Biography of Willis T. Knowlton

Willis T. Knowlton, born July 30, 1848 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, played a pivotal role in logging and lumber operations in Michigan and Minnesota alongside Ammi W. Wright for nearly four decades. From a family of shipbuilders, Knowlton’s business acumen flourished after moving to Chicago in 1864. His career took a significant turn after the great Chicago fire of 1871, eventually leading to his partnership with Wright. The successful merger of several business entities into the A. W. Wright Lumber Company saw annual production reach thirty million feet of logs. The business concluded in 1902 when the timber reserves were depleted. Knowlton also ventured into Minnesota’s logging and railway business, concluding those activities in 1897. He married Grace B. Ketcham in 1879, had two daughters, and spent winter seasons in California. Esteemed in Saginaw, Knowlton was a dedicated member of St. John’s Episcopal Church and highly respected in the community.

Willis T. Knowlton, for almost forty years associated with Ammi W. Wright in extensive logging and lumbering operations in Michigan and Minnesota, was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on July 30, 1848. His parents were John and Elizabeth Caroline Knowlton, who were descended from pioneer families of New England. The father was born in Eliot, Maine, on December 18, 1820, and the mother was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1822. They were married on September 4, 1845, and were blessed with three sons and two daughters. The leading industry of Portsmouth was shipbuilding, and John Knowlton followed the occupation of shipwright, later being employed in the construction department of the United States Navy Yard. He died in 1890 and was buried in Portsmouth.

In boyhood, Willis T. attended a private school and afterward the grammar school of his native town, and he graduated from the high school in Portsmouth. In August 1864, he came to the West and located in Chicago, where he kept books for Horace E. Robinson, who was in the flour and commission business, having a flour mill at Galveston, Indiana, and marketing the product of the mill on the Chicago Board of Trade. Later, the firm was changed to Robinson, Rice & Company, who built a flour mill in Chicago, located at 184 East Monroe Street, between La Salle Street and Fifth Avenue. This location at that time was just outside the main business portion of the city, the ground being low, but is now in the center of the great business section. The mill was totally destroyed in the great Chicago fire of October 1871.

Following this disaster, Mr. Knowlton was employed for a time in various projects for the rebuilding of the city, and through a chance meeting on the street with Charles H. Davis, an old schoolmate and friend, he met and became acquainted with Ammi W. Wright. From that day began the successful career of our subject. Mr. Wright was always on the lookout for men of strong character and ability, and, evidently liking the appearance and address of the young man, invited him to come to Saginaw and enter his employ. In April 1874, the firm of Pearson, Wright & Company was formed in Saginaw, to carry on an extensive lumber business, and Mr. Knowlton was first employed as a bookkeeper for this firm.

In 1878, Mr. Wright removed to Saratoga Springs, New York, and placed Mr. Knowlton in charge of the A. W. Wright lumber yard, the office of which was located in the present office near the west end of the Bristol Street Bridge. In the following years, the business was very satisfactory, and so pleased was Mr. Wright with the results of Mr. Knowlton’s management that, in 1882, he offered him a half interest in the business, taking his note in settlement. The firm of Wright & Knowlton was thereupon formed to take over the lumber yard and planing mill business, which distributed the larger part of the cut of the Pearson, Wright & Company sawmill.

Around 1882, a large tract of pine timber, known as the “Nester Timber,” was purchased by A. W. Wright, C. W. Wells, and F. C. Stone, and a company formed which embraced the sawmill business of Pearson, Wright & Company, the lumber yard and planing mill of Wright & Knowlton, and the Nester timberlands of Wells, Stone & Company, the merger taking the corporate name of A. W. Wright Lumber Company. For twenty years, about thirty million feet of logs were cut annually, rafted to the sawmills of the company, sawed into lumber and timber, and the stock distributed to the trade throughout the East and South. During this period of activity, the logging and lumbering operations were looked after by Wells, Stone & Company, and the sawmill, salt block, planing mill, and lumber yard business was conducted by Mr. Knowlton. The business was large and successful and was continued until 1902, when the timber having all been cut, the mill was dismantled, and the corporation dissolved.

While thus engaged in managing this extensive business, Mr. Knowlton was associated with A. W. Wright and Charles H. Davis in the extensive operations of Wright, Davis & Company in Minnesota. This company owned large tracts of pine land in that State, including seventy thousand acres in Itasca and St. Louis Counties, upon which were traces of the existence of iron ore. The Swan River Logging Company, in which Mr. Knowlton was also interested, was formed to lumber the tract, and in order to transport the timber to outside connections, the Company built the Duluth, Mississippi River & Northern Railroad, with about thirty miles of logging branches, from the Mississippi River to Hibbing, Minnesota. These extensive operations were continued until 1897, when the companies closed up their affairs in Minnesota. Thereafter, Mr. Knowlton gave personal attention to Mr. Wright’s individual interests and was named by him as one of the executors and trustees of his will.

Mr. Knowlton was married in 1879 to Miss Grace B. Ketcham, a sister of Philip H. Ketcham, who was also actively associated with Mr. Wright in his logging operations on the Tittabawassee and tributary streams. Two daughters have been born to them, Carrie K., who married Howard C. Richardson, of Saginaw, and Helen K., who married Amasa M. Rust, also of this city.

For several years, Mr. and Mrs. Knowlton have spent the winter season in California, having purchased an attractive house at Pasadena, which is the mecca of Saginaw tourists to the Pacific Coast.

Mr. Knowlton enjoys the friendship and esteem of Saginaw’s best citizens — those who are the defenders of the city’s highest traditions. Honorable and upright in all his business relations, he carries into the social sphere the same instincts of thought and action. For many years, he and his family have been members and supporters of St. John’s Episcopal Church and are interested in all the works of the parish and diocese.


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

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