Biography of Frederick C. A. Denkmann

When on March 2, 1905, the spirit of Frederick C. A. Denkmann passed from earth there was completed and rounded out a life that may well serve as an inspiration for American boys of this and succeeding generations, through its disregard of difficulties, steadfastness of purpose, energy and accomplishment, sterling worth and help-fulness. In such a life there is encouragement for every young man who is constrained to be the architect and builder of his own fortunes, even as this necessity was laid upon Frederick C. A. Denkmann.

He sprang from sturdy German stock, did this great American lumberman, and that his sole inheritance from his ancestors was a clear head reinforced by rugged strength was not the fault of his forbears, but so events were shaped by the fortunes of war. Frederick, mostly called Carl, was born April 8, 1822, at Salzwedel, the ancient capital of Prussia, the youngest son of his father, Diedrich Denkmann. This father had been a successful manufacturer, a man of property and standing in the German city. The Napoleonic wars destroyed his business and swept away his inherited and accumulated wealth. Disheartened and feeling that the lost ground could not be regained, Diedrich Denkmann died, and the little Carl was left to the care of the mother, upon whom great responsibilities devolved.

Circumstances forbade Carl the enjoyment of advantages that his widowed mother would gladly have given him. She was able to provide him with the mere rudiments of an education and could only hope that his native strength of character would make valuable his tutelage in the school of experience. His days in the school room ended at fourteen, and he was placed as apprentice in a machine shop as a preparation for bread winning by hard work which circumstances made imperative. With German thoroughness and an ambition to succeed which was native and individual, Carl mastered his trade. He was in after life such a machinist as any employer is delighted to have upon his payroll. He was grounded in the principles of mechanics to such a degree that no peculiarity of material was puzzling, no nicety of touch too deft for his resourcefulness. In after years when his name appeared upon the roll of shop employes, this machinist frequently drew equal pay with the supervising foreman as the expert workman of the shop. In the years of his youth and early manhood this strong and steady young artisan was unconsciously laying in preparedness the foundations of the great fortune which was to be his across the ocean.

In the troublous days of 1848 the thoughts of many in Mr. Denkmann’s home city were turned to America. It was the land of elbow room, of rich reward, of freedom. Those who journeyed to this land of promise across the Atlantic wrote of the opportunities this country held for those trained in careful ways in thrifty German homes. With his small savings and something more valuable, a knowledge of his craft, Mr. Denkmann joined, in 1849, the tide of those seeking homes in the new world. Little had he to bring beside health and strength, the desire for political liberty and better industrial conditions.

Mr. Denkmann’s first abiding place in America was Erie, Pennsylvania. Here he speedily found employment, adapted himself to the conditions of American citizenship and set up his own fireside, December 9, 1849, by wooing and marrying Miss Catherine Bloedel, who had also come from Germany, being a native of Niedersaulheim, a village in the valley of the Rhine.

It is related of him that when he first applied for work in Erie, the foreman of the plant asked him what he could do, and with characteristic frankness he replied, “What those three men over there are doing.”

With his steady income as a machinist of high rank these young people were content in their new home for two years after their marriage, and then the advantages of the West called them to the banks of the Mississippi.

Mr. Denkmann had a brother living in Walcott, Iowa, and there the young pair journeyed. After a short visit of reunion the industrious guest looked about for employment. This offered in Moline, one of the trinity of cities near to Walcott, and there Mr. and Mrs. Denkmann settled. For a time they lived in Moline and then moved to Rock Island, which was their home for more than fifty years, even up to the death of Mr. Denkmann in 1905. And in that long-time home Mrs. Denkmann died January 15, 1907.

On December 9, 1899, Mr. and Mrs. Denkmann celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. In accordance with their usual custom, this was celebrated quietly in the home with a family dinner. It was made the occasion of a very happy reunion, however, and all of the immediate family, children and grandchildren, and other near relatives to the number of about sixty were present.

During the first years of his stay in Rock Island Mr. Denkmann worked at his trade and allowed his savings to accumulate in the thrifty German manner. Then he established himself in the grocery business. This was an incident in his life which seems apart from his steady and consistent climb from the position of a journeyman machinist to that of one of the most prominent lumber-men in the world. But the grocery business served its purpose. A small capital was gotten together which made a sawmill owner-ship possible. When he placed his name above his modest grocery store the same thorough attention to details and pervading and compelling energy that had made him superior in his old line showed in the new business. Those who knew him in those days recall that he was not content to wait, as other grocers did, until the farmers should bring in their product in order to secure sup-plies for his customers. Those who patronized the Denkmann grocery had the freshest and best of everything grown on the farms in a wide circuit brought to them by the proprietor and secured by him on an extended trip in the early morning hours while competitors were taking one more nap.

