig Party. They met back in the 1840s while Blodgett was a clerk for Norman Judd, who later became one of Lincolns closest personal friends. In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant appointed Blodgett to the federal bench, and many years later Rutherford Hayes appointed him to the International Tribunal Court. He was an immensely powerful man, and he and his wife were close friends of Gideon and Julia Truesdells.

 

This biography is the culmination of twenty-five years of research, and it attempts to document Gideon Truesdells large and complex business holdings as well as his relationship with an interesting group of people. It was fascinating stepping into a different century and reconstructing the lives of people who walked this earth 175-years ago, and over 5,600 pages of research helped bring Gideon Truesdells generation back to life. His life and times give us a rare glimpse at how frontier commerce began, and how million-dollar fortunes were amassed at a time when the average yearly household income was $512. Yet, Gideon Truesdells rise to affluence came after years of failure. He came from a successful and ambitious New York farming family who, during an era when most farms were less than 20-acres, farmed well over a thousand. Truesdell left the farm and a steady income because he didnt want to spend the rest of his life walking behind a mules ass.He spent two winters working on a railroad construction crew working five and six stories off the ground building bridges and trestles, and eventually ended up in the Wisconsin Territory at a time when there were no more than a thousand white settlers in the entire region. He built an elaborate cabin across the river from an island where hundreds of Indians gathered to trade furs with the white man, and made an average living chopping down trees and hauling them to a sawmill a few miles away. Rather than pulling a tree weighing several tons to the sawmill, he built a crude railroad where a team of oxen pulled sleds loaded with logs.  In 1842, he and his wife moved to the southeastern part of the territory where the village of Southport was fast becoming an important thoroughfare for travelers between Milwaukee and Chicago, and opened a hotel. The business never generated much of a profit and two years later he failed, and was left penniless. If he wanted to sneak out of town at night like so many other failed 19th century merchants, he would have had to walk because he didnt even own a horse. But he devised a clever strategy to pay his debts, and returned to the Wisconsin River to trade a stock of merchandise for furs. He returned with enough money to pay his debts.

 

He spent the next four years working for Harvey Durkee as a common laborer at his 1,200-acre farm, but before the end of the first harvest he proved himself to be an efficient and tireless worker, and was placed in charge. To earn extra money each morning before putting in a full day at the farm, he chopped and sold firewood to Lake Michigan steamers. And to save money he and his wife lived in a crude shack near the Durkees Lake Michigan warehouse. Within the distance of a few years he managed to save enough money to open a small grocery store, and raised fruits and vegetables behind the store. While he worked at the farm his wife ran the grocery store. They both worked hard and spent little on themselves, and in 1849 he saved enough money to gamble a year of his life on a dangerous overland trip to the California gold fields. He returned $30 poorer than when he left, but he still had enough money to open a small lumberyard on a rented lot. This enterprise was immediately successful and, in 1852, when he needed capitol to expand he turned to his former employer, and they organized Durkee-Truesdell & Company. With a massive infusion of Durkee money they built one of the largest lumbermills in the Midwest, and began selling lumber through their own wholesale yards in three states. From the pinelands to retail customers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, Durkee-Truesdell controlled every phase of the lumbering process. The partnership had a distinct advantage inasmuch as Harrison Durkee was a powerful New York banker. He began his career as a bank teller but was later deemed acceptable to marry into the old-line Howard-Hart banking family, and the family bought him a seat on the newly created New York Stock Exchange. He became a powerful Wall Street insider who preferred to do things quietly, and helped friend and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt build a floor under 50,000 shares of worthless Erie Railroad stock. He was a large stockholder and served with the infamous Jay Gould on the board of directors of Western Union Telegraph, the worlds largest communications company.

 

