Sunday, July 13, 2014

Massena Berthier Erskine (1819-1894)

From "the United States Biographical Dictionary of Eminent and Self Made Men"

    A native of Royalton, Massachusetts, Massena Berthier Erskine would remove to Wisconsin in the early 1850s, later residing in the city of Racine for over fifty years. During this time the name of Massena Berthier Erskine grew to be one of the most memorable in the vicinity, as he became a prominent manufacturer and banker, and would also serve four terms as Mayor of that city between 1869 and 1880. 
   Born in Royalton on December 19, 1819, Massena B. Erskine was one of three children born to Walter and Margaret Bowen Erskine. Massena was left fatherless while still a child and would have "meager educational advantages" during his youth. Due to his father's passing Massena would become his family's breadwinner and at age fifteen was apprenticed by his mother to a local shoemaker. He would later tire of this work and was "thrown out" by his employers, and following his dismissal became employed as a carpenter in Westford, Massachusetts, continuing in this line of work until 1847. Erskine had married in Westford,  in April 1841 to Susan Perry (1820-1906) and became the father to five children, listed as follows in order of birth: Susan E. (birth-date unknown), Freeman (died 1864), Charles E. (1852-1908), Emma (1851-1951) and Flora (birth-date unknown.)
   Like many other young men of the time, Erskine would soon hear of the discovery of gold in California and cast his lot with other hopefuls, starting out from Boston via a sailing ship. The vessel would travel around Cape Horn and reached San Francisco in 1849. Once settled, Erskine would begin work in a local shipyard and during his time there reached the position of superintendent. In 1850 he returned to Massachusetts with the intention of bringing his family to California, but "unforeseen circumstances" would later cause him to change his destination to Wisconsin, and in 1852 settled in the still young city of Racine.
   Soon after his family's settlement Erskine found employment under the auspice of Jerome Increase Case (1819-1891), the owner of the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. and a former Mayor of Racine. Several years after joining the company Erskine assumed the position of superintendent of the company and in 1863 bought a "fourth interest" in the business. Erskine would later become a vice president of the company in 1892 and served in that capacity until his death two years later. Under Erskine's stewardship the company grew exponentially, with the Commemorative Biographical Record of Prominent and Representative Men of Wisconsin noting that:
"The working force grew from twenty-five hands to about a thousand, and the value of the product from $75,000 to about $2,000,000."

From the Portrait and Biographical Album of Racine and Kenosha Counties.

   Erskine became involved in local politics in Racine within a few years of his arrival, and would serve the city as a supervisor and member of the school board. In November 1868 he was elected as the Mayor of Racine and would be returned to that office on three more occasions in 1870, 1871 and 1880. Erskine's time in the mayor's office is noted by the Commemorative Biographical Record as "being more frequently honored in that respect than any other citizen of Racine" up to that time. 
   Aside from his business and political pursuits, Massena Erskine also made good in financial circles, being one of the original incorporators of the National Bank of Racine in 1872. He would later assume the presidency of the First National Bank of Fargo, North Dakota and would also serve as a founder and director of the First National Bank of Burlington, Wisconsin. Erskine was also active in  charitable endeavors in Racine, being a treasurer and director of the Taylor Orphan Asylum and also donated a substantial sum of money for the establishment of a Civil War memorial in Racine's Memorial Square. 
   The latter portion of Erskine's life saw him continue to be active in his business pursuits, and, being a millionaire, resided with his family in a palatial mansion in Racine. In 1885 he would take the reigns of the Racine Wagon and Carriage Co., and as president of the company helped its sales expand into "every state and territory, as well as Mexico and South America." Massena B.  Erskine died at age 74 on May 20, 1894 at his home and was survived by his wife and four of his children. Following his death he was interred at Racine's Mound Cemetery, coincidentally enough the same resting place as that of his friend and business partner Jerome I. Case.
  
Portrait from the "History of the town of Richmond, Cheshire County, New Hampshire."

Erskine's age is mistaken as "84" in this notice from the Little Falls Weekly Transcript.

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