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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Ebenezer M. Ball Writes Home

The following five letters were written by Ebenezer Morris Ball, nephew of John Ball, to his parents in Lansingburgh, New York. E.M. Ball arrived in Grand Rapids in 1845, but the letters cover the period from late 1849 to March of 1853. In his correspondence Ball offers us an intimate view of the successes and trials of the Powers & Ball furniture and lumber business—possibly the earliest first-person record of those local industries in their infancy. 

Grand Rapids, Nov. 29th 1849

Dear Parents,

We had a quick and pleasant journey from Lansingburgh here and found all well. William Powers had been selling more than the usual quantity of furniture this fall, which had reduced his stock quite low. What he had on hand at the time of the inventory amounted to about $350 at retail price. The stock of lumber on hand, tools and machinery employed in the business were priced at about $400, making in all $750 which you see is inconsiderable less than he estimated it at the time we first talked of going into partnership which is all the better for me.

He also allowed me to share the profits of a lot of lumber he had collected to send over the lake [Michigan] on which we got about $108, clear of all expenses. After I had been with him about a week he went over the lake with his lumber leaving me ‘drove to death’ with business, had a dozen men to look after and no experience in the business which has made it very hard, but I got along much better than I anticipated. He got home last Friday having had beautiful weather all the time he was gone.

We have not been able, since I commenced, to manufacture furniture as fast as it is wanted, but we have been short for help. We now employ 7 men, which with ourselves is all we have shop room for at present.

Most of the stuff I bought at Troy and Albany has arrived here safely, some of the looking glasses were broken and some of the chair stuff has not got here, but I expect the reason was that it was not put up and forwarded according to directions.

I like it thus far very well. I shall have the care of the ware-room and do something at finishing and varnishing, etc.

E. M. Ball


Grand Rapids, March 3, 1851

Dear Parents,

William has been engaged in our new shop all winter fitting up machinery, and I have had to attend to the finishing and sale of furniture and have not been away scarcely an hour during the whole time. We commenced work on our new shop about the first of Jany. And when we get all the machinery put up that we intend to [we] shall be able to supply not only this market but furnish considerable for the markets over the lake.

We have just completed our machinery for making Winsor (or wooden) chairs which works finely so that we can almost, as it were, throw whole trees into the chopper and grind out chairs ready for use. We have contracted to furnish one firm in Chicago with 10,000 the coming season.

Our home trade has been very dull this winter and rather hard times for money but we have got along so far very well. We have plenty to do and a chance to enlarge indefinitely if we had the means. We have some lumber contracts to fill at Chicago and Milwaukie and shall ship a cargo to Albany and Troy the coming season if we have good luck. So you see we have a nice little summers work before us to manufacture furniture for this market to collect together and ship over the lake about 150 thousand feet of lumber and about the same quantity East, beside the 10,000 chairs for Chicago market.

We have a streak of bad luck now and then but have accomplished much more the past year than I expected we should. For instance, William, just as we commenced running some of our machinery, tore off the end of one of his fingers so he has had the use of but one hand for about 2 months, soon after that his little child got badly scalded which kept him at home for a while and within a few days we have had a freshet such as is seldom experienced here and great loss of property in logs, lumber, milldams, etc. We came in for a share though we are better off than our neighbors. We lost some 40 or 50 dollars worth of logs but think ourselves very fortunate that our loss is not greater as we were in great danger of having our canal torn away and losing all the logs we had in it, $150 dollars worth, besides the expense of repairing it and damage of being compelled to lay idle during the repairs.

E. M. Ball


Grand Rapids, Nov. 27, 1851

Dear Parents,

Mr. Powers has been away most of the time for the last 3 months which has kept me closely confined with scarcely a moment to spare from business. To keep 14 men employed to advantage and tend the warerooms leaves but little time for anything else.

After getting our mill in operation we had to drive it hard to get our logs sawed so as to get them to market in season. We took a lot of lumber to Chicago in August, and soon as we had disposed of that and could get it down to the mouth of the river we shipped cargo of about 100 thousand feet of Black Walnut and Cherry to Buffalo and from thence sent it by the Erie Canal to Troy. We sent none but the best quality and estimate the cost at the mouth of the Grand River $12 per thousand, add travelling expenses of a person to attend to it, it has cost us about $26 per thousand. It arrived in a very bad time, there being a panic in the money market and money very scarce, we could not find any one to even advance the freight and could not have got cost for our lumber if we had been forced to sell, so we had to borrow money of Albert and pile it up and leave it to be sold on commission.

Such lumber for a number of years past has sold from 35 to 40 dollars per thousand, all we could get offered at the time we were there with ours was 25 dollars per thousand. Business has gone pretty hard with us all summer. In the first place we lost a good many logs during high water in the spring than after we had got them into the canal it broke and let a good many out.

We have been able to get money for only part of that taken to Chicago and not as good prices as formerly. We have lost some in bad debts and suffered from non-fulfillment of contracts on the part of those who agreed to furnish us with lumber, logs, etc. All these things combined have caused us a good deal of trouble and we find ourselves a good deal cramped in our business.

