A Catskill Catalog: October 24, 2012

Jay Gould was a Catskill Mountain guy who used his native resourcefulness to climb his way out of the sticks, and, in his case, come pretty darn close to ruling the world, at least that part of the world concerned with stuff like gold and railroads and the stock market.

I say in his case because I’ve known a bunch of guys like that - not guys who came close to ruling the world, surely, but smart, resourceful guys who found a way to use the resources we have right here to make a pretty good dollar and make a pretty big success of themselves.

The late Doug Faulkner was like that. Marine veteran, graduate of the local high school, Doug swore by the quality of his education, particularly the first eight grades he got in a one-room schoolhouse. When he came back from the war, he got a job clerking in M.J. Faulkner’s New Kingston store. Doug always told me that M.J. was related so distantly as to not really matter. M.J. was the boss, someone to learn from.

Soon, Doug owned the store, and got himself appointed Postmaster, and built himself a good business supplying groceries and supplies to the many farm families in the valley and beyond. Doug used to study the commodities-futures market to determine how much coffee or tea or sugar to buy, storing low-priced product against future price increases. When those inevitable increases occurred, Doug’s heavily-stocked New Kingston store could offer customers the best price.

When I met Doug, he had sold his store and was partnered with Jack Wolcott in the logging business. Skidding logs, minding the post office, trading in antiques, starting, with his friends, a stock-market investment club, buying cheap land and holding it until it became dear: this was the resourcefulness that made for a very successful businessperson and a very full and rich life.

Guys like Doug were kind of a revelation to me when I showed up in the hills as a 23-year-old Westchester County kid, fresh from five years of college in a bustling little upstate industrial city. Where I came from, work and home seemed separate spheres, and success often the product of specialized degrees. The Orvilles and Jerrys and Marys and Mikes who’d made it in these parts seemed a different breed, sensitive to opportunity, and shrewd in exploiting those opportunities.
There are, right now, lots of Catskill Mountain guys and gals out there who are making that kind of resourceful success every day. Often they are not as well educated as their urbane neighbors, might not sport a college degree. Sometimes folks might underestimate them.

Seems like Jay Gould was that kind of guy. Born on a farm in Roxbury’s West Settlement in 1836, Jayson Gould was the sixth child, and first son, of John Burr and Mary More Gould. Like his boyhood classmate and friend, John Burroughs, Jay Gould discovered early that he did not like farm work. While Burroughs sought an alternative in nature and literature, Gould sought more traditional ideas of success.

First, he and his father tried to make a go in the tin business. Hardware seemed just as boring as the farm, so Jay taught himself surveying, proceeded to learn map-making, wrote a history of Delaware County, and made a map of the place, as well. He sold subscriptions to the book, and worked political connections to get the legislature to require a county map in each school supervisory district. All these projects were profit-making, or, at least, intended to be, and all were accomplished when he was 18 or 19.

But tanning was where the local money was, or, where it had been. Up in Prattsville, Zadock Pratt was the Catskills’ richest man, the owner of the biggest tannery operation in the world. Pratt knew he was at the end of his run. Depleted were the hemlock trees whose bark provided the tannin needed to turn raw hides into leather. New territories would have to be found.

Young Jay Gould attached himself to Mr. Pratt, learned the tanning business at the Prattsville works, then pitched his boss his next project: get Pratt’s financial backing and industry connections to establish a new large-scale tannery in northeastern Pennsylvania, where abundant hemlock still stood. Soon Gouldsboro, named for its young industrial founder, was a major processor of hides.

Let’s leave a discussion of the devastation of the hemlock for another time. Jay Gould would later dominate the stock market, accumulate railroads, and, in 1869, manipulate the price and supply of gold to the point where he was accused of trying to corner the market in the world’s standard of exchange. He was nothing if not a man of his time, reflecting the acquisitive and material values of his time.

But, however he might be remembered today, Jay Gould was one of those smart, resourceful Catskill Mountain guys who saw opportunity right here, started his career right here, and built on those opportunities the mountains provided to become what he wanted to become: in his case, number nine on the adjusted-for-inflation list of all-time richest Americans.