Biography: Charles Hackley

Charles Henry Hackley, Muskegon’s philanthropist and entrepreneur, whose gifts and services to Muskegon made possible the transition from a lumber town to a city of diverse industry, was a product of the lumber era and owed his fortune to the lumber industry.

Mr. Hackley was born on January 3, 1837, at Michigan City, Indiana, the eldest of five children. He had two brothers and two sisters. While he was still an infant, his family moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he received his education. His family was of modest means and Charles worked and went to school for equal amounts of time. At the age of fifteen, he left school to work for his father, a road contractor. He and the crew of which he was in charge did all of the repair and maintenance of twenty miles of plank road. Charles was only sixteen.

Hackley helped Muskegon transition from a lumber town to a city of diverse industry.

Charles Hackley’s father, Joseph, had often been unable to find work as a carpenter and soon heard of the many jobs available in Michigan in the lumber industry. After going to Muskegon and working for a year there, he wrote to Charles, suggesting that Charles join him.

On April 17, 1856, Charles arrived at Muskegon on the schooner Challenge, having worked his passage across Lake Michigan. He was employed that same day by the firm of Durkee, Truesdell and company as a laborer. The agreement with Charles was that he would be paid according to the value of his services. When paid, he received $22 a month, above average for the time. Shortly, his pay increased to $25 per month.

In the fall, the mill shut down as the supply of wood had been exhausted. Charles got work with the same firm as a scaler, earning $30 per month. He spent that winter in the woods, learning about Michigan timber land and its commercial possibilities as well as learning about the various jobs in the forest.

Returning to Muskegon in the spring, Charles reputation was so good that the company made him the foreman in charge of the crews that cleared the mill and piled the lumber as it came from the saws.

In 1857, a general business depression occurred throughout the United States and Muskegon was affected. The mills were closed and logging was mostly stopped. Charles’ employer, recognizing his abilities, suggested that he improve himself and get some business training. He returned to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and enrolled in the business college there. It was understood that when he returned to Muskegon, he would be given a job in the office and made a bookkeeper. Charles completed his studies and returned to Muskegon only to find that the company was unable to survive the depression and was sold. The property was purchased by Gideon Truesdell. Charles was hired by him for $30 per month.

This experience taught Charles that ownership held no more hazard than being an employee and that his real future depended upon his going into business for himself.

In the spring of 1859, Charles, then 22 years old, persuaded his father and Mr. Truesdell to join him in purchasing the mill property of Pomeroy and Holmes Company which had failed. The firm of J.H. Hackley was formed. After two years of success, the mill expanded by purchasing the Wing mill. Charles kept the books for the two mills as well as the records for Mr. Truesdell.

Throughout this time period, Charles gained substantial knowledge of the working of a mill and the business of lumbering. He, too, perceived the expanding market possibilities with the westward expansion of the United States. He realized that Michigan lumber would be an important part of this expansion.

Beginning at this time, Charles started purchasing many other mills, either as partner or as the outright owner. In 1874, James McGordon bought out Charles’ father share in the Wing mill and the new firm of Hackley and McGordon was formed. The same year, a new mill replaced the old Hackley and Sons mill which had been dismantled. The new mill cost $85,000.00.

The Hackley and McGordon mill burned and was not rebuilt. James McGordon purchased a share in the firm of Hackley and Son and the firm of C.H. Hackley and Company was created. After the death of Charles’ brother Edwin, Thomas Hume bought into the company. Mr. Hume had worked for Charles as a bookkeeper prior to this purchase. This was the beginning of the Hackley and Hume Company, which became known to lumbermen in Michigan and throughout the United States. The two men continued as partners until Charles death twenty nine years later.

The firm of Hackley and Hume was one of the largest firms, not only in Michigan , but in the entire country. The firm cut an average of 30,000,000 feet of lumber each year, as well as 8,000,000 pieces of lath. It was not until the last stand of pine was cut in 1894 that the firm ceased operations.

Beginning in the late 1880’s, the forests of Michigan were nearly gone. There were no more trees to be cut. Muskegon, with a population of 24,000, depended entirely upon the lumber industry and the forty-seven sawmills around Muskegon Lake.

