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A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton

Author(s):Ballowe, James
Reviewer(s):Stanger, Howard R.

Published by EH.NET (January 2010)

James Ballowe, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009. xv + 302 pp. $29 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-87580-398-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Howard R. Stanger, Department of Management and Marketing, Canisius College

The life of entrepreneur Joy Morton (1855-1934) was bookended by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Great Depression, a span of time during which the United States became a large urban and industrial nation fraught with social, cultural, political, and economic conflicts. Author James Ballowe (Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus, Bradley University) reveals Morton?s personal life to be equally tumultuous. Notwithstanding the many challenges he faced in his life, Morton?s intellect, inner drive, and social connections enabled to him build a diverse business empire.

Born in Detroit to educated and solidly middle-class parents, Julius Sterling Morton and Caroline Joy French, infant Joy was raised in the pioneering town of Nebraska City, Nebraska, where Julius sought journalistic and political opportunities and to make his fortune. During his frequent work-related absences from home, Julius left Caroline to manage the family farm, later called Arbor Lodge. Julius was exacting and expected his four sons to achieve wealth. Although he never realized his own ambitious goals, he left a few important legacies: he founded Arbor Day in 1872 and imbued in Joy a strong work ethic and a love of trees.

Joy had a variety of school and work experiences (farming, working on a railroad survey crew, hauling freight, and clerking in a bank) before he was fifteen. Just shy of sixteen, he enrolled in his great uncle?s school ? Mayhew?s Business College, in Detroit ? where the three-month course gave him ?an idea of business methods and of the value of system in recording business transactions? (p. 34). But family obligations and illness prevented him from starting a business. He also watched the management careers of his younger brothers, Paul (1857-1911) and Mark (1858-1951), take off quickly on the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Paul secured for Joy an office position on the railroad in Aurora, Illinois, in 1878, the same year he became engaged to Carrie Lake, a judge?s daughter from Omaha. Two years later, Joy experienced two watershed moments: He got married and entered into partnership with Ezra Wheeler, an established Chicago salt distributor for the Michigan Salt Association, the dominant Midwestern distributor.

After inspecting Wheeler?s books and recognizing opportunities from a growing city and industry (the demand for salt was rising with the nation?s population and the needs of the meatpacking industry), Morton accepted Wheeler?s offer. Joy and Carrie moved to Chicago (next door to Paul and his new wife), but he toggled between Chicago and Nebraska taking care of the family farm, his father?s and his business interests, and keeping the family together after his mother died. Joy also contended with a generally unhappy wife whose degrading physical and mental conditions taxed him until she passed away in 1915, at age 58.

Wheeler?s frequent business trips left Joy in charge of day-to-day operations and enabled him to hone his business skills. In 1885, Wheeler died, leaving Joy in partnership with Mrs. Wheeler for a year after which time he assumed majority ownership in Joy Morton & Co. Joy distributed smaller ownership shares to family members, a common practice in the Morton family. In his early thirties, Morton finally achieved business independence.

Morton built a new home outside Chicago for Carrie and his two children, daughter Jean (1883-1953) and son Sterling (1885-1961), and expanded his salt business, which seemed impervious to business cycles. Financially secure by 1900, Morton consolidated his businesses for both efficiency and family reasons, and began to divest his Nebraska businesses, including the sale of his starch company (run by his brother Carl (1865-1901)) to a larger combine. In 1901 he created the International Salt Company and later, in 1910, owing to the public?s backlash against trusts, changed its name to The Morton Salt Company, whose table salt became one of the nation?s leading consumer brands. He extended minority ownership beyond family, notably to Daniel Peterkin, a trusted executive whom Morton groomed, along with other men from his residential neighborhood.

Now settled in Chicago (he built a country estate twenty-five miles away from Chicago in 1910), Morton eagerly got involved in civic affairs, collaborating with the renowned local architect Daniel Burnham to build a modern office building (1903-04) downtown near Lake Michigan (and built another one in the 1920s with Burnham?s successor.) and to create the famous Plan of Chicago in 1906. His longtime interest in internal improvements led him to serve on federal and state water transportation boards during World War I. He remained active in civic affairs and planning over the next few decades, including helping to select the design of the iconic Tribune Building and the locations for the Chicago Daily News building and the fortress-like Merchandise Mart, both of which became the first buildings to front the Chicago River. During this time he maintained ties to Arbor Lodge, now their country estate, until he deeded it to the state in 1923. At that time the property contained a botanical gardens and natural history museum.

Morton?s personal hardships (early deaths of close family members) were eased in 1917 with the birth of his first grandchild and his marriage to Margaret Gray, his trusted estate manager and partner in creating an arboretum. Since his father introduced him to Frederick Law Olmstead in 1873, Joy had built relationships with well-known landscape architects, botanists, and other experts from which he hired an excellent staff to create and run the Morton Arboretum, a 400-acre preserve (now 1,700), that opened in 1923. Illness and ailments slowed Morton down in the late 1920s and a sudden heart attack felled him on May 10, 1934. Morton?s philanthropy was generous but the arboretum was his carefully planned legacy and tribute to his father, who would have been pleased with Joy?s overall achievements.

In Ballowe?s hands, Morton is a highly sympathetic figure who, despite personal hardships, remained dedicated to his family and business affairs. Sometimes, however, Ballowe makes claims with little supporting evidence. For example, he may be right that Morton ?became recognized as a central figure in the movement that helped transform a nineteenth-century individualist economy into a corporate industrial economy? (p. 148), but he does not explain his role in this process. During the labor unrest and anti-radical hysteria that consumed Chicago in 1886 Morton settled a short strike at his warehouse by granting workers an eight-hour day at a reduced wage. Morton commented on the outcome: ?What fools these mortals be, especially strikers.? Aside from the belittling comment, why did Morton concede shorter hours when most employers did not? And during the 1894 Pullman strike Morton averted labor troubles by ?paying attention to (workers?) … welfare? (p. 124). How so? As was de rigueur, he invited his office staff and their families to his estate for company outings, but not the blue-collar workers. Why not? Did class matter to Morton? Finally, Ballowe mentions the significance of Morton Salt as a brand, but provides little discussion on how it came to be so popular.

These minor limitations, largely attributable to the genre, the author?s background, and the lack of business records, do not detract from this fine biography that Ballowe constructed from a careful study mainly of Morton?s personal and family papers. A man of salt and trees? Yes, and much more.

Howard R. Stanger is Professor of Management and History in the Organizational Studies Area, Department of Management and Marketing, Wehle School of Business, Canisius College. His forthcoming articles include a study on the decline of the Larkin Company (1918-1942) and the labor practices of the Columbus Ohio master printers? association (1887-1987).

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII