Meet the River Baron
Even now, I can still remember the first time I sat under the magnificent elm tree, along the great bend in the Mississippi. I was powerless to keep my eyes away from the river. The pink iridescence in the early evening sun. The snaking current and the majestic steamboats with its giant paddle wheels that supplied the lifeblood to the rapidly growing communities along its banks.
I had been born along the Danube River in Germany in 1850, of a father and mother who had lived there all their lives. When I was only a boy of seven, Father decided to leave the only home he’d ever known to move our family to America and build a grander, more stable life. Understanding the significance of the Mississippi on the overall west-ward expansion, he made a conscious decision to resettle along the bank of this mighty body of water.
It was shortly after our arrival in Le Claire that I discovered the towering elm tree with its umbrella-shaped canopy that was a popular spot for rapid pilots to wait for their next job. As our family began to settle into the new rhythm of life, I would often escape to the spot with my new friend William Frederick Cody to watch the river traffic.
As a matter of fact, I think I became a trader because of this scintillating view.
When Father died it was up to me to support Mother and my siblings. Having spent many days watching the steamboats journey up and down the river, I did what seemed as the only logical option: I began working for a local trader who specialized in directing the flow of alcohol and spirits up and down the river.
This line of work came naturally to me. It awakened in me a kind of confidence and panache that was contagious. Before long, my employer dispatched me into the community to forge new connections and help bring in new business.
With the end of the Civil War, business was booming and I was soon making a name for myself as a hard-working and respected entrepreneur. When I married the daughter of an influential local businessman, I solidified my role in the community and soon started my own spirit trading business. I believe it was during this time that people began calling me “The River Baron.”
As a river baron I often had the opportunity to be the first to try new products, clothing and spirits from the East coast. Though I tried not to do this too frequently – for fear of instilling the wrong type of work ethic in my children – I’ll be the first to admit that it gave me great joy. After all, what is the purpose of working hard, if you can’t enjoy the finer things in life?
I am older now, and my children have children of their own. Though my days as a trader have come to an end, the river is as present as ever. These days, I bring my youngest grand-daughter Rose with me. As we approach the great elm, the longing that has always possessed me at this curious spot along the river once again surges over me with terrible force. I can only hope she feels it, too.