DWIGHT M. SABIN

Thresher King and U. S. Senator

Senator Sabin

Content Tools

13277 McKusick Road Stillwater, Minnesota 55082

Reprinted from the January 1987 issue of Historical Whisperings, with permission from author Jerry Brosious.

(Note: In the following article on Sen. D.M. Sabin, formal footnoting is not used. However, a bibliography appears at the end of the article.)

With the typical journalistic hyperbole of the period, Dwight M. Sabin's 1902 obituary stated that 'Twenty years ago Mr. Sabin was the most prominent figure in the business world of the west. His stupendous operations covered almost every known field of endeavor and in his employ, directly or indirectly, were thousands of men.' Nevertheless, Sabin had owned businesses of wide diversity and great magnitude. And, not so incidentally, he was also a United States senator, the only one ever to come from Stillwater, or even all of Washington County, Minnesota.

Dwight Sabin was born at Marseilles, Illinois on April 25, 1843. His father, Horace Carver Sabin, had large farm operations and a lumber business. He was an abolitionist, said to have been acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, and operated a station on the 'underground railroad', helping the fugitive slaves in their escape to Canada. In 1856 the family returned to Connecticut, where his father was born and where the Sabin family had settled in 1740, from Scotland.

Dwight Sabin attended the district school and at the age of seventeen entered the prestigious Phillips Academy, a boarding school at Andover, Massachusetts. For one year he studied math and civil engineering. In 1862 he enlisted in the Union army in response to Lincoln's call for volunteers. He was turned down for active military service due to poor pulmonary health. At Gettysburg he served in the commissary department. In 1864 his father died and he left military service to return home, where he was needed to take charge of the family business operations.

In the fall of 1867 with his mother and younger brother Jay, he came to St. Paul on a trip prescribed for health reasons. They returned to the East, but in the Spring of 1868 he returned to Minnesota, where he had an opportunity to enter the thriving lumber industry, and settled in Stillwater.

Sabin joined the C.N. Nelson Lumber Co., which had a large operation at Cloquet. He also joined in business with George M. Seymour (1829-189?), who was a contractor and also had a cooperage (barrel making, in this case for flour) in Stillwater. George Seymour also served as County Sheriff, Mayor and Councilman of Stillwater. The two men formed the firm of Seymour, Sabin & Co.

A business relationship with the Minnesota State Prison had been established by George Seymour even before Sabin came to Stillwater. In 1861 he had been awarded contracts for constructing additional buildings and grounds at the prison. In 1870 they built the hospital, deputy warden's house, chapel, guards room, mess room, kitchen, prison offices, and additional cells. Seymour, Sabin & Company rented the shops at the prison and made a contract with the state to use inmate labor and pay their wages. Buildings were expanded to allow for more employment, but the percentage of prison labor was eventually small, with citizens of Stillwater and environs forming the bulk of the employees.

In The St. Croix, James Taylor Dunn wrote of the cozy relationship Seymour, Sabin had with the state:

'It was never expected when the contract for prison labor was made,' apologized the inspectors in 1884, 'that the Manufacturing Company of Seymour, Sabin and Co. would develop into the mammoth N.W. Manufacturing and Car Co. .. Had that result been foreseen, the shop room would most certainly have been restricted, and also the number of citizen employees allowed within the prison grounds .. But the company, through agreements and contracts signed with the state, had established too firm a foothold to allow any fundamental change in the existing arrangements. During their 22 years of authority at the Stillwater institution, the contractors managed to assume virtually complete control over prison affairs; (they) even assumed the right to choose the prison guards and officers it wanted employed by the state. The evils of the contract system, first recognized by Warden Taylor, had multiplied.'

The industry magazine Wood and Iron profiled Sabin and his operation in 1884, and reported that, 'A city has grown up within and without the prison walls at Stillwater, and 1600 men, of whom less than 300 are convicts, find daily employment there, while $60,000.00 per month is paid in wages. Sixteen freight cars, seven completed threshers, four portable farm and traction engines are turned out daily, and six passenger coaches per month... A recent purchase of 20,000 acres of hardwood timber lands in Wisconsin, the lumber there from to be used in the manufacture of cars, is one index to the magnitude of the business at present existing and in contemplation.'

The firm's stellar product was the Minnesota Chief, a threshing machine it began manufacturing in 1876, along with related agricultural machinery. The success of the The Chief was phenomenal, with distributors all over the country. They became the largest maker of threshing machines in the world. In 1882 a separate company was organized as The Northwestern Car & Manufacturing Company. Seymour, Sabin & Co. remained in name only as a separate business. Sabin and company were on top of the business world, but the end was very near.

Sabin's obituary related that '(In 1884) the crash came and the network of industrial schemes of which Mr. Sabin was the head, toppled and fell to ruin. It was a blow that staggered this city and in fact the entire west, and one from which Mr. Sabin never recovered. His concerns went into the hands of assignees and receivers, some were reorganized and were again placed in receivers' hands and after 17 years of bitter litigation, the last vestige of his enormous and varied interests was sold under the hammer.' (He was also involved in lumber, milling and elevator businesses.)

