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Who Was Gideon Truesdell

Gideon Truesdell

Born in 1811 in a log cabin in the wilderness along a tributary of the Genesee River in eastern New York, his parents were among the earliest settlers in the Holland Land Purchase. At the age of sixteen, his father co-signed for the purchase of 80-acres which he cleared for farming. He married Julia Ann Torrey, and together they packed their worldly possessions into a covered wagon, and followed trails through several states until they reached the Wisconsin River.

Gideon recruited twenty young men to travel with him in a convoy of about twenty covered wagons to the Wisconsin River, where parcels of pinelands could be acquired from the government. He didn’t have nearly enough money to start a sawmill; instead, he started a logging company that would sell logs to the dozens of sawmills that were sure to follow. During the spring floods he worked the tiller on one of the rafts that brought lumber over 400-miles to St. Louis where it was sold at top dollar. He had two to three profitable years before he declared bankruptcy.

He started over in Southport, Wisconsin, in the southeastern corner of the Wisconsin Territory. He spent the summer working as a carpenter building houses, and used his accumulated wages to lease a crude log cabin that was built a few years earlier as a hotel. When the lease expired Gideon was broke, and owed people money so he returned to the Wisconsin River to sell some land so he could pay his debts. When he returned he spent the fall of 1845 working as a field hand in Harvey Durkee’s farm. The following spring he began working as Charles Durkee’s mercantile store. The Durkees grubstaked him for a cross-country trip to the California gold fields, but he returned $30 poorer. 

In 1850, the Durkees built a three-story building down by the harbor, and financed Gideon Truesdell & Company, the first hardware store in town with a lumberyard. Under Gideon’s management this business became the largest lumberyard between Milwaukee and Chicago, and made the partners a lot of money. Charles Durkee, a minority partner, had recently been elected a Congressman for the first district. 

By 1855, the partners decided to build one of the largest sawmills on Lake Michigan, and to open a large Chicago River wholesale yard. They also began buying shiploads of lumber from other mills. Charles Durkee had increased his investment in this partnership, and in 1855 was elected to the U.S. Senate as the first Republican.

The “Panic of 1857” had a devastating impact on the national economy, and this caused Durkee, Truesdell & Company to go into liquidation. Gideon was one of the largest creditors, and during the roaring 1850s had carefully invested his profits to acquire the entire business. But it wasn’t a quick or easy turnaround because he had to push through manpower shortages, higher wages, and a sluggish wholesale market where sales barely covered his overhead expenses. The inevitability of a devastating war caused wages to increase by a third, and as the country braced itself for a terrible war demand for lumber dropped to a point where it was difficult to show a profit. 

During these uncertain times Gideon organized a partnership with lumber baron Martin Ryerson that logged, milled, and shipped an enormous amount of lumber across Lake Michigan to interior markets in Illinois and Wisconsin. He also doubled his sales volume at his Chicago River yards by becoming a commission agent for twenty to thirty smaller mills that couldn’t afford a wholesale yard. During the last three years of the Civil War when the demand for lumber soared, Gideon was positioned to make enormous profits. Nearly all of his profits were invested in Chicago real estate. At the time, Chicago was one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. At the end of 1865 his net worth was around $1.1 million ($68 million today), and safely invested in Chicago rental properties that generated a large annual income.

Gideon sold half of his lumbering properties which included pinelands, mills, and ships. A scaled-down Truesdell Lumber Company was managed by others, and he made a heavy investment in the developing diary industry. He invested $345,000 ($17.2 million today) to build what became the largest privately owned dairy farm in the United States. Pasteurization made this new industry possible with profit-margins falling into the 35% range. At the time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that sales of cheese, butter, and milk would exceed $400 million ($25 billion today). 

The future looked bright for Gideon Truesdell until the 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed over $750,000 ($48 million today) of apartment buildings, warehouses, tenements, and storefronts that constituted the bulk of his wealth. The day after the Chicago Fire an equally catastrophic fire on the other side of Lake Michigan that began in South Haven, Michigan, burned northeasterly. It spread rapidly across the state destroying over five billion trees, and killing 200 people. The fire burned for 134 miles and wiped out at least 34,000 acres owned by Gideon along the Osceola, White, Muskegon and Grand Rivers worth at least $170,000 ($6.7 million today). After these devastating losses Gideon struggled to re-organize his debt, but two years later he was pushed by creditors into bankruptcy. At the age of sixty-three Gideon Truesdell was broke.

