Aldrich History Project

Chapter LII

John DuBois

Du BOIS, JOHN, was born near Owego, Tioga county, N.Y., March 3, 1809, the second of a family of thirteen children, two brothers and one sister only surviving him. John Du Bois, the father, a man of energy and decision, claiming descent from the Huguenots of France a man of strong and robust physical frame and of a tall and commanding presence reared and trained his sons in habits of early rising, industry and preserving enterprise, and though their early years were not free from hardship, and severe and constant toil, the subject of this sketch often referred in after years to the severe labor and discipline of his boyhood and youth, as the foundation of his grand success in after life. Lucy, the mother, was a daughter of Ezekiel Crocker, one of the noted and conspicuous early settlers of the Susquehanna Valley. She was a woman of decided character, of untiring energy and indomitable will, ruling her numerous family with a firm hand, and training them in habits of order, diligence, perseverance, forethought and economy; encouraging and developing by her own example and guiding hand in her children, the good natural gifts and powers they inherited and derived from her by nature. She lived to a good old age, her husband surviving her but a few years, and dying at the age of eighty-four years.

John Du Bois, jr., with one or more of his brothers, early embarked in the lumber business near his home, and very soon, by means of his ingenuity, made important improvements upon the crude methods of lumbering known to the early pioneers. He claimed to have built, when but a youth, the first log-slide that was ever built in that region; and its perfect success was a matter of astonishment to the neighbors who witnessed its operation. Ere long the diminishing supply of pine timber caused the young lumberman to look about for a new field of operations, and a favorable purchase of lands and mill-site was effected on Lycoming Creek, in Pennsylvania, where John, associated with his brothers David and Matthias, carried on the lumber business, with yearly increasing volume, and with encouraging success for several years. As fast as their capital increased judicious investments were made in pine lands and other real estate. Two farms, lying within the present limits of the city of Williamsport, were purchased, laid out in lots, streets and alleys; and are now the location of some of the finest residences in the city. A large tract of some five hundred acres on the south side of the river, opposite the upper end of Williamsport, was also purchased, and became the location in a few years of his large steam gang mills, and of his extensive lumber yards. Large tracts of the finest pine timber in Pennsylvania were secured by John Du Bois and his brother in Clearfield county, affording for many years an ample supply of logs to the Williamsport mills, and embracing also the large tract contiguous to the present borough of Du Bois, on the western slope of the Alleghenies. Although these lands were then, and for many years afterward, inaccessible for successful lumbering operations, the low price of the land, and the magnificent growth of white pine timber with which they were covered were inducements which led to the investment of every dollar the brothers could raise for the purchase; notwithstanding they were well aware of the tremendous burden they were assuming, in the shape of many years of heavy taxes on property assessed at a high value, but affording no income, and incurring many and great risks from fires, wind-storms, and depredations of thieves, before any returns could be realized. The decease of David, a younger brother and partner had occurred while they were living on Lycoming Creek. About this time they moved to Williamsport, and built a large steam gang saw-mill, on the south side of the river, in and about which hundreds of men were employed, and millions of feet of lumber were annually sawed. The death of his brother, Matthias, and the purchase of his interest in the business, lands, and other property, left John the sole owner and manager of what had now grown to be a very extensive business. A movement, contemplating the making of Williamsport the great lumber centre of Pennsylvania, was soon organized by John Du Bois and a few others, by securing a charter for a boom in the Susquehanna River to catch and hold logs, to be floated from the headwaters of the stream. Mr. Du Bois was one of the original charter members of the Susquehanna Boom Company, for many years its president, and owner of most of its stock, and under his vigorous administration the boom was built, and made a decided success. Very great opposition to the driving of saw-logs was manifested by the communities living on the headwaters of the stream, they alleging that the floating of loose saw-logs seriously interfered with the running of rafts; and when no effective remedy could be found in the courts of law to prohibit the driving of logs, some of them clandestinely resorted to what was then called spiking logs. Spikes, old files, and iron of almost every shape that could be found, were driven into the ends and sides of the best logs at night, and so effectually concealed that it required careful search by experts to find the iron. Tons of iron were extracted at the mills, and with the greatest care it was impossible to get the spikes and old iron all out; and the stoppage of the mills for broken saws was of almost daily occurrence. With all this opposition and loss, John Du Bois never faltered, but went on putting in and driving his logs every year, meeting those in the courts who disputed his rights to drive logs on legal grounds, and by fair and honorable treatment of those he had reason to believe were privately injuring him, the opposition gradually died out and entirely so, after it was noised around that Mr. Du Bois was taking measures for the discovery of the perpetrators of the injury, with a view of bringing them to justice. Had he been governed by a spirit of revenge, or retaliation for the very serious injuries and losses inflicted upon his business, no doubt many would have soon found themselves behind prison bars; but when the injury ceased, he was content to let the matter drop. In the mean time, though the boom had become a perfect success, and many mills had been built at Williamsport, a strong and unreasonable opposition through envy, jealousy or misunderstanding, had arisen against the management of the boom, on the part of many of his brother lumbermen. Though reaping the benefits of the boom by having their logs caught, cared for, rafted out and delivered to them without any of the burdens, annoyances, risks or responsibilities, further than the payment of a very moderate charge for booming and rafting, it was considered sufficient cause for hostility, that Du Bois owned and managed the boom. Becoming weary of the captious opposition of his neghbors, and continual irritation and annoyance from those who should have been his friends, and the grand scheme for which he had labored so many years being now fully assured of success, he proposed to several of the principal lumbermen to take a portion of his boom stock at par. This proposal was accepted; a controlling interest in the stock was sold to them, when Mr. Du Bois retired permanently from the management of its affairs, though still retaining nearly one-half of the original stock. Very soon, however, the opposition came to a realizing sense that, though rid of Du Bois, they had fallen into the hands of a corporation without a soul and whose prime object was to make the utmost possible out of the boom and its franchises. An advance, nearly or quite doubling the boomage tolls, was secured from the Legislature on one and another pretext, and the real grievances the lumbermen were now compelled to endure at the hands of the monopoly, caused many of them to regret their former opposition to Du Bois, and to remember him as a public benefactor, instead of an extortionist. Meanwhile Du Bois still held his stock, but was totally excluded by the new management from all voice in the control, as well as from any participation in the earnings and profits of the boom. No dividends were ever declared in which he was allowed to share. He finally disposed of his boom stock with his large gang-mill to Ten Eyck, Emery & Co., and immediately set about building another large stone mill, which he operated for several years until his removal to Du Bois.

