Biography of Frederick Weyerhaeuser

Should a search be made throughout the length and breadth of the United States, no fairer or finer example of the selfmade American could be found than Frederick Weyerhaeuser, lumberman. Brought by chance, in early manhood, in touch with the making of lumber he seized upon this accidental circumstance as upon an opportunity, mastered the rudiments with a thoroughness that has characterized his every action in life, and upon this practical knowledge built his exceptional business career. One by one he saw the possibilities as they opened before him. Each possibility became to him a probability and was made a certainty. He mastered in turn the details of lumber manufacture and sale, of the purchase and economical utilization of pine lands, of log supply in its branches-cutting, sorting and rafting to the mills, details of the building and maintenance of railroads for logging and marketing mill products, of the operation of the various industries subsidiary and supple-mental to the principal business of lumber manufacture. Incidentally he became a financier and has been chosen for his judgment to advise and direct great institutions of the financial world.

His career is so interwoven with the growth of the great white-pine industry of the North that it would be difficult to make reference to any chapter in the history of lumbering in that region without mentioning his name.

The story of Frederick Weyerhaeuser’s life is so remarkable in its incidents and yet so rational and consistent in the developmental sequence of its events that its telling in very truth would seem like the creation of some master mind in the realm of fiction. The story of his business career, the part he has taken in the development of the Northwest will never be fully known, for such a narration would be of necessity an autobiography, and Mr. Weyerhaeuser is the last man who could be induced to tell of his achievements in detail. Should he serve as his own historian, short and simple would be the annals. His is not the disposition to tell of the prodigious industry and unerring discernment which has made it possible to launch and build up countless industries, amass great wealth and extend the field of his usefulness until it has covered the entire country.

To intimate friends Mr. Weyerhaeuser sometimes talks of himself, but the topics are apt to relate to his boyhood in Germany, his emigration to America, his early trials and deprivations, his determination to do every task assigned him so well that the confidence of his employer could be gained and advancement honestly won. More particularly would he write, if his hand held the biographical pen, and he were sure of friendly interest in those who read, of his days in a little Illinois town where on a small salary he and his bride enjoyed existence as only young people happily married and hopeful of the future can enjoy it. He would tell of his beautiful home life, of his wife and family and cherished friends. He would tell of his desire for simplicity in living and freedom from the burden of social obligation that wealth often brings. To his closest friends he might speak of his interest in other men, the younger ones just putting their shoulders to the wheel, in the older ones, those who have done their best and yet have failed of substantial rewards which have been his own. Frederick Weyerhaeuser is a man whose business success has been noteworthy even in this country where a large measure of success is not uncommon. He has another side upon which his friends delight to dwell. It is Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the good citizen, the admirable neighbor, the kind and sympathizing friend, that his old associates in Rock Island hold in high regard.

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Frederick Weyerhaeuser is a native of Niedersaulheim, a village of the Rhine valley, situated near the city of Mainz. Long ago the little village with the long name was one of the Roman walled cities that the world-conquerors scattered over Germany. It is in the midst of a beautiful agricultural region. The ancestors of Mr. Weyerhaeuser were farmers and vine-dressers. Far yonder toward the dark ages, some four hundred years ago, tradition has it the Weyerhaeusers came from Western Germany to settle in Niedersaulheim. John Weyerhaeuser, the father of Frederick Weyerhaeuser, was one of the solid men of the village, owning a fifteen acre farm and a three acre vineyard. He died at the age of fifty-two, October 6, 1846, when Frederick was about twelve years old.

