Sunday, July 13, 2014

Making Millions in Early Toledo: A Lesson in Penmanship


The letter was postmarked Toledo, July 1, 1849.  That was clear enough, but the handwritten address and text needed some study.  The address was sharp and bold:  C. H. Boris, or possibly Bores, in Hudson, Michigan, just across the state line.  A business letter, very short and to the point, written by (I thought) one H. Ketcham.  It read:

            Dear Sir
                                    Yours of yesterday is at hand   agreeable to your request I have called on the cashier of our Bank & they tell me they are not discounting any Paper (Excepting dfts [drafts] on the East, at present)   In fact it is seldom they take such paper as you mention

            It was probably just some correspondence about state currency, notoriously inflationary and untrustworthy in the years before the Civil War.  There was not enough detail to say what was going on.  One man was stuck with some worthless, or badly devalued, paper money.  I thought there might not be enough for a decent story, but I decided to check on who or what “C. H. Boris” was.  It was thus that I learned to be careful with nineteenth century handwriting, and after some missteps, followed the trail from a merchant in Hudson to one of Toledo’s richest men.

            Checking and rechecking the Lenawee County census left me aggravated.  The various online census indexes did not lead me anywhere near Hudson Michigan, nor anytime near 1849.  And the name on the envelope was so clear, Bores, only one letter off from my own patronymic.   After enduring much frustration, I decided on a different approach.  The writer was apparently a banker, or someone with ties to bankers.  I decided to at least skim a history of banking in Lenawee County, and see what I could find.

The first bank in Hudson was called the Exchange Bank, and it was established by Henry M. Boies, John K. Boies, and Nathan Rude, in 1855.  (Memoirs of Lenawee County, Michigan, Vol. 1 (Madison, 1909), p. 632.)

Wait a minute!  Boies?  Not Bores?  I took another look at the front of the letter.  Surprise, surprise; there was a dot floating rather high above the last name.  Not an “r’ but an “i.”  So I had been looking for the wrong last name, after all.

            Once I had the correct last name, my newly refocused search for C. H. Boies was easy.  The Census of 1850 for Lenawee County, Michigan, taken just a year after my letter, showed a Curtis H. Boise (the census taker had written it wrong as well),  a 41-year-old merchant in Hudson.  A native of Massachusetts, he had a wife, Sarah Ann, and four children, thus far.  He had two more children by 1860.

            So much for the recipient of the letter.  Having caught one error in my reading of old handwriting, I took a careful look at the signature of the sender, “H. Ketcham.’  Wait – what was that squiggle before the “H?”  When I first read the letter, I thought it was just that – a squiggle.  Then I realized it was an alphabet letter:  a “V”

            The letter was from Valentine H. Ketcham, Toledo’s first millionaire, and namesake of the Valentine Theater.

            A native of Cornwall, New York, Valentine Ketcham (1815-1887) arrived in Toledo’s earliest days, starting out as a wholesale merchant in August, 1836.  He married into the influential Berdan family when, in 1841, he wed Rachel Berdan, the daughter of mayor John Berdan.  In 1851, he switched to the financial industry, when he “commenced a private banking and brokerage business.”  After some mergers and name changes, it emerged as the First National Bank in 1863.  Ketcham held the position of president until his death in 1887.  Like many businessmen, he speculated in land, and owned 900 acres of land in various parts of the city.

At one time, Ketcham owned a gilded chariot, which he took in trade for a grocery debt, then traded it for some “worthless” bank paper in Monroe, Michigan lost in a poker game.  The bank paper turned out to be securities that gave him ownership of thousands of dollars of real estate in downtown Toledo.  Fond of outside work, he cut the brush himself from land he owned at St. Clair and Madison, for which he paid $1,000, selling it later for $55,000. When Valentine Ketcham died in 1887, he was able to leave each of his surviving children one million dollars.  [Valentine Ketcham clipping file, Toledo-Lucas county Public Library.]

If we are looking for a common thread between the Toledo millionaire and the Michigan merchant,  it may be that both their stories feature bank “paper,” whether securities, deeds, mortgages, or the “wildcat” money that circulate so freely and lost value so quickly before the Civil War.  That Valentine Ketcham dealt in this financial world we know, and now that we know who C. H. Boies was, we can connect the dots.   Although it is too late to teach them better penmanship!

[Quoted material comes from the Valentine Ketcham clipping file, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.]