Mar 28 2009

William Madison Wood

Published by at 1:18 pm under Cape Cod

I went down a sidepath of digression while researching the history of the Elizabeth Islands and came across the Wikipedia entry for Cuttyhunk Island, the last of the chain and a very fishy place with a famous striped bass fishing club (which I have never visited, but hope to).

For that matter I have never set foot on Cuttyhunk, but also hope to. Anyway, while researching the history of Cuttyhunk I learned that the old bass club had once been purchased by one William Wood. His story is fascinating, and personally interesting because my life intersects his at a few common points. It’s one of the classic rags-to-riches stereotypes.

William Madison Wood Jr. was the son of Portuguese immigrants. He was born at home on Pease Point Road in Edgartown, on Martha’s Vineyard, in 1858 – about the time of my great-great-grandfather’s last voyage from Edgartown as master of the whaling ship Massachusetts. Wood’s father was a whaler, a common occupation for the Portuguese, many of whom joined American whaling ships when they stopped in the Azores for crew and supplies on their way south to the Pacific fishery. He died at sea in 1861, when William Jr. was 12.

Wood found employment in the textile mills of New Bedford. During the Civil War, eastern Massachusetts’ textile mills were roaring to keep up with demand for woolen uniforms and blankets, and New Bedford was among one of the most robust textile towns, with the Wamsutta Mills dominating the trade there. Wood served his apprenticeship under a wealthy mill owner, Andrew Pierce, and rose rapidly because of his work ethic. He left New Bedford at the age of 18, moved to Philadelphia, found a job at a brokerage firm, and learned finance to the point that he returned to New Bedford and a job at a bank.

Wood made his fortune in Lawrence, Massachusetts where I was a newspaper reporter in the early 1980s. A hundred years before, the massive Washington Mill went bankrupt and was purchased by Frederick Ayer of Lowell, Mass. – Wood was hired and quickly rose through management, making about $25,000, a fortune for the the time. Wood’s smartest career move was marrying Ayer’s daughter.

Wood’s achievement was to consolidate a number of independent woolen mills into one massive trust, the American Woolen Company. He was no friend to labor, and was at the center of some controversial strikes after the turn of the century, including a trial for allegedly paying saboteurs to plant explosives in his own mills. These mills are pretty remarkable structures – massive brick buildings that run literally for a mile along the banks of the Merrimack River.

Anyway … third point of intersection for me and Wood was Shawsheen, Massachusetts, a village on the north side of Andover (the town where I grew up). Wood based his corporate offices for the American Woolen Company in Shawsheen, building a massive office building at the main intersection. When I was a newspaper reporter I rented a one-bedroom apartment in that building which had been converted into condos in the late 1970s.

Wood purchased the bass club on Cuttyhunk for his family and sold lots around the buildings to friends so his children would have some summer friends. That club is famous for being one of the most exclusive sporting organizations in the United States, formed in the 1860s by some New York financiers who used carrier pigeons to get reports from the stock markets, and who fished for striped bass from wooden causeways built on iron scaffolds drilled into the granite rocky shore. I would argue that Wood’s choice of summer retreats has to rank as one of the best in the world.

Wood suffered a stroke in 1924, moved to Florida in 1926, and a month after retiring went for a ride with his chauffeur. He asked the driver to pull over, got out, walked into the woods, and shot himself with a revolver.

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