There were children in the Weyerhaeuser home at Niedersaulheim-eleven of them. Frederick and four sisters survived the others and reached maturity. When a little fellow of six he was sent to the Protestant school. The essential foundations of an education were provided by his teachers and a proper grounding in religious truths also looked after. Mr. Weyerhaeuser remembers that each Wednesday and Saturday afternoon was devoted to the study of the Bible and the church catechism. At eight years of age he commenced work upon the farm helping about such tasks as his strength permitted and received his first valuable lessons in responsibility. Four years later the death of his father made necessary the shortening of his school life and he took upon himself a large part of the work of the farm and vine-yard. In life’s school the boy was learning other lessons than those in books, lessons of accomplishment, of reliability, of self confidence. That he learned them well his subsequent success testifies. An incident of his boyhood life was his confirmation in the German Reformed Church at the age of fourteen. It might be remarked in this connection that after coming to this country Mr. Weyerhaeuser attended the Lutheran Church and that since his home has been in St. Paul he has been allied with the Presbyterian Church. During Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s boyhood days the thoughts of the people of this German village were turning toward America. In the Rhine valley farming land was high in price and the chance for bettering one’s condition small. The United States came to be looked upon as the land of promise, a land where there were broad acres, climatic conditions not unlike those of Germany and a chance for every man. One of Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s older sisters and an aunt made a pilgrimage across the water in 1849 and settled in Western Pennsylvania. Their letters turned the longings of the remainder of the family into determination, and in 1852 they followed to the land of opportunity. The party which included Frederick, then a sturdy youth of eighteen, landed in New York City in July of that year and proceeded to Western Pennsylvania, where settlement was made at Northeast, a small place about fifteen miles from Erie.

In this new land the strong boy, trained to work on the farm in the Fatherland, and not afraid of responsibility, turned his attention to any task that offered and they were of all sorts. At one time he fancied learning the trade of a brewer and entered the employment of a relative engaged in brewing. The first year he received $4 a month; the second and last, $9 a month. The employment was not congenial. Next he tried farming, and hired out for a year at $13 a month and board. Had any admirer of Frederick Weyerhaeuser at this stage of his life predicted the brilliant future that he has since experienced, the prophecy would have been considered as impossible as it was ingenious. So does truth out-fiction fiction in building the biography of a successful man.

The ancestral farm in Germany having been sold, Mr. Weyerhaeuser, with his share of the proceeds came to the West and to Rock Island, where he arrived in March, 1856. If he at this time glimpsed the future, and saw how broadly his name would be written across the commercial life of this thriving western town, he kept his fancies to himself. True to his former habits of industry he took the first worthy occupation that offered and went to work on the construction of the Rock Island & Peoria Railway, now a part of the Rock Island System. Soon after he took what seemed a better position, that of night fireman at the sawmill operated by Mead, Smith & Marsh, in Rock Island. Here, then, was the first round of the ladder that led to advancement in the lumber world, that led to wealth and influence and power. From that lowly first foothold the climb was steady, certain and swift.

Two days after he took this position at the mill the night shift was laid off; not so the new fireman. It had taken only two days to show his employers a touch of his quality and he was retained and made tallyman. In this position his duties included keeping account of the output of the one oratory and one mulay saw that formed the vital equipment of the mill and also loading the boards upon trucks. Here he more than earned his wages and established himself with his employers. One day at noon some farmers came to the mill to buy lumber. The salesmen and those in charge were away. The tallyman pushed his lunch bucket to one side, and with the Weyerhaeuser judgment which has since stood its owner in good stead filled the farmers’ orders and turned the $60 in gold he had received over to the salesman when he returned from dinner. Mr. Marsh approved the sale and noted the young German tallyman’s readiness and judgment in an emergency. The self-reliance and efficiency manifested in this incident brought about Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s being soon given charge of the yard and local sales.

While in the employ of Mead, Smith & Marsh the happiest event in Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s eventful life occurred, his marriage to Miss Sarah Elizabeth Bloedel. This young lady came from her home in Erie, Pennsylvania, early in 1857, to visit her sister, Mrs. F. C. A. Denkmann. She was from Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s native village. The bond of interest this created deepened in intensity and ripened into love. Six months later her consent to marriage was won and the ceremony took place October 11. Fifty years later, in October, 1907, the golden wedding was celebrated by Mr. and Mrs. Weyerhaeuser, with the loving and joyous aid of children and grandchildren at the old home, Rock Island. The first ceremony was a simple one. To its golden anniversary metropolitan newspapers sent picked men to report and illustrate this event.

