From humble North Country beginnings in a pioneer settlement, a local man rose to play an important government role on a national level. Work performed at the height of his career still affects every facet of our government today. It is also highly valued by researchers, genealogists, and historians as a great repository of valuable historical records.
William Rush Merriam was born in 1849 in the small community of Wadham’s Mills in Essex County, just a few miles northwest of Westport. Many members of the Merriam families in that vicinity played important roles in regional history.
At the time of William’s birth, his father, John L. Merriam, was involved in iron making. While a number of Merriams remained in the Westport–Elizabethtown area, John pulled up stakes when William was 12 and moved the family to Minnesota, eventually settling in St. Paul.
With a partner, John became successful in the field of transportation prior to the arrival of the railroad. At that time, St. Paul was known informally as Pig’s Eye, and was the commerce center of the Minnesota Territory. The name St. Paul was formalized as the capital city when Minnesota became the 32nd state in 1858.
John branched out into several businesses and entered state politics, serving as the speaker of the House of Representatives in 1870–71. William, meanwhile, at the age of 15, attended Racine Academy hundreds of miles away in eastern Wisconsin. As he described it later, Racine was based on the traditional English school, divided into two main camps—in this case the Clarksons and the Badgers.
He became a Badger (assignment to a particular club was permanent), and was deeply involved in the ongoing rivalry between the two clubs. In the years prior to baseball’s development, the main battles were fought through cricket matches. As William noted decades later, he “finally became captain of the house. I was prouder of that than I have been of many things since. I was a prefect, too, and had to see that the rules were obeyed by my house.
“When I was a junior, I was chosen associate editor of the college paper, the Mercury, and stayed with it for two years. Finally I became editor in chief, a more exalted position in boyish estimation than I have held since.” The development of such leadership skills would serve him well in the future.
After graduating from college as valedictorian in 1871, he returned to St. Paul and found work as a clerk for the First National Bank. The bank president was a friend of the Merriam family, but salary information was withheld from William until his capabilities had been assessed. As Merriam noted, “He kept me guessing for a long time before he made up his mind how much I was worth. Then he told me that I was to have $50 a month. It seemed immense to me.” After a year of service, his salary was raised to $1000 per annum.
A year out of college, William married Laura Hancock, daughter of the former mayor and a leading social presence in the city.
After he worked two years at First National, the Merchants National Bank was established by John Merriam and other wealthy investors. William, now 24, was hired as cashier. Seven years later, in 1880, he was promoted to vice-president, and after four more years became president.
Much like his father, William had begun dabbling in politics, working to support several Republican candidates before seeking office himself. In 1882 and again in 1886, he won election to the state House of Representatives. During his second term of 1887–89, again like his father nearly two decades earlier, William served as house speaker.
Among the other positions he held were vice-president of the State Agricultural Society, and president of the same in 1887, gaining acclaim for the successful state fairs organized by that group. With several lucrative business enterprises, a very active social life, and many public successes, Merriam was touted as an attractive candidate for governor.
In 1888, Minnesota’s Republican Party experienced a split. William successfully opposed the party’s reform candidate in the primary and then easily won election. In early 1889, he was sworn in as the state’s eleventh governor. He immediately instituted policies that carried over from his business dealings: limited spending, and no major changes to the status quo.
During an interview about possible discord in Duluth based on few appointments going to citizens of that city, Merriam demonstrated an aptitude for political speak and the ability to spin: “I do not rank the people of Duluth among those ungrateful human beings who regard one favor that is refused as overbalancing the account of all those that are granted.” If his Duluth detractors disagreed, they were denying the governor’s twisted compliment. Way to couch a phrase!
Through the 1880s, as his status grew from business and political successes, Merriam’s social position had elevated as well. Laura, already very well connected, had become the leading socialite in Minnesota’s capital city. The Merriam mansion, next door to an even grander home owned by his father, John, became the hub of social activity. Extravagant parties were hosted frequently, and for visiting dignitaries, there was no more valued honor than an invitation to the Merriam mansion. At three stories high, it held a vast library, artwork from the world’s masters, and featured multiple balconies, fireplaces, and porches.
As the 1896 presidential campaign loomed, Merriam was frequently mentioned as a choice to become Republican National Chairman, and also as a possible running mate for James Blaine should he win the nomination. In the end, William McKinley was the nominee, and also won the White House. Among his supporters were ex-Governor Merriam and the state of Minnesota.
Next week, Part 2: Rising to the national stage (despite a damaging grudge).
Photos: Governor Merriam portrait; location of Wadham’s Mills; John Merriam mansion on left, son William’s mansion on right (photo from article by Jane McClure titled, “Frogtown’s Mansion District,” http://saintpaulhistorical.com/)