One of Michigan’s spectacular rags-to-riches millionaires, lumberman Charles Hackley, died one hundred years ago this winter. His success story transformed the city of Muskegon and provides lessons for us today.
Born in Michigan City, Indiana in 1837, young Charles left high school at age 15 first to build roads and then to work in the newly developing lumber industry of western Michigan. As a teenager and young adult, he learned saw milling and the buying and selling of pine trees first hand. By the 1870s, he had his own company and during the 1880s his mills produced an average of 30 million board feet per year, which helped make Michigan the top lumber state in the nation.
What makes Hackley’s story especially interesting is that he used much of his $12 million fortune to help his booming city of Muskegon meet the needs of a population that doubled during both the 1870s and the 1880s.
In the 1800s, when Hackley and other Americans faced problems, they did not rush to government for solutions. Instead, they formed voluntary organizations to work, finance and solve those problems themselves — person to person.
What about Muskegon’s needs for training and educating all of its incoming residents? Hackley first built a library in Muskegon and then supplied an endowment to keep it stocked with books. Then he started a manual training school to give immigrants and others the chance to become skilled laborers.
What about medical and social needs? Hackley, not taxpayers, built a hospital for Muskegon, and he and his business partner supported churches, orphanages and a home for the aged. Hackley himself even adopted a daughter and took in a young boy from a foster home, whom he later adopted.
Hackley wanted to help beautify his hometown, so he bought four blocks of prime real estate and made it into a beautiful park. He even furnished the city with attractive statues of prominent Americans, whose lives were ever present examples for all to imitate.
Finally, as the lumber industry declined, Hackley and other businessmen formed the Muskegon Board of Trade, which attracted companies that made paper, bowling equipment, textiles and office furniture.
When Muskegon had a need, Hackley and his friends believed that they should help meet it themselves, bringing the giver and the receiver directly in contact with one another and blessing both. Hackley even handed out library cards personally, to encourage each citizen of Muskegon to check out more books to read.
At the national level, Democratic President Grover Cleveland supported Hackley’s approach to public problems. When east Texas experienced a severe drought, for example, Congress voted a $10,000 appropriation to aid the farmers in the area. Cleveland vetoed this bill, observing that it was unconstitutional. Then he added two crucial points: "Federal aid, in such cases, encourages the expectations of paternal care on the part of the government," and, he predicted, "The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune."
What happened to the needy Texans? For starters, the Louisville Courier-Journal announced that "Kentucky alone will send $10,000 . . . to justify the President’s contention that the people will do what is right." Sure enough, generous Americans around the country, people with a spirit like Hackley’s, contributed over $100,000 to the drought-stricken Texans.
In 2005 we are a century removed from Hackley in time, but an eon removed in attitude toward charity. Now, when natural disasters strike, our politicians’ first thoughts are to forcibly tax U. S. citizens in order to provide relief. No doubt such forced aid inhibits much charitable giving throughout the land, and yet the Hackley spirit for private assistance appears to be still alive: Witness the massive outpouring of voluntary donations for tsunami victims in Asia.
Millions of Americans have contributed generously, just as they were accustomed to doing a century ago, because Americans have long believed that people voluntarily helping people is the way civil society is meant to work. In fact, failed U. S. foreign aid programs since World War II, many rife with corruption, may be teaching us this lesson: The bigger the crisis the more we should confront it privately.
Charles Hackley is not only worth remembering; he is worth imitating.
Burton Folsom, Jr. is Charles Kline professor of history and management at Hillsdale College and is senior fellow in economic education with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.