Family & Business
When James Oliver was born to his parents, George Oliver, a shepherd, and his wife, Elizabeth Irving, August 28, 1823, in the tiny village of Newcastleton, Scotland, it may have been hard to imagine that this child of humble
beginnings would become one of America’s most influential inventors and industrialists. Or that James would one day have a son, Joseph D. Oliver, who would become a business genius in his own right and build a mansion in South Bend, Indiana (Copshaholm).
George Oliver was born in 1770 on a farm known as Bleakboneynear in Newcastleton or, as the village was called in ancient times, Copshaholm. Most of Newcastleton’s residents were very poor. George was a shepherd, as probably were his ancestors. His wife came from an old and well-known Scottish family, and as a young man, George worked for them.
In 1802, George, 32, and Elizabeth, 21, married. Elizabeth’s family did not approve of the marriage, feeling that George, a shepherd, was well below the standing of the Irvings. As a result, the families were estranged for a number of years.
George and Elizabeth had nine children in 21 years. James, the last child, was born when Elizabeth was 42. Six years later when her brother was widowed, Elizabeth undertook raising his four children who ranged in age from infancy to six years old.
The Olivers, extremely religious, were Presbyterians. James learned to read and write in a church school. Cholera struck Scotland in 1832, bringing business to a virtual halt. George and Elizabeth were hard pressed to make ends meets. In addition, George, who had been injured in 1833 while driving sheep to England, was unable to walk without a cane.
In 1830, John Oliver, one of their older sons, restless and penniless, tied up all of his belongings in a red handkerchief and left for America, working his passage as a seaman. He found work at a dollar a day and wrote his family in Scotland in glowing terms. John described his new home in America, telling about a country where firewood was plentiful and in fact, were sometimes in the way. He also wrote about eating meat three times a week. (Actually he ate meat daily, but was afraid his family wouldn’t believe that.) He also explained that he ate at his employer’s table——unheard of in Scotland. Lured by John’s letters, another of the Olivers’ son, Andrew, and a daughter, Jane, immigrated in 1834.
All three wrote letters to Scotland describing opportunities America offered and sending money home to their parents. Impressed by this, Elizabeth, then 54, began a campaign to move her entire family to the new land. However, her husband George, who was 65, was content with life as a shepherd. He was too old to move, he declared, and too old to try to do anything but tend sheep.
But George eventually gave in.
John, Andrew and Jane had sent back enough money to pay all the family’s debts. The family sold their surplus belongings at an auction. The old stone cottage was locked, the key turned back to the landlord, and George and Elizabeth Oliver, with four of their children, Dorothy, 20, Robert, 18 (and sick at the time), William, 14, and the youngest, James, 12, began their journey to America. The oldest son, George Jr., who was married and had a family, remained in Scotland.
The family left their village in March 1835, their few remaining belongings piled on carts. Neighbors accompanied them the first two miles on their journey to Annon, Scotland, a waterfront town near the border of England. They covered 12 miles the first day and reached Annon the second day.
On the third day, the Oliver family boarded a cattle boat for Liverpool. The decks were so crowded with sheep and cattle that planks were placed over the animals to form a crude bridge on which passengers walked to get to their makeshift cabins. Although the boat reached Liverpool the next morning, the seas were too rough and the ship couldn’t reach the dock. Terrified passengers were loaded into boats and rowed to shore. They were to set sail from Liverpool the next day aboard the ship “Halo” and spent a sleepless night at a public house. The family worried that they wouldn’t be allowed to board the ship because William was sick, but his illness was overlooked and they sailed for America on April 3, 1835.
The trip to New York took seven weeks and four days, with severe weather causing a rough crossing of the Atlantic. For the first three weeks most of the passengers, many of them seasick, remained below deck. Two deaths occurred, one from the dreaded smallpox virus, and the bodies were buried at sea. James got in trouble by asking the captain to explain how the dead people could ever be found on judgment day. Elizabeth was forced to stay cabin-bound because of her lame husband and sick son.
James, however, ran the decks, climbed the rigging, and mixed with the sailors.
One day, while the ship was been tossed in rough seas, George declared that there was no way they were going to see America. James wasn’t worried, however. He explained that the sailors on deck were swearing and surely wouldn’t risk eternal damnation if death were actually near.
The ship finally reached New York. The Olivers, accustomed to the beauty of Scotland, thought New York looked unattractive. They spent little time there, leaving soon by a steamboat on the Hudson River to travel to Albany, New York. They noted that the steamboat burned wood and stopped every few miles for fuel.
While on the boat, the Olivers ate oatmeal, brown bread and smoked bear meat. At Albany, where a Native American sold them sassafras for tea and dried blackberries, the family began a 17-mile railroad trip northwest to Schenectady, New York. The historic locomotive DeWitt Clinton was attached by a leather hose to a railcar that held large piles of wood and several barrels of water for making steam. Behind this railcar were three first-class cars resembling stagecoaches and four “emigrant” flatcars equipped with wooden benches, on one of which that the Oliver family rode.
At Schenectady the Olivers took a boat on the Erie Canal that had been completed just a few years earlier. After a three-day journey they changed boats at Montezuma, New York and continued to Geneva, New York, to the farm of James Goodwin, father-in-law of John Oliver, the first of the Oliver sons to leave Scotland. The Olivers made the seven-mile trip to John’s small log-framed farmhouse in two days.
