Determined at an Early Age: A.B. Farquhar

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courtesy of Farm Collector Staff

At 20, A.B. Farquhar had already set his sights on the prize

If he is remembered at all today, Arthur Briggs Farquhar is remembered as a brilliant and successful businessman and leader of American industry. Creator of Pennsylvania Agricultural Works, which later became A.B. Farquhar Co. Ltd., Farquhar built farm machines and implements, including steam traction engines.

As one of the first American farm manufacturers to play a key role in machinery exports, Farquhar was considered an expert on the global economy, finance, and tariff legislation. Friend and advisor to several American presidents, including Garfield, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Taft, Farquhar occupies a unique position in the history of the industrialization of the U.S.

Thanks in large part to his 1922 autobiography, The First Million the Hardest, a richly detailed, first-person account of Farquhar’s life and business success survives. Much of that history has previously been reported in the pages of Farm Collector.

Less well known is the story of the young Farquhar: the 20-year-old who had the audacity to barge in on titans of industry, demanding an answer to the question that nearly consumed him: How can I make a million dollars?

“… afraid that people will cheat me”

Born in 1838, Farquhar by age 20 had no shortage of self-confidence. In 1858, he traveled to New York City from his home in Sandy Spring, Maryland. His plan: to meet with wealthy New York businessmen and gain insights on business success. It was a trip that he later identified as a turning point in his life.

His first stop was the offices of business magnate William B. Astor. There, he later wrote, an old clerk glared without welcome and growled, “What do you want?”

“I want to see Mr. Astor,” the youth explained.

“You cannot see him. He is busy,” the clerk growled, while making a grab at Farquhar’s coat as the youth tried to dive past him.

“I shook him off and landed, somewhat ruffled, before the desk of the richest man in the country,” Farquhar wrote some 60 years later. Astor had heard the scuffle and, looking up from his writing, snapped. “Well, boy, what do you want?” 

Farquhar explained that he wanted to know how to make a million dollars. Astor’s answer was unexpected. “Do you want to make yourself as miserable as I am and stay up all day and half the night trying to keep people from cheating you?” he asked. “I do not have enough fun. I am too afraid that people will cheat me, and in spite of everything, they do cheat me.”

Sleep and eat right – and stop the leaks

Farquhar next met James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald. “The really important thing for you to know as a young man,” Bennett pronounced, “is that you must bank up a health account. Look at me: I am never sick. I never take a vacation. I am here at the office early in the morning and sometimes late at night. But I always try to be in bed early enough to get a good night’s sleep. If you get plenty of sleep and be careful of your diet, you will never be sick.”

Later, Farquhar met with entrepreneur and millionaire A.T. Stewart, whose record as one of the wealthiest businessmen in American history still stands. “Money is made by saving – saving and investing,” Stewart told young Farquhar. “You get your profit out of the leaks that you stop.” Also, Stewart advised hiring honest men who had failed at running their own businesses. Such men, Stewart observed, were willing to take the initiative but knew they were not competent to manage their own enterprise and should, instead, work for someone else.

Focus on the fundamentals

As he considered the conversations later, Farquhar identified common themes among the business leaders. “They had no shortcuts to suggest, and curiously enough, not one of them even spoke of technical or other proficiency,” he said. “They were concerned only with fundamentals. I gathered from them that if one were scrupulously honest, industrious and economical, then the other business qualities came almost as of course, but without the fundamentals, nothing else mattered.

“They did not work through others as people do today,” he wrote in 1922. “They did everything themselves. They did not have secretaries. What made these men rich and powerful was not only their scrupulous honesty and high character but also, and this is a point I have never seen dwelt upon, their extraordinary memories.” Costs and overhead expenses were not written down; instead, executives memorized them. And, he noted, “They worked with things, while the man of today works with people.”

The businessman Farquhar held in highest esteem was Andrew Carnegie. Farquhar once told Carnegie that he made it a practice to be at his office at 7 o’clock each morning, to which Carnegie replied, “You must be a lazy man if it takes you 10 hours to do a day’s work.”

Carnegie explained his more efficient approach. “In the morning, I get reports from [my workers],” he said. “Within an hour, I have disposed of everything, sent out all of my suggestions, the day’s work is done and I am ready to go out and enjoy myself.” Farquhar regarded Carnegie as a manager worthy of emulation. “Mr. Carnegie made more than all of the men I have mentioned put together,” he said.

