Although characterized as a poor boy with limited education who studied by candle light, Crawford Fairbanks, shown here as a young man, had the advantages of a distinguished ancestry and a father who was mayor of Terre Haute. Cited as “Indiana’s greatest financial genius,” Fairbanks seized every opportunity, beginning with owning distilleries, to amass his fortune.
Crawford’s pedigree included an ancestor, Jonathan Fairbanks, who came from Sowerly in Yorkshire, England, to Boston and settled in Dedham, Massachusetts. There Jonathan built the noted “old Fairbanks House” in 1636 that is still standing as the oldest dwelling house in New England, shown below.
Crawford’s father, Henry, shown here, was born in Massachusetts and moved to Terre Haute in 1835, considered an early settler. A farmer, the father eventually became “a strong factor in the political and general development in that part of the state,” according to a biography, serving as both Vigo County treasurer and mayor of Terre Haute.
Crawford Fairbanks was born in 1843 near Terre Haute. Despite his family’s prominence he was educated in local schools, said to have studied at night by candlelight after finishing farm chores. He left school and home at the age of 17 to work as a clerk in town for $5.00 a week but soon was advanced to bookkeeper and given a raise.
When the Civil War broke out, young Fairbanks answered the call and on March 1, 1864, at the age of 19, was mustered into the 129th Indiana Infantry Regiment and became a lieutenant. His unit, employed on Sherman’s march on Atlanta, saw some hot fighting along the way, including the Battles of Resaca, Decatur, and Franklin. The last, shown below, was a crushing blow for the Confederacy resulting in devastating losses and 14 rebel generals either killed, wounded or captured.
At war’s end Fairbanks returned to Terre Haute to begin a business career, starting in the grain business, an enterprise that was a huge success. When his partner left for the California gold rush, Fairbanks moved into making whiskey. A major distillery in town had its beginnings about 1840, operated by a series of owners until Herman Hulman bought it in 1870. [See my post on Hulman, June 23, 2012.] Fairbanks became an associate of Hulman who, embarking on a long holiday trip to Europe, sold him the distillery. When Hulman returned, having decided to re-enter distilling, Crawford sold him back a half interest.
The two men were partners in the distillery they now called “The Phoenix,” a name that might have been prophetic given the multiple times the facility had to come up from ashes. In 1878 a fire destroyed a significant portion of the cattle pens and livestock on the property where cows were being fed the spent mash. The cattle feeding operation had no sooner been re-established when in January, 1879, an explosion occurred that killed two employees and did considerable damage to the facility. The partners quickly rebuilt.
Meanwhile Crawford Fairbanks was having a personal life. In December 1872 at the age of 29 he had married Clara T. Collett, a local girl born in Indiana. The 1880 census found them living in Terre Haute with a daughter, Sarah, and an Irish servant girl.
Fairbanks and Hulman found themselves in legal trouble with a grand jury in Indianapolis in April 1879, accused of 1) illegally operating on Sunday; 2) hiding untaxed whiskey under a corn pile, and 3) owing the State of Indiana $57,000 for unpaid liquor taxes. The partners either denied the charges or offered explanations, agreeing nonetheless to pay any delinquent taxes. The grand jury dismissed the charges holding that the evidence presented did not prove fraud by Hulman & Fairbanks.
Again exiting the distilling trade, Hulman sold his half ownership to Robert S. Cox and the company became Cox & Fairbanks, in 1800 claimed to be “the world’s largest distillery.” The four story main building was capable of mashing 5,600 bushels of grain daily and operated on an aging steam system. One afternoon in October 1880 a boiler exploded and catapulted into the malt house, destroying the rear of the main building. Although local firemen with the aid of citizens soon put out the fire, the blast killed seven employees, six immediately and one later died from burns. An inspector from Cincinnati also was killed. A similar number of people were severely injured. The concussion was heard for miles around.
Reeling from the 1880 disaster, Cox sold his half interest to Louis Duenweg and the company became Fairbanks & Duenweg. The disasters kept coming. Although no human casualties occurred, in June 1884 the the original four-story distillery burned to the ground. Three hundred hogs were roasted when the fire spread to a nearby barn. At that point Duenweg sold out to Fairbanks who turned to John H. Beggs, a distillery executive from Peoria, for help. [See my post on the Beggs family, Oct. 17, 2017.] Together they organized the Terre Haute Distilling Co., reputed to have been the world’s largest at the time.
By now immensely wealthy, Fairbanks expanded his entrepreneurial abilities into other areas. In 1889 with Beggs and other minor investors he purchased the Terre Haute Brewing Company, one of the Nation’s largest. At about the same time, Crawford built a strawboard factory in Elgin, Ill., which later became part of the American Strawboard Co., a $6 million concern known as the “Strawboard Trust.” Fairbanks was elected president of the company on Feb. 4, 1897. In addition, he had investments in and served as an officer and director of Diamond Paper Co., of Anderson, Ind.; Haverhill Paper Co. of Massachusetts.; Chicago Paper Co. of Illinois; Piedmont Paper Co. of New York; and Southern Indiana Gas Co., of Greenfield and Shelbyville. He also owned Terre Haute’s principal newspaper, The Tribune, shown left.
Fairbanks liked owning hotels, buying the Denison in Indianapolis, the Terre Haute House, shown above, and was co-owner of the French Lick Springs Hotel, a resort popular for its warm springs and reputed healing waters, shown left. At one time he also was the principal investor in Indiana Sonora Copper & Mining Co., and president of the Terre Haute Water Works and Terre Haute Street Railway Co. At the time of his death Crawford was the principal owner of Standard Wheel Co. and president and major stockholder of Wabash Realty & Loan Co., which held title to most of his real estate, including several farms where he raised race horses.
Along with his growing wealth, Fairbanks was generous to his home town. After the Terre Haute Distillery was torn down, he gave the Henry Fairbanks Memorial Park to Terre Haute on the former site. To honor the memory of his mother, Crawford donated the Emeline Fairbanks Memorial Library to the city. Both are shown here. After his wife’s death in 1911 Crawford built the Clara Fairbanks Home for Aged Women in her honor. A family history said of him: “In his natural make up, the selfish and the small are absolutely left out, while all flash and extravagance…are as far removed from his nature and conduct as it is possible to have them.”
As he aged, Fairbanks’ health declined. Described as “a man with few intimate friends,” he was close to his personal physician, Dr. Henry Jennings of Indianapolis, who apparently prescribed that the millionaire spend his winters in Florida. When Fairbanks continued to worsen as he approached 81 years, Dr. Jennings accompanied him by train back to Terre Haute. Crawford died in his suite at the Terre Haute House in May 1924. After a private funeral he was interred in the family mausoleum with his late wife and daughter, Sara, who had died in 1915.
Obituaries of Fairbanks ran in newspapers throughout Indiana and beyond. One state journal hailed him as “Indiana’s greatest financial genius.” Another reporter declared him “Indiana’s Richest Man.” What too frequently was ignored was the original driving source of Crawford’s wealth and entrepreneurship — making and selling whiskey.
Note: The information for this article came from two principal sources: An article of March 15, 2014, by Mike McCormick to the Terre Haute Tribune-Star and a Vigo County Library Historical Biography by Dr. Dipa Sarkar.