The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties
During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible
Frederick H. Prince.
A New Era for the House of Armour
Although diminished during the family’s second generation, Armour & Company remained a $350 million empire and a tempting plum for one of American business’s most formidable figures, Frederick Henry Prince. The Boston capitalist, then in his 60s, was son of Frederick O. Prince, Boston’s last Brahmin mayor.
As a young man, Frederick H. had been so eager to build a career in finance that he left Harvard after his freshman year to begin work as a stockbroker. While investigating a Maine railroad for an early client, he became enthralled with the property’s possibilities and acquired the line for himself, the first in an eventual collection of 46 railroads.
Twenty-eight of Prince’s rail lines served Chicago’s Union Stock Yard & Transit Company, which he was soon to own. Around this impressive core, he created the 265-acre Central Manufacturing District in 1905. This expanse was the country’s first planned industrial park and one of the nation’s most enviable concentrations of such property, solidifying Fred Prince’s position as a major American tycoon. Despite his status as what TIME magazine labeled “New England’s richest citizen and Boston’s crustiest celebrity,” there was scant media coverage of Prince, who managed to keep journalists at a distance, maintaining an enduring screen of secrecy around his considerable business dealings.
Nevertheless, his personal style could not be ignored. Fred’s practice of carrying a riding crop “throughout the daylight hours,” with reluctance to relinquish it at night, was a notable peculiarity, as was the refusal of this powerful industrialist to “get up in the morning unless his wife was sitting in a chair by his bed.” And his separate associations with two of the best known men of the time — one surprising, the other not — also thrust him into the spotlight.
Joseph P. Kennedy.
Not unexpected was his assistance in financing fellow Bostonian Joseph P. Kennedy’s 1925 acquisition of the motion picture company that would become Hollywood’s RKO. However, as a staunch Republican, his support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was. And not until 1936 did a $100,000 breach of promise suit by a dancer become public when Florence Walton charged that Prince — with whom she had shared a “father and daughter” relationship for 23 years — failed to pay her money to which he had agreed. But it was the accumulation of high-profile residential property, as well as his involvement in the sporting activities of gentlemen on an international level, that periodically propelled Fred from the privacy he wished.
Prince’s residential holdings included two lavish estates, the 994-acre Princemere at Wenham, Massachusetts — where he served as Master of Foxhounds for more than 25 years — and Villa Sainte-Hélène at Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France.
In addition, he maintained houses in Paris and Boston, a villa in Biarritz, France, and impressive property at the great equestrian center of American society, Aiken, South Carolina. A further trophy would be added to the inventory in 1932 with his purchase of Newport’s Marble House, the fabulous Bellevue Avenue “cottage” built in 1892 for $11 million by William K. Vanderbilt. Prince bought the estate from Vanderbilt’s former wife, Mrs. Oliver H.P. Belmont, best known for arranging the unhappy 1895 marriage of her daughter, Consuelo, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
A recognized sportsman and participant in high-profile yacht races and tennis and polo matches, Prince was among the nine 1895 founders of the National Steeplechase Association Association, co-founder of the International Tennis Club of Washington and owner of the $500,000 Weetamoe, a J-class yacht that competed for a berth in the 1934 America’s Cup and which he often piloted himself. His enthusiasm for adventurous physical pursuits was inherited by his sons.
The dashing Norman Prince was a flying ace for France and internationally celebrated as one of the early romantic figures of the Great War. Forbidden by his father to fly, he had taken the alias George Manor to conceal pilot training and became the 55th man licensed by the Aero Club of America. Norman made aviation history in 1916 when he brought together a group of six of his countrymen with members of the French Foreign Legion to form the Lafayette Escadrille.
Among other Americans joining Norman’s illustrious World War I squadron was the older Prince son, Frederick H. Jr., who survived the war. Norman did not. He died on October 15, 1916, achieving hero status several days after his plane crashed while returning from escorting a bombing mission over Germany. Norman Prince, awarded the French Legion of Honor, Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre, is buried in Washington National Cathedral.
Norman Prince’s LaFayette Escadrille.
Frederick Sr. considered Armour & Company an appropriate component in his stockyard empire and responded astutely when Ogden’s fortunes were faltering during the 1920s. As Armour shares became available, Prince acquired them, but with care. It was a giddy time and other financiers were investing crazily in the stock market, believing its upward thrust would last indefinitely. But Fred anticipated the Wall Street Crash and stabilized his fortune before withdrawing to his Pau estate to sit out the days of havoc reigning at home. He was one of few American tycoons to hold his wealth intact, surviving the 1929 debacle with riches estimated at $250 million.
Also safe from the vagaries of the stock market — and the stockyards — were descendants of P.D.’s Kansas City brother Watson Armour, who had neatly shifted their collective roles from cattle butchers to cattle owners. The process began in 1911 when Laurance Armour, grandson of the Armour Brother’s Bank founder, married Lacy Withers, granddaughter of Texas cattle baron Abel Head “Shanghai” Pierce, a man whose extreme earthiness equaled his immense riches.
Nineteen-year-old Shanghai had begun inventing his legend in 1853 when he stowed away on a ship in New York harbor with 75 cents in his pocket. After discovery at sea, he handled cargo to pay his passage during the five-month voyage to Indianola, Texas, where he determined to become an authority on cattle and signed on as a hand for rancher W.B. “Bing“ Grimes. Following years of drudgery in the employ of others and hiatus for Confederate Army service in the Civil War, Shanghai was joined by a mathematically gifted brother, Jonathan, in establishing the successful Rancho Grande on Tres Palacios Creek near Blessing. A brief marriage ended with the death of his wife, Fannie Lacy, after producing their daughter, Mamie.
Fannie Lacy Pierce.
In 1871, Shanghai led a posse that captured five cattle-skinning trespassers and hung them from a tree, resulting in the abrupt relocation of father and daughter to Kansas City. It was a town Mamie enjoyed and to which she would return; however, after 18 months, the Pierces were back in Texas, where Shanghai began purchasing land in Wharton and Matagorda Counties. He named the eventual half million-acre spread the Pierce Ranch.
Shanghai soon became an unparalleled cattle rancher, and Pierce Ranch cattle drives — annually propelling thousands of head to northern markets — made his name synonymous with cattle in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. The fame continued; in 1957, Shanghai was portrayed by actor Ted de Corsia in the Hal Wallis film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The 6-foot-5 Old Shang, known for “a megaphone voice that carried from one end of the pasture to the other,” was described as “uncouth as the cattle he owned, but infinite in wit and anecdote.” According to a more moderate source, “Pierce helped shape the culture and mystique of the South Texas cattle industry.” Yet uncouth he was, which he confirmed at his daughter’s wedding reception by gesturing toward the bridegroom, Kansas City lawyer Henry Withers, while loudly predicting wedding night activities of his new son-in-law in which the bride was referred to as a gold mine.
As his wealth grew, Shanghai transferred much of his property to Mamie, whose husband’s astute legal sense helped guide it. The two Withers daughters were Lacy, wed to Laurance Armour in 1911, and Mary, who in 1922 married Clive Runnells, son of Pullman Company President John Sumner Runnells. Soon after the latter union, the Shanghai legacy further expanded when a colossal blowout forcefully spewed barrels of black liquid skyward from a well on the Pierce Ranch.
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 Week in Classic Chicago: Aleka and the Czar’s Nephew.
Robert F. Carl