The creditors met on November 25, 1884 and reported nearly two million dollars of indebtedness. The company was reorganized under the name Minnesota Thresher Manufacturing Company. The new organizers were mainly from the East but included Roscoe F. Hersey of Stillwater and Alpheus B. Stickney of St. Paul. It is easy to speculate that the stress of these enormous financial reversals may have contributed to his death at the age of fifty-nine.

So the chapter of Sabin's life as extremely successful manufacturer closed. But he also worked in another prominent career. Besides business, Sabin was active in politics and had served in the Minnesota legislature throughout the 1870's and into 1883, when he was elected the Republican United States senator from Minnesota.

At that time the state legislature elected the U.S. senators and this election was protracted over the Democrats' determination to defeat the incumbent Republican senator, William Windom (Windom was bitter about his defeat and left the state, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him Secretary of the Treasury). In December of 1883 Sabin was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee and presided over their national convention (at which they nominated James G. Blaine over their own would-be incumbent president, Chester Alan Arthur. Blaine lost the election to Grover Cleveland.)

To celebrate Dwight M. Sabin's election to the U.S. Senate, 'Sabin's Day' was held in Stillwater on February 6,1883. The St. Paul Daily Globe ran a lengthy article on the day's events. Five coaches of the Chicago, St. Paul and Omaha railroad traveled to Stillwater with between three and four hundred well-wishers, Governor L.F. Hubbard, along with various federal and state officers.

'At Stillwater the visitors were met by an immense throng of people, all Stillwater having abandoned everything else to do honor to the occasion, the crowd packing the main thoroughfare from the depot down and beyond the Opera House, where the reception was to be held. Alighting from the cars the visitors beheld a most novel sight, Main Street, the thoroughfare down which the procession was to pass, being lined with the celebrated separator, the Minnesota Chief, and engines, manufactured by the company of which the senator-elect is president. But the novelty did not stop here, for close up to the depot platform was one of the traction engines manufactured by the company, all fired up ready for business, and to which was attached a great double sleigh, in which Senator Sabin, Gov. Hubbard, Lt. Gov. Gilman and Speaker Fletcher were subsequently drawn to the place of meeting. Another feature was the demonstration of the employees of the Northwestern Manufacturing and Car Company one of the monuments to the business sagacity, enterprise, and push of Mr. Sabin, who turned out fully 1,000 strong, each department bearing a banner, generally with the words designating their particular calling, with a design of the same, but others of a more general character.

'This sturdy band of workmen stood in open ranks facing inward, their line extending from the depot to the Opera House. The inscriptions of the banners were as follows: Picture of an Eagle and legend, 'The Rooster That Did Hatch'; 'The Northwestern Manufacturing & Car Company. Thirteen hundred men greet Senator Sabin'; 'Pattern Shop'; 'Car Shop'; 'Machine Shop'; Stars and Stripes'; 'Sheet Iron Shop,; 'Machine Foundry'; 'Cabinet Shop'; 'Erecting Shop'; 'Wagon Shop'; 'Boiler Shop;' 'Hardwood Shop'; 'Cooper Shop, picture of barrel. Legend: We elect without the bar'l'; 'Car Wheel Foundry. Legend: Welcome Senator'; 'Blacksmith Shop'.

'Nearest the depot, but just in front of the traction engine, was the Young Crusader Society of St. Michael's parish, in bright and showy uniforms. Their banner bore the legend, 'Young Crusaders, C.T.A. (Harp) (editors note: this was a Temperance society.) Welcome Senator Sabin, the Workingman's Friend.'

'Senator Sabin was a splendid specimen of physical manhood. His was a tall, commanding presence, jet black hair, shaggy eyebrows and clear complexion. His great personal magnetism attracted men to him and they became his warm, devoted friends.' (from obituary, Stillwater Daily Gazette, Dec. 23, 1902). Zimmerman photo, Minnesota Historical Society.

'At the head of the line, opposite the opera house entrance, were the employees of T.H. Townsend & Co., in which Mr. Sabin is heavily interested, their banner inscribed 'We Welcome You Heartily'.

'The party moved in procession, the women in sleighs, escorted by the Crusaders, and led by the Great Union band, to the Opera House between the lines of workmen. The president of the meeting was Isaac Staples. Vice presidents were J.S. Anderson, H.R. Murdock, L.H. Hospes, Edward Capron, W.E. Thome, William Willson, M. Moffat, G.M. Seymour, J. Greene, A.T. Jenks, John S. Proctor, and Mayor Samuel Mathews. In his speech, Judge William McCluer suggested that, 'Stillwater, the prison ring and Boss Sabin are almost convertible terms.'

'When Sabin himself had the opportunity to address the crowd, he talked of the need for railroad development and competition. He also wanted to coordinate agricultural and railroad interests, which had not been harmonious. In most respects he spoke as a businessman-senator. He regretted that he could not 'bring those gifts of eloquent address which would place the senatorial representative of our young state in the galaxy of forensic renown.'

