William Hatten – Scrooge of Wisconsin – Part 1

This interesting three part story which ran in the Milwaukee Journal in April 1940 tells a story of a man who could easily find his home back in the Wisconsin of today. He was a stingy lumber baron that made his fortune at the expense of the people that worked for him. Every opportunity was taken to earn a few extra dollars at the expense of every one – even his family.

Part 1

This is the first of three stories about the late William. H. Hatten, mystery man millionaire.

Of The Journal Staff

NEW LONDON, Wis. The final chapter in a great tragedy will be written here next May 1 with the closing of the William H. Hatten Lumber Co.

The lending man who so longt strode the stage will not be on hand for the final curtain because he lies under a small cement marker in the cemetery.

On the marker is his name: William H. Hatten, Aug. 24, 1856—Mar. 30, 1937.

Not a single flower lies on his grave; nor are there any tears shed here at the mention of his passing.

If any man was ever stamped with the irony of fate, that man was William Hatten, for all he strove to keep from happening in his life, happened when he died.

And he left behind a heritage of misery to those who gave their lives so he could make his millions — a list of promises he never kept.

He Made Millions

William H. Hatten in his early manhood was a tall, fine looking man with reddish sandy hair and blue eyes, a full mustache and those human characteristics which often mark a man set apart to do big things — a prominent aristocratic nose, large ears, large feet.

William H. Hatten did big things in an unbelievably small way. He made money. Millions of it. Great golden piles which he put into banks; into timber and mills and lumber, where it multiplied tremendously.

To the men who helped him make his fortune he paid what they call here “miserable” wages, but the big man had a fine mind and a commanding personality, and when the little men came to ask “What of our future,” the big man answered:

“You folks think you’re working for me. I’m working for you. The money you make goes back into this mill and one day it will all be yours.” They asked him many, many times to put his words in writing so it would hold before the law, but he always turned away and spoke — as only he could speak — of other things. A cold, proud man, he was obsessed with a belief that he would never die, and as age crept deeper into his hollow cheeks, the once great mind wandered aimlessly away and his inborn miserliness became a mania.

He would not set his hand upon a piece of paper because in the writing of the words “I give,” a seed was taking root whose flower he could not bear to contemplate.

Died Without a Will

And so, as he died without a will, the mill he had so often promised the men — that mill is being closed. It stands here now, an empty, sorry sort of thing — a grim reminder of a thoughtless man. The $3,000 which his 200 men got every Tuesday is gone forever.

Hatten’s mill on the Wolf river here once had the reputation of being about the smartest producer in the United States. The old man knew how to get the most boards out of his logs and he knew that every pinch of sawdust saved was another red copper in his well worn jeans.

When Hatten died, aged 81, there were 15,000,000 feet of lumber piled high in his yards. But that has been sold. Most of the horses, too, have been sold, all except a couple of teams that still stand in their stalls. Selling a horse that has worked a long time for you is tragic enough but there’s always someone around willing to buy. But you can’t sell an old man.

If one of his employes — in the office or in the shop — had the offer of a better job, Hatten would say “I’ll take care of you,” or to some of his top executives whom he paid $100 a month “I’ll make you a rich man if you stay.”

Intentions May Have Been Good

Wouldn’t you, too, have stayed and believed? Maybe Hatten did have, good intentions, but dead men’s intentions don’t amount to a damn before the law.

The men in the mill stayed with him, too, because he kept his mill running day and night, good times and bad. He could do that because he had money — lots of it in the bank when the other fellow had none.

When hard times came and other mills had to shut down because nobody wanted lumber, he kept his saws buzzing.

He’d walk out into his yards, point up to the sky and say: “We own up there as far as you can see. So pile it up!”

When good times came again, and closed mills reopened, the old fox on the Wolf was always two jumps ahead of the other follow. He had all thr lumber anybody wanted to buy.

Maybe he wanted to keep his men busy; maybe he wanted more money. Read on; judge for yourself.

A Mystery Man

In his lifetime, Hatten had always lived in silence about his early years. No one knew where he came from nor did he ever mention his family.

After his death, it was established that the mysterious millionaire was born in New Lisbon, N. Y., on Aug. 24, 1856, the son of Francis Hatten, a poor stonemason, and Ellen Huet, both natives of Ireland.

The father had been naturalized in St. Lawrence county, New York; his other children were Ellen, Robert, Thomas and John.

William Hatten’s mother died in August of 1867 and was buried the day her son was 11 years old.

