Philip Danforth Armour.
By Megan McKinney
The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties
During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible
Placerville, California, in the mid-19th century.
Placerville, California, in 1854 was a grim little mining town. Only months before, California had been a province of Mexico and Placerville known as “Hangtown” in recognition of the thieves and murderers who had dangled from an oak tree on Main Street. Surrounding the tree on both sides of the dusty road were drab frame buildings thrown up since the nearby gold strike — shops, saloons and a hotel-boarding house. Scattered about on the neighboring landscape were prospectors’ tents and insubstantial wooden shacks.
A total of 300,000 “49ers” would be seduced by the romance of the California Gold Rush, many drawn to Placerville. Levi Strauss had come out from New York in 1853, bringing canvas for tents and wagon tops, but when a miner in ripped work trousers said, “You should have brought pants,” Levi listened.
Levi listened, and a new industry spanning three centuries was born.
He was not the only future tycoon who recognized that panning for gold was not a sure way of becoming a rich man but that there were subsidiary routes for profiting from the bonanza. Among these foiled miners were future railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins, who sold supplies and provisions to Placerville prospectors, and John Mohler Studebaker of the forthcoming automobile clan, who constructed wheelbarrows for miners at the rear of a Main Street blacksmith shop.
When an exhausted Philip Danforth Armour staggered barefoot into the dingy village in 1854, he had traveled across America from his parents’ farm near Stockbridge, New York, much of the journey on foot. The auburn-haired 20-year-old — stocky and broad-shouldered for most of his life — had become gaunt from the ordeal, and very soon he decided to veer from the uncertainty of gold panning. Placerville miners might require denim pants, wheelbarrows, food and other provisions, but they also needed water. And it didn’t take P.D. Armour long to learn how to supply the panning prospectors with running water to separate gold from the dirt surrounding it, or how to control its flow.
Soon he was an employer, hiring thwarted miners to build sluice gates to control waters flowing through mined rivers, and, within four years, he had accumulated $8,000, a substantial stake for buying a farm near Stockbridge, or even founding a business elsewhere.
It was a circuitous route that took P.D. back across America to New York State, then to the “porkopolis” of Cincinnati, and finally to Milwaukee, where he entered the wholesale grocery business, followed by grain and eventually meatpacking. The detour to Cincinnati had been crucial, however. It was there that Armour learned the fine points of wholesale animal butchering and where he met Malvina Belle Ogden, whom he would marry in 1862.
Malvina Belle Ogden.
By early 1865, P.D. Armour was a prosperous Milwaukee meatpacker on the verge of becoming one of the nation’s richest men.
Immediately before the end of the Civil War, Armour made a gamble that would transform the rest of his life, and the destinies of all those around him for decades, when he bet on pork futures and won. Because the Union Army existed on salt pork, prices had soared to more than double the peacetime value. And P.D., sensing an early end to the war, signed contracts with civilian and army purveyors at $40 a barrel. When prices collapsed after Appomattox, Armour fulfilled agreements with salt pork already in stock, for which he had paid $18.
The source of one of America’s great fortunes.P.
P.D. was not alone in his meatpacking enterprise. The Armour dynasty then included four of his brothers: Joseph, who preceded him in Chicago; Herman, in New York as chief of H.O. Armour and Co.; Simeon, whose Armour Packing Co. in Kansas City would merge with the Chicago operation in the late 1890s; and Watson, also in Kansas City as chief of Armour Brothers Bank. Additionally, P.D. would establish a successful plant in Omaha in 1897.
Movement of the brothers between cities was fluid, and Joseph’s failing health prompted P.D. to relocate to Chicago in 1875. Within two decades, Armour & Co. was not only the world’s largest meatpacker, but it also handled a volume of wheat greater than that of any single company worldwide.
The Chicago Stockyards.
Armour pubic impact would be complex. Generous by nature, P.D. was personally philanthropic, and, guided by the Rev. Frank W. Gunsaulus, he and his brother Joseph funded Chicago’s Armour Mission, an educational and healthcare facility. In 1890, again inspired by Rev. Gunsaulus, P.D. spent $1 million to found Armour Institute of Technology, a technical training school that welcomed students of both genders and all races.
The Armour Mission.
The Institute eventually became the prestigious Illinois Institute of Technology, where eminent Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe would be based from 1938 to 1958. Privately, the eccentrically bighearted P.D. began each day with a pile of 100 crisp $1 bills, which he handed out one-by-one to various individuals he encountered as the hours passed. And, when an employee particularly pleased him, he would send the man to his personal tailor for a complimentary suit, or, after the cycling craze began, order him a gift bicycle.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: a name almost as synonymous with Chicago as the Union Stockyards.
