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The many failed businesses of early Minnesotan William Gates LeDuc

From a bookstore to a flour mill to railroads and more.

historical portrait photo of william gates leduc
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
William Gates LeDuc, ca. 1848.
William Gates LeDuc played a variety of parts in Minnesota’s transition from territory to statehood. A “jack of all trades” who never found great success in one endeavor, he counted former presidents, governors, generals, and supreme court justices among his friends by the time of his death in 1917.

LeDuc was born in 1823 to a family of farmers in Wilkesville, Ohio. Educated in Greek and Latin at Kenyon College, he met Mary Elizabeth Bronson at a picnic in 1848 and took a law clerkship in nearby Mount Vernon in hopes of running into her more often after he graduated. Mary and William shared a love of letters and wrote to each other for the next fifty years.

After marrying in the spring of 1851, William and Mary travelled by river to the small town of St. Paul, where William started a legal practice and Minnesota’s first bookstore. He befriended rising politicians like Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley and harnessed his Ohio connections to become a successful booster for Minnesota Territory. In 1853, he represented the territory at the World’s Fair in New York City and successfully lobbied for a railroad connecting St. Paul to Missouri. The next year, he financed the state’s first commercial flour mill, across the river from the site where he planned to build his new home in Hastings.

Just when LeDuc was ready to start construction, the Civil War began. He packed his bags for Washington and volunteered for the Quartermaster Corps, helped by a letter of recommendation from a childhood friend of Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war. Like most Northerners, LeDuc expected the war would be over shortly, and was excited to return to Hastings to live in a house that lived up to his long-suffering wife’s expectations and befitted his status as a man of high military rank. But the war dragged on, and his post was not nearly as exciting as he had imagined; logistical challenges, incompetent and drunken staff, and red tape took up much of his time.

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Nevertheless, LeDuc proved himself to be a capable quartermaster. In October of 1863, he used a steamboat to sneak supplies upriver from Bridgeport to General Hooker’s army, allowing them to reinforce General Rosecrans’ position at Chattanooga. William noted later that one of his failed businesses finally showed dividends here: “I had once owned a fourth interest in a steamboat, and fooled away considerable money and time with her.” In spite of rapids, engine breakdowns, and close calls with Confederates along the riverbanks, LeDuc brought 40,000 rations up the Tennessee River to the starving troops. He was later awarded the rank of brevet brigadier general and went by “General” for the next fifty years.

When LeDuc returned to Minnesota in late 1865, his Hastings mansion was close to completion, but at great cost. The home was six times more expensive than he had anticipated, leaving the LeDucs on the brink of bankruptcy for years. Good returns on wheat from the farmland LeDuc owned paid for the family’s basic cost of living, but most of his other businesses were as unsuccessful as they were eccentric. He operated a mine near Salt Lake City that barely covered his expenses. He later bought a sawmill in Brainerd. He lectured for a few dollars a speech at grange halls. LeDuc came close to success with a Hastings railroad company but was sold out at the last minute by his associates.

His luck improved when he was appointed commissioner of agriculture in 1877 by another friend from Ohio, President Rutherford B. Hayes. LeDuc’s most significant measures were his attempts to make the US less dependent on foreign imports by researching the production of sugar from sorghum in the Midwest, and by attempting to establish tea farming in the South. Neither of these efforts succeeded and were criticized as a waste of taxpayer dollars. When James Garfield became president, the LeDucs returned to Hastings.

Over the next twenty-five years, LeDuc travelled extensively and pursued many failed business ventures. After his wife’s death in 1904, he became involved in the spiritualist movement; he even wrote a book in 1906 recounting talks with long-dead Civil War generals during seances.

LeDuc died at the age of ninety-four in 1917.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.