The one asset that he pried loose from the bankruptcy court were 171 shares of Wisconsin Mining Company stock, which he assigned to his bookkeeper as security for a debt that probably didn’t exist, but protected his majority interest in a New Mexico silver mine and a quartz mill. He and his wife spent three months traveling by train and stage coach to Silver City, where Gideon immediately reorganized the struggling mining company, but a year later they declared bankruptcy. Two years earlier Gideon took the precaution of sending his son to Silver City to begin acquiring income-producing assets, which by 1875 included a 1,000-acre cattle ranch that overlooked the town, the deed to the 10-room Star Hotel, some vacant lots on Bullard Street, and some vacant land in Clifton Arizona. 

It was at the hotel that Gideon and Julia’s daughter-in-law, Louisa, became friends with Catherin Antrim, who sold their kitchen fresh bread, dinner rolls, and pies each day. Both women were trapped in bad marriages, and were trying to raise two boys in a rough frontier town. Catherine came to New Mexico hoping that the dry climate would improve her health because she was struggling with tuberculosis, and by 1874 it was clear she didn’t have much time left. Louisa Truesdell sat with her each night until as she coughed-up blood, and she died at the age of forty-five. Chauncey Truesdell recalled that Mrs. Antrim was worried about what would become of her two sons, “and made my mother promise to look out for them if anything should happen to her – Henry came to live with us and waited on tables at the Star Hotel.” He lived with G.J. and Louisa in their apartment at the Wisconsin House, and slept in the same room with 11-year old Gideon and 9-year old Chauncey. 

When he was arrested for stealing laundry he was jailed but escaped after climbing-out through a chimney. Award winning author and historian Michael Wallis thought that “Of all the people Henry might have turned to, the most plausible candidate was Clara [Louisa] Truesdell. Chances are good that after he made his escape, he went straight to the Truesdell home.” Seventy-five years later Chauncey recalled, “It was the kind scrape any boy might have got mixed into. Father had gone up to the Black Hills gold was not long before he rapped on our window one night. Mother washed Henry’s clothes and dried them by the stove. My brother Gideon, Henry, and I slept on the floor that night. The next morning Mother stopped the stage as it passed our door and asked the driver to take Henry to Globe City, Arizona. Mother gave Henry all the money she had and a little lunch to eat.” Henry achieved fame and notoriety as the outlaw Billy the Kid, and academic scholars agree that the Truesdells knew him well.  They liked the charismatic teenager and never had a bad word to say about him.

Truesdell’s Star Hotel and the Wisconsin House generated enough money for Gideon to open a grocery store, and a ranch that raised replacement stock for ranchers. Both of these businesses were immediately profitable, and he made every dollar count. When silver was discovered in Tombstone, Arizona, he organized a partnership with Tom Lyons and Angus Campbell in a slaughterhouse and meatpacking business style as the Truesdell, Lyons & Campbell Cattle Company. They made money fast provisioning hotels, boarding houses, and mining camps. 

Two years later this partnership was dissolved, and the partners remained close friends but decided to move in different directions. The Truesdells became partners in the Andrews & Truesdell Cattle Company in Richmond, Arizona, just outside of Tombstone. Tom Lyons and Angus Campbell organized a 1.5 million acre cattle ranch with over 60,000 head of cattle. Many years later, Lyons was murdered by professional assassins, and the rest of his family was targeted in an ugly cattle war by competitors. 

1882 had been a busy year for Gideon with his investment in the Andrews & Campbell Cattle Company, the construction of a new mercantile store styled Truesdell & Lyons, building a new house out at the Truesdell Ranch, and running for Mayor. He suffered a massive heart attack, and late in the year he suffered another which took his life. “The funeral of the late Gideon Truesdell took place yesterday from his residence just beyond town, and the sincerity of the respect in which he was held was evidenced by the large concourse of his fellow citizens who followed his remains to his last resting place in the Masonic graveyard. His familiar figure will be missed but his career belongs to the early history of our town. Mr. Truesdell leaves a son, G.J. Truesdell. As a tribute to his memory, all places of business in town closed at half past one and did not re-open until after the funeral.”



Western Fever: The Life & Times of Gideon Truesdell.

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