The father brought the family to Fond du Lac, where a sister, a Mrs Holcomb, was living. Little is known of the family from then on except that Francis Hatten married Ann Murphy, the widow of a saloon keeper, on Aug. 17, 1873.

The establishment that Francis Hatten and his second wife ran had an ugly reputation. The father drank to excess and his children drifted away; his second wife died at Taycheedah, was buried there.

Ran Away From Home

Long before that tragedy took place, young William Hatten ran away from home. He appeared about 1869 at the home of David and Harriet Woodin, town of Lamartine, five miles west of Fond du Lac.

The lad knocked at the Woodin door, his worldly belongings tied up in a red handkerchief.

The history of his later years seems to establish the fact that the boy had three things definitely in his mind even in those early years.

He was determined to work hard, to learn what he could and to obliterate the memory of his unhappy Childhood. David Woodin, impressed with the boy’s eagerness to get ahead, gave him his first school books and enough time off to attend district school.

That school was taught by the late John H. McCrory, the man who later became the law partner of Judge Ryan Duffy’s father In Fond du Lac.

William Hatten for a brief period also attended Daggett’s business college at Oshkosh, where the Woodin family moved, having sold their farm in Lamartine.

For a time, the family, including Hatten, lived in Chicago, but in September of 1875 they moved back to Wisconsin, settling in a little white house off the main street in Manawa. Hatten was then 10.

Got Job With Lumber Firm

Woodin had been married twice before and Mrs. Woodin once; each had had children of their own, but of that marriage one girl, Effie, was born, and for Effie, William Hatten apparently had a streak of affection, a characteristic rare in his later life.

William Hatten for a time was assistant postmaster at Manawa and some say the tall, handsome lad in those days wore a Prince Albert coat and top hat. Certain it is that he worked hard.

His first job was at the J. M. Rounds Co., a Manawa, lumber firm. He kept the books; impressed the people for whom he worked.

Although there are stories afloat that he had an affair or two, girls were a luxury and luxuries were expensive. He never went to dances never played cards, never drank never smoked.

Maybe he “beaued” a girl around a bit and then stopped off to have supper at her home. That was cheaper than paying for his own meals.

Had Himself Adopted

Even in those early years, he was shrewd at business. On Feb. 9,1877, the company for which he was working went into bankruptcy and, for some reason that has never been fully explained, young Hatten requested that C. M. Bright of Waupuca, Wis., be appointed his guardian. The boy was just under 21.

Feb. 10, 1877, was a Saturday. On the following Monday, William H, Hatten was legally adopted by the Woodins — an unimportant little act then, but one which, just 60 years later, was to be of tremendous moment when Hatten died a millionaire.

Why Hatten had himself adopted — being a young man who could obviously take good care of himself — has never been explained but it is believed that he had wages coming from the bankrupt firm of J. M. Rounds and that, being still a minor, his real father’s creditors might have got hold of the money; and that would have been a tragedy.

Father Hatten had drifted into worse and worse habits with the passing of the years, and his smart business son was taking no chances on losing one hard earned cent.

William Hatten – Scrooge of Wisconsin – Part 2

Part 2

Hatten and one James Meikeljohn, who had helped him, took over the bankrupt Rounds property and formed the partnership of Meikeljohn & Rounds.

By July of 1884, Hatten, at the age of 28, was rich and smart enough to buy the property from his partner and a few years later the old mill on the banks of the Wolf river here in New London also passed into his hands.

The poor boy was well on the road to riches and nearer his god — the Almighty American Dollar.

In the meantime his sister by adoption, Effie Woodin, had been married to a poor railroad engineer, Frank Lathrop. The marriage took place on Mar. 34, 1878, and one of the witnesses to the ceremony was William Hatten, who then went by the name of William Woodin.

Woodin Died in ’89

For a time he took his adopted father’s name but he soon again signed himself “Hatten” or “Hatton” and, for some mysterious reason his adoption papers disappeared from the files of the county courthouse at Waupaca.

Hatten’s adopted mother had died in May of 1878 and Woodin, who later took his fourth wife, moved to Lincoln county in what is now the state of Washington. At the time of Woodin’s death in 1889 Hatten was named an heir.

His relationship to the Woodin family, after Hatton’s death, was a major factor in the fight over the large Hatten estate.

But in those early days the man who felt that he would never die was farther than ever from the thought of death.

The state’s lumber industry was still a mighty one and a leading actor in the drama of the woods and rivers of Wisconsin was William Hatten.