In December of the year 1857, Mead, Smith & Marsh opened a lumber yard in Coal Valley, Illinois, a flourishing town to which the new railroad had just been completed and which was advantageously located in a fine farming community. Mr. Weyerhaeuser was given charge of this venture which proved a profitable one. While he was gaining valuable experience and knowledge of the demands of lumber purchasers his employing firm were nearing financial straits which finally resulted in such embarrassment that their assets were purchased by Mr. Weyerhaeuser as he was able from time to time until he was fairly embarked in the lumber business for himself and in his own name. This was a time of financial unrest the country over and the modest financial craft just launched was in danger for some months with others that went down.

Coming to Rock Island to secure lumber for his Coal Valley yard Mr. Weyerhaeuser formed the plan of operating the unused mill of his former employers. A raft was bought in Davenport and the idle saws bit into Weyerhaeuser logs. The lumber was laid down in Coal Valley at a cost of $8 per thousand feet. There was a good margin in the sale of this lumber, and when this was added to the profits of Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s operations as a building contractor and grain buyer, the new business man was delighted to find that during the latter nine months of 1859 he had cleared $3,000 and during 1860, $5,000.

When the affairs of Mead, Smith & Marsh were closed up and the old mill put upon the market at a modest figure, with a small sum of cash required to bind the bargain, a partnership was formed between Mr. Weyerhaeuser and his brother-in-law, F. C. A. Denkmann, then conducting a grocery store in Rock Island. The mill was purchased and the future-great firm of Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann commenced operations. In two years the mill had freed itself from imkncumbrance. Its capacity was steadily increased and in a few years reached an annual output of from 3,000,000 feet to 10,000,000 feet.

The ever increasing lumber business of the firm did not engross their entire attention. Mr. Weyerhaeuser was interested in a number of enterprises in the years succeeding the purchase of the mill. He owned a part of a flouring mill at Coal Valley. He and Mr. Denkmann had an interest in a woolen mill. In 1871 the Coal Valley business was put in charge of an employe and Mr. Weyerhaeuser moved to Rock Island.

Between the years 1858 and 1871 the foundations of the great business of lumbering afterward carried on by the firm were laid broad and deep. The personal characteristics of the members of the firm made their association mutually beneficial. Mr. Denkmann, a fine mechanic, took charge of the mills and surmounted all the mechanical difficulties of manufacture. Like his partner he was possessed of great vigor and executive ability. Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s natural abilities and training made him a great salesman, one who knew intimately the wants of customers. His genius in providing a competent log supply for the mills was also early apparent. He was not content with the method of purchase from log drivers then in vogue. He saw that a mill to succeed must be backed by adequate stumpage and took hold of that problem. He went into the woods and lived with the lumberjacks. He learned how to buy timber and estimate timber lands.

In the northern woods be became endowed with prophetic vision, and cast an anchor to windward, as the sailors say. With the co-operation of his partner, the firm of Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann inaugurated their policy of purchasing pine lands. Great tracts were bought on the Chippewa River and its tributaries. Other lumbermen did likewise. Logs cut at the different camps floated down the stream in confusion. The necessity for sorting the logs of different owners led to the organization of the Mississippi River Logging Company at Chicago, following a meeting of conference attended by representative lumber men of the Northwest, December 28, 1870. This company was destined to occupy a great field in the white pine industry. The logs of stockholders were sorted at great logging works at Beef Slough, Wisconsin, and at West Newton, Minnesota. Logs were purchased by the company from the various stockholders. These logs naturally varied in quality and value. The task of grading and pricing these logs and apportioning the credits to be given the different stockholders was deputed to a committee of which Mr. Weyerhaeuser was the chairman and executive. That his associates felt entire confidence in his uprightness and fairness needs no other proof. Mr. Weyerhaeuser has been the president of the Mississippi River Logging Company since September 5, 1872.