        When the Ohio Life Insurance & Trust suspended payment of their paper it triggered a panic on Wall Street, and within sixty days every bank in the country collapsed. The Panic of 1857had a devastating affect on Harvey Durkee, who was seriously over-extended with large investments in big companies, and his financial problems nearly bankrupted the Durkee-Truesdell partnership. Truesdell was so certain that the firm would fail that he bought a smaller lumbermill on the strength of his signature. But at the last minute Durkee-Truesdells largest creditors worked out a compromise with Gideon Truesdell, and he bought the heavily indebted company. It was the first of many gutsy moves that enabled him to leverage a $25,000 net worth into a million dollar fortune in just eight years. When he acquired the insolvent Durkee-Truesdell property he probably had a negative net worth, and most people thought that the firms enormous debt would pull him under. Truesdell moved to Chicago to oversee the firms banking and lumber distribution, and left the operation of the two Muskegon mills in the capable hands of Joseph Hackley. He sold Hackley a 50% interest in the smaller mill that he had just acquired, and during the Civil War years both men worked night and day manufacturing immense quantities of lumber. In the distance of a few years Truesdell purchased an additional lumbermill, opened five mercantile stores, purchased schooners and steam propellers, and opened a network of wholesale and retail lumberyards. He sent twenty-year old Charles Hackley to business-college where he learned bookkeeping, and put him in charge of the mills books. A few years later he married Truesdells niece, and eventually bought the remainder of the two smaller mills. He was a shrewd and careful young man, and he leveraged these mills into one of the largest 19th century lumber fortunes with a net worth that would today fall into the billion dollar range. And with millions of acres of pinelands that stretched between British Columbia and South America, his estate was so immense that it wasnt settled until forty-eight years after his death.

 

Yet, despite a string of stunning successes his private life was miserable and controversial.

He was usually drunk by late afternoon, and he knew every whore in town. But what really infuriated people was his affair with Kittie Lee, whose husband operated a lumber schooner for the Hackley & Hume Lumber Company. While her husband was occupied at sea, Charles Hackley was often occupied with his wife. Despite growing up in a home where the Bible was read every night, the Hackley children were what 19th century ministers railed against from the pulpit. Their youngest son, kindhearted Porter Hackley, lived openly with a prostitute but was later shot in the ass by her angry brother. After years of twelve-hour days, heavy drinking until early morning, and a trip to the whorehouse before he stumbled home, Charles Hackley experienced severe digestive problems. At first he suspected that his wife was trying to poison him, and while the thought might have crossed her mind, it was syphilis attacking his central nervous system. By the age of fifty he was an immensely wealthy man, and he was repulsed at the thought of heirs and legatees squandering his millions. Years before he died and at a time when the lumber business was nearing its end, Hackley began to give away millions to help transform Muskegons industrial base from lumbering to manufacturing. At a time when there was no income tax where such benefactions would have helped him reduce his tax load, he spent $10 million to turn the old mill town where he made his fortune, into a modern city with amenities that rivaled New York City. Something truly noble happened to Hackley after he started giving away money, because thereafter he was a very different man, and helping others became the focus of his life. His philanthropy has distributed over $43 million during the last century, and continues to fund a number of worthy causes 110-years later. Through initiative and hard work he came a long way from shoveling sawdust into a boiler at the Durkee-Truesdell lumbermill.

 

       After years of heavy speculating during the erratic Civil War economy, Gideon Truesdell sold off approximately two-thirds of his lumber holdings, and retiredto a magnificent 2,668-acre farm that he built in southeastern Wisconsin. But retiring was probably the furthest thing from his mind because he invested over $300,000 building one of the earliest agricultural conglomerates in the country, and tried to corner the dairy market. His strategy was to manufacture dairy and wheat products in a rural Wisconsin community, and ship them via the Chicago & Northwestern to the higher priced Chicago market. He was convinced that he could mass-produce agricultural products much the same as he did lumber, and create an industry where previously there had been none. Within a few years his annual output was truly astounding, with 174,000 pounds of cheese, 20,000 gallons of milk, 34,000 pounds of pork and beef, 3,000 tons of hay, and manufacturing 64,000 pounds of Truesdells City Mills Flour from his Lake Michigan flour refinery. He was convinced that he was in the right place at the right time, and another wealthy lumberman who invested heavily in agricultural was John Pillsbury in Minneapolis. To place himself at the pinnacle of power and influence in the dairy and wheat industry, Truesdell needed to get himself elected to the Wisconsin Statehouse, and win a seat on the powerful Agricultural Committee. It was a nasty campaign where he was labeled a railroad man, which was a difficult charge to defend because he had his own private railroad on the farm. He was a close friend of Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul president Henry Blodgett, and when the railroad built a passenger and freight depot near his farm it was named Truesdell,and a township evolved. More importantly, however, was the fact that the value of his 2,668-acre farm more than doubled. Zalmon G. Simmons, a former railroad president and the founder of the Simmons mattress empire, engineered Gideon Truesdells nomination to the 66th General Assembly seat. It was a brutal campaign yet Truesdell managed to defeat a strong opponent by a large plurality. He was appointed to the three-member Agricultural Committee, and played a historic role in the Northwest Dairymans Association. Through his position in the Statehouse he was instrumental in the development of an international market for Wisconsin cheese, and establishing a large wholesale market. His farm was immense and a model of efficiency, and in 1873 cleared a $54,000 profit, which in current dollars would equal around 2.7 million. But disaster was just around the corner.

