The American dream attracted immigrants seeking their fortune in the New World away from the poverty and class system entrenched in European society. It proved elusive for many, but the six Silverthorne brothers and one sister were lucky enough to become the step-grandchildren of lumbar merchant Asa P Kelley. Taking advantage of one of the abundant natural resources in the mid-west, Kelley had established wholesale and retail lumbar yards in Chicago, Illinois and North Tonawanda, New York. He was looking for some cheap labour – and as it turned out, heirs – for his self-built company.
From 1861 to 1865 the American Civil War wrought wide-scale catastrophic damage to the burgeoning nation. Buildings, homes, businesses and infrastructure were decimated in cities and states across America. Whole families were forced to flee, homeless and with few possessions left, and desperately seeking shelter, new homes and new lives. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, four million slaves were freed. Many stayed in the south, the only life they had known, but many more moved to the northern cities to experience the freedom and opportunity they had heard so much about.
The Civil War was a disaster for many, but Kelley and his Silverthorne step-grandsons saw opportunity. The free-market economy had delivered unprecedented demand for their products, and they rode the crest of the post-Civil War rebuilding boom to a new life of wealth. Lumbar was not a glamour industry but building materials were in high demand and priced at a premium. Alice’s father, William Edward Silverthorne and his brother Asa K Silverthorne were young men, strong and hard-working, and they learnt their trade apprenticing for minimal wages. Their Scottish thrift had held them in good stead and they had accumulated much of the profit from the post-war boom. By 1891 Kelley was ready to retire and his heirs were ready to spread their wings.
Bringing in another brother, Albert E Silverthorne, they bought out Kelley and set up their own company, AE Silverthorne and Company. Despite the glory of becoming entrepreneurs in their own right, they were canny enough not to let their pride get in the way of their profits and carefully maintained customer and family loyalty by including in their advertising and signage “incorporating AE Kelley Lumbar”.
The Silverthornes learned quickly what other families took generations to understand – the importance of keeping money in the family. Over the ensuing decades they set up companies with each other, each building on the success and experience of the last. Continued rapid growth at the end of the 19th century meant huge demand for timber for building, and the Silverthorne brothers were well-placed to capitalise.
The fourth partner in Silverthorne and Co Lumbar was the husband of their sister Catherine, Henry Faurot. As well as being family, he brought in some important contacts, expanding the horizons of the Silverthorne business and social aspirations. It was he who brought ambitious nouveau riches William Silverthorne into the sphere of the socially prominent Armours, playing matchmaker between William and Julia Belle, beautiful cloistered youngest daughter of tycoon PD Armour’s beloved only daughter.
Henry was an astute businessman with a head for numbers, a fine addition to the family. When his father had died in 1868 in Michigan of malaria acquired during the Civil War Peninsular Campaign, his mother had been forced to take four year old Henry with her back to her father’s farm in Stockbridge Valley, New York. Three generations living on the farm income was a tough beginning for the little boy. Mrs Faurot started a small store to provide food and clothes for her growing son and from the age of 10, Henry kept the accounts. The bright little boy learned all he needed to know to succeed in life at the same time.
Faurot’s mother had been a childhood friend of millionaire businessman Philip Danforth Armour and she wrote a letter of introduction for young Henry after his graduation from Friends Seminary in 1882. He was taken on as a clerical officer, his first job paying the lowly wage of a dollar a day (and the occasional suit of clothes). His talents were soon recognised by his new mentor and he rose quickly through the ranks at Armours. As an only child he remained close to his mother and consulted her on all major decisions in his life, including his 1891 marriage to Catherine Silverthorne.
Joining the ambitious Silverthorne family was a life-changing commitment that opened up new opportunities and horizons for Henry. Soon after the wedding he resigned from Armour and Co and borrowed against his life insurance as part of the start-up capital for AE Silverthorne and Co. It was an uncharacteristic gamble that paid off handsomely, as well as sealing his commitment to his wife’s family.
Faurot had a one third interest in the company, and in 1892 his share of the profit was $9,201.75. The year old company was already worth $55,515.26. He only stayed with the company three years before returning to the welcoming bosom of the Armour Company, selling his shares back to his brothers in law. His new position was as the general manager of Armour Curled Hair Works Division, where he was well-regarded. It had been a long journey from the small shop at Stockbridge Mills.
Meanwhile, the Silverthorne brothers moved from strength to strength, expanding their lumbar empire into the southern states as the building boom continued and the demand for infrastructure increased. In 1895 they set up the Summit Lumbar Company in Arkansas and Louisiana and the Anchor Saw Mill Company in Mississippi. They also owned several other smaller mills dotted around the countryside.
The lumbar industry of the American free-market frontier was not completely without regulation though. In 1896 Albert E Silverthorne was arrested in Chicago and charged with deceit against creditors. He was bailed for the amount of $34,000, a huge amount at the time. Nonetheless the Silverthornes’ continued to profit and grow, and they wound their immigrant roots into the fabric of American society.
Brother-in-law and partner Henry Faurot continued his meteoric rise in the Armour Company. He was now the Vice President and General Manager of Armour Felt Works. In 1898 when the felt-works buildings were destroyed in a catastrophic blaze, Henry saw the opportunity he had waited for all his life. Owner PD Armour was too unwell to turn his energies to rebuilding and reluctant to hand the company reins over to this son Jonathon Ogden Armour whom he thought not serious or entrepreneurial enough to manage the Armour empire.
The Silverthornes were ready to spread their wings from the lumbar industry and expand their ambitions to new markets. Opportunity was knocking.