DWIGHT M. SABIN

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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.

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