His main mill here where he had his offices, took a new lease on life after he got hold of it. It had changed hands often after the United States originally granted the land on which it stands to Charles Terence in June of 1853.

The tall thin man whose aristocratic nose could smell a good business deal a thousand miles away, acquired big tracts of lumber and large mills in the south,

Owned California Redwoods

He and Effie’s husband, Frank Lathrop, who enjoyed life to the full, made millions in Alabama in the Lathrop & Hatten Lumber Co.

At Philipp, Miss, (named after the late Gov. Emanuel Philipp of Wisconsin), Hatten owned the Tallahatchie Lumber Co. The Ingram-Dey Lumber Co. was another of his creations.

He had other holdings in Wisconsin and properties in Tennessee and Louisiana, in Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota and British Columbia.

He owned one of the finest stands of redwood left in California, which he often said should be owned by that state but about which he so characteristically never did anything.

He owned large pieces of real estate in downtown Chicago, not far from where his real sister lived in abject poverty. He had millions in securities; hundreds of thousands in cash.

He owned half a million worth of Bankshares Corp. at one time; was an owner of stock in and a director of four other banks in Wisconsin. In Oshkosh, they tell the story of his attending bank meetings there, getting his $20 in directors’ fees and then spending the night in a Turkish bath to save the price of a hotel room.

In the booming twenties, he was worth between $15,000,000 and $16,000,000, according to the top men who worked in his office for $200 or less a month.

The depression cut that fortune in half. While his dollars were piling up, Hatten was active in politics — for Hatton.

Francis McGovern, who was then governor, remembers him as a brilliant and constructive thinker; determined, straightforward — and tight.

Would Buy a Lunch

He drafted — in long hand as he shunned modern office equipment — the state’s railway legislation and served two terms in the state senate but was defeated by Isaac Stephenson for the United States senate in 1907 and for the governorship of Wisconsin in 1914 and 1916.

That he was defeated is not surprising.

Typical of his campaign tactics is the following: In one of his campaigns, his political admirers here organized an automobile procession. Hatten who never personally owned an automobile, rode with somebody else. The boys all paid for their own gasoline and one generous soul donated a band.

When the procession stopped for lunch that noon, the Hatten boosters expected that their candidate would buy them a lunch at least. But Hatten had slipped off by himself — was lunching in a second class restaurant for 20c.

When he ran against Stephenson both candidates were in Stevens Point on the afternoon of a ball game. Stephenson bought 1,000 tickets; Hatten sat by himself in the bleachers for 25c.

Throughout his life, Hatten was deeply, though never lavishly, interested in education, and there are rumors afloat of the thousands he dished out anonymously to Ripon and Lawrence colleges.

But a careful check of those two colleges reveals that the millionaire gave Ripon about $20,000 and Lawrence $29,000, some of which sums were collected with the greatest difficulty after they had been promised by Hatten.

Broken Promises

As he promised to remember his men in the mill, he also promised to remember those institutions on whose boards of trustees he had sat so long — but they got not a cent when he died.

But grimmest of all was the case of the high school here. The man who was so loquaciously interested in education wouldn’t give a cent toward building the school, and when it was finished he asked: “Can you learn more in an expensive building like this than you can in a log hut?”

His “active” interest in education was limited to small sums to a niece and some slight help to a nephew who struggled through Lawrence.

He knew and often talked with many of the leading educators of the state if the topic were not endowments. He knew, too, the members of the state supreme court, although he hated lawyers and took care of most of his legal work himself.

He had a hand in drawing up the federal reserve system of the United States and he knew well many of the business leaders in this part of the northwest. He had a great respect for learned minds but an even deeper admiration for anyone who had brains enough to make money.

Looked Like Rockefeller

Hatten was delighted when someone told him that he looked very much like John D. Rockefeller when both were young, but he never handed out a dime to kids in the neighborhood.

Once upon a time he gave $500 to the library, but when New London needed a new hospital, the following took place:

The committee in charge of raising the funds sent the Rev. F. S. Dayton to see Hatten.

Rev. Dayton said: “In this work we are really following out Christ’s teachings.”

Whereupon the rich and learned Mr. Hatton replied: “Well, I’ll tell you, reverend. Christ also said ‘Feed the poor.’ That’s what I’m doing out here keeping the mill running.”

And that was Hatten’s donation to the hospital.

Hatten was an omnivorous reader — especially economics and philosophy, but nothing lighter than the classics. He was also an indefatigable worker.