 

       For years Truesdell invested his lumber profits in Chicago real estate and, by 1870, his $11,000 investment had mushroomed into the $400,000 range when that community became the fastest growing city in the nation. He built no fewer than fourteen multi-storied office buildings on State Street, where ground floor retail storefronts were renting for $2,000 a square foot. Leveraging the value of his land to fund construction, his yearly mortgage fell into the $34,000 range. Although heavily mortgaged, the value of these buildings would have escalated into the $3 million range during the next fifteen years, and it was a shrewd investment despite the fact that it ultimately bankrupted him. When the City of Chicago was leveled by one of the worst fires in the history of the world, most of Gideon Truesdells net worth went up in smoke. The day after Chicago burned, the same dry conditions destroyed 134-miles of pinelands in Michigan and wiped out thousands of acres of Truesdells timber property. In less than forty-eight hours Gideon Truesdell was wiped out. Like everyone else in Chicago he was grossly under-insured, and in some cases what was insured proved worthless because the fire bankrupted many insurance companies. Compounding these losses was the Wisconsin Mining Company, which he organized a few months before the fire. It was the earliest and largest mining companies in New Mexico, and it was a constant drain on his already strained cash reserves. Yet, his wealth was such that he was able to survive these catastrophic disasters until the night that lightning struck his 2,668-acre farm and leveled over $75,000 of barns and stables. He was reeling from one disaster after another when, in 1873, his nephew filed an attachment against his lumbermill, and the race was to the courthouse began. According to court documents Truesdell reported assets of $290,000 and liabilities of $250,000, but the U.S. Bankruptcy Court declared him insolvent just the same because he couldnt pay his bills.

 

His problems were compounded by the financial panic created by Jay Gould when he attempted to corner the silver market in September of 1873, and the markets crashed. The beginning of a deep six year recession forced Gideon Truesdell to suspend business activities the following month, and shortly thereafter he was dragged into bankruptcy court. While accountants tried to determine his net worth, Gideon Truesdell walked into the 1st National Bank and created a $3,000 promissory out of thin air which, in todays economy would equal around $150,000. He sold his sons promissory note to the bank because it was presumed that G.J. Truesdell was solvent, and that enabled him to walk away with a substantial sum of cash. But the note was backed by 542-acres that had already been mortgaged for 110% of its assessed value, and when the bank discovered this financial slight-of-hand they tried to push his son into bankruptcy court. But it was all to no avail because in January of 1874 the U.S. Bankruptcy Court declared Gideon Truesdell bankrupt, and at the age of sixty-three he was once again penniless. He and his wife packed their bags and traveled through dangerous country to the New Mexico Territory during the worst Apache raids in history. With thousands of travelers murdered along the trails and entire towns slaughtered. They traveled at night and hid in caves for days until the danger passed. Long before he was declared bankrupt, Gideon Truesdell solda couple thousand shares that he owned in the Wisconsin Mining Company to his bookkeeper, thereby removing this key asset from his bankrupt estate. Although prohibited by law from conducting business while his estate was being liquidated, this maneuver kept his controlling interest in a very large mining company in friendly hands. The mining company was a fairly substantial operation, and the previous year they shipped $34,000 of silver. But Truesdells financial problems turned a large and complicated business into a shoestring operation, and the company failed. By the end of 1874 all Gideon Truesdell owned was a small millinery shop that his wife opened, the deed to the old Nevada Hotel, a 400-acre cattle ranch north of Silver City that belonged to his son, and some worthless mining claims in Clifton, Arizona.

 

        In 1875, when the silver strike at the 76 mine turned the community into a boomtown; Truesdell remodeled the hotel and re-named it the Exchange, and immediately did a big business. It was designed to accommodate no more than ten to fifteen guests, but Truesdell turned each room into a dormitory and boarded as many as sixty by sleeping people in day and night shifts, and the dining room did a capacity business from dawn until dusk. He didnt miss an opportunity to generate cash, and he even had his eleven-year old grandson delivering meals to downtown merchants who were too busy to break for dinner. Few would have guessed that the old man running the desk at the hotel had made and lost an enormous fortune, but friends from the old days werent surprised when they learned that he was quietly putting together a giant cattle operation. While working the front desk at the hotel, Gideon Truesdell was mapping out how he would acquire thousands of acres with water rights. His thirty-two year old son worked around the clock running the hotels kitchen and livery stable, while his beautiful young wife ran the dining room. One of the teenagers washing dishes was Henry Antrim, whose mother died the previous year from tuberculosis, and came to live with the Truesdells. When the sixteen-year was jailed for stealing clothes, it was Mrs. Truesdell who gave him money, and put him on a stage to Globe City where her brother ran a quartz mine. He later achieved infamy as the ruthless outlaw Billy the Kid, and academic scholars agree that the Truesdells knew him well.  