For the first time, the Olivers had plenty to eat——meat at every meal, potatoes, onions, and a food the Olivers had not seen before: corn on the cob. James, thinking the corn on the ear was a new way of cooking beans, cleaned off the cob and asked that the “stick” be refilled.
The long journey had taken its toll on the Olivers’ pool of money and by this time, it was nearly all spent. With finances a major concern, James began working as a chore boy at a nearby farm for 50 cents a week and board. Using a neck yoke, he carried lunch to field workers, chopped wood and did other menial tasks for his employer. Because James was ignorant of American farm life, he did could not hitch a horse to a wagon, mistakenly pulled up corn by the roots looking for the ears, and had never seen a cook stove and had no idea how to use one. However, his employer liked his energetic ways, and when James finally had to leave, his boss offered to triple his wages if he’d return.
That autumn, James moved with his family to Alloway, New York, a small town settled by Scottish immigrants. Here they resided on a farm until the next summer. Prompted by the wish to obtain inexpensive land available in the Midwest, the Olivers moved from Alloway to LaGrange County, Indiana in 1836. The trip, by boat and wagon, took 21 days.
Meanwhile, their daughter Jane, who had left Scotland in 1834, had married Charles Roy, who owned 60 acres in Clear Spring Township, LaGrange County. Son Andrew, who also left in 1834, had obtained 160 acres of virgin land from the government. James and others in the family set about to help him clear this land.
In that era, Mishawaka was known as St. Joseph Iron Works because of what appeared to be inexhaustible deposits of bog iron from which castings could be made. In December 1836, several of the Oliver children, including James, moved there, probably prompted because of better opportunities available there. The St. Joseph Iron Company, for which the town was named, was attempting to build a dam across the St. Joseph River. James worked there for $6 a month until the spring of 1837, when a depression left the company without ready cash.
James attended George Merrifield School for a brief time, quitting to help support his mother after the death of his father on September 6, 1837. Attempts to help his mother led to many jobs and adventures. He cut and sold wood, did menial chores, labored as a farm hand, and, at one time, worked for Alexis Coquillard, a South Bend pioneer who was attempting to dig a canal to link the Kankakee and St. Joseph Rivers. Sleeping in a shanty while wolves howled nearby proved too much for him. James became ill with a type of malaria and quit.
Later, James also worked as a pole man on a keel-boat, hauling wheat on the St. Joseph River to Lake Michigan. He liked the work but when the captain was arrested for defaulting on debts, James lost his job, wasn’t paid and walked the 15 miles from Niles, Michigan, to his home in Mishawaka.
James and his brother Andrew then found work in a small foundry owned by the South Bend Blast Furnace Company of Mishawaka. There James learned to scratch castings and cast molds, but the company failed in 1840. In the following years he chopped wood, dug ditches, and cared for 500 hogs that he fed garbage from a gristmill owned by the Lee Brothers. Later he worked in the gristmill, packing flour into wooden barrels for $15 a month. The Lee brothers found him highly industrious and asked him to take up the trade of a cooper in the shop where the barrels were made. Here he gained considerable knowledge as a carpenter.
Joseph Doty, a direct descendant of the Mayflower pioneers, worked with James. After the death of his wife, Joseph moved from Berrien County, Michigan, to Mishawaka with his daughter, Susan Catherine. James, 20, inclined to be bashful, became enamored of Susan Catherine, 19. Although she rebuffed him several times, he persevered and won her hand the following year. James traveled by raft down the St. Joseph River to South Bend where he obtained the wedding license, and James and Susan Catherine were married May 30, 1844.
James and Susan began married life in a slab cabin on the banks of the St. Joseph River near Alger’s Island in Mishawaka. They purchased the cabin for $18 and paid $7 annually for the land on which it stood. While James improved the cabin (the best lumber cost $6 per 1,000 board feet), Susan wove rag carpets on a borrowed loom. They lived in the cabin eight months, which James later described as “the happiest days of our lives,” and then sold it for $50. The transaction, which took them into $450 in debt, brought them a house and three-fourths of an acre of land on the north side of the river.
Meanwhile, the gristmill where James was working was destroyed by fire. James had to work for considerably less than $15 a month until the Spring of 1845, when he went to work in a blast furnace owned by William Gillen. There, James learned the molder’s trade. In 1852, James and Susan sold their house, purchasing a larger home along with ten acres of orchard on the south side of the river. The site adjoined the Lake Shore and Michigan South Railroad (later the New York Central) that had been built a year earlier.
James and his wife Susan soon needed more room in the new home they had purchased in Mishawaka. A daughter, Josephine, had been born April 6, 1846, and a son, Joseph Doty, called “J.D.,” had arrived August 2, 1850. They resided in this home until 1858 when they moved to South Bend.
After William Gillen’s furnace failed financially in 1847, James went to work for the St. Joseph Iron Company that made plows as well
as castings. Here James seized an opportunity to better himself financially. Among the castings produced were 22-pound flanged plates used beneath railroad joints for strength. The company was unable to meet production schedules because of the inability of molders to cast the plates according to specifications. James contracted with the company to produce 100 tons of the plates for $5 “and five shillings” a ton. He completed the contract and produced 35 tons more in four months. He made $675. James later admitted he almost killed himself doing it, but this contract and the earlier purchase of a lot in Mishawaka for $75 where he built a house and rented it to a merchant were two events which gave him his start.