D.M. Sabin went on to serve one full term of six years (1883-1889). He was chairman of the Railway committee and served on the Indian and Pension committees. He worked for funding to complete the Sault Ste. Marie Canal and for improvements to the Mississippi and other rivers. Theodore Christiansen, author of Minnesota, A History of the State and Its People (1935), called Sabin's record in the U.S. Senate 'inconspicuous and mediocre, and seemed the more so in contrast with that of his able predecessor (William Windom)'.

In 1889 he lost his bid for reelection to General William D. Washburn. (One of Sabin's political cartoons was captioned 'Sabin a Thresher.')

The Sabin home was located at 609 N. Third St., Stillwater, on the northeast corner of Third and Laurel Streets. The earliest available city directory lists him at that address in 1876. It was a large structure, with various buildings extending back to School Street. The house currently owned by Michael O'Brien (formerly the Joseph Simonet, Sr. house) sits on the site of the original house. The Simonet, Linner, Conrad and Magnuson-Thueson houses were built in the late 1920's, so the Sabin house was torn down prior to that date.

Two of the wealthiest lumbermen lived very near to Sabin. The Isaac Staples estate was one block to the east (site of Pioneer Park) and William Sauntry, whose house still stands, was a block to the west of the rear of Sabin's property, at the corner of Fourth and Maple Streets. George M. Seymour, Sabin's business partner, lived kitty-corner across the street, at 518 N. Third St. Seymour's house still stands there.

Though Sabin's business empire fell in 1884, he still had various business interests including the Duluth Iron Company, the Chicago Railway and Equipment Co., and 'other large and varied interests scattered all over the west.' (Obituary, Stillwater Gazette, Dec. 23, 1902). The Duluth Iron Co.'s blast furnaces at Rice's Point, Duluth were called the 'largest and most complete on Lake Superior.' (Wood and Iron, 1883). After his defeat in the U.S. Senate, he is listed in the 1890's city directories as maintaining an office on the third floor of the Lumberman's Exchange Building. In the 1900-01 directory it states that Hon. D.M. Sabin moved to Ashland, Wisconsin. His obituary said that he and his family had made their home in Duluth, where he could be near his business interests in Northern Wisconsin.

'For a number of years the palatial and delightful home of the Sabins on the North hill has been vacant and the place nearly went to ruin. During their last visit here, however, they entered into contracts calling for an expenditure of more than $6000 to put the old homestead in habitable shape, intending to spend their summers in this city.' (Gazette, Dec. 23,1902). The house continued to be occupied by a housekeeper. Mavis Linner of Stillwater remembers being invited into the house as a girl during the early 1900's by the housekeeper, whose name may have been Alvena Carlson. Her memory is of all the old Sabin furniture still in the house, but covered up. An estate sale was held eventually, and the Armson family (neighbors) acquired some of that furniture.

Northwestern Manufacturing and Car Co., formerly Seymour, Sabin & Co. Dwight Sabin headed this mammoth operation, the world's largest manufacturer of threshing machines in its heyday of the early 1880's. The buildings of this factory were an integral part of the State Prison complex. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

In 1870, somewhere in the East, Sabin married. (The name of his wife was not revealed in the sources used for this article.) During their marriage they adopted two girls, Blanche and Ethel, who were daughters of J.B. Raymond, a delegate to Washington from Dakota Territory and close friend of the Senator. The Sabins took the two girls into their home after Mrs. Raymond died, and then legally adopted them after his death. Blanche Sabin died in 1897 at the age of eighteen. It is not known what happened to Ethel; also there may have been a third adopted daughter. Sometime around 1895 Senator Sabin married Jessie Swann, widow of W.G. Swann of St. Paul (The fate of Sabin's first wife also was not discovered in this research.) Jessie Sabin died in Chicago in 1924 and is buried there.

December 23, 1902, Senator Dwight M. Sabin died 'at the Auditorium (sic), Chicago, where Mr. and Mrs. Sabin and family were making their home for the winter.' (obit.) His health had been poor for some time but his death was not expected at the age of fifty-nine years. The funeral cortege arrived in Stillwater the following day, having come from Chicago in the private car of the president of the Duluth & Iron Range Railway. A snow storm delayed their arrival by three hours. Christmas Eve day funeral services were held at Ascension Episcopal Church, conducted by Rev. F.L. Palmer, rector. The 'vested choir', along with Carl Marty on the organ, performed the music. Sabin's brother Knights of Pythias had planned graveside services at Fairview Cemetery, but due to the severe weather Mrs. Sabin requested that they not. The pall bearers for The Thresher King and U.S. Senator were E.W. Durant, John G. Nelson, Londrus Sargent, J.G. Armson, E.D. Buffington and Elmore Lowell.

The success of The Chief was phenomenal, with distributors all over the country. They became the largest maker of threshing machines in the world.