Hatten, who had no home and never married, got to his office early in the morning and often stayed until late at night. His employes were expected to do the same. As he took no vacations, they didn’t get any either — in spite of the fact that some of them worked for him for 50 years.

Hatten never drank, smoked nor chewed – not even gum. His employes were expected to follow his example and he could see no reason why they should play golf, as he didn’t.

Strange methods, too, characterized his routine office work. The man, who was many times a millionaire, handled most of his affairs himself and for years had no filing cabinets and made no carbon copies of hia vast correspondence.

Saves Scratch Paper

All his letters he tied up in little bundles. His desk was a forest and his office a mountain of papers. He kept the backs of envelopes and those parts of letters on which nothing had been written.

When his subordinates supplied Hatten with filing cabinets, he filled them with empty honey jars, half empty packages of breakfast foods, paper bags, whatnot.

For years he walked down the main street here, carrying a bottle of milk, a few crackers and some raw carrots in a bag and then he’d eat by himself in the office.

Empty milk bottles he’d return to the store for a refund, and if he had two empty bottles, he’d ask for a full bottle in exchange.

He lived for more than 40 years in a room in the Hotel Elwood here. A spotless, elegant little hostelry in itself, the room Hatten occupied was so crowded with old books and older magazines and junk in general that his bed had to be moved into the middle of the floor. In his earlier years he frequently had people in to Sunday dinner, but that stopped as he grew older, although he always enjoyed a good meal if someone else paid for it.

His Kindly Side

Hatten would never harm a living thing, and when, upon rare occasion, some of his acquaintances went fishing, Hatten wandered off into the woods by himself and gathered mosses, ferns and flowers. That was a kindly side to him, but it also had its business aspects.

In the fall Hatten gathered brightly colored leaves, took them to his hotel room, pressed them in a book. When Christmas came, William H. Hatten got out his leaves, pasted them on cheap bits of paper, delivered many of them in person, which saved the postage.

William Hatten – Scrooge of Wisconsin – Part 3

Part 3

The miserliness of William H. Hatten, apparent in the youth, grew into a mania with the man. One day Hatten dropped into a store to buy a doll to give the child of a family whose hospitality he had enjoyed for years. The doll was wrapped up and Hatten put 50c on the counter.

The price, said the proprietor pointing to the salescard, “is $1.50.”

“Too much,” said the millionaire and turned and walked out. It was the same man who refused to pay 10c for a half pound bag of sugar candy because sugar was then selling at 6c a pound and that was too high a profit.

Hatten was really fond of children. Once he found a rubber ball in the street, picked it up, put it in a bag and wrote on the bag, “Joan from Mr. Hatten” and gave it to the child of another family he often visited. Hatten once upbraided the popcorn vender for not filling the bag quite full enough and of course, he never stopped kicking about his taxes.

Gave Widow Nothing

Perhaps those are small signs of a man’s character but when Bill Sampson, who had worked for Hatten for 50 years, dropped dead in the lumber yards. Hatten wouldn’t pay a cent toward thr funeral. The men in the mill had Sampson buried.

When Adam Cory died in one of Hatten’s lumber camps, and left a widow with four children and not a nickel to her name. Hatten wouldn’t even pay the woman her husband’s full wages for the month. He said: “He didn’t earn it; he’s dead.”

When another employe’s wife was on her death bed the man didn’t want to leave her but Hatten said: “You’ve got a job to do for me in Rhinelander. Go and do it.”

Another employe’s child died and the father didn’t have enough money to bury her. Hatten refused until the mayor went to him in person and shamed him into it.

As one man who knew him perhaps longer than anyone else put it, “He was hard, cold, relentless. No family and no home meant anything to him . . . he was kindly only when it cost him nothing.”

Once he did send August Barlow’s child to the hospital in Milwaukee; hep did give a little something to the church now and again, if they kept after him long enough, and some people here say “yes, he did some nice things” but when you ask “what?” they have no answer.

Hatten founded the Little Wolf High School Alumni association 50 years ago and once gave $100 toward its support but people don’t remember exactly when that was.

Gave Turkeys Away

To his employes he gave a turkey on Thanksgiving and a goose on Christmas and for a while he paid for their Fourth of July parties and for a time treated the Old Settlers’ club to picnics. He belonged to the New London Rotary club and when they tried to collect the fees, he insisted on making deductions for the meals he had not eaten. They tried to call him “Will” but even the oldest end most courageous Rotarian soon gave it up and addressed him as “Senator” or “Mr. Hatten.”

