Biography of Ammi Willard Wright

Ammi Willard Wright, from a New England farming background, became a pivotal figure in Michigan’s lumbar industry and Saginaw Valley’s development. Born in Vermont in 1822, Wright ventured into the carrying trade and hotel management before marrying Harriet Barton in 1848. Drawn to the West, he settled in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1851 and thrived in the lumber business. Wright’s enterprises included large-scale lumber operations, the formation of several companies, an extensive involvement in banking, the founding of Alma’s notable institutions, and the development of railroad and mining interests. His commitment to community, employees, and philanthropy was notable. Passing away in 1912, Wright’s legacy endures in Michigan’s industry and infrastructure.

In the history of the mighty industry which made the Saginaw Valley so noted as the chief point of lumber manufacture, the name of Ammi W. Wright occupies a most prominent place; and is one the people of Michigan will always honor and revere. He was born at Grafton, Windham County, Vermont, July 5, 1822, and came of that sturdy New England stock which took an active part in securing the liberties of the country, and inculcated in their children that love of our free institutions which is a noted characteristic of the sons of the Green Mountain State. His parents were Nathan and Polly Sampson Wright, who in the early days of the last century removed to Rockingham, Vermont, where, with his six brothers and three sisters, Ammi received such education as was afforded by the district school.

From seventeen to twenty years of age he spent in farming, the rigors of climate and roughness of soil of his native State making rigid economy and thoroughness of application essential to that measure of success which he sought; and here he acquired a real love for agriculture, and a manly admiration for fine horses and stock, which was one of his lifelong characteristics. He then exchanged the country for the city, residing for a year in Boston, where he obtained his first business experience, aided by his own native talent and wit, amid scenes and activities which started his mind in new channels of thought and methods of action. Returning to Vermont in 1844, before the era of railroad enterprise which changed the old ways of doing business, he engaged in the carrying trade between Rutland and Boston, taking produce from the country to the city and bringing back manufactured goods to the town merchants. This occupation he followed for two years with success; and then undertook the management of a hotel for Jeremiah Barton, Bartonsville.

On March 6, 1848, Mr. Wright was married to Miss Harriet Barton, the oldest daughter of his employer, and took a lease of the hotel. A year later he removed to Boston and leased the Central Hotel on Brattle Square, but a few months after concluded to seek his fortune and make a home in the far distant West. In the summer of 1850 he and his family arrived at Detroit, then but a small and struggling town whose advantages as the center of a great and rapidly developing country were but dimly realized, and whose wonderful resources in lumber, salt, copper, iron, and other raw materials, were almost wholly unknown. But he was far-seeing and comprehended that the lumber business was destined to play a large part in the development of the State and the Nation. He therefore settled in Saginaw in 1851 when the villages, on either side of the river were connected by a rope ferry, had a population of only a few hundred, and the entire territory north to the Straits of Mackinac contained only two thousand persons. Thus it will be seen that he was a pioneer of the valley which he, by his own active exertion, tended so largely to develop to its present state of prosperity.

The first year of Mr. Wright’s residence in the Saginaw Valley was devoted to prospecting lands contiguous to the Cass, Flint, and Tittabawassee Rivers, personally inspecting large tracts of pine, and bravely enduring the hardships of pioneer life. He had the great good fortune of choosing some of the finest tracts of pine in this section, and commenced his lumbering operations on the Cass River in the vicinity of the present town of Caro. His first venture was the cutting and driving down that stream of about two million feet of cork pine logs, which were cut into lumber at the saw mills on the Saginaw, which were then thirteen in number. From 1859 to 1865 he carried on extensive operations in this line in connection with Harry Miller and Valorous A. Paine.

The firm of Miller, Paine & Wright purchased from the Vermont owners the property known as the “Big Mill,” which had been erected some years before on the west side of the river at the foot of Throop Street, refitted it with the best machinery that could be procured, and conducted one of the most extensive lumbering operations then known in the valley. In 1865 this firm was succeeded by that of A. W. Wright & Company, James H. Pearson of Chicago purchasing a part of the interests of the retiring partners, and Mr. Wright the remainder. The same year the mill was destroyed by fire; but they immediately erected a new and larger mill on the same site, and later built a planing mill further down the river at Bristol Street. In 1871 Mr. Pearson retired from the firm.