It was in 1860 that Mr. Denkmann formed with his brother-in-law, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the partnership in the lumber business that achieved such monumental success that their names became known wherever in this country logs and lumber were bought and sold. Up to the time that the firm of Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann began operations upon a scale that made them famous in the lumber world, Mr. Denkmann’s life had been a quiet one, unmarked by incidents that would attract attention. He had lived a peaceful home life, working with energy and intelligence, but in lines which do not ordinarily lead to wealth and influence. His sphere of action had been circumscribed. He was scarcely known beyond the confines of the home town where he lived for and with his family, and enjoyed the respect of his circle of friends. With the founding of the lumber firm his manner of life was changed, his opportunities and responsibilities broadened. He seemed to have become a favorite of fickle Fortune, and upon him were showered her blessings in golden profusion. When the tide of prosperity did set in, it found him ready. He had been seasoned by poverty in boy-hood; he had his unfulfilled dreams of early manhood to bring true. He was almost forty years old when he took hold of lumber making, and the path to greater accomplishment, wider influence and deeper usefulness to the community opened before him.

Frederick Weyerhaeuser, his partner, had been in the employ of Mead, Smith & Marsh, and in charge of a retail yard at Coal Valley, Illinois. This lumber firm had been compelled to go out of business. There was an opportunity to purchase their saw mill and business at small cost and on easy terms. The partnership of Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann was formed after the members had looked over the property and talked of their chances for the future. As a matter of fact, there was never any chance of failure in such a combination. They were both remarkable men, men of rugged strength, sleepless energy and great courage. Mr. Denkmann’s peculiar abilities were supplemented completely by those of Mr. Weyerhaeuser. The latter, trained in the handling of lumber, looked after the sales and log supply. Mr. Denkmann, the skilled machinist, grounded in his line with old world thoroughness, took charge of the manufacture. Under his skillful management the saws hummed a new tune. The new superintendent was fertile in devices for improving the mechanical side of the business. He worked longer hours than any other man on the payroll. His employes used to say that he thought nothing of working all day about the mill looking after important details of manufacture and then would put in half or all the night coaxing some refractory bit of machinery into lint for the next day’s run.

The life of the mill superintendent of those days was not that of present times when completely equipped machine shops ready to turn out any desired bit of repair are in telegraphic and express communication. When Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann began business the chief machinist had to be a man who could keep the mill working by contrivance and device self-planned and self-constructed.

The firm which later reached such mammoth proportions began modestly. A small cash payment and some notes secured the mill which was in fairly good condition. The machinery was got in shape by Mr. Denkmann, and the business of getting out lumber for their retail trade commenced. The first season the mechanical genius of Mr. Denkmann, for it seems nothing less than genius to work such wonders under the circumstances -increased the capacity of the mill from 6,000 feet to 15,000 feet per day. Mr. Denkmann’s partner looked after his end of the enterprise. Saws multiplied; logs climbed the incline to the mill in closer procession, the freshly sawed lumber slid out upon the trucks in an endless stream. In two years the mill driven to the top speed of its production had paid for itself and was now the property of this new firm in the lumber world.

The business seemed now well under way, but there were large expenses to be met; obligations must be punctiliously cared for, lest the credit of the firm should suffer, and their credit formed a large part of their working capital. They had little beside except tireless energy and faith in themselves. Strict economy was practiced in manufacture. In many American mills there are mechanical devices in use that date from this mill and those days. They were the invention of the partner-manager of the premier Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann mill and the result of his cease-less planning to produce lumber as cheaply as possible, to establish a solid business and win success. The output of this mill was increased until it was considered one of the best on the Mississippi River.

Encouraged by their success with this small sawmill property, which in these days is known as the lower mill the firm considered broadening their field. There was another Rock Island mill on the market. It was known as the Skinner mill and was located where is now the site of the division round-house of the Rock Island System. This mill was built in 1850 by a Mr. Barnes. In this venture Messrs. Denkmann and Weyerhaeuser were joined by three other gentlemen named Anawalt, Gray and Cropper. The firm thus formed was named Anawalt, Denkmann & Co. This mill was soon in successful operation. Later it was moved and consolidated with the plant of Keator, Wilson & Company, and a new company formed which bore the title, the Rock Island Lumber & Manufacturing Company. This organization by the magnitude of its operations became famous among lumbermen. Its mills formed one of the greatest lumber making plants on the Upper Mississippi River. At the formation of this company Mr. Denkmann was elected president, and this position of honor and responsibility he held until his death.

The business of the planing mills attached to the sawmills of the Rock Island Lumber & Manufacturing Company, grew to such an importance as to merit a separate organization and a supplemental company known as the Rock Island Sash & Door Works was formed. Of this company Mr. Denkmann was also the president. The latter company operated branches in other cities and covered a wide field. Another outgrowth of the Rock Island Lumber & Manufacturing Company was a string of retail yards located in import-ant town of Kansas and Oklahoma.

One of the later projects of Mr. Denkmann was the purchase and improvement of a mill in Davenport, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from the other mills operated by his firm. This mill dated back to 1854-5, when it was built by William Renwick. It was purchased by Mr. Denkmann and his partner in 188S. It was fitted up in the most approved manner of the modern mill, and was in every respect a fine double band and gang mill. The product of this mill was up to Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann standards and the Iowa member of the local plant was giving good account of itself when a great fire on July 25, 1901 wrought its complete destruction. This was the first great loss the firm had been called upon to bear during its more than forty years of prosperous business. The mill was not rebuilt. Its site is now occupied by a large retail yard conducted by the firm.