The St. Joseph Iron Company also manufactured cast iron plows, as did almost every foundry and blacksmith in the country. For James, plow production provided a link between the foundry, which he loved, and the land, for which he harbored an attachment stemming from boyhood in Scotland. However, James became apprehensive about his future when the St. Joseph Iron Company changed hands and he decided to investigate the possibility of buying into a small business. While waiting for a late train in Goshen, Indiana, a major plow manufacturing center, he inadvertently heard that a small foundry on the west race in South Bend, owned by Ira Fox and Emsley Lamb, might be for sale.
By May 5, 1855, James Oliver and a molder co-worker, Harvey Little, each purchased one-fourth interest in this building. Cast iron plows were one item this little foundry produced. James was 32 years old, South Bend’s population was less than 2,000, but the company, the town and James were destined to grow together despite considerable adversity.
Six weeks after the purchase of the foundry, it was devastated by rampaging waters of the St. Joseph River. James referred to this in later life as his “first great discouragement.” Oliver and Little managed to survive and the plant went back into operation in November of 1855. Oliver and Little then purchased Lamb’s half interest and renamed it South Bend Iron Company. That name appeared on the title page of their first book of accounts.
February 6, 1857 high water again damaged the plant, but Oliver and Little were undaunted and the plant soon was back in production. They bought scrap iron for one and a quarter cents a pound and converted it to almost anything that could be made of cast iron at a charge of five cents a pound. They made iron window weights, caps and sills for windows, kettles, spiders (frying pans with legs and long handles), pulleys, stove castings and grates. They also produced bob shoes (metal strips that fit on sled runners) for the fledgling Studebaker Brothers Company.
James, molder, designer, salesman and bookkeeper for the company, also continued experimenting with ways to produce a better plow. All plows of that era were “walking plows.” Pulled by two horses (or other beasts of burden), the farmer walked behind and guided it through the soil with two handles. Cast iron and steel plows both wore out rapidly. Dirt stuck to the moldboard and made it difficult for the animals to pull. This forced the plow from the ground with a jerk, endangering the plowman. The dirt had to be scraped from the moldboard with a paddle every few minutes.
June 30, 1857, James obtained his first patent from the U.S. government, entitled “Improvement in Chilling Plow Shares.” It covered a new way to process a plow point, or share, to an extremely hard surface. This was his first improvement in the plow. Many were to follow and the Oliver Plow became the most popular plow in the world.
To get nearer to the plant, the Oliver family moved in 1858 from Mishawaka to an old brown frame house purchased for $600, on unpaved Main Street near downtown South Bend. In 1868 the house was moved to the back of the lot and a larger structure of brick was erected.
So successful were Oliver and Little that they were able to advertise a reward of $500 to anyone who could “chill or harden
plowshares with equal success without infringing on their patent.” The firm was renamed “Oliver, Little & Co.” in 1860 when Thelus Bissell, a machinist, was taken into the partnership. Each now owned a third interest in the firm. But on Christmas Eve, 1860, disaster struck again. Fire destroyed their plant on the West Race with an estimated loss of $4,000, a fortune in that era. They carried no insurance. James Oliver later branded this event his “second great discouragement.”
By March 1861, Oliver, Little & Co., had succeeded in erecting a building on the West Race where operations were resumed. That year they produced, in addition to plows, six “fluted columns” weighing 4,902 pounds for Saint Mary’s college, two “iron columns” for Schuyler Colfax, “brackets and vestibule cornice” for the city jail and “sewer crates,” also for the city. Window weights, more than four tons of columns, cornices and stairs were produced for a contractor. The plows sold for $6.50 each. Business was improving and more buildings were acquired on both sides of the race.
In 1863 Harvey Little retired from the firm. Thelus Martin Bissell acquired half interest in the company, now renamed “Oliver and Bissell,” and James Oliver acquired the rest. That summer about 20 men were on the payroll, and demand for the plows was such that the price was increased to $7.50 and the business continued to expand.
Oliver and Bissell realized they needed more capital. George Milburn, a wealthy wagon manufacturer in Mishawaka, purchased a third interest in the company, with Oliver and Bissell retaining one third each. The company was, once again, renamed “Oliver, Bissell & Co.” and the work force increased to 25. Wages ranged from $1 to $3.50 per day.
Approximately 1,000 plows were produced and sold in 1864. Of these, 100 were the patented steel share plows that sold for $17.50 each. They also made hundreds of “double shovels” and some 25-road scrapers for which they received $8 each. Castings were sold for 10 cents a pound. The Civil War was in progress and prices continued to rise as demands for production increased. The company also made 70 iron columns for the Main Building at Notre Dame, after a disastrous fire consumed the old one. These columns hold up the Golden Dome structure on the University of Notre Dame’s Main Building.
From this period of the Oliver company history the expansion was phenomenal. By mid-1865 the staff again had been increased to plant capacity and all on the payroll were working overtime. Meanwhile, Joseph (J.D.) Oliver, James’ son, was getting in on the company’s ground floor.
The New Oliver Chilled Plow Works
The Olivers purchased 32 acres of the “Perkins Farm,” on the southwest edge of South Bend, for $30,000 and construction of a new South Bend Iron Works plant on that site started almost immediately. Full production continued at the “Lower Works,” as the old factory on the West Race (the area where Century Center now stands) was known, while warehouses were built, railroad tracks laid, and water and sewer lines extended to the new “Upper Works.” The new complex had five buildings with a total area of 200,000 sq. ft. Plans called for employment of 400 men who would cast 50 tons of metal into 300 plows daily. A new 600-horsepower Harris Steam Engine powered the machinery. On January 17, 1876, the engine was started and the new plant went into operation.