 

       By 1876, Gideon Truesdell had enough money saved to build the Wisconsin House, and lease the old Keystone Hotel, which in addition to the Exchange gave him control of most of the hotel rooms in Silver City. And in a mining boomtown where hotel rooms were at a premium, he controlled most of them. As the housing shortage dwindled Truesdell opened a grocery store, and on rented land across the street he raised vegetables and produce much the same as he did thirty years earlier. People needed to eat and cultivating fruits and vegetables in the red New Mexico clay wasnt easy, but Truesdell dug a well and irrigated fresh topsoil and harvesting the best produce in town. He raised and slaughtered cattle from his sons ranch, turned milk into cheese and butter, and made his own flour from a crude gristmill behind the store. Each morning before the temperatures hit 100-degrees, the old man could be seen weeding his garden, and hauling buckets of water to irrigate his crops. Then he worked a twelve-hour day stocking shelves, buying fruits and vegetables from farmers along the Gila River, and waiting on customers in the store. And with a wagon loaded with merchandise from a Denver wholesaler he drove across the boarder into Mexico, and exchanged what he had for Mexican silver dollars, cigars, and fruits and vegetables. When the housing shortage ended Truesdell sold all three hotels, and re-invested the proceeds in blooded Kentucky breeding stock for his sons ranch. With feed costs averaging $1.50 a year and a steer selling for $14 in Abilene, cattle ranching became a lucrative industry where fortunes were made overnight. Truesdell leveraged his 400-acre New Mexico ranch into a 200,000-acre spread in New Mexico and Arizona, and when a massive silver strike near Tombstone turned southeastern Arizona into a boomtown, the Andrews & Truesdell Cattle Company made a fortune running their own slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. The land the Truesdells owned in Clifton, Arizona was strategically located between the Longfellow and Morenci mines, and much of the original town was built on their land. The land turned out to be worthless in terms of mining but of great value when a town was built between both mining regions. They were the towns biggest landlords, and although virtually penniless five years earlier by 1880 the family was wealthy again.

 

       By then, what began as a grocery store in a rented storefront turned into a mercantile and provisioning company with two immense brick buildings on Main Street, and a large business that extended into several nearby communities and mining camps. Gideon Truesdell kept a convoy of wagons running food and provisions into northern and southern Arizona mines. That year, Tom Lyons bought a half-interest in the business, which was styled Truesdell & Lyons Mercantile & Provisions. Ten years earlier Lyons worked at Truesdells 2,668-acre farm as a mechanic, but at the age of twenty-one this ambitious and shrewd young man left his family and friends and traveled to Silver City with the Truesdells. He opened the first machine shop in the mining districts, and amassed a fortune before he was thirty. This was not his first investment with the Truesdells, because a few years earlier he was a partner in the Truesdell-Lyons-Campbell Cattle Company in Silver City. But a year or two later Tom Lyons and Angus Campbell built a million-acre ranch along the Gila River and did an extensive business with offices in New York City. Many years later it was at the Truesdell residence that Tom Lyons caught his wife with another man, and fired three bullets into the handsome young dudes head.He was the Cattle Baron of the Southwestand he once dynamited a competitors ranch house during a cattle war. Many years later in another cattle war professional assassins lured him to El Paso, beat him to death with an iron pipe from the backseat of an automobile, and dumped his body in a ravine. His killers were so thorough that they brought along a box of sand to catch his dripping blood. Many years later a man was convicted but the Governor of Texas granted him a full pardon. Whoever his enemies were they won the last round, and had some powerful connections.

 

In 1882, after several heart attacks that left him progressively weaker, Gideon Truesdell died in his sleep. That morning word of his death spread from business-to-business along Main Street and just about everyone, including a large Mexican population, attended his funeral the following day. As a tribute to his memory every business in Silver City was closed during his funeral, and his life belongs to the early history of several communities.

 

Article Copyright İRichard Fritz, All rights reserved

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Saturday, December 15, 2001

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