At this time Mr. Wright extended his operations by establishing the firm of Wright, Wells & Company, in connection with Charles W. Wells, Charles H. Davis and Reuben Kimball, with operations at Wright’s Lake, in Otsego County, which continued for ten years when Mr. Wells and Mr. Kimball retired from the firm. The business was continued under the name of Wright & Davis. They afterward transferred their operations to Minnesota, and with others acquired some seventy thousand acres of pine land in St. Louis and Itasca Counties, which they sold in 1892 to Frederick Weyerhaeuser and his associates. They reserved, however, the fee to about twenty thousand acres of mineral land lying along the now celebrated Mesaba Iron Range, upon some of which valuable iron mines have since been opened and operated by lessees. Mr. Wright and his associates then organized the Swan River Logging Company, took from the Weyerhaeuser interests a contract for lumbering the timber sold them from these lands, and built the Duluth, Mississippi River and Northern Railroad, from the banks of the Mississippi at the mouth of Swan River northerly a distance of thirty-five miles, to Hibbing, with about thirty miles of logging branches. Over this road in the northern wilderness was hauled annually for an extended period about one hundred million feet of logs, besides great quantities of iron ore from the lands of Wright, Davis & Company.

In 1867, during his connection with J. H. Pearson, Mr. Wright and his partner established a wholesale lumbermen’s supply house at Saginaw, and associated with them Charles W. Wells and Henry J. Northrup, and later on Farnum C. Stone, and the firm name became Wells, Stone & Company. They purchased a tract of thirty thousand acres of pine lands in Roscommon, Gladwin and Clare Counties, established an extensive lumbering plant, and built a logging railroad thirty-two miles in length, well equipped with rolling stock and motive power. In connection with this operation they cleared, improved and cultivated a farm of one thousand acres in Gladwin County.

The A. W. Wright Lumber Company was incorporated in 1882, with a capital of $1,500,000, to take over the interests of A. W. Wright & Company, Wells, Stone & Company, with all their lands, railroad and lumber properties, and that of Wright & Knowlton, comprising saw mill, salt block and lumber yards. The combined operations embraced the cutting of about thirty million feet of logs per year, the rafting to their own mills, the sawing into merchantable lumber and timber, and the distribution of the stock to the trade.

In addition to the incorporation of this company, Mr. Wright’s genius for organization and capacity for carrying on large and profitable enterprises are seen in the operations of the firm of Wright and Ketcham, whose lumbering in Gladwin and Midland Counties comprised no less a volume than forty million feet of logs annually, the operation of thirty miles of railroad, and the employment of more than four hundred men.

Mr. Wright’s taste for agriculture formed in his early days, in later life became an agreeable element in his character and found expression in his appreciation of fine farms, with beautiful landscapes, fields of grain, fruits and miniature forests. In 1851, when he left Detroit, he purchased a farm at Pine Run (now called Clio), and while engaged in improving this land he began his early timber operations. Soon, however, he removed to Saginaw City, where he resided until 1878, when, on account of the ill health of Mrs. Wright, he removed to Saratoga Springs, New York, living there for about six years. At the death of Mrs. Wright, in 1885, he took up his residence in Alma, Gratiot County, where he cultivated a large farm, and enjoyed the advantages of home life amid rural scenes and the activities of agricultural pursuits, for the remainder of his life.

The town of Alma is a monument to Mr. Wright’s spirit of improvement and the wisdom of his views in the upbuilding of a model town. In the early 80’s he built the Opera House Block, arranged for retail stores, followed by the Wright House, a three-story modern hotel and first-class in every particular, the Alma Flouring Mill, and the Alma Creamery. He erected and gave to Alma College its first buildings, and always contributed generously to this institution of learning. In 1887 he built the Alma Sanitarium which, because of the curative qualities of its mineral waters, spread Alma’s fame throughout the country. This sanitarium is now the Michigan Masonic Home, the gift of Mr. Wright to the Grand Lodge of that fraternal order.