On the other hand, as Upton Sinclair pointed out so graphically in his 1906 novel, The Jungle, fortunes made by meatpacking tycoons were not only at the expense of their employees, but also of the public whose well-being they undermined. The sins of Armour & Co. included unsanitary facilities; pollution of areas surrounding Armour plants; notoriously low pay of workers; and the company’s resistance to unionization and the sale of spoiled meat to the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, resulting in the food poisoning of thousands of soldiers.
But life was sweet for the Armour family. P.D. became so powerful in his adopted city that he and his two closest friends, dry-goods merchant Marshall Field and sleeping-car magnate George Pullman, were together “the trinity of Chicago business.” As a unit, the three were so influential that when they decided to build mansions on Prairie Avenue in the 1870s, Chicago’s Establishment followed, making the street’s six-block stretch the most fashionable residential area in the city.
Department Store magnate Marshall Field.
Sleeping car tycoon George Pullman.
Armour money was big and it was new; however — within the Prairie Avenue context — never was there a showy display of personal wealth. Chicago author Arthur Meeker Jr. wrote many years later, “The P.D. Armours, richer than almost anyone in Chicago, [lived] quietly and inconspicuously.” The patriarch, who described himself as “just a butcher trying to go to Heaven,” repeatedly recited to his sons the mantra, “never feel rich, never feel rich.”
The Philip Armour house on Prairie Avenue.
Philip D. Armour Jr. was eight years old when the family moved to the new house on Prairie Avenue, and almost immediately, he met May Lester, a seven-year-old girl whose family lived on Calumet Avenue, running parallel to Prairie and ranking only second to it in status.
During the next few years, the two children were together almost daily, and May became a surrogate daughter to the senior Armours. The young pair was rarely separated until the privately tutored Philip left for Andover Academy, followed by a year at Yale and another of European travel with a tutor.
May Lester Armour.
When he returned at 20, it was to enter the employ of Armour & Co., and to marry May Lester. After their wedding, Philip continued to learn the intricacies of meatpacking and grain speculation from his father, and the couple acquired a grand country house, Danforth Lodge, on 400 acres of land near Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, an elite summer community for Chicago and Milwaukee families. The young Armours’ annual winter escape was to an estate in Montecito, California. Theirs was a marriage that appeared to be an idyllic union between two people who had been each other’s closest companions since childhood. And the family seemed further strengthened when May produced two little boys, Philip Danforth III and Lester, to whom both their father and paternal grandparents were devoted.
A rare photograph of the three Philip Danforth Armours together.
The enviable family circle demonstrated that even the very rich could enjoy warm, committed relationships. Thus, a devastating reversal, which occurred in the young Armours’ lives in January 1900, astonished and shattered family members, friends and casual observers — regardless of the tragedy’s cause. The official report was that the couple had left together for California in early January 1900, taking with them seven-year-old Philip and Lester, age five. On January 26, Philip Jr. was dead. Published accounts stated that the healthy 31-year-old man had suffered sudden congestion of the lungs and died within hours.
However, a shadow version was that Philip, although devoted to May, had followed the fashion of rich men of his day and taken a mistress in Chicago. When May learned of what she considered an unforgivable betrayal, she left abruptly for Santa Barbara, taking the two boys with her, and filed for divorce. The distraught Philip followed in his private railroad car, and, when May refused to drop her suit, he took his life. Although even less is known about this mystery than that of the enigmatic gunshot death of Prairie Avenue neighbor Marshall Field II nearly six years later, they are similar because neither tragedy has been satisfactorily explained.
Philip D. Armour Jr.
The patriarch, who had been in declining health for more than a year, was devastated by the loss of the son who was so like him and who he believed would continue his work. Over the following year, P.D. immersed himself in his two grandsons, Philip D. III and Lester, drawing even closer to May, communicating with her daily about the boys and spending valuable time with the family his son had left behind. Typical of P.D.’s attentions to May and his adored grandsons was the black-faced lamb he bought for the boys and delivered to May at Easter time, and which he joined the children in nurturing. In late December, while he was romping in the snow with the boys outside his Prairie Avenue mansion, P.D. caught cold. The cold developed into pneumonia, then almost always a fatal disease, and on January 6, 1901, P.D. Armour died. He was 68.
After the sudden, sequential deaths of the two men with whom she had been closest, May went to Philip’s closest friend and confidant for comfort and advice. Patrick A. Valentine was a 50-year-old Scotsman and bachelor whose success at the Board of Trade had attracted the attention of the Armours, who hired him as a vice president. Midway between father and son in age, he quickly gained the esteem of both for his skill and ethics. He was also a notably convivial companion. Patrick’s outstanding management of May’s financial affairs, as well as their shared grief, brought the two into close contact during the months following her husband’s — and then her father-in-law’s — death. On March 7, 1902, they were married in New York’s Hotel Netherland, and, although Patrick Valentine lived only 14 more years, May would prevail as a formidable New York, Southampton and Chicago social figure throughout a life that would extend until 1965.
House of Armour: The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: A Gentleman in the Yards
Robert F. Carl