Plow sales in 1878 reached 62,779. A total of 30 to 40 railroad cars loaded with 5,000 to 7,000 plows left the new “Upper Works” at a time, for shipment from coast to coast. In November 1878, Brownfield, who had been president for almost nine years after the resignation of George Milburn, tendered his resignation, and in January 1879, James Oliver was elected president. Prior to that, James had held the title of superintendent.
Meanwhile, “branch houses” were being established across the land to handle distribution of the plows. The size of the Oliver company simply overwhelmed its opponents, including the South Bend Chilled Plow Company, which had been organized by Bissell and allegedly used Oliver patents in an attempt to capitalize on the reputation of the Oliver firm, still known as the South Bend Iron Works. The year 1880 was one of great expansion. A record was set in production and sales of plows, new buildings were erected, riding plows were being produced on a large scale, the manufacture of malleable castings was started, and more rail tracks were laid to the Oliver property.
On May 4, 1881, James purchased the Chess and Vincent properties in the 300 block of West Washington Street. The Chess mansion was an imposing structure. Though it was only 19 years old, James sold the interior woodwork and hired a New York architect who had designed Canada’s parliament buildings to enlarge and re-design the house. To increase the grounds, James sold and moved the Vincent house next door and hired an army of workmen to lay stone. The new 60′ x 102′ house (not to be confused with Copshaholm, which was built in 1896 by J.D. Oliver, James’ son) had three stories, a slate roof, 10 bedrooms with dressing rooms, bathrooms with closets attached, and a billiard room.
James and his family moved into the new home at 325 W. Washington Street on December 10, 1882, and on January 17, 1883, held a reception for 500 guests who danced in the third floor ballroom and dined on food prepared by a Chicago chef.
James had come a long way from the simple life of a shepherd in Scotland, but in spite of affluence, he remained a simple man with simple tastes, who preferred the heat of his foundry and the dirt of a farm to the elegant surroundings of his new home. This was to be his last residence. James’ wife died in the home in 1902, and he died there on March 2, 1908. The house stood vacant until 1911, when South Bend School City (now South Bend Community School Corporation) purchased and razed it. South Bend Central High School was erected on the site.
Oliver Building Projects
In the late 1880s, Oliver plows were being shipped to an impressive list of places, including the British Isles, Japan, France, Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Greece and South American countries, prompting a nearly endless line of business visitors to South Bend from around the globe. To provide suitable accommodations for these guests, James and J.D. decided to build a grand hotel. Difficulties in obtaining a site delayed construction until July 1898, when the first stone for the foundation was laid at Washington and Main Streets, now the site of the downtown Holiday Inn.
A gala grand opening was held December 20, 1899. The South Bend Tribune called it “the most magnificent hotel in Indiana, one of the finest in the United States.” The lobby and rotunda were described as Italian Renaissance, embellished in gold. The images of 16 females representing the seasons, the arts, earth, water, fire, and air were painted at the top of the rotunda, and this lavish decor extended to all other areas of the hotel. One of the many innovations was an independent electric plant consisting of three dynamos driven by three engines to give current for 1,700 lights in the hotel. Later, electric current was provided by the Oliver Electric Plant, which had been built by the Olivers on the West Race of the St. Joseph River. (The foundations and part of the control gates of this plant were incorporated into the Century Center complex years later.) Most of the hotel construction was completed under the watchful eye of James Oliver, then in his 70s. J.D., exhausted by an extraordinary workload with the company and other matters, had been ordered to take an ocean voyage to recuperate.
Two year earlier, In 1897, James had agreed to pay one-third the cost of the proposed new Presbyterian Church, at the southwest corner of Lafayette and Washington Streets. James was not an active member of the congregation, but others in the family were.
On May 30, 1900, on the occasion of the 56th wedding anniversary of James and his wife, Susan, the citizens of South Bend expressed their gratitude to the couple for their many public gifts by presenting them with an 18-carat gold loving cup. The 14-inch cup, purchased from Tiffany and Company in New York, was engraved with portraits of the Olivers, the new Oliver Hotel, the original factory on the West Race, and the new factory that had been erected on the southwest edge of the city. That same day, J.D. and his wife, Anna Gertrude, announced their new home at 808 West Washington Street would be named Copshaholm, in honor of James’ birthplace in Scotland.
South Bend had attempted to find a way to finance a city hall for many years. On July 21, 1900, James offered to build the city hall and lease it to the city. To do this, he sold the city the property at 224 N. Main Street in 1890, just north of today’s South Bend Water Works office. The building and ice skating rink on the lot were razed, and the city hall was erected on this site.
However, the largest building project James was involved in was the construction of the hydroelectric plant on South Bend’s West Race.
Old mills along the race were razed, an old canal lock for ferries was dismantled, head gates to an earlier dam were replaced, and wooden flumes that had channeled water to old factories were torn out. Thousands of loads of gravel were required for the project. Despite his 81 years, James made daily trips in an open buggy to and from the race to the gravel pit on his Sample Street farm to keep track of things during the winter of 1903.
