No other family ever sent four brothers to the United States Congress from four different states–or from seven brothers produced four congressmen, two governors, one senator, one secretary of state, one army general and two ambassadors. The record has never been equaled, because no family has quite equaled the Washburn’s.
All were born at “The Norlands” to Israel Washburn, Sr. (1784-1876) a bankrupt, but beloved storekeeper, and a resourceful and redoubtable mother, Martha Benjamin Washburn (1792-1861). Life was hard on the rocky farm, and her boys had to share a one tail-less dress coat among them, “but it is better to have brains in your head than tails on your coat!” she declared.
Cadwallader Colden, who the brothers considered the greatest among them, was born April 22, 1818, at Norlands, the fourth of the seven sons. As a youth he worked in a Hallowell store and taught school in Wiscasset, where he took note of the ancient tidal mills.
At 21, Cadwallader was the first to go West, on money borrowed from brother Sidney. From the Erie Canal, he made his way to rural Chicago, and by horse and mule to Iowa Territory, where he became a lawyer in 1840.
In 1854, Cadwallader was elected congressman for the six-year-old State of Wisconsin, and in Washington, D.C. he joined his congressman brothers Elihu of Illinois and Israel, Jr. of Maine, and such a trio the hallowed halls had never seen before. They roomed together, they stood together – as Barksdale found, they fought together – and any state with a Washburn representative, reporters said, “Got three Congressman for the price of one.”
By 1856, Cadwallader was worth half a million dollars, most of it in debt. “I don’t believe you’d be happy unless you could buy the whole world,” wrote Elihu, who made timely loans to Cad at hefty interest, “for the good of his soul.”
When the Civil War came, Cadwallader resigned from Congress to raise the Second Wisconsin Cavalry, and immediately of course, became its Colonel. Brother Elihu, famed as “The Watchdog of the Treasury,” made sure it was the best equipped outfit in the Union Army. “The watchdog don’t bark,” grumbled an enemy, ‘When one of the family goes by.”
With no military training, but with typical Washburn determination and with brother Samuel as a U.S. Navy Captain and brother Israel as War Governor of Maine, Cadwallader took Fort Esperanza, Texas, to capture the entire Lone Star coast clear to the Rio Grande.
After the war, Wisconsin promptly set Cadwallader back to Congress, where the practical-minded businessman fought for lower telegram rates and against the purchase of Alaska, “an utterly worthless and godforsaken country.” One stormy term as Governor of Wisconsin followed in 1872, in which Cadwallader rammed through such strict anti-alcohol laws he was soundly trounced for reelection in 1874.
Cadwallader turned his attention to land he owned at the Falls of St. Anthony, Minnesota, today the city of Minneapolis. There, with younger brother William Drew by his side, he built the largest flour mill in America. In 1878, it caught fire and blew up; Washburn promptly built another. To mill the bountiful but hardy Midwestern spring wheat, Cadwallader brought back machinery from Belgium and experts from Germany and built the largest flour mill on earth.
Daily it produced 6500 barrels of flour so fine it was awarded the first gold medal ever given to a non-European producer–hence the name it still bears today, “Gold Medal Flour.”
With the new fortune, Cadwallader endows many orphanages, scholarships, and builds the University of Wisconsin Observatory– calmly pacing out the foundation himself the very day fire destroys his mills in Minneapolis.
Tragedy touched Cadwallader’s last years. His wife slipped into insanity, and in 1881, he suffered a stroke and was afterwards partially paralyzed. With his brothers by his side, he died May 12, 1882, at age 64–the owner of the world’s largest flour mill, the first millionaire in the family, and the first of the “Seven Sons of Israel” to pass on into the promised land.
As his funeral train passed by, the great mills at Minneapolis fell silent in tribute.
The greatest tribute of all came years before, when the Washburn brothers gathered at Norlands and had a friendly dispute about who was the most distinguished among them. A secret vote ensued. On the first ballot each brother got one vote–his own. On the second Cadwallader got them all–except for his own.
America’s Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy by Stephen Hess (New York: Doubleday, 1966). A well researched, lively written survey. Elaborate notes present a wealth of further resources.
Israel, Elihu, and Cadwallader Washburn; A Chapter in American Biography by Gaillard Hunt (New York: MacMillan Co., 1925) A valuable first biography of the three Congressmen Washburns. Part of a projected biography of all seven sons, cut short by World War One and never completed.
“The Washburn Brothers–Maine’s Fabulous Seven by Ruther Decker.” Maine Sunday Telegram. September 13, 1977, page 5D.
And on Norlands:
Built on the site of the family homestead that burned in 1867, “The Norlands” was given its name by fifth brother Charles Washburn, just home from sweltering Paraguay, who was moved by the front porch view to recall Tennyson’s “Ballad of Oriana”:
“When the long dun wolds are ribb’d with snow
And loud the Norlands whirlwinds blow”
The heart and home of the Washburn family, Norlands is today much more than a museum: it is a working farm, a living history center, and a remarkable experience.
“A Vision of History – Billie Gammon Brought Norlands Back to Life” by Lloyd Ferris. Maine Sunday Telegram, April 27, 1986, pages 1-3D.
“Maine’s Time Machine: Washburn-Norlands Retreat Into History” by Tracey Linton Craig. History News, the magazine of the American Association for State and Local History. June 1983 (Vol. 38, No. 6).
“Do-It-Yourself History in Livermore Falls” by Ellen E. MacDonald. Down East Magazine, November 1985, pp. 44-49, 78-84.
Source: Condensed and edited from the Maine Department of Education’s Maine’s Claim to Fame: A Gallery of Personalities. Augusta. 1990.
Hunt, Gaillard. Israel, Elihu, and Cadwallader Washburn: A Chapter in American Biography. New York. The Macmillan Company. 1925.
Memorial address on the Life and Character of Hon. C. C. Washburn, LL.D.: late Governor of Wisconsin before the State Historical Society, July 25, 1882. Madison, Wis. 1883. (David Atwood, printer) [Maine State Library]