Who Was William Donner, the Man?

Who Was William Donner, the Man?

There is a softness to the man’s eyes, a gentleness that belies his fierce devotion to honesty in business. His mouth rests in a slight smile, as if at his young age he has no worries at all. That man, William Henry Donner, possessed one of the sharpest business minds of the early 1900s.

YoungWilliamDonnerMost people know Donner, if they know him at all, as the founder of Donora, a town with a name unlike any other in the world. They might know that Donner was connected to the Mellons —Andrew W. and Richard B. — and that he was instrumental in creating the zinc and steel mills in Donora at the turn of the 20th Century. They might not know much else.

So, who was this man, the man who nearly single-handedly took some rocky land next to the Monongahela River and brought into being an entire town that supplied steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and nails, steel rods, and wire fencing used throughout the nation?

Born on May 21, 1864, to a German father and British mother, Donner grew up in heady times for the nation. The Civil War had been going on for more than four years and wouldn’t end for another year, when Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1965. Donner’s family made their home in Columbus, Ohio, in a modest brick house in what is now the Topiary Park area, where Donner lived until he moved to Monessen at age 33. Donner left high school before the end of his junior year to work at his father’s flour mill, which had just lost its supervisor. Donner learned how to judge the quality of wheat and, more important, how to buy and sell it. The flour mill served as Donner’s apprenticeship, and he proved an astute young businessman.

From the beginning, with only an exception or two of minor, learn-from-it mistakes, Donner was able to identify the true value of a product or property and then negotiate a fair and reasonable price. Although there were times when he took advantage of a seller, he otherwise sought fairness in the final bargain. He moved quickly and decisively whenever he was being treated unfairly by a competitor to rebalance the relationship. Donner was not a man to be trifled with or tricked. Once, when he was managing his father’s flour mill, Donner learned that his competitor had been giving some, but not all, of its customers a secret rebate on every barrel of flour they bought each month. Donner and the competitor had previously reached “an understanding, a gentleman’s agreement,” Donner said, “on the price of flour delivered to the grocers and bakers. I adhered strictly to those prices and supposed he did the same.”

When Donner learned that his competitor was in fact not adhering to those prices, he became infuriated. “I had been stupid, and my pride had been hurt.” He immediately slashed his prices and began telling grocers and bakers in the city that his competitor had been fleecing them. Then he confronted the competitor himself. “Since you have given private rebates,” Donner scolded, “I want you to understand that we intend to sell fifty percent of the flour sold in Columbus and will continue [to offer] low prices until we secure that percentage.” The competitor fumed but eventually brought his prices in line with Donner’s, and within a few months Donner’s mill was serving about half the Columbus market, just as he had promised.

Donner’s drive for fairness, coupled with his knack for mathematics, came in handy when he built a tin mill in Monessen in 1897 and, later, steel, wire, and zinc mills in Donora, which he built and managed under the guidance of Andrew Mellon. He studied the area deeply, built lasting relationships with landowners, hired like-minded contractors to construct the mills as well as homes for the workers, and always sought to pay a fair price for good work. The mills, eventually bought by U.S. Steel, became a successful and profitable operation, providing steel and wire for the nation’s growing infrastructure.

OlderWilliamDonner.jpgDonner never forgot where he came from, that unassuming brick house in Columbus, and in later life became an active philanthropist. After losing a son to lung cancer in 1929 Donner created the International Cancer Research Foundation, which morphed into the William H. Donner Foundation and continues to provide grants and support for a number of human rights organizations. He was also an important benefactor for his college alma mater, Hanover College, and was founder of the Donner Canadian Foundation, which focuses on public policy initiatives. The foundation each year awards the Donner Prize for the best book on pubic policy by a Canadian.

Donner died in Montreal on November 3, 1953, at age 90, with that gentle smile still intact.

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A Lesson in Negotiating

A Lesson in Negotiating

Donora, Pennsylvania, would likely not exist today if town founder William H. Donner hadn’t finally persuaded Margaret Heslep, a surprisingly crafty negotiator, to sell her land.

MapofOriginalHeslepFarmMargaret, widowed since 1872, owned a 140-acre farm on the Monongahela River in southwest Pennsylvania, where Donner, along with his partners, Andrew and Richard Mellon, wanted to build several steel mills. Donner knew that the Heslep property was critical to those plans, so he asked James McKean, who represented the Mellons and lived in Donora, “Would you have any objection to my meeting with Mrs. Heslep about the property?”

“Certainly not,” McKean said with a knowing laugh, “go ahead.” McKean had already been down that same road, unsuccessfully.

Over the coming days and weeks Donner met with Mrs. Heslep numerous times to ask about purchasing her land. Each time he received a polite but firm, “No.”