Water wheels of the Oliver Power Plant were put into operation June 6, 1905. On June 14, the Oliver Hotel was illuminated by electrical power running through underground cables from the West Race. By July 2, three-phase, 25-cycle current was running to the Oliver factory on Sample Street. “I never did anything in my life that I am as proud of as the work I did on the West Race,” James wrote in his diary. Building the plant, which cost $266,376, had taken its toll of James Oliver. He loved the West Race–where he had made his start–and was determined that the hydroelectric plant would be built just as he wanted.
However, most of his troubles stemmed from the construction supervisor, Campbell, a tough, whiskey-drinking roughneck, determined in his ways. James, though no roughneck, was equally determined and used to having his way. The two clashed daily. Once, Campbell constructed a wall in the stream past the north end of the powerhouse. James said the wall wasn’t necessary, that it would hinder the flow of water. Campbell insisted it was needed to protect the plant foundation. After a lengthy argument, James took a crew of men out with drills, wedges, picks, and crowbars, and began to destroy it. Campbell and his crew came along in a boat. More violent arguments ended with Oliver raising his hands and daring Campbell to cut them off. It was a tense moment as the two crews of men, armed with picks and crowbars, stood ready to back up their determined leaders. Finally, Campbell backed off and the wall came down.
Toward the end of the project things changed. Campbell, whom James kept on the job as supervisor despite their differences, said to James, “Oliver, I changed my mind about you. I wrote a couple of friends of mine a few days ago that I never found my match until I found an OLD MAN by the name of Oliver that was much concerned in the Oliver works. He is over 80 years old and I declare he beats me in perseverance and push.”
James’ wife, Susan, had been in poor health with a heart condition, and her death on September 13, 1902, was a severe blow to him. They had been married more than 58 years and now, except for servants and a pet parrot he had given Susan, James was now alone in his huge home.
“It seems I can see her form in every part of the house,” he wrote a friend. He had a family mausoleum built in Riverview Cemetery and tried to overcome his grief with work. James’ last remaining sibling, William, had died in April 1902, and that added to his overwhelming sorrow.
Business at the Oliver plant had been excellent. Many departments, though working 12 hours a day, were still unable to keep up with orders. This flood of business was mostly attributed to the “No. 1 Oliver High-Lift Gang Plow,” a riding plow developed by the Oliver father-and-son team. In 1901, the South Bend Iron Works was reincorporated and became, officially, the Oliver Chilled Plow Works. All stock remained with the Oliver family who, deciding to diversify, acquired stock in a number of companies.
May 5, 1905, marked the 50th anniversary of James in the plow manufacturing business. He had begun experiments for his chilled plow products in 1855. June 12, 1906, he was granted a patent for his last invention, an improved method of turning out a mold. In 49 years he had received almost as many patents, 45 in all.
At the start of 1907, James continued to make almost daily trips to the rural gravel pit to supervise the loading of sand for molding plow points. He contracted pneumonia in March, but rallied to the point of being able to return to the factory in August. During autumn he developed a shortness of breath and a heart condition. He made his last visit to the factory January 17, 1908, and died March 2, 1908, in his home at the age of 84.
After a private funeral service he was laid to rest close by his wife in the new Oliver mausoleum in Riverview Cemetery. Factories, stores, theaters, banks and public offices were closed as a mark of respect for him, while crowds of workers stood in the street in a pouring rain to pay homage to him.
Although he gained great wealth, James Oliver was basically a simple man. He neither drank to excess nor smoked. He did not embrace religion in a sectarian sense, but had great faith in a supreme intelligence and believed the Golden Rule to be an all-encompassing guide to living. He prized good health, looked upon sickness with a touch of scorn, took a daily cold bath and followed a calisthenics routine. He was hard-driving, thrifty and obstinate. James lacked many social graces and was not given to explanations, excuses or apologies for dereliction to duty. He enjoyed farm work and gave high priority to family, honesty, service to community and loyalty to fellow workers.
Joseph Doty Oliver
J.D. Oliver was eight years old when the Oliver family moved to South Bend. He first attended the ungraded four-room Madison School while his sister, Josephine, four years older, attended County Seminary at the “end” of Washington Street. Later, Joseph was sent to attend the boy’s school at Notre Dame. The college owed money to the Oliver firm for cast iron columns, and J.D.’s father, James, fearful the money might not be collected, credited Joseph’s tuition against the account. Notre Dame enrollment was 230.
In February 1865, at the age of 14, Joseph began working part time, six days a week, cutting threads on nuts in his father’s plant. He disliked it intensely and was relieved when his father sent him back to Notre Dame in September. He had earned $100 in the six-month part time job.
Joseph again threaded nuts in the summer of 1866, returning to Notre Dame once again in September. The company credited Notre Dame’s account for $125.57 tuition that year. Joseph later spent one semester at Ashbury College (now DePauw University) and took a short business course at South Bend Business College. That completed his formal education.
George Milburn hired 16 year-old Joseph as a bookkeeper for the plow factory on July 1, 1867, and sent him home to lunch. After lunch, Milburn opened to Joseph the first set of double entry books the company ever had. Milburn was a critical teacher, but Joseph was a good pupil. He kept the job for more than 66 years.
James tried to instill in his son his own love for the foundry but Joseph preferred to view the factory from across an office desk. He was an organizer and financial wizard. Fortunately, the talents of father, as inventor and builder, and son, as marketer and financier, paralleled each other to make a winning combination. Shortly after Joseph took over the books, he realized the company’s bookkeeping methods were haphazard, at best. He began a campaign to collect outstanding debts and made drastic changes in the billing rules. In 1869, Joseph’s annual salary was raised to $1,000 and by 1871, he owned 180 shares of the company’s stock. He became company treasurer before he was 18 and a director before he was 21. In 1878, James took his wife and daughter, Josephine, to Scotland, England and Ireland on a business-pleasure trip. Meanwhile, Joseph went east to investigate malleable iron production and later played a major role in establishing the Oliver Malleable Manufacturing facilities in South Bend.