Starting at the bottom

Many of Farquhar’s peers who achieved business success traveled a route similar to his, working with their hands to make their first machines. “John Nichols started his business in Battle Creek, Michigan, by building his first threshing machine with his own blacksmith tools,” wrote Raymond Wik in Steam Power on the American Farm.

“Meinrad Rumely in similar fashion chipped out by hand the parts for his first threshing machine at La Porte, Indiana,” Wik continued. “George Frick constructed his first steam engine in 1850, making his own patterns. All flat surfaces were hand-chipped with hammer and chisel and then hand-filed. A.B. Farquhar began work as a machinist’s apprentice in the Dingee shops of York, Pennsylvania, where he worked with hand-drill presses, forges, and planers.”

To make the successful leap from blacksmith to the internationally known manufacturer, the fledgling businessman of the 1850s required a rigorous skill set. “An inventive mind, unusual versatility, and a capacity for plenty of hard work were some of the prerequisites of success,” Wik noted. “Before the Civil War, the founders of many of these companies built their houses next to their factories in order to room-and-board the apprentice workmen. The owner usually did the office work at night and spent the day working with his men in the shops.”

In the absence of artificial lighting, the length of the working day varied with the season. A.B. Farquhar recalled that he usually wound up his office work before the men arrived at 7 o’clock in the morning. He often worked beside his men in the shops where he was hardly distinguished from the rest of the factory hands.

“Their origins, almost to a man, were humble,” observed author John H. White Jr. in 1979, writing about this nation’s earliest industrialists. “Most started as blacksmiths, patternmakers or draftsmen and rose to the top by luck and energy. This idea is currently unfashionable and is dismissed as a ‘Horatio Alger’ fantasy, yet for the mechanic of the early nineteenth century, it appears to have been a common phenomena.”

Craftsmanship prized over productivity

Indentured as a machinist’s apprentice in 1856 at the agricultural implement shop of W.W. Dingee & Co., Farquhar’s early exposure to the fledgling industry gave him a unique perspective. In the 1850s, for instance, workers made their own tools. “I think I managed to get the worker’s point of view and that I have never lost it,” he wrote in his autobiography.

“We had no blueprints, and I doubt if any of the men could have worked from scale,” he said. “They had a great skill of hand and eye, and while their minds were actively employed upon the work in hand, there was comparatively slight emphasis put on saving labor or speeding production. There was little planning ahead or thought of a sequence of operations, and no idea of saving steps.”

By 1922, when he completed his autobiography, Farquhar had played an active role in the industrial revolution. He had known most of the great figures of the nation in the preceding six decades and served as a leader in America’s evolution from a farm-based economy to an economy fueled by manufacturing. Three years later, in 1925 at age 87, he died, leaving a legacy as one of this country’s most successful and most principled industrialists. FC

For more information:

  • The First Million the Hardest, 1922, A.B. Farquhar.
  • Steam Power on the American Farm, 1953, Reynold M. Wik.
  • A History of the American Locomotive, Its Development: 1830-1880, 1979, John H. White Jr.
  • The Steam Tractor Encyclopedia: Glory Days of the Invention that Changed Farming Forever, 2008, John F. Spalding and Dr. Robert T. Rhode.

Eight Rules for Living

Personal values contributed to a happy life

Raised in a Quaker family in Sandy Spring, Maryland, the young A.B. Farquhar enjoyed a classical education, reading Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. A student of philosophy, he was given to introspection – but also to tinkering with machinery.

In 1856, at age 18, Farquhar became indentured as a machinist’s apprentice at W.W. Dingee & Co. in York, Pennsylvania. In that era, men typically apprenticed with a company and remained there for the rest of their working lives. “It was rare to find the worker who expected to run his own business one day,” notes John F. Spalding and Dr. Robert T. Rhode in The Steam Tractor Encyclopedia.

That was, nonetheless, the course young Farquhar had set for himself, and one supported by his eight rules for living:

  1. Trust human beings.
  2. Consider troubles as steps toward progress.
  3. Work for success and happiness while not putting dollars ahead of people.
  4. Keep faith with yourself.
  5. Keep God’s laws.
  6. Remember that you can be your own worst enemy.
  7. Regard friends as assets and get friends by being one.
  8. Give value for anything you seek, thus avoiding “the disposition to speculate – which is one of the greatest dangers that beset the businessman.”

In the end, it must have been a formula that worked. “I have always believed that in a normal life one should grow happier with added years,” Farquhar wrote in 1922. “This has been my experience.”

– Leslie C. McManus

Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at

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