“She was always very pleasant to me,” Donner wrote in his autobiography, “and invited me on several occasions to stay for meals.” Mrs. Heslep told him more than once, “Mr. Donner, I’m sorry to have to keep saying ‘no’ to you.”

Persist and SuccedPersistence was unquestionably the 35-year-old Donner’s most important characteristic. Why should this obstacle, a pleasant, honest woman saying no, keep him from achieving his goal?

“You’re wasting  your time,” McKean told him. Andrew Mellon agreed, saying, “It’s hopeless.”

Maybe, thought Donner, but still….

The breakthrough came during one of Donner’s visits when he asked Mrs. Heslep about buying some of the drift coal located on her property. “I won’t sell any coal,” she told him. “It is all in the hill.”

Donner suddenly realized that her repeated denials might be covering up a deeper wish to protect her coal. “Perhaps her husband had told her to hold onto it,” Donner speculated. From his land surveys Donner knew that the Heslep coal deposits, as well as Mrs. Heslep’s home and gardens, occupied about 70 acres. So he asked, “Might you be willing to sell all of your property except for those 70 acres?”

“You might make an offer,” the widow responded.

Donner knew right then the land would be his. “I will pay you $375 per acre,” he said, an amount totaling $26,250, equivalent to nearly $700,000 today. She turned him down.

“You paid $400 an acre for the Allen property,” she told him.

“Yes, we did,” Donner admitted, “but Mr. Allen’s property was the largest in the area.”

Again, she refused. “I positively will not sell at that price.” Her price was $500 per acre, she insisted, “and not one cent less!”

Heslep’s daughter decided at that point to ask Donner to stay for dinner, an offer to which he readily agreed. After what must have been a pleasant but rather tense meal, Donner told Mrs. Heslep that he would accept her price.

But Mrs. Heslep, a cool negotiator, wasn’t finished. She insisted on a stipulation. “Mr. Donner,” she said, “I would ask that you bring me $500 in gold by noon tomorrow. This shall bind our agreement.”

The next morning Donner placed an envelope of gold coins worth $500 on her dining room table. Astonished, Mrs. Heslep threw up her hands and said, “Take it away! I could never sleep with that much money in the house!”

Finally content with the sale but not yet finished negotiating, Mrs. Heslep told Donner he needed to give her one last item. “Mrs. Heslep told me,” said Donner, “that according to some custom, the details of which I cannot recall, I should also give her silk for a dress.”

The next day Donner had a friend purchase a “suitable” piece of black silk, which he immediately presented to Mrs. Heslep at her home. “She was delighted,” Donner said, and a sales agreement was finally signed.

phrenologyheadWhen Donner notified the Mellons that he had succeeded in purchasing the Heslep property, they were stunned. Richard Mellon laughed, and told Donner, “I should like to have a phrenologist examine your skull. That lump for perseverance must be immense!”

Q: How much were Donner and the Mellons prepared to pay Heslep for her land?

A: Per Donner, “Her property was so important to our plans that we would have paid $2,000 per acre if necessary.”

________________

Post script

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By Kathi Lynn King

That marvelous negotiator, Margaret Heslep, who died in 1907, is buried alongside her husband, in a distinctive gravesite in Monongahela Cemetery.

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5 Tips for Building Your Own Town

5 Tips for Building Your Own Town

If you’ve ever wanted to start your own town, there may be no better formula for it than the one William H. Donner used to start Donora at the turn of the 20th Century. Donner was a colleague of banking and industrial magnate Andrew Mellon, and they had decided to build a series of steel mills south of Pittsburgh. Donner found in some land along the Monongahela River the perfect spot to create a town. Let’s take a look at how he did it.

#1 Find the right location

DonoraAerialDonner had been operating a tin mill in Monessen, Pennsylvania, not far from the area that would become Donora. Donora lies inside a horseshoe-shaped curve in the “Mon” about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. Donner decided that the area met all, or at least most, of his criteria for the new mills.

The land along the river was flat and already being served by a railway. It was large enough to accommodate the mills he planned to build. The river could serve as a north–south highway for his products, and there was enough undeveloped land in the area to house all the workers he would need.

#2 Buy as much land as you can

Donner purchased land from many early settlers, including the large Castner property. Peter Castner, usually considered the first settler in the area, had moved from his home in Berks County and had set down roots along the banks of the Mon in the summer of 1775, a time of enormous upheaval in the nation. After the war Pennsylvania officials granted Castner, a war veteran, a swath of land to call his own. That area, and an adjoining property belonging at one point to a Nathan Hammon, would ultimately become home to several of Donner’s steel and zinc plants.

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Above photo from From Donora (Images of America), by Charles E. Stacey, Brian Charlton, and David Lonich

#3 Build it, so they will come

You can’t have a town without people, of which Donner would need about 5,000 to run the mills he and Mellon had decided to build. Donner and company offered home lots for sale starting August 30, 1900. From that to the end of 1902, about 1,000 buildings had been erected and 6,000 people had moved in.