I hardly know what we should have done if our Lansingburg friends had not kindly offered to assist us. Albert and Nathl not only furnished us with money to pay freight on our lumber but offered to assist us still more if needed. We shall be obliged to borrow some money to stock our mill this winter or let it lay still which we hate to do.

Everyone has lost money this season that has been in the hardwood lumber trade. We should have little or no competition here and I think it would be good policy for us to keep at it if we can get means to carry on business for when hardwood lumber comes up again there will be comparatively few dealing in it.

Out cabinet business is pretty good and increasing gradually and I think we are gaining upon our competitors. We are establishing little branches around us where we send furniture to be sold on commission.

E. M. Ball


Grand Rapids, January 13th, 1853

Dear Parents,

Things go on here about as usual. We were late in getting our lumber to the mouth of the river and when we had got most of it down William went down to get it shipped but found so many there for the same purpose and freight so high that he concluded to go over to Chicago and try and charter a vessel to come over and get it. He was for a long time unable to get one, but the weather continuing mild much later than usual we at last succeeded in getting it nearly all over by paying the enormous sum of three dollars and fifty cents per thousand, about double the usual rates, which made quite a reduction of our profits, but we were fortunate in one thing. There was quite a scarcity of walnut and cherry lumber and we sold that higher than ever before. Some that went over early in the fall brought $20 per thousand, the last that went over $25 per thousand. Lumber of all kinds is now in good demand and about 1/3 higher than last year. There is a heavy establishment just going into operation in Chicago for the manufacture of railroad cars. The American Car Company which will employ one thousand men and use up any quantity of lumber, a good deal of which will be oak. We have contracted to furnish them 50 thousand feet of walnut for car floors at 25 dollars per thousand and shall probably get them from one to two hundred thousand feet of oak. They have offered 17 dollars per thousand, about half of it to be 28½ feet long. We have offered to get for that provided they do not oblige us to get but ¼ that length and the balance ¾ ths 12 and 16 feet long, and I guess they will come to our terms.

We nearly filled our contract for ash with McCormick, but fell short some 40 thousand on the pine. They kept back some 25 dollars and we are to furnish the balance in the spring, so on the whole we got along with them much better than we expected. They wanted to contract with us again but we have got sick of their hoggishness and shall not get them any more unless we have a high price. If we get any ash for their reapers we shall charge them 20 dollars per thousand for what we last year received 14½ dollars.

William is very anxious to sell out our cabinet business and go into lumbering extensively and has gone so far as to get up estimates for engine boilers etc. for a steam mill, but I don’t think we shall get a chance to sell at present, though I should like to make a shift if we could without making a sacrifice.

I am too closely confined to this business [and] have been quite out of sorts since you left and never expect to enjoy good health while in this business. We have thought of taking in another partner but had rather sell if possible.

Father’s plan does not seem to strike William favorably and I think it hardly advisable. If you conclude to sell and come out here it would do better. I should like to sell out everything and build a steam saw mill at the head of the rapids but shall probably keep along as we are for the present.

I suppose you have heard of Uncle John’s Christmas present, a daughter and all doing well.

E. M. Ball


Grand Rapids, March 23, 1853

Dear Parents,

Our business is going on about as usual. We have sold those stores we were finishing up when you were here. We get 18 hundred dollars, and give up our lease of all the premises west of our ware rooms which we leased of Mr. Mills. We pay $150 a year for what we retain which is the largest half.

William could not be contented to keep along as we were. Nothing short of a steam mill* at the head of the rapids would satisfy him. So we have gone at it hammer and tongs, have got up a frame, contracted for our engine and boilers which are pretty well under way. We expect to get a running sometime in May. It will cost about four thousand dollars. We deem it very important to get the business of the coming season as there is a good demand for lumber at fair prices.

We have contracted walnut and cherry lumber for 20 to 25 dollars per thousand, ash 20 dollars, oak from 12 to 15 dollars. We have a mild winter and but little sleighing here in town though it has been pretty good in the woods for a good part of the time. It has not been so good a winter for logging as last. Our logs will cost us some more than they have done but we can afford to pay more. There is an increased activity in almost all branches of business here. Real estate has taken quite a rise within the last 6 months. The corner west of us, 67½ ft. on Pearl Street (the street our building is on) and 66 feet on Canal Street lately sold for 5 thousand dollars. Then we got 18 hundred for our stores which made the whole property cost $6,800.

I expect to be very much drove with business this summer and almost dread the accumulation of labor and care that the steam mill will bring, but I work all the time now and can do no more if we have 40 mills. We shall probably sell out the cabinet business if we have a good chance. If not keep along with the whole and hire more help. I wish father could be here to look after things a little. I hoped William would be satisfied with doing well, but it seems he is not.

E. M. Ball

* Note: According to Baxter’s History of the City of Grand Rapids, page 440, the Powers & Ball partnership was dissolved in January, 1855. Powers then turned his attention to lumbering, operating the steam mill, the first with a circular saw in this region, and located north of Leonard St. on the west bank of the Grand River. 

Excerpted from the transcribed letters of E.M. Ball, Grand Rapids Public Library, Coll. 263-7-2. The original letters are at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Coll. 154-1-1. The transcripts have been compared to the originals to insure accuracy. Occasional punctuation has been added for clarification.

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