Great local manufacturers of lumber were Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann. In the days when the Chippewa valley store of white pine seemed inexhaustible and a fleet of raftboats was employed in bringing tows to the Rock Island mills, the output of lumber took on great proportions, the product of the four mills for one year being 117,000,000 feet. The average annual production for a number of years was over 100,000.000 feet. In addition to the mills in the cities of Rock Island and Davenport, the firm’s mills in other parts of the country were swelling the country’s production of lumber.

At Rock Island the lower mill was operated by the partnership until January 8, 1903, when it was taken over by the corporation, Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann Company. Of this corporation Mr. Denkmann was president.

It is natural when writing of Mr. Denkmann to think of his firm in the light of great manufacturers of lumber, for it was the manufacturing industry of the firm over which he early assumed the direction, and that oversight he maintained until he was called from earth. In that line he excelled others in the same work. His early success was due greatly to his marvelous insight where machinery was concerned. Later, as the business grew, and mills multiplied, executive ability developed that was no less a mark and manifestation of genius. He knew what a day’s work for a man or a team or a steamboat ought to be. He was satisfied when this was done, and the confidence of his army of employes was won by his fairness in giving credit for their co-operation. Perhaps a man who has done many a day’s work himself is more competent to judge of that commodity as it is bought and sold in the labor market. Mr. Denkmann’s expectation of his employes was high, but not unreasonably so. He never required of them the hours and effort that he himself put into his enterprises. He was a leader and not a driver in the industrial world.

The firm of which Mr. Denkmann was a member was a pioneer in the purchase of pine lands. The first tract secured was in the Chippewa valley, and the purchase was made after due consideration of its far-reaching results. It was the precedent, and its profit the argument for the investment of great sums in standing timber. For many years it was the rule of the firm to buy available pine lands even at a price which made the investment seem undesirable to other lumbermen. The result justified the judgment of Mr. Denkmann and his partner. The lumber sawed by the firm was from logs cut from forests owned by the firm, by men employed by the firm, and towed to the mills by steamboats owned by the firm. Every profit in the manufacture of lumber was turned into the annual dividends.

This purchase of standing pine has gone on steadily for years, on the system entered upon years ago. The transactions have been of such magnitude that the members of this firm are today the largest owners of pine timber in this country, and therefore in the world. Standing timber was bought in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Minnesota. Vast forests were purchased in Oregon, Idaho and Washington, one tract secured in the latter state by themselves and friends comprising 1,000,000 acres. Of late the firm has investigated, at the request of large transportation companies and others interested in the development of the South, the lumber prospects of that region and has added largely to its land holdings in that section. They are now heavy operators in the South. It is probable that a list of all the timber holdings in which Mr. Denkmann was interested could be compiled from the records of the firm. If so, it would fill pages of this work.

Mr. Denkmann lived to see his early hopes more than fulfilled. At 82 he laid down the responsibilities and pleasures of a long and busy life. The cares of his later years were lightened by his sons, Frederick C. Denkmann and Edward P. Denkmann, who had mastered through early apprenticeship the incidents and intricacies of the lumber business. They have shown adaptability to their work and the initiative and executive necessary in those who control such great interests. Oversight and management were so gradually shifted from the aging father to the sons that the business world was not affected by the passing of the inheritance. Mrs. Catherine Denkmann, who survived her husband until January 15, 1907, was to him always his greatest incentive to success. He sought her advice and found her judgment sound on all business matters. She kept in touch with his business. Their home life was ideal. Mr. Denkmann, after business cares were over, delighted to spend his time at home with his family. He was a great reader and would read aloud to his wife in their happy evenings together. Her pleasure in having at hand means with which to gratify her benevolent impulses was a constant gratification to him after the Denkmann home was fairly in the sunshine of prosperity.

Mr. and Mrs. Denkmann were the parents of five daughters and two sons. They are: Marie Antoinette, wife of John J. Reimers, of Fort Worth, Texas, a newspaper man; Appolonia Adelaide, wife of Thomas B. Davis, of Rock Island; Frederick C. Denkmann, of Rock Island; Elise Augusta, wife of Wm. H. Marshall, of Rock Island; Catherine, wife of Edward S. Wentworth, an artist, of New York; Edward P. Denkmann, of Rock Island, Illinois, and Susanne C. Denkmann, who lives in the old homestead in Rock Island.

Those who associated with Frederick C. A. Denkmann and knew him well tell of his forceful but unobtrusive life, his active interest in matters of which he said but little. He was not given to taking counsel of others or imparting confidences. His was ever a strong individuality. He took his own means of broadening and enriching his life. His kindness was often felt by those who did not know who had befriended them. Mr. Denkmann preferred to have it so. He was a man of deeds, a tireless worker, a man of quiet habits and modest demeanor. He bore his part in building his city and making it beautiful. His wealth was fairly won in the open field of business competition, and he deserved whatever rewards it brought. All in all he was a type of man it is good for young Americans to know about.



Biographical Publishing Company. Portrait and Biographical Album of Rock Island County. Illinois; Chicago: Biographical Pub. Co.

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