On July 22, 1868, the Oliver company was incorporated as South Bend Iron Works, which it remained for the next 50 years. The firm was capitalized for $100,000 (2,000 shares at $50); thus began the company that was to become the world’s largest plow producer. George Milburn resigned from the Oliver firm in 1870 to devote all his resources to his wagon-building business in Mishawaka. His leaving left the Olivers in a troublesome financial situation. However, the great Chicago fire of 1871 proved to be a blessing for the Olivers. James knew that cast iron columns supported most of Chicago’s large buildings. Before the smoke cleared, Joseph was in Chicago purchasing the columns as junk. These were shipped to South Bend to be recast into sewing machine parts for Singer Sewing Machine Company. The profits realized not only offset Oliver’s financial difficulties, but also provided the company with funds for needed expansion. In addition to buildings already owned, the company erected a brick foundry, 40′ x 132′, a 24′ x 155′ warehouse, plus machine and wood shops on the West Race of the St. Joseph River. A 72-inch water turbine was purchased to offer additional electricity.
James continued his experiments with the plow and in 1872 was issued an important patent to modify parts in a way that permitted the plow to stand the stress of striking hidden roots or stones. He also changed the coulter’s position and attached an adjustable plow wheel. These two innovations became standard features of the wood-beam Oliver Chilled Plow. By the close of 1872, five hundred tons of Chicago iron remained on hand. The Olivers were using it at the rate of 14 tons per day. It was a year of prosperity.
The Oliver family engaged in many projects that benefited the community. In 1882, James and Joseph teamed up with the Studebaker brothers, who manufactured wagons, to petition the Common Council for a street railway. The first horse cars were put in service in 1885 on Washington Street. Trying to use an electrically-operated trolley system on Michigan Street failed due to improper current distribution, but the problem was solved and trolleys soon gave way to horse-pulled cars. Despite the original failure, South Bend holds the distinction of being the first city to use electrical power for streetcars. Among other civic projects were construction of an opera house, a hotel, apartment houses, row housing and a dam.
Ground was broken December 5, 1883, for “Oliver Row,” a block of row houses at Main and Market (Colfax) streets. These were described as “nine residences with a total unbroken frontage of 200 feet on Main Street, 12 feet back from the sidewalk, four stories in height, including basement and attic. The basement (ceiling) will be five feet above the level of the street. Stories will be approached by flights of stone steps.” This structure was later remodeled and became the Christman Building.
Both James and Joseph enjoyed the theater and attended as often as time permitted. In the 1880s, Good’s Opera House and Price’s Theater were the only venues in South Bend for the performing arts; neither was considered adequate for the growing city. Therefore, the Olivers decided to build a new facility, and construction of the Opera House on Main Street started in March 1884. While demolition of brick and frame buildings on the site was in process, 100 wagon loads of stone were brought in for the foundation. The Opera House was part of a business block, but profit, apparently, was not the sole motive. Ostentation was a corollary of wealth at the time, and this new facility was built with a lavish hand.
The Opera House was opened October 28, 1885, with the performance of W.E. Sheridan in the role of Louis XI. The overture prior to the performance, composed by Professor Chris Elbel of South Bend, was titled “The Oliver House Triumphal.” It was played by Professor Lorenz Elbel’s orchestra.
J.D. Oliver and Family
Joseph (J.D.) Oliver was 34 when he met Anna Gertrude Wells, daughter of a wealthy family of Johnstown, New York. Anna had come to South Bend to visit Grace Studebaker, a schoolmate at Madam de Silva’s Finishing School in New York. She was 22, tall, aristocratic in bearing, and shy, with a good sense of humor. Joseph, handsome and conservative, also had a good sense of humor. Their storybook romance culminated in marriage on December 10, 1884, in Johnstown, New York, in the north parlor of the Johnson home.
After the wedding banquet and dancing, a special train from the railroad of the bride’s father took the bride and groom to Fonda, New York, where they left on a two-month wedding trip to California. Newspapers printed a list of wedding gifts, among them, solid silver tea and coffee sets, silver flatware, salad bowls, ice cream sets, and a $15,000 check from the father of the groom. Upon their return to South Bend, the newlyweds became the first occupants of Oliver Row, where they took up housekeeping in Apartment #1.
The Olivers were staunch Republicans, and in the Democratic sweep of 1884, South Bend citizens elected Democrat George Ford as their representative in Congress. A graduate of the University of Michigan who had been active in local politics, George and Josephine Oliver (J.D.’s sister) had known each other from childhood. The bride and groom were both 39 when they were married November 25, 1885, in the home of the bride’s parents. Ford was the first Democrat to enter the sphere of the Oliver family. He retired from Congress in 1887 and resumed his law practice in South Bend. In 1888, he was elected secretary of the South Bend Iron Works. George and Josephine resided in a spacious white frame house on an acre of land at 630 W. Washington Street (now the Oliver Inn Bed and Breakfast). They had no children. Josephine died on May 28, 1914, and George on August 30, 1917.