From the time when the log supply was planned, secured and safeguarded, the business of Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann grew with its growth and strengthened with its strength. Each gain in breadth of operation revealed still other fields where development was possible. Other mills were added to the equipment. Timber lands were purchased in other parts of the country and mills established to work the logs into lumber. A list of the corporations and companies in which Mr. Weyerhaeuser has held an interest and official position would be an astounding revelation of the man’s breadth of executive ability and business acumen.

He has always been a consistent follower of his theory formed years ago that the purchase of pine land was always the best thing a lumberman could do. This plan he has followed even after pine land had gone to a figure where further advancement seemed unlikely. He is quoted as saying to a friend who doubted the wisdom of a purchase where the price seemed prohibitive of profit: “I know this much: Whenever I buy timber, I make a profit; whenever I do not buy, I miss an opportunity. I have followed this practice for many years and have not lost anything by it.”

Another notable feature of Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s business policy has been his belief in cooperation. This principle he has always employed. It has reduced the cost of production by sharing with competitors any general and necessary expense. It has eliminated friction and promoted a cordial under-standing. among men engaged in the same line of business. If he has at any time planned a large deal, others have been invited to share in the development of the plan and in the profits. This disposition has won for him not only the respect but also the warm regard of associates in the lumber industry.

The habits of a lifetime of industry are not lightly shaken off. Although the necessity for work long ago disappeared, Mr. Weyerhaeuser is devoted to his business. There is much in organization and execution beside the piling up of wealth. There is a joy in accomplishment, and it is this that has kept Mr. Weyerhaeuser from seeking a life of ease which to him would be not only inglorious but distasteful. He is still Frederick Weyerhaeuser, lumberman, and it is easy to predict that he will never write “retired” after his signature. Since his removal to St. Paul from Rock Island, a step made desirable by the location of his newer home in the field of his operations, he has become a member of the Town and Country, the Commercial and the Minnesota Clubs, but his time is spent at his office or in the society of his wife at home.

To Mrs. Weyerhaeuser, the friends of the family who have known the Weyerhaeusers longest and best ascribe a splendid share in the credit for the success which has crowned the modest business beginnings in Rock Island a half century ago. No man ever had a more judicious advisor, say those who know, than this same wife who mingled with her common sense advice at business crises the steady encouragement of love and thoughtfulness. Mr. Weyerhaeuser has also had the invaluable assistance of late years of his four sons, all born and bred in the lumber business. When the character of these lieutenants in charge of the outposts and animated by the same loyalty to the Weyerhaeuser interests that has inspired their founder is considered, the credit for a large share of recent success is apparent.

Seven children have been born to Mr. and Mrs. Weyerhaeuser. The eldest is John P. Weyerhaeuser, now managing the Nebagamon Lumber Company, Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin.

A daughter, Elise, is the wife of Dr. William Bancroft Hill, a member of the faculty of Vassar College.

A daughter, Margaret, now Mrs. J. R. Jewett, lives in Chicago. Her husband is a professor of the Semitic languages in the University of Chicago.

A daughter, Apollonia, is Mrs. S. S. Davis, of Rock Island. Mr. Davis is one of Rock Island’s successful business men.

A son, Charles A. Weyerhaeuser, made his reputation as a lumberman in the management of the Pine Tree Lumber Company of Minnesota. He is now president of the Pot-latch Lumber Company, with mills in Washington.

A son, Rudolph M. Weyerhaeuser, is in charge of the great interests at Cloquet, Minn.

A son, Frederick E. Weyerhaeuser, after experience at Cloquet and in the South in lumber manufacture, is now at St. Paul serving the family interests as principal assistant to his father.

The greatest tribute paid to the man, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, is the love and admiration of his old friends and neighbors at Rock Island. They esteem him for personal qualities of exceptional sort, for his upright character and for his willingness that all should prosper, even as he has done.



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

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