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Foshay, Wilbur (1881–1957)

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Black and white portrait of Wilbur Burton Foshay, 1929.

Wilbur Burton Foshay, 1929.

In 1932, singer Bing Crosby had a major hit with his recording of E. Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney's song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Its lyrics could have been the story of Wilbur B. Foshay: "Once I built a tower up to the sun/ brick and rivet and lime/ Once I built a tower, now it's done/ Brother, can you spare a dime?" Foshay built a fortune, built a tower in Minneapolis—and then lost it all in the stock market crash of 1929.

Wilbur Burton Foshay was born December 12, 1881, to Joseph and Julia Foshay of Ossining, New York. He graduated from the Mount Pleasant Military Academy of Ossining. In his mid-twenties, he worked as timekeeper, gas piper and electrician for the United Gas Improvement Company of Tarrytown, New York.

The utilities field was a growing business in the early twentieth century. Electricity and indoor plumbing were still relatively new. Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station in New York City, the nation's first centralized power plant, had begun generating electricity in 1882. Rural communities were eager to have the home appliances and conveniences already enjoyed by city dwellers.

In 1906, Foshay was hired to manage the local power-and-light company in Hutchinson, Kansas. In 1907, he married the owner's daughter, Leota Hutchinson Fox, a divorcee three years his senior. During the next few years, the couple moved around the Midwest and West Coast, as Foshay chased utilities jobs. His wife gave birth to two children, William and Julianne.

In 1915, the Foshays settled in Minneapolis. There, Foshay worked for Page and Hill, a manufacturer of electric-light poles and telephone poles. But soon he decided to go into business for himself. In 1916, he borrowed $6,000 and bought the Ponca Electric Company of Nebraska. In August of the following year, he incorporated the W. B. Foshay Company, a public utilities holding company. A holding company's purpose is to buy shares of existing companies. They gain control over them but do not run the day-to-day business. Foshay would spend the next decade buying up utilities companies.

By 1928, he was a prosperous man, at least on paper. His company owned utilities in thirty states, the then-territory of Alaska, Canada, and Central America. The W. B. Foshay Company had become big enough that Foshay figured it deserved its own skyscraper. He wanted his headquarters to be the most beautiful, and tallest, building in downtown Minneapolis.

What he got was a thirty-two-story Art Deco monolith modeled after the Washington Monument in the nation's capital. This was not only the city's tallest building but also the tallest between Chicago and the West Coast. The proud builder celebrated the Foshay Tower's opening with a three-day event over Labor Day weekend in 1929.

Two months later, the stock market crashed. The utilities magnate lost everything. His company filed for bankruptcy. In 1931, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Foshay on charges of mail fraud. He had used the federal postal service to advertise and sell stock in his company, some of which might have been overvalued.

Foshay and his right-hand man in the company, Henry H. Henley, were tried in a much- publicized 1931 court case. The first trial ended without a unanimous verdict after the only female juror, Genevieve Clark, held out for Foshay and Henley's innocence. Prosecution lawyers later learned that Clark had briefly worked for Foshay's company. She was charged with contempt of court for not revealing the association.

Foshay and Henley were tried again and, this time, were convicted. They began serving fifteen-year sentences at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas in May 1934. A vigorous letter-writing campaign moved President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to free the pair in 1937. Ten years later, President Harry S. Truman pardoned both men.

Once out of prison, Foshay worked for chambers of commerce in Colorado and Arizona. Penniless, he returned to Minnesota early in 1957 to move in with his son and daughter-in-law. Foshay suffered a stroke that April. He died in a nursing home near Minneapolis on September 1-the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Foshay Tower's debut.

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Aamodt, Britt, "Wilbur B. Foshay: The Man and His Tower, part 1." KFAI radio documentary, 2011. Archived on Ampers.org.
http://www.ampers.org/pieces/wilbur-b-foshay-man-his-tower-part-i?s=music

Aamodt, Britt, "Wilbur B. Foshay: The Man and His Tower, part 2." KFAI radio documentary, 2011. Archived on Ampers.org.
http://www.ampers.org/pieces/wilbur-b-foshay-man-his-tower-part-ii?s=music

Foshay Museum and Observation Deck. About the museum.
http://foshaymuseum.com/home.html

McNulty, Marcy Frances. "Wilbur Burton Foshay: The Saga of a Salesman." Master's Thesis, Creighton University, 1964..

Related Images

Black and white portrait of Wilbur Burton Foshay, 1929.
Black and white portrait of Wilbur Burton Foshay, 1929.
Black-and-white photograph of Wilbur Foshay and his wife Leota.
Black-and-white photograph of Wilbur Foshay and his wife Leota.
Black and white photograph of Foshay and Henry H. Henley facing charges of mail fraud, 1931.
Black and white photograph of Foshay and Henry H. Henley facing charges of mail fraud, 1931.
Black and white photograph of Foshay and Henry H. Henley in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, 1934.
Black and white photograph of Foshay and Henry H. Henley in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, 1934.

Turning Point

In August 1917, Foshay incorporates the W. B. Foshay Company, a company that would end up owning utilities companies in thirty states.

Chronology

1881

Wilbur Burton Foshay is born in Ossining, New York, on December 12.

1906

Foshay becomes public utilities manager for the Hutchinson Power and Light Company in Hutchinson, Kansas.

1907

Foshay marries Leota Hutchinson Fox, a divorcee and the daughter of Hutchinson Power and Light Company owner William Hutchinson, on January 30.

1915

Foshay moves to Minneapolis to work for Leon Hill, proprietor of Page and Hill, a manufacturer of electric-light and telephone poles.

1917

Foshay incorporates the W. B. Foshay Company on August 14.

1929

The Foshay Tower opens for business with a lavish three-day celebration, August 30 to September 1. But Foshay loses the building after the stock market collapses that October, and his company goes bankrupt.

1930

Foshay moves to Salida, Colorado, to manage the Mountain Cross Granite Company.

1931

The U.S. Department of Justice sues Foshay and six officers of his company for using the mails to sell stock and pay dividends in a fraudulent manner. In September, Foshay and company officers are brought to trial, but the jury cannot reach a verdict.

1932

The mail fraud case is retried in January. Foshay and Henley are found guilty on March 21 and sentenced to serve fifteen years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

1937

A letter-writing campaign organized by Colorado attorney Frazer Arnold prompts President Franklin D. Roosevelt to release Foshay and Henley from prison. They leave Leavenworth April 6. Afterward Foshay works for the Salida, Colorado Chamber of Commerce.

1947

President Harry S. Truman grants Foshay and Henley full, unconditional pardons on June 27. In August, Foshay becomes secretary of the Alamosa, Colorado, chamber of commerce.

1951

Foshay works for the chambers of commerce of Winslow, Arizona, and Fort Collins, Colorado.

1957

Foshay returns to Minnesota and moves in with son, William, and daughter-in-law, Eleanor, in Excelsior. He suffers a stroke in April and dies on September 1 at Oak Ridge Nursing Home, near Minneapolis.