Besides his most intimate affairs Mr. Wright was always actively connected with general business interests, showing as they do, his extraordinary breadth of vision and business capacity. While his fortunes had their rise in the lumber business, he participated in many useful adjuncts to his own affairs or such as gave promise of advantage to himself or to the community. He was one of the incorporators of the Tittabawassee Boom Company, organized in 1864 for the more economical handling of the vast amount of logs which it was apparent would be floated down that stream, and which ran as high as six hundred million feet a year. For many years he was a director of this company, and for several terms its president. In 1865 the Saginaw & St. Louis Plank Road, thirty-five miles in length, connecting Saginaw with the farming section of Gratiot County, was constructed largely through his efforts. Seven years after, when a railroad was deemed a necessity to the development of these counties, Mr. Wright was the mainspring of the enterprise, and by his indomitable energy and public spirit the Saginaw Valley and St. Louis Railroad was soon after completed and put in operation. This road is now a part of the Grand Rapids Division of the Pere Marquette System. Among other railroad properties he was largely interested in the Ann Arbor Railroad; the Cincinnati, Saginaw & Mackinaw Railroad; and the Grand Trunk Western.

The First National Bank of Saginaw, with a capital of $200,000, was organized in 1871, and its uniformly successful career was in no small degree due to the almost continuous presidency of Mr. Wright. He was also president of the Merchants National Bank of Duluth; the Commercial Bank of Mt. Pleasant; and the Merchants National Bank of Battle Creek. As a stockholder he was interested in the First National Bank of Saratoga, New York; the National Bank of Commerce of Minneapolis; the First National Bank of Alma; the Old Detroit National and the Detroit Trust Company; and the Chemical National Bank of New York. Among his other interests were the Michigan Sugar Company; the Alma Manufacturing Company; the Central Michigan Produce Company of Alma; the Alma Electric Light & Power Company; the Elliott-Taylor-Wolfenden Company of Detroit; the Marshall-Wells Hardware Company, and the Stone-Ordean-Wells Company, of Duluth; the Advance Thresher Company of Battle Creek; the Peerless Portland Cement Company of Union City, Michigan; and large holdings of timber and mining properties in Minnesota, which later were sold to James J. Hill and associates; and real estate in Minneapolis and Kansas City, besides extensive acreage of southern timber and ranch lands.

Mr. Wright’s interest in the welfare of his employees and his native qualities of a sympathetic nature, were prominent factors in his business career. Especially was this true in the personal interest he manifested in worthy young men of ability and probity; and Charles H. Davis, Charles W. Wells, Farnam C. Stone, Willis T. Knowlton, Gilbert M. Stark, Henry J. Northrup, Reuben Kimball, Philip H. Ketcham, and others in various States, owe their success in life very largely to the material aid and encouragement extended them by their benefactor, Ammi W. Wright. Thoroughly understanding men, he was not afraid to trust them, and the confidence he so generously reposed in them inspired them with a strong attachment to his person and his fortunes; and their devotion to his interests always met with merited recognition and reward. He was always foremost in promoting material improvements, and all civil, social and religious progress; and made generous responses to all objects of benevolent and philanthropic character which appealed to his intelligence and judgment, but without ostentation, or for the commendation of his fellows. He was plain in his tastes, accessible to the humblest who sought his advice or assistance, thorough and substantial in all he undertook, his aid was never sought in vain for the support of worthy objects and institutions, from the exercise of an intelligent judgment with reference to practical results.

Personally, Mr. Wright was a strong man, physically and mentally; of great business capacity, a thorough organizer; good in the generalities and details of business; strong in his friendships, never willingly giving up one in whom he had trusted. He was likewise strong in his dislikes of men whom he did not believe in as honest or worthy of trust, or who may once have betrayed his confidence; strong in his convictions of right and in his hatred of the trickeries of business, of which some even boast. His integrity stands as an unquestioned fact in his life history. Born to lead, his varied experience in commercial enterprises made him a safe counselor and guide. Naturally modest and somewhat diffident, he was independent in thought, and when a conclusion was reached he was firm and unchanging. He was a proud man, but his pride was an honest pride in a good name among those who knew him best. In his mature years he still stood a strong man; strong in the consciousness of a well-spent life; strong yet to plan and to perform; strong in his credit and good name, and a worthy example of what intelligence and probity may accomplish in the way of success in life.

On Sunday, May 5, 1912, Mr. Wright passed from this life at his residence in Alma, at the age of eighty-nine years and ten months; and was buried in a cemetery among the hills he had loved so well, in Grafton, Windham County, Vermont. His widow by a second marriage, residing in Alma, and his only daughter, who is Mrs. Sarah H. Lancashire, now of Boston, survive him.


Mills, James Cooke, History of Saginaw County, Michigan; historical, commercial, biographical, Saginaw, Michigan : Seemann & Peters, 1918.

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