Episode posted September 23, 2020
Title: Tale of Two Tycoons
This is Cream City~Windy City. I’m Wendy Bright.
Every episode, we explore surprising connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan.
We will hear stories of fascinating – but perhaps lesser-known – links between the people and events of Milwaukee and Chicago.
Philip Armour, the 19th-century meatpacking mogul, is always identified with Chicago. But by the time he came to the city when he was in his 40s, he was already one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country.
Philip Armour got his start in Milwaukee.
There his path crossed that of another meatpacking leader: John Plankinton. This is their story, the tale of two tycoons.
John Plankinton was the elder man, 12 years Armour’s senior. He was born in 1820 in Delaware. But in 1832 the Plankinton family moved to Pittsburgh when John was 12 years old.
That same year, Philip Danforth Armour was born, in the middle of the state of New York, one of eight children.
While young Philip was a child on the family farm, John Plankinton was coming into his own in Pittsburgh. He was a tall young man, focused, and ambitious. He completed his formal schooling, met his future wife Elizabeth, and began to learn the butchery trade. And soon he was ready to embark on a journey.
In 1844, a 24-year-old John Plankinton, with his new wife and baby son, set out. They boarded a Great Lakes steamship headed for the burgeoning town of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan’s shores.
Plankinton had plans to join a friend in business there, but the man had already partnered with someone else. Disappointed but not deterred, Plankinton used his savings to build a small wood-frame building downtown, with his family’s apartment upstairs, his new butcher shop below.
Small, neighborhood butcher shops were ubiquitous in Milwaukee. But some butchers began to expand beyond the local. John Plankinton was one of them. He quickly grew his business on Spring Street until it was the largest and most successful butcher shop in Milwaukee County. And within a few short years, he began that expansion, packaging and shipping beef and pork to more distant customers.
1852 was a significant year in the lives of both John Plankinton and Philip Armour.
Plankinton formed a partnership with fellow Milwaukee butcher, Frederick Layton. The Layton and Plankinton Packing Company made its home on what would later be known as Plankinton Avenue, close to the Milwaukee River.
Also in 1852, a 19-year-old Philip Armour left New York for the Gold Rush of California. He made the cross-country journey with 30 other men, all seeking their fortune. Auburn-haired Armour was a strong, broad-shouldered young man of serious determination. He soon concluded that panning for gold was futile. So he started his own water supply business among the miners, hiring those out of work. By the time he was 24, Philip Armour had made the small fortune of $8,000.
The mid-1850s were years of growth for John Plankinton. He and his wife had two more children. And he and Layton built a large packing house in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, a good location to spread out. Layton began to travel extensively to Europe, expanding the company’s trans-Atlantic business.
In the mid-1850s Philip Armour returned from California to the family farm in New York, but he was soon off again. He had been studying business opportunities and the path to success. Armour at this moment knew what he had to do.
His first stop was the “Porkopolis” of Cincinnati. There he met his future wife, Malvina. And there he learned the butchering business. He also became a provisions and grain dealer.
Then, at the age of 25, Philip Armour made his way to Milwaukee. His brother was already there and Milwaukee promised plentiful opportunities for profit. Philip joined his brother to form a wholesale grocery and produce business. He also invested in his brother’s grain commission house.
It is likely at this moment, the late 1850s in Milwaukee, that John Plankinton and Philip Armour met for the first time. Armour had surely studied the leading packing company in the city, Layton and Plankinton. Plankinton had surely heard of this ambitious new arrival from out east.
On the cusp of Civil War, both Armour and Plankinton adjusted their strategies. Armour joined with Frederick Miles to form a grain and grocery commission business. This is when he discovered the unmatched profitability of meat: the pickled pork they sold was most lucrative.
At the same time, John Plankinton parted ways with Frederick Layton, who went on to form his own packing plant (the Layton name familiar to Milwaukeeans). Plankinton carried on alone for a few years.
Philip Armour had been living in a boarding house on Spring Street downtown while he established his businesses in Milwaukee. Soon Malvina joined him and they married in 1862; they would have two sons.
Milwaukee in the mid-19th century was a major grain trade center. Armour invested well. He acquired substantial grain interests and by 1863 operated the largest grain elevator in the city.
Armour would dissolve his partnership with Miles. He was ready for the next step.
1863 was the beginning. Philip Armour, the 31-year-old budding mogul, joined the 43-year-old John Plankinton, the most successful meatpacker in Milwaukee. Together they founded Plankinton, Armour & Company.
Plankinton and Armour made a powerful team. They began to grow the business by leaps and bounds. Armour helped Plankinton ramp up operations in response to the times: they sold meat to the Union Army and provisions to the masses of west-bound settlers. During the Civil War, Plankinton, Armour & Company was an important food supplier for the Union Army. Their success meant expanded branches in Chicago and Kansas City, as well as an exporting house in New York City.
At the end of the war Plankinton, Armour & Company was one of the largest meatpacking and distribution companies in the United States. Philip Armour- with all of his business interests – became the richest man in Milwaukee, and was on his way to becoming one of the richest men in America.
After the war John Plankinton would buy a mansion at 15th and Grand Avenue and spend $200,000 upgrading it to create one of the most extravagant homes in Milwaukee. Philip Armour bought his own mansion on Cass Street downtown. The Armours also established a summer estate in Oconomowoc out in Lake Country, the new resort destination for Milwaukee’s wealthy.