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A number of those residents came from, of all places, Cherryvale, Kansas, home of Francis “Frank” Bellamy (right), a Cherryvale High School student who famously penned the Pledge of Allegiance as an entry in a national student contest in 1892. Cherryvale is located in the mineral-rich area known as the Tri-State Mining District, which had been a key source of zinc and other minerals since the late 1870s. The area had attracted many skilled workers from Spain.

A significant number of those Spanish laborers, hearing about the mills to be built in southwest Pennsylvania, decided to move there and build a new life for themselves. The Donora mills would ultimately be peopled by workers from Spain, Poland, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Austria, and many other nations.

#4 Don’t forget infrastructure needs

donoralumbercoIf you’re going to have people live in your town, you’re going to need housing for them, and to build houses, you need lumber. One of the first businesses in Donora was the Donora Lumber Company, founded by Charles Potter of nearby Charleroi and several businessmen from Pittsburgh. Wood from the company was used not only to build Donora houses but, later, to build the World Trade Center, the famed wooden roller coaster, Thunderbolt, in Pittsburgh, and the outfield fence for Three Rivers Stadium, former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Donora Lumber Company continued to supply lumber until its closure on January 9, 2016, after more than 115 years in business.

#5 Oh, and you need a name

Choosing a unique, memorable name for your town can make or break the town’s success. There are, for instance, 41 Springfields in the U.S. Forty-two if you count Homer Simpson’s town. There are 24 Franklins, 24 Washingtons, and 23 Chesters.

Boring.

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When Donner and Mellon were deciding on a name for Donora, they considered calling it Meldon, but eventually opted against it. (The name lives on, though, as one of the main streets in Donora.) They finally decided to combine Donner’s last name with the first name of Mellon’s wife Nora (right). Hence, Donora. And unique? There is no other town anywhere in the world, as far as I can determine, with the name Donora.

As for me, I’ve decided that when I create my own town, I’m going to name it Andyville. Or maybe McPheesterton. Or Andydandytown.

I guess I had better keep working on it.

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Is Andrew Posey Buried Here?

Is Andrew Posey Buried Here?

You can see the gravesite from the Stan “The Man” Musial Bridge, but you would find it unremarkable. It is an odd gravesite, sitting as it does on a patch of grass in the middle of a dirt parking area next to a welding company in an industrial park on the banks of the Monongahela River.

poseyheadstoneA yellow-brick wall about 3 feet high and 20 feet long forms the back of the grave, and at each corner is a pair of brick cornerstones. Steel tubes connect the structures. A small American flag stands next to a concrete cross with a bronze plate bearing the words, “Andrew Posey.”

There are no dates, no markings of relatives buried next to him, just the one cross that bears his name. Posey had been one of tens of thousands of men who returned home from Europe after World War I. He found work as a ladle stopper in the open hearth plant in Donora, which is where the 21-year-old veteran died.

Ladle stoppers were responsible for ensuring that the exit for a ladle — some ladles weighed 100 tons or more — was clear, so steel could pour out. On January 8, 1920, Posey had jumped, or perhaps fallen, into an empty ladle to clear a blocked exit when an explosion blasted out the back of the ladle’s furnace. The blast poured thousands of pounds of 3,000-degree molten steel into the ladle, incinerating the poor man into mist.

steel ladleThe family was understandably angry at the mill and pushed to have their loved one’s remains memorialized in some way, but because there were no remains, plant officials decided to transport the entire ladle, complete with the now-solid steel, and bury it down the road. That ladle is buried at the Posey gravesite. Quite a story.

But here’s the thing. The story is a myth.

Yes, Andrew Posey was killed in an explosion, but to think that any plant supervisor at that time would have done anything to memorialize one of its workers is to greatly overestimate the level of concern management expressed about its workers. Management viewed its workers as essentially chattel back then, knowing that if a mill worker was injured or killed on the job, another able-bodied man (women didn’t do such work) was ready to take his place. Workers who suffered burns, fractures, or other injuries were expected to go right back to work, sometimes the same day. And the workers didn’t put up a fight; they knew that their and their family’s survival required that they keep working, no matter what.

Donora plants sometimes kept notes on workers, but not always. If a plant kept any notes, they tended to be scant and barely indicative of the worker’s impact on the plant’s success. James McKenzie, PhD, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of North Dakota, found his father’s entire 48-year work history in the Donora mills notated in a few lines, including these:

  • 12-3- 28 open hearth laborer
  • 11-2-58 combustion chemist
  • Wife sick
  • Vacation
  • Replace Louis Miller
  • 5-2-77 last day of work

No, the management of the Donora steel mills in 1920 most likely would not have cared enough about Andrew Posey to take a furnace offline, remove a 100-ton ladle, cart it a half-mile down the road, and bury it. They might have, and most probably did, tell the family that they had buried it, and then given the “event” some hoopla, just to get the Posey relatives off their back. They also probably told workers that day not to say anything about the accident. Unfortunately no solid evidence is available of exactly what steps the mill took.