J.D. and Anna Oliver’s children
The children of J.D. and Anna Oliver–James II, Gertrude, Joseph, Jr., and Susan Catherine–had grown up in Copshaholm surrounded by the security of wealth. They were well-educated and well-instructed in Oliver family traditions. Of the four children, the oldest and youngest were to deviate most from the Oliver norm.
James II, born November 3, 1885, was active and adventurous as a boy and retained those characteristics as an adult. He attended Michigan Military Academy and Preparatory School at Notre Dame, graduating from Phillips Academy in Massachusetts in 1908. He was elected a director of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works in 1908 at the age of 22 and held various other positions with the firm. On August 16, 1920, he married Louise Potter Yarrington of Richmond, Virginia, the daughter of an industrialist whom he had known for eight years. James and Louise had no children and remained free for lengthy trips to Europe, where he indulged “in his passion for spending money and purchasing paintings,” according to one report from that era. James Oliver II died May 20, 1944 at the age of 58.
Gertrude, the second Oliver child, was delicate, thoughtful, considerate and sensitive, qualities similar to those of her mother. She was destined to become the only child to give grandchildren for J.D. and Anna. Gertrude attended private school in South Bend and later Mrs. Davis’ Finishing School at Briarcliff Manor at Briarcliff-on-the-Hudson, New York. She was considered pretty, was popular in her social set, and often entertained at Copshaholm, where she met Charles Frederick Cunningham of Patterson, New Jersey. Charles was a graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology. They were married September 30, 1916, in First Presbyterian Church, South Bend. Charles, who later played a major role in Oliver family affairs, was appointed secretary of the operating committee for general management of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works. In 1920, Gertrude was named a director of the company, a post she held until the company’s dissolution in 1929. The Cunninghams had three children–Joseph Oliver, Ann Gertrude, and Fredrika Jane–all of whom were to carry on the Oliver family tradition of service to the South Bend community. Gertrude Oliver Cunningham died December 1, 1987 at the age of 99. Her children gave Copshaholm, the Oliver Mansion, to the Northern Indiana Historical Society (now the Center for History) one year later in honor of their parents.
Joseph Doty Oliver, Jr., the third child of J.D. and Anna Gertrude, was born on January 14, 1892. Quiet and studious, he graduated from South Bend High School and the University of Chicago, where he earned a bachelor of science degree. A month before his 21st birthday, he was elected treasurer of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works and held that post as well as a directorship until the company was dissolved in 1929. He apparently inherited his father’s ability to handle large financial investments and, undoubtedly, was his father’s favorite son. After the Oliver company was dissolved, Joseph, Jr. took over management of the many trusts his father had established, and after the death of his father in 1933, he assumed total management of the family’s financial affairs. In 1917, he married Ellinor McMillan of Nashville, Tennessee. She was the daughter of one of the South’s best-known Democrats and one who had held many high-ranking offices in the U.S. government. She died in 1919 of injuries suffered when thrown from a horse. After his father’s death, Joseph Jr. moved into Copshaholm where he resided with his sister, Susan Catherine. In later life, he became a virtual recluse, living in a small apartment on the third floor of Copshaholm. He died on July 6, 1972, at the age of 80.
The fourth Oliver child was Susan Catherine, who was born March 6, 1896. She graduated from South Bend High School in 1914, attended the Finishing School of Mrs. Davis at Briarcliff-on-the-Hudson, and received a degree from Finch College in New York in 1916. Catherine never married. She served in the Red Cross during World War I and carried on a number of intellectual and physical pursuits, among them, golf, at which she excelled. She reportedly was a good friend of the well-known golf professional Chick Evans. Catherine became a symbol of the liberated woman of the 1920s. There were rounds of parties at Copshaholm, entertainment for as many as 600 guests at South Bend’s Palais Royale Ballroom, and lengthy foreign cruises. Though she served as a member of the board of directors of the Oliver company, Catherine took no part in company management.
After the death of her parents, Catherine, like Joseph, lived out her life in Copshaholm: he, in his third floor apartment and she, in a suite of rooms on the second floor. Mostly, they saw each other only at dinner. She died April 19, 1970.
J.D. Oliver Takes Over the Helm of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works
At the time of his father’s death, J.D. Oliver was 58 years of age and had begun working in the foundry full time at the age of 16. He had been a director of the factory since he was 20 years old, so the transition from father to son was easily accomplished. Joseph was a financial genius and it is doubtful James would have done so well without J.D.’s financial guidance. While James was frugal, J.D. realized money often was earned by spending some of it. Because of J.D.’s modesty, it was not generally known that James almost always left details of financial management to his son.
At a meeting after the death of his father, J.D. was elected President, Treasurer and General Manager; James Oliver II (J.D.’s son) was named Vice President and Joseph Ford (J.D.’s brother-in-law) was named Secretary. These three were also the directors of the company started by James Oliver. Thus J.D. held almost the entire issue of Oliver company stock; had been named executor of his father’s will; and he was responsible for the plant and more than 2,000 employees.
Annual production at the time was very high. In 1909, J.D. launched plant expansion to double the size of the plant’s footprint and developed plans to expand sales into Russia and build a factory in Canada. The Oliver Opera House block was remodeled and the Oliver Hotel annex, now seven stories tall, was opened a few months later.
