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Boosters, Hustlers, and Speculators: Entrepreneurial Culture and the Rise of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1849-1883.

Boosters, Hustlers, and Speculators: Entrepreneurial Culture and the Rise of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1849-1883. By Jocelyn Wills (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2005. xi plus 290 pp. $34.95).

Jocelyn Wills' case study of St. Paul-Minneapolis weighs the region's entrepreneurial climate from its founding through the better part of the nineteenth century. She begins her tale with the Twin Cites' birth as a military and fur-trading outpost and ends with its development as a metropolitan complex. Wills stresses that her interest is in the growth of entrepreneurial culture, viewed through the eyes of St. Paul-Minneapolis "urban boosters, political hustlers, and western speculators." Urban entrepreneurs, Wills argues, found themselves well-rehearsed by their predecessors to manipulate and profit from government-supported Indian removal, land grants, railroad development, and commercial and agricultural ventures, with the most successful assuming their place in the transportation networks, which "promised to link them with government handouts, with other profitable businesses, and with regional assets." Focusing most extensively on transportation entrepreneurs, Wills details the finagling of those who pioneered, piloted, and profited from the region's commercial waterways and railroads.

Using business records, family papers, personal letters, and newspapers, Wills details St. Paul-Minneapolis development in three distinct phases. The first, the "riparian startup," from 1849-1861, explores the period when politicos, founding entrepreneurs, and immigrants initially staked out the Mississippi River region as territory ripe for agricultural, industrial, and commercial growth. The second period, from 1861-1872, reflects entrepreneurs' initial success in navigating government contracts, land grants, and lawmakers, as reflected in a burst of railroad construction and commercial, manufacturing, and farming interests. "Consolidation" marks the third period and pays tribute to the mastery of successive entrepreneurial generations in their ability to fashion ambitious paths for the Twin Cities into the next century. While St. Paul's development mirrored other commercial waterway ports such as Cincinnati and St. Louis, Minneapolis' growth more closely followed water-powered manufacturing towns like Buffalo and Lowell. The persistence and timing of urban speculators ahead of rural developers, however, made Twin Cities' expansion distinctive, as manufacturing and commercial enterprise preceded agricultural advances.

Wills reminds us that for every one Horatio Alger "luck and pluck" entrepreneur, there were hundreds more who built off the hard work and enterprise of those who came before. "Then as now, luck, timing, cunning, ambition, and connections mattered as much as insight or talent in achieving entrepreneurial success," she argues. Business networks, government connections, and kinship ties--all were as essential as market forces in the making of any successful striver. Lumberman-attorney William D. Washburn capitalized on family connections, accepting a post as Minnesota's surveyor-general thanks in part to his brother and flour-milling entrepreneur Cadwallader C. Washburn's clout with the Abraham Lincoln-led Republican party. W. D. Washburn turned patronage into profit, buying up pinelands along the Mississippi River, contracting with other government-appointed surveyors for mill rights, and using business partner William Davidson's federal transportation contracts to consolidate his business venture into long-term returns. Washburn's business acumen, combined with his brother's manufacturing plan, culminated in the Minneapolis Milling Company, home of Gold Medal Flour, which later anchored Minneapolis' grain and flour-milling empire as General Mills.

Wills is most comfortable enumerating the business and government dealings of St. Paul-Minneapolis' entrepreneurs, going to great lengths to make clear the impact commercial networks and political contacts had on the making of a manufacturing and commercial center. She digs deep to correct the enduring notion that James J. Hill, founder and builder of the Great Northern Railway, single-handedly orchestrated St. Paul-Minneapolis' rise and success "based solely on his market perceptions and moral virtue." Wills show that Hill built his empire by coordinating the acquisition of federal land grants, seeking out influential friends such as railroad promoter and congressman Edmund Rice, and parlaying his business savvy into money-making opportunities. She concludes that Hill "benefited from, rather than built, the Twin Cities."

Through tantalizing glimpses, we get a taste for the personal and community lives of Wills' strivers, but never quite the full course. She notes that some of the region's most successful entrepreneurs donated thousands of dollars to establish social, religious, literary, and political organizations. Wills, however, does not probe further into the social and cultural costs and benefits of these institutions and their impact on entrepreneurial culture. As Robert Dalzell has shown us in Enterprising Elite, early industrialists often established philanthropic and community associations as one way to balance the effects and demands of a modern, industrial order with traditional cultural structures and values. (1) Wills would do well to cast her net wider than economic motives, looking to behavioral, social, and cultural factors that influenced the business strategies and motivations of St. Paul-Minneapolis entrepreneurs. Her story further would be enriched by considering the role less-notable go-getters played in cultivating both entrepreneurial culture and economic success for the Twin Cities. Dry goods dealers, general merchandisers, bankers, wholesalers, and hoteliers all make appearances in Wills' story, albeit briefly. Their stories are intriguing, however, as with the case of Michael Boyle, a St. Paul wholesale drummer and social climber who missed Opportunity's calling to become partner in a wholesale firm, resolving instead to invest in the company as a committed and steadfast employee. Wills astutely recognizes that Boyle's dedication benefited his employer, returning profits on Boyle's investment of time and experience. Perhaps this is where the richer story hides, in the tales of less-than-plucky strivers who contented themselves with moderate success, modest means, and life as an everyman. After all, for every one James J. Hill who made it big, there were thousands of Michael Boyles who just made a go of it.

Susan V. Spellman

Carnegie Mellon University


1. Robert F. Dalzell, Jr., Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made Together (Cambridge, MA, 1987).
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Author:Spellman, Susan V.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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