News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 30, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Blodgett: Crawford Fairbanks, Indiana’s wealthiest man

Mike McCormick
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — William Blodgett (1857-1924) has been called “the most colorful, widely-known and feared newsman in American history.”

A tireless investigative reporter, Blodgett left no stone unturned in order to uncover the complete story. While working 37 years for the Indianapolis News, he is credited with doing more to clean up politics in Indiana than any other man.

In late 1902, Blodgett set out to find “Indiana’s Richest Man.”

Significant portions of his report, reprinted in the Terre Haute Gazette,  follow:

“From a salary of $5 a week to the head of various enterprises that do business of more than $20 million a year — such in a few words is the life history of Crawford Fairbanks of Terre Haute.

“Sixty years ago Mr. Fairbanks was born on a farm in Vigo County, close to Terre Haute. The farm as a small one, not of the best. The market in those days was not the market of these times and Henry, Crawford’s father, had a hard time to get along.

“It was in his early youth that Crawford became adept in the art of industry. The hardest work had no terrors for him. His early education, while not neglected, was primitive. He attended country schools when he did not have work and at night in his garret room he studied by candlelight.

“Finally, when he was 17 years old, Fairbanks left his home and went to work in a store at $5 a week. He swept out the store and kept the books and, in that way, got a pretty good idea of the rudiments of business, a knowledge that stood him well later.

“During the Civil War he wanted to be a soldier. He turned down an increase in wages to enlist in the 129th Indiana. He was elected first lieutenant and went out under the command of Congressman Charles B. Case of Fort Wayne, the first colonel in his regiment. The greater part of his service was done under Col. Charles A. Bollinger, later mayor of Fort Wayne.

“Fairbanks’ regiment participated in numerous battles from Resaca to the capture of Atlanta. Crawford was as good a soldier as he was a farmer and a clerk, careful in his duty and attentive to the work. From Chattanooga to Atlanta he had charge of his company and no company in his regiment made a better showing.

“When the war was over he returned to Terre Haute and engaged in the grain business with Fleury Fayette Keith. The firm name of Keith & Fairbanks became favorably known throughout Indiana. The firm did big business. Money came in fast and, from that time, the rise of Crawford Fairbanks in the business world was rapid.  

“After several years in the distillery business with Herman Hulman as the firm of Hulman & Fairbanks and, later, as a partner with others, Crawford built a great strawboard factory at Elgin, Ill. The factory afterward was taken into the American Strawboard Co., known as the “Strawboard Trust,” and Mr. Fairbanks was elected the trust’s president. He served in that capacity for several years.

“From the distillery business, in 1889 he acquired the Terre Haute Brewing Co., whose plant is one of the largest in the country and whose branches can be found in every town of consequence in the U.S. It would be hard for Mr. Fairbanks to enumerate his many business enterprises without calculation and study. Here are a few:

“President, Terre Haute Brewing Co., Terre Haute;

“President, Diamond Paper Co., Anderson;

“President, Haverhill Paper Co., Haverhill, Mass.;

“Vice President, Chicago Paper Co., Chicago;

“Vice President, Piedmont Paper Co., Piedmont, N.Y.

“Vice President, Southern Indiana Gas Co., Greenfield and Shelbyville;

“Co-owner, French Lick Springs and Hotel, French Lick; and

“Owner of real estate upon which the Fair Bank in Indianapolis is located.

“Besides these large interests, Mr. Fairbanks has many investments, not only in Indiana but in several large cities in different states. He has some fine horses (and he knows a good horse when he sees one), owns several farms, holds considerable stock of different kinds and, until recently, was one of the directors of the Monon Railroad.

“Not only is Mr. Fairbanks prominent in business but he is one of the best known politicians in Indiana. In his home town he is a power but has never attempted to play the role of boss. His agents are all politicans, too, and through them he has a good grip of municipal affairs in a number of Indiana towns.

“He has always taken an interest in Indianapolis politics and it does not seem to make much difference which party is in power – he generally manages to get what he goes after. In politics he is rated a Democrat but he contributes freely to all parties — as a matter of business.

“The total wealth of Crawford Fairbanks is not known as it is a subject on which he does not give much information but some of his friends say that his check would be good for at least $6,000,000, and if all of his interests were converted into cash they would pile up nearly double that sum.

“In his every-day life, Mr. Fairbanks is as common as an old shoe. He has any number of employees that put on a great deal more style. He dresses neatly but not showily.

“He gives freely to charity and does not put his name down on the list. While I was talking to him three different people came to him for subscriptions to different objects. To each he gave $10 without a scratch of a pen to show for it. I asked him if he had any idea of his daily expenses. His reply was that he kept no check of his personal expenses nor did he know how much he gave away.

“But careless as he is about personal expenditures, Mr. Fairbanks is the reverse in all his business undertakings. He overlooks no small mistakes and every man in his employ must earn his wages but any who does extra work gets extra pay.

“He invests his money only where it will bring him returns and those who look after his interests must be faithful, honest and industrious.”

Happy New Year!