Sam Jones became a child immigrant in 1849, when his family left Wales for America, hoping to escape the brutalizing poverty that the labor class endured in his homeland. But wages and opportunities were not that much better where his family settled, in upstate New York; Sam had to drop out of school early so he could work on a neighbor’s farm for $3 a month. In the time before child labor laws, the young boy started work at 4 in the morning and his workday didn’t end until sunset. But even so, the meager pay he could earn was necessary if his family’s dinner table were to have food on it.
By his mid-teens he had found better work at a local sawmill, then on a steamship plying the Black River. On a tip he walked to Western Pennsylvania and spent weeks begging for work in the newly found oilfields around Titusville. Finally he was hired at the incredible wage of $4 per day in nearby Pithole. There Sam proved himself, if not the hardest worker, the smartest, all the while saving that unexpected money for some future endeavor.
He succeeded, married, moved to Pleasantville and invested in a few oil leases. When his beloved Alma passed away he gathered up their children and moved to Ohio, hoping to escape the memories of the family’s former life.
Panic Shatters City of Glass
In Ohio Sam started his own oil company, in a day when a 600-barrel-per-day well was big news; and in short order Sam Jones, the uneducated Welsh immigrant, was pumping half of the oil in that state. Then in 1887 he sold out to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and was set financially for life.
Five years later he met and married Helen Beach, who implored him to move to her hometown of Toledo, Ohio. The city, headquarters of manufacturing giant Libby, was then known as America’s City of Glass. By then, thanks to its economic success after the Civil War, Toledo had become a relatively prosperous town of 80,000.
But no sooner had Jones married and moved than the Financial Panic of 1893 hit, devastating that city as it did most across the country. As reported in previous columns, that depression was so severe that in many cities husbands and wives quietly packed in the middle of the night, stealing out of their homes and leaving their young children behind to survive as best they could. In nearby Detroit, historians estimated, thousands of children were left to wander the streets, having awakened one day to find their parents gone. Clara Ford often fed these street urchins while her husband Henry built his first car in his backyard shed.
Although that event had not financially harmed Sam Jones and his family, they were not blind to what was happening in Helen’s hometown. They couldn’t help seeing the newly displaced workers by the thousands and the desperate on nearly every street. Sam Jones decided that he should do something about it. For he was not only a highly respected Republican businessman but also a devout Christian, and at a time when the Beatitudes were the first order of business in every Sunday sermon.
Patron Saint of Payroll
Jones set out to create an improved iron-pumping rod for the oil field services industry, and then he set up a factory to produce it. At the time, manufacturing jobs in Toledo paid $1 per day for a 10-hour shift; Jones doubled pay to $2 for his factory’s eight-hour workday. He gave everyone a one-week paid vacation each year and a 5 percent annual bonus at Christmastime.
He built parks for his workers’ families to enjoy and marched with them in labor parades, where he extolled the virtues of unionization. He was quoted as saying, “Unions have done much to free little children from the sweatshops and factories, and to relieve underpaid men and women.”
Jones also instructed his foreman never to inquire about a job applicant’s possibly troubled past, whether it had been trouble with the law or the bottle. At Sam Jones’ factory, each individual would be given at least one chance to make something of himself, even if he had failed in the past.
True, Sam Jones was one of American history’s Horatio Algers: He had started with nothing and become wealthy. But he had never forgotten the poverty of his youth or, even more critically important, how along the way total strangers had given him help, never expecting to get anything in return. He credited them, as much as his intelligence and work ethic, for the life he had. And he was determined to return the favor — to others.
Two decades before Henry Ford instituted the eight-hour, $5 workday, Sam Jones had pioneered that concept in Toledo, Ohio, and the city was better for it. There the citizens started calling him “Golden Rule Jones.”
And that’s how the Republican Party came to run him as their compromise candidate for Mayor in 1897.
“Golden Rule” Rules Toledo
Though he barely won the election, he took the office seriously. Sure enough, Mayor Jones put the same rules into play for his new hometown as he had in his factory. City workers went on an eight-hour workday; he built parks for the city; he created kindergartens to give children a running start on their education; and he ordered the police department to end its systematic brutality toward problematical citizens.
Appointing himself the city’s police court judge, Jones threw out every case in which he suspected any wrongdoing on the part of his police force. In one month alone he dismissed every last case that came before his court. He ended cronyism in local government, tearing up city contracts and putting them out for bids in an open and transparent way.
As you may imagine, his reforms were far more than his own political party could stand and its support for the next election was withdrawn. So Sam Jones ran for re-election as an Independent — and won that election with 70 percent of the public’s vote. But he died in office in 1904 without having accomplished most of what he had hoped to do, including ending the private ownership of the city’s utility systems.
Still, Sam Jones had lived long enough to see the end of the Financial Panic of 1893 and the return of relative prosperity to his city. Meanwhile, he had improved the lives of many in both his city and his factory and had reset the standards for enlightened employment.
Age of Idealism
Sam Jones was not the only American businessman who believed that our economic society would be better with a vibrant middle class, or who tried to end the most egregious acts and policies of local government. Mayors in both Cleveland and Detroit in the same period put similar programs into place. Likewise, for decades the Studebaker Brothers of Indiana had been every bit as decent to their workforce as Jones had been to his in Toledo. Then too, Teddy Roosevelt led the national cry for change at the turn of the last century.
A new economic movement toward the creation of a strong middle class was underway in America in that period — often led by businessmen heavily invested in the Republican Party who were involved in either transportation or oil.
As for Toledo, once considered one of the great manufacturing cities in America and rivaled in many ways only by Detroit? Over the next 36 years its nickname would change from America’s City of Glass to the City of Jeep.
Next week: What a difference 100 years makes in manufacturing and local government.