So, what’s the truth?

A study by the Mon Valley Progress Council in 1995 indicated that the earth beneath Posey’s gravesite is just dirt, nothing more. “No slab or ingot of steel is located within the area of our investigation,” the report noted.

Even though Andrew Posey is not buried under that square of grass and weeds, his memorial still demands attention. It symbolizes, in an antithetical way, the continuing issues faced by workers across the nation. Don’t people deserve a wage high enough to at least qualify for a poverty-level life? Don’t they deserve a safe work environment? Don’t they deserve a chance to fight for their rights when management becomes greedy?

I would argue that they unquestionably need all those things, and I believe Mr. Posey and his family would argue that as well.

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Donora’s Field of Dreams

Donora’s Field of Dreams

The old Donora High School building still stands at the top of 4th Street in Donora, Pennsylvania, an orangish-brick reminder of a more prosperous time. It’s the kind of school millions of people of a certain age might have attended. Behind this high school lies an old football field, with goal posts at either end and remnants of four sets of stadium lights standing watch over the weeds and dirt.

To look at the field now is to gaze at history itself. A Donora native had brought me there on a recent visit. I stood at the foot of that field, standing silently and imagining. I imagined myself back at my own high school, where I served as what they called manager, a position responsible primarily for yanking grossly sweaty jerseys over the head and shoulder pads of even grosser and sweatier players.

I imagined the field lined with chalk, the now disintegrating bleachers filled with fans, and two teams lined up at a midfield scrimmage line. I could nearly hear the cheers and smell the popcorn from the refreshment stand over by the home team bench. It was mesmerizing.

This wonderful field, known locally as Legion Field, had been home to the Donora Dragons until 1970, when the Donora and Monongahela school districts were consolidated into what then became the Ringgold School District. Probably the most famous player to ever sprint down this field was the legendary Joseph “Joe Cool” Montana. Montana was unequivocally one of the greatest quarterbacks in history and a Hall of Fame pick in his first year of eligibility. And he played here, right here in Donora, on Legion Field, where all Ringgold games were played. He threw, ran, passed, called plays, and gave hundreds of cheering Donora fans what they wanted, fans who couldn’t have had any idea then just how famous he would eventually become.

joemontanayoungandoldHe looks much younger in my imagination, not the aging but still youthful 60 he looks like today. No, in my mind he’s the rugged, tousled hair youth with a toothy grin. That’s the player I saw that day, and I smiled.

As I stood there there, with a gentleman born, raised, and living now in Donora and whose sister was a cheerleader for the team, I knew that of course Joe’s team would win.

And it did.

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The 5th Street Stairs: A Sweet Story

The 5th Street Stairs: A Sweet Story

There’s a town along the Monongahela River, just north of the bright yellow Stan “The Man” Musial Bridge, called Donora. The old mill town is famous for being the “Home of Champions,” most prominently the aforementioned baseball legend, plus Ken Griffey, Sr. and his son, Ken Griffey, Jr, who was born in Donora but moved with his parents to Cincinnati when he was six.

The Musial and Griffey homes are located uphill from the main drag, McKean Avenue, which runs along the flood plain next to the Mon, as locals call the Monongahela. When I say uphill, I mean it. Pretty much all the roads emanating from McKean upward are rather steep, particularly 5th Street, part of which was closed off years ago because it proved too dangerous for car travel.

5thstreetstairsOn 5th Street now, between Prospect and Murray Avenues, there is a street-wide swath of grass with a set of stairs on either side. The stairs on the right, looking upward, are replacement stairs installed a number of years ago. The stairs on the left, however, are original and tell an interesting story.

Each riser, from the very bottom to the very top, is but 4 inches tall. Most stairs today have risers about 8 inches tall. So why do the 5th Street stairs, and many other staircases in Donora, have risers half that height?

It turns out that Rose Marie Iiams’ grandfather-in-law was the engineer who designed the stairs. Mrs. Iiams, 90, was a long-time pharmacist in Donora and worked all day, every day during the 1948 smog event. The story she tells may be apocryphal but it’s adorable nonetheless.

“Women were wearing hobble skirts then,” she says.

hobbleskirtI didn’t know what a hobble skirt was, so she kindly explained. “The skirts were sort of tight, so you couldn’t raise your legs very far..

Go on.

“Well, his wife was a little woman, and his daughter was a big woman. And he measured the distance that each could raise her legs, and he made the steps halfway between.”

Then she laughed and said, “Isn’t that a marvelous story?”

It is indeed, Mrs. Iiams, it is indeed.

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