Most self-made men, at least the uber-successful ones, are usually remembered by the wealth they bequeathed to charities. While inheritances are not necessarily public record, large philanthropic gifts are newsworthy. The extraordinary Getty Museum in Los Angeles (San Diego Frwy, between Sunset Blvd and Mulholland), opened in late 1997 at a cost of $1.3 billion ($2.3 billion in now-money), comes to mind.
The industrialist Henry J. Kaiser was different. He is remembered less for the wealth he left behind and more for the good he did while alive.
Henry J., as his subordinates referred to him when they thought he wasn’t listening, was born in Canajoharie, New York, in 1882. The village is on the Mohawk River, an hour west of Albany, where the Palatine Bridge crosses Interstate 90.
In 1882 its population was 4,294, then dwindled. The 2020 census showed only 1,571 residents. The village declined largely because it had a closed economy. There were no meaningful foreign sources of income. The same sized town on a coal seam could mine the coal and sell it to people in Albany, who had no coal of their own and had to buy coal from people outside of town. Thus, a village might benefit from foreign (in this case, from Albany) sources of income. Over time, injections of money from outside sources would cause the residents to become net-richer. That tended to attract new residents and the population would grow.
That is, in fact, probably the most common way for hamlets to mature into villages, and villages into towns.
But in Canajoharie, with its closed economy, the only way people got more money was to take it from somebody already there. There was no net gain of wealth within the population. A cobbler might hand a dollar to the grocer for eggs. Later that day, the grocer pays the dollar to the man who chops firewood. Then, before tomorrow’s breakfast, the woodcutter hands it to the blacksmith who sharpened his saw. Later that day the blacksmith picks up his newly soled boots and pays the cobbler the dollar he received from the woodcutter. The cobbler takes the dollar and walks to the grocery for another dozen eggs. The cycle repeats.
Lack of foreign sources of income means the village cannot generate enough entry level jobs to absorb the young people who required employment once their school days were over, so the population leak continued. Henry J. did not leave immediately. He worked locally for several years before seeking his future elsewhere. Henry J. was neither the first to leave nor the last, but eventually he left as did the others.
Henry J.’s family was a small part of the village’s closed financial system. His father was a shoemaker. His mother assisted at the cobblery – probably behind the cash register – and, in her spare time, kept the house. Henry J. went to work at 13. In those days, a kid who had six years of schooling was considered sufficiently educated. His first job was as a store messenger carrying customer’s money from the salesperson to the cashier and returning with the change (at the time, this entry-level position was called the “cash boy”).
Seven years later, in 1902, the twenty-year old had enough. He took his recommendation letter in hand and secured a position as an apprentice photographer in Lake Placid, New York, a bucolic hamlet near the Vermont border, about 150 miles north of Canajoharie. The difference was that Lake Placid was not a closed economy. It was becoming recognized by the wealthy who frequented the fashionable Lake Placid Club. The village flourished through infusions of foreign cash brought by the itinerate rich. An alert professional photographer could make a living taking pictures of the peripatetic elite. In current terms, think of the speculative photographer on a cruise ship, always underfoot, who takes candid photos of passengers in the expectation that a photo or two might be bought. The photographer would keep most of the earnings for himself, of course, but a little might be reluctantly dribbled out to a helper. Giving the helper a title, perhaps “apprentice”, might motivate him to work a little harder, even a little cheaper.
That was the situation when the apprentice photographer met his future wife, Bessie Fosburgh, as she entered the store to have her photograph taken. People said it was love at first sight for them both. Perhaps so, but there was little chance it would go anywhere. Bessie’s father, a brusque Virginia lumberman who still had most of the bark on him, was not impressed by an apprentice photographer from a back-water mountain hamlet, barely out of his teens.
A few inquiries later and Daddy Fosburgh knew his daughter was being courted by a boy (i) whose family ran a shoe repair shop, (ii) with no money of his own, and (iii) zero hard assets. The boy was hardly Fosburgh’s sort at all. He did not know the word for the male equivalent of gold-digger, but if he had he would have used it often during this period. He was not pleased with his daughter’s romantic fantasies and wasn’t about to welcome an indigent fox into a very comfortable hen house.
But there were complications. Bessie’s mother died two weeks after she was born. This was not unusual due to the poor obstetric education and delivery practices of the period. At the time, care was provided as a side job by inadequately trained midwives. Most births occurred at home, accompanied by a casual disregard for the principles of sanitation and, as a result, mothers died. Forty percent of maternal deaths were caused by sepsis, with most of the remainder attributed to hemorrhage and toxemia.
Since her father traveled on business the infant Bessie was taken to stay with her grandmother, where she remained until her grandmother’s death six years later. Her father remarried, but his new wife did not want Bessie living with them. The girl was moved to her Uncle Howard’s home and looked after by a governess until she was sent to live with yet another uncle and his wife. Then Uncle Howard married, and Bessie returned to his home, but Howard’s wife hated the girl and made her life miserable. It might not have helped that Bessie’s father, on one Christmas visit, held her hands in his and, with his eyes downcast, in a low voice said almost to himself, “Oh, Bessie, your mother was so tiny, so dainty and lovely, and you are so fat and with such hands and feet and, oh, such clothes!” (Dana Hall School archives). Perhaps alcohol was involved. It might sound like it, but we don’t know.
Those cruel words were unforgettable to her. She was in her early ‘teens, at the age where her body was starting to change, and Bessie was already unsure of herself, her maturing body, and her place in the extended family. Then Edgar Fosburgh reached for her hands, said his piece, and the damage was done. She was ugly. Her father had said so.
Although Bessie prettied up as she struggled through her teenaged years, the effect of her father’s words was about what one would expect. They explained why she was moved around so often. Her father thought she was ugly and did not want her associated with him, so she was pushed off onto her uncles. But she was too ugly for them too, so she was shipped to the next uncle in line. Her self-esteem never recovered.
One day in the summer of her 19th year her father took her with him to Lake Placid. He had begun summering there, and perhaps the invitation was a graduation present. She’d recently completed her education at Dana Hall, a girl’s boarding school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and was now of marriageable age.
And Edgar Fosburgh wanted a photograph of his daughter. Bessie was reluctant. She did not like having her picture taken. She didn’t like to be reminded of how she looked. But she was entirely dependent on her father and needed to please him.
Bessie entered the town’s only photography studio unescorted, with no expectations other than to get this disagreeable thing done. Henry J. was on duty. If she was surprised that the photographer was no more attractive than she (and some would say less so), she didn’t show it. Somehow it wasn’t as important to her that a man be particularly handsome. The session took longer than expected. Towards the end it became obvious that the photographer was purposefully drawing it out. Shortly afterwards it became clear the photographer was also showing an interest in her. She did not know what to do. She had never been seriously courted and was inexperienced in the rituals of wooing.
She knew that sometimes men played the courting game with no intention of ending it in matrimony, so one part of her wasn’t convinced his intentions were honorable. But it was the first time any man had taken a romantic interest in her and she deeply wanted to believe. She first hoped, then she prayed. Please God, just this once!
Note to the Reader: This article is largely taken from the Wikipedia entry on Henry J. Kaiser. Additional sources were Stefanie Pettit’s May 11, 2016, article in the Spokesman-Review and the Dana Hall School archives.
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