During all those years of absorbing business his active brain found time to consider and perfect many inventions; for some of which he secured letters patent, and many more were used by him about his mills and in his business, as labor and expense saving devices, and were left free to be adopted or imitated by any that desired their benefits. In a single instance, however, was he led or forced into a long and severe litigation with a powerful railroad corporation, in defense of his right to a patent he had obtained for sinking piers in deep water, as well as in vindication of his integrity, which he considered had been wantonly attacked, and would stand or fall in the estimation of the public, with his success or defeat in the contest. After repeated partial defeats in the lower courts, and all the delays and obstructions that the best legal talent and ingenuity could devise, prolonging the battle for nearly or quite ten years, when almost every friend had despaired of his success, his claims to the ownership of the patent, and his integrity, were fully and finally established and vindicated, by the decision of the United States Supreme Court, and a verdict for over thirty thousand dollars was awarded him for the infringement of his patent. His success in this suit was mainly due to his personal conduct and direction o fall the various steps in the case; and on the witness stand he showed himself fully a match for the renowned lawyers who were engaged in the case against him, knowing as he did the justice of his cause, and fully conscious of the rectitude of his purpose.

Having nearly exhausted the supply of pine timber that could be floated to Williamsport, he began in 1872 to make preparations for lumbering on his lands on Sandy Creek, on the western slope of the Alleghenies erecting first a small mill with one circular saw, building dams, clearing land, making roads, building houses and other improvements, and very soon afterwards contracting for the machinery and outfit, and laying the foundations of his immense mills and lumber establishments at Du Bois. His enterprise in developing this new region and the opening of the Low Grade Division of the Allegheny Valley Railroad, soon attracted a numerous colony of hardy and industrious workmen with their families, as also many merchants, mechanics and professional men, whose homes and places of business now constitute the borough of Du Bois, having increased from three houses in 1872, to a population of about seven thousand in 1886. The building of his three steam mills, box factory, machine shop, store and hotel, tannery (in which latter enterprises Messrs. Van Tassel Brothers were associated as partners), the clearing and improvement of a twelve hundred acre farm, and the erection of more than one hundred good comfortable dwelling houses for his employees, occupied the last years of his life, and all these improvements proceeded under his personal supervision.