Until the 1860s, Milwaukee’s livestock market was located in Haymarket Square downtown. But the central location began to be a problem as cattle coming to market interrupted traffic. And sometimes animals would get loose and run through the streets. The success of Chicago’s Union Stock Yards, which had opened in 1865, led Milwaukee to establish its own stock yards in the Menomonee Valley.
But in the success of Chicago’s Union Stock Yards, Philip Armour saw something more. He recognized that the future of meatpacking was in Chicago.
1867 was a pivotal year for Philip Armour. He and his brothers formed a new meatpacking business, located in Chicago and they called it Armour & Company. They rented a plant on the South Branch of the Chicago River and began processing hogs.
Yet Armour lived and remained active in Milwaukee. Besides the business with Plankinton, he and his brother continued with the grain business and additional meatpacking plants in the valley.
1867 was also an important year for John Plankinton. That year was the grand opening of his sumptuous 400-room Plankinton House Hotel. Located at a prime downtown location – what would become known as the corner of Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues – the hotel was instantly Milwaukee’s most luxurious. It would also make the Plankinton name known far and wide.
The 1870s dawned with great heartbreak for John Plankinton. His eldest daughter died in 1870 and his wife died two years later. In 1875, at age 55, he married his second wife, Anna.
By the early 1870s Philip Armour had begun serious investment in Chicago. He bought land west of the stockyards in 1872 and continued to grow Armour & Company.
Plankinton remained in Milwaukee to head Plankinton, Armour & Company, while in 1875 Armour took on management of their Chicago branch. 1875 was the year that Armour moved to Chicago.
It didn’t take Philip Armour long to establish himself in the city. Along with Marshall Field and George Pullman, he became a preeminent power player. When these three wealthiest men of Chicago bought land to build their mansions on Prairie Avenue, the city’s elite followed. The small Prairie Avenue enclave would quickly become the most exclusive neighborhood in Chicago, home to dozens of millionaires.
Armour would be known for his many ground-breaking innovations in the meatpacking industry. Armour & Company was the first to produce canned meat. They were one of the first to employ a conveyor-belt assembly line process. Armour was a leader in the development of refrigeration methods, which included the refrigerated railcars that revolutionized the delivery of meat and produce. Armour was most imaginative when it came to using the byproducts of meatpacking; everything from the animal was utilized to create other products, such as soap, glue, fertilizer, and pharmaceuticals.
By 1880, success for both Armour and Plankinton was firmly established. Milwaukee at that time was the 4th largest meatpacking center in the country and Plankinton, Armour & Company’s sales that year totaled $15 million.
Chicago was the country’s largest meatpacking center and Armour & Company was one of the nation’s dominant meatpackers.
By 1884 the time had come for the men to part ways. After two decades, by mutual agreement, John Plankinton and Philip Armour dissolved their partnership.
Plankinton reorganized operations in Milwaukee. He promoted his energetic young employee Patrick Cudahy to junior partner. When Plankinton was approaching retirement, Cudahy and his brothers took on the business, eventually renaming it Cudahy Brothers. They later moved the operations to 700 acres of farmland, an area of southern Milwaukee County …later known as Cudahy.
John Plankinton retired in 1889. He was known for his generous philanthropy. Among other things, he donated land for the construction of Perseverance Presbyterian Church, he supported the creation and ongoing service of a Milwaukee soup kitchen, and he financed the first Milwaukee public library.
Ten years after Plankinton, Philip Armour retired, in 1899. He was also a generous donor, creating the Armour Mission, a community center in Chicago for education and healthcare. He financed low-cost housing for workers. And perhaps most famously, he donated $1 million to found the Armour Institute of Technology, which became the renowned Illinois Institute of Technology — IIT.
Armour also donated to causes in his former city. He not only donated to a Milwaukee women’s organization that supported young immigrant women, but in the aftermath of Milwaukee’s worst fire, the Third Ward Fire of 1892, he was a major donor to help those left homeless.
The two tycoons, wealthy titans of industry, prominent citizens of Milwaukee and Chicago… reached the end of their lives.
In March of 1891, John Plankinton died of pneumonia in his Grand Avenue home. He left most of his estate, estimated at $10 million, in trust to his grandchildren. Obituaries hailed him as Milwaukee’s foremost citizen, an astute businessman whose many contributions made Milwaukee a better place. He is buried at Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery.
Ten years later, in January of 1901, Philip Armour died at his Prairie Avenue home. While heart problems contributed, his primary cause of death was also pneumonia. Armour was said to have been worth $50 million. He left an estate of $15 million. He is buried at Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.
Today in downtown Milwaukee inside the superb Plankinton Arcade on the former site of the Plankinton House Hotel at Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues, you will find the towering bronze statue of John Plankinton.
Today in Oconomowoc, you will find Armour Road and Armour Court. And today in Milwaukee, starting at the lakefront at Cudahy, you can drive a long street called Armour Avenue.
Thanks so much for joining me.
I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.
Every episode of Cream City~Windy City will have an accompanying blog post where you can see images, check out the transcript, and leave comments. Find it at WendyCityChicago.com.
Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.
Intro music: “Chicago Blues” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.
Outro music, “I Lost My Baby In Milwaukee” by KEdKE.
See you next time.