In 1911, plant operations started in the new plant the Olivers had built in Hamilton, Ontario. J.D. correctly perceived vast amounts of Canada’s Northwest wilderness would be opened to agriculture, and the plant was part of a plan to get part of that business. On May 1, the first carload of plows was shipped from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and by summer’s end, 30,000 plows had been shipped. Among buildings constructed in Hamilton that year were two large docks to provide for two lake carriers to be used for shipping Oliver products. J.D. had contracted with International Harvester Company to handle distribution and sales for the Oliver Canadian plant. This satisfactory arrangement for both companies continued until 1919 when the Olivers sold the Hamilton plant to International Harvester.
Farming in the United States was steadily becoming mechanized, and the Olivers greeted it fully. A new era had been opened in 1905 when a gasoline engine was mounted on a traction truck to pull several plows. Gasoline farm tractors and gang plows (a large plank that has several plow blades fastened to it) developed rapidly, and on September 30, 1911 a world’s record was set when an Oliver 50-bottom (50 blades) gang plow, pulled by three LaPorte, Indiana-built Rumley Oil-Pull tractors, turned 50, 14-inch furrows at one time, a width of almost 60 feet! That same year three International Harvester tractors pulling a 55-bottom Oliver gang plow set another record by plowing an acre in less than four minutes, a far cry from the days when a farmer walked eight and one-fourth miles behind a team of horses and plow to turn an acre.
When World War I broke out in 1914, J.D. prepared for troubled times. “We shall not attempt to profit by present conditions,” he wrote. After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, J.D. was called to Washington to confer with the nation’s food administrator, Herbert Hoover. But the war not only had to be supplied with arms and food, it also had to be financed. J.E. and Frank Hering, an Oliver Vice-Director, crisscrossed Indiana setting up fund-raising and bond-selling committees in every community. J.D. organized 22,000 schoolteachers to sell thrift stamps for bond purchases through school children to their parents. He often brought down the house when he spoke of “the fires of hell licking their lips in joyful anticipation of the advent of Kaiser Wilhelm” (the German war leader). In addition, to ease the food shortage for employees in South Bend, J.D. established a community garden. Fifty acres near the plant were divided into 50 by 100 foot patches. The families of 301 workers participated in the project. J.D. awarded $50 in gold for the best crop return.
After World War I, demand for tractor-pulled farm implements increased rapidly. It was estimated that 250,000 tractors would be built in 1919. Oliver Chilled Plow Works expected to put 750,000 plows behind the 100,000 tractors International Harvester and Henry Ford and Son would build. To this end the Olivers launched an extensive expansion program, and in the next four years conducted the biggest building and real estate activity, exclusive of the Hamilton plant construction, in the company’s history. More than $3 million went to acquire branch house properties, $160,000 for new buildings at the South Bend plant, and $1 million to erect 160 greatly needed workmen houses.
An innovation at the time was the company’s voluntary introduction of a pension plan, providing for a pension and automatic retirement for an employee who had reached the age of 70 and had been with the company 20 years. No pension was to be more than $100 per month or less than $12.
In a realignment of company responsibility to ease some of his burdens after World War I, J.D. had relinquished some of his duties, including that of plant manager. An operating committee for general management was set to be directly responsible to J.D., who retained the presidency. This committee included James Oliver II, Vice-President; Joseph D. Oliver Jr., Treasurer; H. Gail Davis, Assistant Treasurer; and C. Frederick Cunningham, Secretary, a post that had been left vacant by the death of J.D.’s brother-in-law George Ford in 1917. Gertrude Oliver Cunningham and Susan Catherine Oliver, daughters of J.D., were elected to the board of directors.
When the 1920s arrived, business indicators looked good, but disaster was ahead. Farm prices began to drop. Farmers were unable to pay debts and stopped buying agricultural implements. The company held the largest stock of manufactured goods and the largest stock of raw materials in its history, all purchased at high wartime prices. Because of its strong financial condition, the Oliver Chilled Plow Works weathered the crisis. J.D., however, did not fare so well in spite of the appointment of the operating committee. In October 1923, he fell victim to a four-month illness, described as “tired break-down,” from which he never fully recovered. He resigned many of the outside directorships he held and gave up the presidency of the Purdue University Board of Trustees, on which he had served for 18 years. He returned to his Oliver Chilled Plow Works office February 11, 1924, where he remained active until the business was sold.
The Downfall of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works
In 1923, increased competition from other full-line farm implement companies forced the Oliver Chilled Plow Works to choose between an enormous expansion with a program to include more implements, such as, tractors or joining together with manufacturers of different types of farm tools and establishing its own full-line company.
J.D. Oliver elected to join other manufacturers. At a special meeting of stockholders on February 1, 1929, he was authorized to organize a new company, to be known as the Oliver Farm Equipment Company, and take over the Oliver Chilled Plow Works and the Hart-Parr Company of Charles City, Iowa, a company which manufactured tractors. J.D. also purchased the Nichols and Shepard Company of Battle Creek, Michigan, which made threshing machines, corn pickers and combines. Soon after this merger, American Seeding Machine Company of Springfield, Ohio and the McKenzie Potato Machinery Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, were acquired. The Oliver Chilled Plow Works, as such, ceased to exist on March 30, 1929. The executive office posts of the new Oliver Farm Equipment Company were divided among three of the merging companies, with J.D. as Chairman of the Board, a post he held until resigning on December 13, 1932.
J.D. Oliver died on August 6, 1933, in Copshaholm, the home that he had moved into with his wife, Anna Gertrude, and their young family in 1897. He was 83 years old.
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