Richard Barstad farmed and logged up on the Canadian border — 300 miles and a world away from the new skyscraper of flamboyant Minneapolis millionaire Wilbur Foshay.
But when jury duty called and Barstad was picked as foreman for Foshay’s 1932 federal mail fraud trial, the lives of the two became intertwined.
Born in 1881 along the Hudson River north of New York City, Foshay studied art at Columbia University. In 1907, he married the divorcee daughter of the owner of a Kansas light-and-power company where he worked. They settled in Minneapolis in 1915, where Foshay went to work for a telephone and electric pole manufacturer.
In 1916, the ambitious young businessman took out a $6,000 loan and bought an electric company in Nebraska. By 1918 he had launched the W.B. Foshay Co., the start of a $20 million public utilities empire that eventually had holdings in 30 states from California to Vermont and stretched from Canada to Central America.
He built his $3.7 million corporate headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, made it the tallest skyscraper in the Twin Cities, and named it after himself. It’s still known as the Foshay Tower: a 32-story, Art Deco obelisk modeled after the Washington Monument, in honor of Foshay’s hero.
The moon-faced mogul flew in scores of dignitaries from around the country and hired composer John Philip Sousa to write a new march for the lavish 1929 grand opening.
But Foshay’s $20,000 check for Sousa’s services bounced. Foshay lost his fortune when the stock market crashed two months after his skyscraper’s completion, forcing him to file for bankruptcy.
By 1932, with the Great Depression deepening, Foshay faced 17 counts of federal mail fraud for using the postal service to advertise and sell overvalued company stock.
It was actually his second trial. The first jury had deadlocked the previous year, and the lone juror holding out — a housewife named Genevieve Clark — later admitted she’d worked in the Foshay Company stenography pool.
Before she could go to jail for perjury, her body was found, along with that of her husband and two children, in their car in a Prior Lake field. A garden hose from the exhaust pipe had been wedged through a hole axed in a car door.
North Woods to the big city
Meanwhile, far to the north of the frenzy swirling around the courthouse in Minneapolis, Richard Barstad was trying to survive the Depression, too.
His wife, Mary, had given birth to their fourth child the previous spring, and Barstad supplemented what little money he scratched from his farm with pulpwood cut in the forests of Koochiching County.
Barstad weighed 300 pounds, with a head as square as a wooden block and shoulders so broad he couldn’t button his suit jacket for a jury photo. The son of Norwegians, he was born in South Dakota in 1894, spent his 20s in northern Wisconsin and settled in the Minnesota township of Lindford, about 30 miles southwest of International Falls.
His granddaughter, Karen Barstad, worked on the 38th floor of the Campbell Mithun Tower with a nice view of the Foshay Tower, inspiring her to research the improbable intersection between her grandfather and Foshay. She found old clippings, swapped stories with relatives and unearthed a master’s thesis on Foshay.
Federal trials in Minnesota drew jurors statewide, and Barstad was summoned to Minneapolis. Soon he was selected for the second trial of Foshay and sidekick Henry Henley, which began in January 1932 and ran for 10 weeks.
Though the youngest juror (he turned 38 during the trial), Barstad became foreman; his daughter, Leverne Barstad Wiederhold, told Karen Barstad in 1999 that the other jurors figured someone who lived so far away would be the most unbiased among them.
Federal Judge Joseph Molyneaux kept a tight lid on jurors, ordering phones in their rooms at the Dyckman Hotel disconnected and all stories about Foshay cut out of their papers.
Barstad was paid $4 a day for the 72 days of the trial, plus a nickel a mile and $3.50 a day for hotel bills. His daughter recounted later that he gained weight and went to a variety of church services as his only escape from the sequestering.
At the end of the lengthy trial, Barstad and his fellow jurors found Foshay and Henley guilty of four of the 17 counts. Barstad actually favored acquittal, Wiederhold told Karen Barstad years later, but most of the jurors wanted a conviction and Barstad had enough doubts of his own that he yielded to their wishes.
“He felt that Foshay may have done some things in his business which were not entirely proper but were probably still legal,” she said.
After appeals failed, Foshay and Henley surrendered and began serving 15-year sentences at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas in 1934. A letter-writing campaign prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to free both men in 1937, and they were pardoned 10 years later by President Harry Truman.
Foshay — whose name was derived from the French word for “broke” — was penniless when he returned in 1957 to Minnesota, where he went to live with his son after working for chambers of commerce in Arizona and Colorado. He died at 76 in a Minneapolis nursing home on Sept. 1, 1957, after a stroke — 28 years almost to the day after his tower opened amid a parade and fireworks.
Barstad went back to farming and logging near Littlefork, where he died in 1964 at 70. He’s buried in Littlefork’s quiet Oakley Cemetery — a world away from where Foshay’s ashes were scattered at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.