Further, in 1891, a fire swept Muskegon, destroying the principal business district. Many mill owners did not rebuild after a fire and some were accused of arson. Then, two years later, a financial panic swept the United States, further depressing Muskegon’s economy. Thousands of homes were empty, hundreds were taken over by the state for non-payment of taxes. Many people felt helpless.

As early as 1879, Charles and other lumber mill owners and community leaders saw that urban revitalization was necessary. Support was given to new lumber related businesses: The Temple Manufacturing Company made curtain rollers starting that year. The lumbermen financed the Wood Package and Basket Company and a new furniture factory which opened in 1884. By 1896, only three mills remained in Muskegon. The lumber barons and other community leaders who worked to attract new business called themselves the Muskegon Board of Trade. By 1893, the group became the Chamber of Commerce. They also drew to the area the Chase Piano Company, Amazon Knitting Company, Continental Motors and Central Paper Company, as well as many other businesses.

In addition, the mill owners were active in politics. From the time of the first election of a mayor of Muskegon in 1870 to the year 1889, nine of the twenty mayors were lumbermen or associated with the lumber industry. In fact, Charles ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1873 and 1877, but he did serve as alderman and city treasurer, as well as on the school board.

In 1877, Charles was first elected to the Muskegon school board. In 1892 he was made president of the board, a position he held until his death.Further political involvement occurred when he was a state delegate to the National Republican convention in Minneapolis in 1892, and again, he was the delegate to the 1896 St. Louis convention.

Charles always felt that education was of most importance, a belief he supported in his gift of $30,000 in 1892 to build a manual training school. Here young people could learn how to make a living with their hands rather than in business or in clerical employment. Our vocational educational programs of today have roots in this type of school.

By 1897, the school was completed; Charles gave $5,000 each year toward instructors’ pay and endowed the school with a $100,000 trust fund, the income from which was to be used in paying future salaries.

By 1900, the enrollment had outgrown the school so that a separate building had to be built as well as two additions to the original structure. In total, Charles spent over $200,000 in building and equipping the school and its endowment fund.

Schools were not Charles Hackley’s only interest. He gave freely of his wealth to the betterment of the city where he made his millions. Much of his belief was founded upon Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, written in 1889. Like other entrepreneurs of the time, Charles felt that his wealth should be used not only to correct hardship and misfortune but also to benefit those who wished to better themselves.

In an interview, Charles Hackley said that:

“a rich man to a great extent owes his fortune to the public. He makes money largely through the labor of his employees.....Moreover, I believe that it should be expended during the lifetime of the donor, so that he can see that his benefactions do not miscarry and are according to his intent....To a certain extent, I agree with Mr. Carnegie ....that it is a crime to die rich.”

The list of the Hackley donations is a long one, but truly remarkable.

Some of these would include:

• Hackley Public Library - Site, Building and Contents
• Hackley Public Library Endowment
• Hackley Art Gallery - Site, Building and Contents
• Hackley Art Gallery Picture Fund
• Hackley Park
• Hackley Manual Training School and Gymnasium - Site, Building and Contents
• Hackley Athletic Field
• Hackley Hospital - Site, Buildings and Contents
• Hackley Hospital Endowment
• Soldiers’ Monument in Hackley Park
• Statues in Hackley Park
• City of Muskegon Poor Fund Endowment
• Julia E. Hackley Educational Fund Endowment
• Muskegon Humane Union Endowment

The total of all of these gifts had a value of about $6,000,000, an enormous sum even today.

In 1887, Charles purchased lots in the city of Muskegon, one of which he sold to his friend and business partner Thomas Hume. The men hired an architect from Grand Rapids named David Hopkins who designed and built their magnificent homes and carriage barn. The houses were completed in 1889 and the men moved in with their families. Thomas and his wife Margaret had a family of seven, whereas Charles and his wife Julia had only two children and the differences are very evident in the houses. The Hackley Mansion was a built as a show place while the Hume house is a family home.

Late in the 1890’s, Charles experienced health problems and traveled to Salt Lake City for treatments, which seemed to help. Despite his illness, he reported for work every day, even two days prior to his death. On February 10, 1905. Charles Hackley died of an aneurysm.

His many accomplishments are well remembered in the town where he gained his fortune, mostly through his many gifts and his handsome home, now on the State and National Historic Registers.

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