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