Remarkable Americans: > The Washburn Family. By Kerck Kelsey. Illustrated. Tilbury House Publishers. 402 pages. $25.95.
Since the 1950s, the Washburn name has been a familiar one in Edgartown, with the late Stanley Washburn living on South Water street in summer and C. Langhorne Washburn summering on Pease’s Point Way. This fact-filled volume tells the story of their 19th-century forebears from northern Maine.
There were 10 Washburn children in that Maine farm family. They were Israel Jr., Sid, Elihu, Cadwallader, Charles, Sam, William, Martha, Mary and Caroline. Four of them came to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Two of these were considered as Republican candidates for President and Vice President. When the Civil War began, Ellihu Washburn, then a congressman from Illinois, was able to get a brigadier general’s slot for a West Pointer he admired — Ulysses S. Grant — thereby setting him on the road to head the Union Army and, ultimately, as President, to head the nation.
Two Washburns served as emissaries of their country abroad — one, Charles, as U.S. commissioner to Paraguay in 1861; the other as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to France during the Franco-Prussian War and the days of the workers’ commune that followed. One became a banker; one was a ship’s captain who became a lumberman; one was a newspaperman. Two of the brothers were responsible for the creation of the nation’s two largest flour companies.
Edgartown’s Washburns were direct descendants of William Drew Washburn, the youngest son and the handsomest, the most daring, but also the greatest gambler and the greatest spendthrift in the family.
He was a U.S. congressman from Minnesota from 1878 to 1885 and U.S. senator from Minnesota from 1889 to 1895. In that role, he gained considerable fame for convincing Congress in 1891 to authorize a ship to carry $100,000 worth of Minnesota wheat to southern Russia where there was a famine. For his efforts, when he was on a later trip to Russia, he received the personal thanks of the czar. A less exemplary part of his Senate service, however, was casting the deciding vote against a bill that would have provided federal protection for blacks voting in federal elections in the South.
William was also in the railroad, wheat and coal mining businesses. He constructed three railroads. At the time of his death in 1913, his mine was considered the largest underground ignite coal mine in the world. (It was also notable for the hot showers it provided to all workers and the Christmastime turkeys it gave them). Entrepreneurial William was also interested in building a railroad line from Hankow to Peking in China. The plans failed, but that did not keep William from having an apartment built for him in his railroad depot in Minnesota that was reminiscent of a Chinese pagoda. William was also active in the Universalist Church in Minneapolis, helping to build a large church there.
He had an 80-room Gilded Age mansion in that city, filled with sparkling chandeliers and mahogany doors. Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York city’s Central Park, designed its gardens.
When the 1892 Republican convention came to his city, he grandly entertained the important figures in attendance and the Minnesota delegation made him their favorite son Nominee for the Vice-Presidency.
William also was the chairman of the American Management Committee of the Pillsbury-Washburn Flour Mill Company, the largest flour milling concern in the world, but miscalculations on the grain market caused it to go into receivership in the first decade of the 20th century, and when it was back on its feet it was simply the Pillsbury Flour Mill Company. In the course of this crisis, which occurred when he was in his 70s, William was stripped of his assets by creditors.
William and his wife, Lizzie had two daughters and a son. The son, Stanley, father of Edgartown’s Washburn brothers was — like his father — “a dashing figure whose early life reminds one of Jack London,” Remarkable Americans’ author Kerck Kelsey notes.
A graduate of Williams College, Stanley spent a year at the Harvard Law School, then worked as a police reporter on the Minneapolis Journal in which his father had once had a considerable business interest. He became a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune during the Russo-Japanese War, later covered the Russian revolution and wrote numerous books.
He went on backtracking trips in British Columbia, worked for Collier’s Weekly and the Times of London and was with the French in World War I at the Battle of Verdun. He was also a lieutenant colonel in military intelligence and was a military aide to Queen Marie of Romania on a visit she made to the United States. He married Alice Langhorne of Philadelphia (one of whose beauteous cousins was the original Gibson Girl).
Dealing as it does with the lives of 10 eminently successful 19th-century Washburns and their descendants, Remarkable Washburns is bound at times to be somewhat heavy going, but Mr. Kelsey, the great-great grandson of Cadwallader Washburn of the original tribe and a retired publisher and banker has surely done an admirable job of recounting the family history.
Tilbury House Publishers that has produced it is, incidentally, the publishing company of Neil Rolde of York, Me. and Vineyard Haven.