He was not a proud man but he demanded respect. There was only one person who could call him “Will” and get away with it and that was the second wife of Frank Latbrop, who was brought up in the old tradition of the south, who dressed beautifully and entertainpd lavishly, who had a butler and a French maid and a new automobile every year while old Hatten lived miserably, wore disreputable looking clothes and, when he traveled, took the day coach and slept with his head on a dilapidated old suitcase — to save the price of a pullman ticket.

He saw the Lathrops only occasionally although he traveled extensively and mysteriously, usually disappearing from the office without warning to be gone for two and three weeks at a time. Once he went to Europe but no one ever knew why or when or exactly where.

Memory Dimmed

As he grew older and his once brilliant mind gradually wandered farther off into dim regions, William Hatten stayed closer to home, and in the last months of his life, people found him trudging through the outskirts of New London, a tall, gaunt specter with a paper bag in his hand and in the bag an orange or an apple.

In those last years, too, he took more and more to visiting two or three elderly widows, dropping in around supper time and then falling asleep in his chair or forgetting where he was.

Sometimes, he would call Mrs. X Mrs. Y and sometimes he would pick Mrs. Y’s flowers and present them to Mrs. Z, and there would be more talk than ever on how “poorly” Mr. Hatten was.

He still occasionally held forth on his old theme song — the need for civic pride and community spirit but he became stingier than ever and when they passed the plate in church, he leaned over and asked if they could change a dime.

The strong features, like the fine mind, became worn, almost grotesque. The old brown straw hat he had worn for 10 years was falling to pieces. His clothes became more slovenly. Sometimes he washed the cuffs of his shirts himself, but didn’t bother to have anything laundered for weeks on end. Often he went without a shirt.

There were slories afloat that the old man who lived such a sanctimonious life was far from being above reproach, but his life was his own and he never permitted anyone to discuss it with him.

A Check for $10,000

For one year and a half, Frank Jennings, who was building the park just outside town, kept after Hatten to give some money for a stadium and recreation grounds and finally he got the old man in his office and sat and sat and sat.

“I’m busy,” said Hatten. “So be I,” said Frank, but before he left he had a check for $10,000 in his pocket and the people of the community gasped. That was shortly before Hatten died and when people on the main, street congratulated him for having done something for his city, he said he hadn’t given the money. Maybe he hadn’t consciously given it, or maybe, as some here say, he felt it was an inexpensive way to keep his memory green for, after all, the park cost $200,000 and it was named after him for only a fraction of the total cost.

And then he died – a pauper with millions in the bank – of bronchial pneumonia and “malnutrition.”

The Rev. A. W. Sneesby said of him, looking down into the grave: “His greatest interest seems to have been the making and the holding of wealth.”

Wealth! The wealth with which he had done so little good. The wealth he had so often talked about giving to Lawrence and to Ripon colleges; the wealth he had always promised his men to keep “their” mill a’running.

Everything he had always talked about; everything he had made up his mind would never happen, happened. All his dreams and hopes and preachings fell, like a house of cards, about his ears.

Those things which he hated most in life came to pass in death which he thought would never come to him.

Ugly Irony

Fate, in all its ugly irony, held that there should be no will. The grim old man had never been able to force himself to set his hand on paper and write those simple words: “I give.”

Fate wrote the word and the word was “take.”

Although almost no relatives came to weep beside his body on the day of the funeral, Apr. 1, 1937, by May 2, 25 had appeared to take part of his estate.

Out of the silent past they came; relatives he had never mentioned to anyone in his long life; many of whom he never even knew existed; some of whom had claim on him through that strange adoption by the Woodin family, a fluke and mysterious one made just 60 years before, almost to the month.

Out of an estate in Wisconsin alone, valued at his death at almost $3,000,000, the federal and state tax collectors – whom he hated so – came in to take 65% of the total.

Lawyer Were There

And hovering about the litigants was a flock of lawyers – lawyers whom he had so religiously shunned even in his most complicated transactions.

But fate didn’t leave the dead man even then. In the course of the trial over the estate there appeared a relative who bore his name, who boasted that he wanted to spend his inheritance in taverns and at fights — two things old Hatten abhorred above all else in life.

The court decided that a share of the estate, amounting to $440,000, should go to his sister, the sister who was living in abject poverty in the shadows of Hatten’s Chicago real estate holdings.

But she did not live to get one cent of the money. His sister died, ironically, on William Hatten’s birthday, Aug. 24, 1937, before the court was ready to release the money. She died just six months after he had passed on to his reward.