Through all his busy and useful career several peculiar traits and characteristics were especially prominent. As a business man, those who knew him best have remarked his strict sense of justice in all his dealings, and his utter detestation of all trickery and knavish practices. Prompt to defend his own rights when invaded, he never exacted from others more than he was morally as well as legally entitled to, and notwithstanding in the course of such a protracted career of business, involving many millions of dollars, he was frequently compelled either to defend or prosecute a suit at law, he dreaded and avoided such contests, so far as he considered the safety of his business would permit, and particularly in his later years, effected many settlements by a compromise, conceding often his just rights rather than resort to litigation.

His great mechanical ingenuity, in construction devices and appliances for the saving of expense and labor, was continually displayed in all departments of his business, and scarcely a year passed by without an addition to his list of patents, many of which are still in use. Up to the latest months of his life, his mental power was seldom too much exhausted for active exercise in the direction of mechanical devices. His aim seemed always to contemplate increased production at diminished cost, and to discover the best and cheapest mode of accomplishing every part of the work he laid out, and in this mechanical ability, aided and directed by his strong native good sense, lay a very important element of his greatest success.

Order, neatness, regularity and punctuality were virtues not only practiced habitually himself, as rules of his life, but were expected and required in all his employees; and a failure in any of these was sure soon to attract his vigilant eye, and cause the application of an effectual remedy.

His remarkable power of concentrating his mind upon any subject that interested him until he had reached a satisfactory conclusion was brought to bear upon the various branches of his extended business, as well as upon his mechanical studies, and no doubt, contributed largely to the gratifying results attained.

Being a very close observer of men, and generally a good judge of human nature, he was seldom at fault in the selection of his principal aids, assistants, foremen and employees generally; whatever gift or excellence each one was possessed of, Du Bois was quick to notice and to place such employee where his superiority could be used to best advantage. He studied his men and knew them thoroughly, often forming his judgement of them from what to others would seem trifling acts or occurrences, which would escape the notice of most observers. While strict and exacting from all employees the full measure of their duty, he did not expect to find perfection in any of them; and in those who were known to be reliable, and he had proved to be loyal to his interest, industrious and honest, an occasional mistake would be excused; but no degree of ability, would atone in his estimation for the lack of truth, honesty and integrity. One who ever deliberately deceived him need ever expect to be trusted again by him. This faculty of close observation was habitually exercised towards the minutest details of his business, as the various departments from time to time were separately reviewed. He seemed to value the results of his plans and labors more for their successful outcome than for the rapid increase of his wealth. Money was never with him an end or object, but a means for the furtherance and accomplishment of his designs and plans, and the proper employment of his accumulations in active business gave him much thought in his later years. The employment of a large number of men at liberal wages, in his extensive schemes of improvement, he seemed to consider a better use for surplus capital, than the hoarding of it in stocks and bonds, and very rarely during the last five years of his life did the number of his employees fall short of five hundred to six hundred men.

Although making no parade before the world as a philanthropist, yet he frequently ran his works with a full complement of men for months together out of regard for the welfare of his employees and their families, when he could have made far more money by a suspension of work. To his men who were diligent, faithful and honest, he gave very liberal terms on land and buildings for their homes, and was never known to harass them for payment, always accepting whatever could be spared out of their earnings after providing for the comfort of their families, and in sickness or disaster of any kind, he could always be depended upon for sympathy and assistance. Such a combination of traits could not fail to make up a character of note and prominence among his fellow men.

 

Source: Pages 719-723, History of Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, edited by Lewis Cass Aldrich, Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., Publishers, 1887.
Transcribed August 1999 by Elizabeth Westfall Johnson for the Clearfield County Aldrich Project
Contributed for use by the Clearfield County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/~clearfield/)

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