If you’re like me, you’d never heard of Garden City — a southern Minnesota village of 250 people tucked along the Watonwan River, 14 miles south of Mankato..
“It’s a very, very tiny hamlet — it’s not even a town,” said Jessica Potter, who directs the Blue Earth County Historical Society.
That’s why the headline in the Minneapolis Sunday Journal grabbed readers’ attention 95 years ago: “Ten Boys of Minnesota Log Schoolhouse Win World Fame and Amass Millions.”
The story, which would be retold over the decades, detailed how 10 Garden City kids grew up together in the mid-1800s and became rich — mostly far from their sleepy river-town roots.
Henry S. Wellcome went from his family’s Garden City drugstore to become a London chemist — eventually co-founding a giant British pharmaceutical company known today as GlaxoSmithKline.
The other Garden City guys made millions in banking, real estate, printing and milling. One became a Minneapolis judge; another a rancher and legislator in Idaho.
The “Midland” in the global food processing company Archer Daniels Midland? Three Garden City boys served as bookkeepers in the Mankato Linseed Oil Co., with Ellsworth Warner eventually rising to president of Midland Linseed Oil Co., which merged with Archer-Daniels in 1923.
Piper Jaffray financial services? Garden City’s George F. Piper went from teaching school in Mankato to bookkeeping to owning linseed oil mills in Mankato and then Detroit. He moved to boomtown Duluth only to lose his money when the real estate market crashed in the 1893 financial panic.
Piper bounced back, regaining his wealth in Minneapolis through linseed oil, cattle, horse-drawn streetcars and grain storage elevators. He became one of Minneapolis’ richest men in the early 1900s, creating a grain brokerage firm that eventually morphed into Piper Jaffray.
“It’s kind of shocking to realize such captains of industry came from such a small place,” said Potter, the historical society director in Mankato.
Three years ago, she led a group of 60 descendants — including several Pipers — back to Garden City to see where it all began.
“When we started digging into the history, it’s crazy how inter-connected all these guys were,” said Potter. “They married each other’s sisters, combined business interests and never forgot Garden City.”
To wit: Wellcome, the chemist and protégé of medical pioneer William W. Mayo, created a trust in Mankato when he died in 1936 — pledging $400,000 for a Garden City school, library, auditorium and athletic fields.
The Blue Earth County Historical Society published a book in 2003, and updated in 2009, called “The Remarkable Men of Garden City,” ($13, bechshistory.com/shop/remarkable-men-garden-city).
Written by the late E. Winston Grundmeier, the book profiles all 10 men who “not only grew up together as schoolmates, but … supported each other’s ventures and became partners in land deals and investments. Their everlasting camaraderie and legacy,” Grundmeier wrote, “made these men truly remarkable.”
Potter finds their collective rise as ironic as it was remarkable.
“In the early days, some people intended Garden City to be the Blue Earth County seat because it sits in the middle of the county,” she said. Mankato interests, pointing to their perch on the Minnesota River, won out in the end.
“But there was an undercurrent of rivalry,” Potter said. “So for all these success stories to come from Garden City …”
Garden City’s “Remarkable 10” included two sets of brothers and a pair of cousins. Amos Warner was part of an ox-pulled caravan that trekked 300 miles west from Almond, Wis., in 1856. His sons — Eli, Amos Jr. and Ellsworth — became legislators, timber barons and linseed millers.
Chelsea Rockwood became a Hennepin County judge, University of Minnesota regent and long-term counsel for the Minneapolis Park Board. His kid brother, Adoniram, moved to Idaho, farmed grain and served in the Legislature. Wellcome’s cousin, Florado, became a wealthy doctor and banker in Minnesota.
While most of the 10 men left Garden City, one stuck around. George M. Palmer walked 14 miles down muddy roads to Mankato in 1872 to apply for his first bookkeeping job at the Mankato Linseed Oil Co. He went on to make millions in milling and banking. He was still in the area in 1915 to welcome Wellcome back when the chemist behind the Burroughs Wellcome drug company returned from England for a reunion with his boyhood friends at a local hotel.
“In all the years, I have never forgotten the home of my boyhood, the scene of happy days,” Henry Wellcome said. He retraced his steps “down the road from the primitive circumstances of long ago to the fortune of today” — insisting the key “may be found in that little log schoolhouse and the characters builded upon within its walls.”
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.