Edward A. Foster
To various traits has been ascribed the credit for the success of the men who have made the history of the lumber industry of this country, but above them all stand perseverance and integrity. These traits seem to be inbred in the men who were born on the rock-ribbed coasts of New England. A man especially endowed with them, and who claimed Maine as his native State, was E. A. Foster, of Merrill, Wisconsin, whose remarkable career was ended by death December 21, 1902.
Far back in the Seventeenth Century three brothers came to the New England coast from England ; these brothers bore the family name of Foster. Almost from the day they landed they began to add to the history of the country, and their descendants have imparted luster to the family name. Colonel Benjamin Foster, who won fame in the war for independence, was a manufacturer of lumber at Machias, Maine. His son, Levi Foster, also operated a sawmill there, as did the latter's son, Edward Foster, the father of the subject of this sketch, Edward Augustus Foster.
Edward was born at the family home in Machias, August 10, 1829. His boyhood days were spent about the sawmill of his father and it was, therefore, but natural that he should incline toward the lumber industry. The ideas governing the raising of a family were somewhat different in those days from those of the present and, instead of the youth having the best education available, he worked as a laborer about the mill of his parent. While the training of hand and mind was given at the expense of mere schooling it was, nevertheless, an experience never regretted by Mr. Foster in after years.
Mr. Foster started out in the world for himself in 1850, when he was twenty-one years of age. From the parental roof in Machias he went to Boston. He did not find employment, but a streak of venturesomeness in the young man led him to enlist as a member of a crew of a vessel which was being loaded with sawmill machinery consigned to Pope & Talbot, on Puget Sound. Six months were occupied in making the trip, but eventually Port Gamble, now in the State of Washington, but then in the Territory of Oregon, was reached and the mill which the vessel carried was taken ashore and set up. It is believed to have been the first sawmill in the western wilderness of forests washed by the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Upon his arrival at Puget Sound Mr. Foster entered the employ of Pope & Talbot, and for two years remained at Port Gamble, most of this time being put in about the sawmill.
Then a desire to visit the East possessed him, and he went on a sailing vessel as far as the Isthmus of Panama. He traveled with a companion across the mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there sailed by ship to New York. While on the Coast Mr. Foster, by dint of hard work and careful living, had managed to save nearly $3,000. This money he had exchanged at San Francisco for a New York draft, but, to his bitter disappointment, upon reaching the metropolis he found that the bank upon which the draft was drawn had failed. All the money he had left was a few dollars in currency. He had planned to return to his old home at Machias, but the loss of the money caused him to alter his plans.
Instead of going to Maine he went up into the lumbering district of Pennsylvania, where, with a brother, Luther Hall Foster, he rented a small sawmill. It was an old fashioned sash mill and by working eighteen hours a day each, with the aid of one man during the day time, from 6,000 to 8,000 feet of lumber per diem was turned out. For two years he continued to run the plant and thus accumulated sufficient means with which to make another start in the world. This start was at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where Mr. Foster and his brother went in 1855. With Captain Burnham and several others he built the first gang sawmill in Oshkosh, but the day before it would have been ready to start sawing the plant was destroyed by fire, and thus the young lumberman experienced another serious reverse. The mill was rebuilt, however, and the original oak-framed structure stood on the old site in Oshkosh until a few years ago.
Fate was not particularly kind to Mr. Foster in his early days, as, in addition to the misfortunes which have been recounted, another one came in 1857, when a financial panic wiped out his capital and that of his associates. By no means was he discouraged, however, and he determined to begin again. He went to Cairo, Illinois, and entered the employ of a lumber firm where he remained for a year. At that time the upper Mississippi country appeared as a new lumbering district, and Mr. Foster was imbued with the old spirit of adventure. By boat he went up the river to within ninety miles of the Falls of St. Anthony, which are now in the city of Minneapolis, and walked from there to the Falls. Finding nothing to encourage him there he started across Wisconsin and reached Oconto, on the shore of Green Bay, where he worked for seven years in the employ of Holt & Balcom, Iverson & Whitcomb and the Holt Lumber Company.
Mr. Foster crossed the lake to Muskegon in 1865 and became mill superintendent for S. N. Wilcox. From Muskegon he went to Ludington, Michigan, where he purchased an interest in the Pere Marquette Lumber Company, taking charge of the logging and manufacturing departments of that enterprise. Associated with him in the company were his brother, L.H. Foster, James Ludington, D.L. Filer, John Mason Loomis, and John McLaren. He sold his interest in that concern in 1872 and organized the firm of Foster & Stanchfield, and the partners bought the mill operated in later years by the Butters & Peters Salt & Lumber Company at Ludington. This operation was continued for four years, when Mr. Foster sold his interest and, in 1877, turned his attention to the manufacture of shingles, conducting business under the firm name of E. A. Foster & Co. From 1881 to 1883 Mr. Foster was out of business because of poor health. In the latter year he and his son Harry purchased T. H. Sheppard's interest in the wholesale lumber yard of A. R. Gray & Co., at Chicago, in which concern he remained until December, 1884.
At Wausau, Wisconsin, in January, 1885, Mr. Foster, with his son, bought an interest in the McDonald Lumber Company, selling it a year later, when he organized the Merrill Lumber Company. This concern secured the sawmill of the old Lincoln Lumber Company, at Merrill, acquired a large tract of standing pine timber and began the manufacture of lumber. Mr. Foster was president of the Merrill Lumber Company from 1888, and a director in the Merrill Boom Company. Among his other interests was the Red Cliff Lumber Company, manufacturing lumber at Redcliff, Wisconsin, of which concern he was one of the organizers. He was largely interested, at the time of his death, in the Arkansas Land & Lumber Company, the Wisconsin & Arkansas Lumber Company, both of which concerns hold large tracts of timber in Arkansas, and the Wausau-Everett Investment Company, a timber holding company of Washington.
In April, 1856, Mr. Foster married Miss Laura Helen Foster, of Machias, Maine, a friend of his childhood days. A large family was reared, the following surviving: H. H. Foster, of Little Rock, Arkansas ; George E. Foster, of Mellen, Wisconsin; Mrs. F. E. Gary, of Memphis, Tennessee; Mrs. Russell Lyon, of Wausau, Wisconsin, and Mrs. H. E. Smith, of Wausau. Another daughter, Mrs. L. K. Baker, is dead. Mrs. Foster died eight years ago.