IT IS not often that a life, chiefly occupied with commercial pursuits, reads like a fairy tale. When, however, a man begins by earning ten cents a day, and ends worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, it is interesting to know how it was done. Ten cents a day was the wage of Valentine Winters, when he began, in a brickyard in Germantown, to earn his own living. This was in 1825, when he was eighteen years old. Born in Pennsylvania, be came to Ohio with his parents when quite a young boy. His father and two uncles were ministers of the Reformed Church, the former well known for many years in Dayton. Thinking that Germantown did not offer a large enough field for his ambition, Valentine Winters walked the whole way to Dayton, carrying his belongings under his arm. He applied for and obtained a position in the dry goods store of Andrew Irvin, at a salary of $50 a year. So much industry and capacity were shown by the young clerk that the end of the first year saw him promoted, with a raise of salary; to what extent can only be surmised, probably at least ten dollars! This store afterwards became the Harshman and Rench Dry Goods Company. In 1829 Mr. Winters married the daughter of his chief, and was advanced to partnership. For the next several years we see a constant progression of the fortunes of Valentine Winters; increasing responsibilities, and increased earnings. First the cashier of the Dayton Bank (1845), then controlling member of the private banking house of Harshman, Winters and Company (1851), later V. Winters and Son, and still later Winters National Bank. For a quarter of a century this bank occupied the corner of Third and Main streets, and never lost the confidence of the people of Dayton. All the banking interests of our city in that day centered around the name of Valentine Winters. Moreover, his influence extended at large in the State. He was made member of the Board of Control, of the State Bank of Ohio; he promoted railroads, notably the Mad River and Lake Erie, for which he was said to have subscribed ten shares of stock before he had the money to pay it with. He organized the Dayton and Western Railroad, soliciting stock, and obtaining right of way. First as treasurer, and then as president, he was connected for many years with this road. The first railroad in Minnesota, the St. Paul and Pacific, was built and equipped under his direction, and with his capital. Fire insurance was also a large concern to him, being a stockholder in all but one of the insurance companies in Dayton. He was one of the original promoters of the Firemen's, and acted first as treasurer, afterward as director.
This briefly is the record of the business interests of Valentine Winters. Their growth, from small to great, would seem marvelous if we did not keep in mind the qualities by which it was achieved. These were, mainly, indefatigable industry, keeping the out-go always inside the in-come, careful investments, attention to detail. A leaf or two from his first expense-book should be of interest to young men starting out in the business world. The first item is an astonishing one, and does not look like that prudence for which Mr. Winters was distinguished. He married on no capital and with a debt of $46.75, which was incurred in the purchase of his wedding outfit! Our confidence, however, is restored when we learn that at the end of the year he not only had paid off this indebtedness, but had placed $38, to his credit, in the bank. Mrs. Winters must be accorded her share of praise for this remarkable fiscal showing, for it was no doubt her economy as well as Mr. Winters industry that accomplished it. Her opposite neighbor, on Jefferson Street, Mrs. J. J. Patterson, is said to have declared that Mrs. Winters was the most indefatigable worker she ever knew; up at an early hour, and never, for one moment idle. Knowing what we do of Mrs. Patterson's own record as a worker, it must be granted that her testimony is one to be respected.
Referring again to the expense-book, we find that during the second year of their married life, the household expenses of Mr. Winters, wife, and child were $191.18, and that his salary was increased to $300. With such an income, it was but natural that the young couple should plan to build a home. They did it during the next two years; paid $251 down, while the living expenses of wife and two children amounted to $372!
Is it remarkable that, with such good management on the part of both husband and wife, that the end of ten years should find them worth $9,000, over and above all indebtedness? This sum was the basis of Mr. Winters large fortune, which grew, as his small earnings had, steadily from month to month, and from year to year. There was no "get-rich-quick" in those conservative business methods; it is doubtful if he ever acquired any large or sudden gains; not so much what he made as what he saved, that was the seed-corn for the harvest.
The danger of the virtue of thrift is the easy descent from it into the vice of miserliness. All such peril Mr. Winters avoided by early cultivating the habit of giving. It was a pleasure to him, no doubt, to see his securities increase in value; but an equal pleasure to be able to make people happier by a wise distribution of his wealth. In this way he avoided that criticism which a rich man is so likely to incur. He was never accused of any offense in word or deed, that sometimes belongs to the holders of large fortunes. No one begrudged Mr. Winters his money! It was at the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1861, that the public spirit of Valentine Winters began to be felt in a practical way. It is a question if any man in Dayton did more to keep up the war spirit. He helped organize companies, supported the families of soldiers at the front, and loaned money to the government. He was one of the first to advocate, in the Board of Control, the duty and obligation of the Ohio banks to supply the exhausted treasury of the State with means to facilitate the equipment of soldiers for the army, and to rely on the honor of patriotism of the State for their reimbursement. To this end he pledged the Bank he represented for its pro-rata share. Two of his sons enlisted in the service, and twenty recruits were furnished at Mr. Winters' own expense. His patriotism never blossomed into office-seeking; refusing always to accept any political position, his purse and his service were always at the disposal of his country. Through all those dark, discouraging days, when the bravest owned a doubt of the outcome of the war, Mr. Winters never lost faith. The cause of the Union he felt sure would succeed in the end.
As to his private and personal charities, a firm principle was never to allow a call upon his purse to be denied. He always gave! The consistency with which Mr. Winters adhered to his rule of conduct was sometimes trying to his family. It was their opinion that the line should be drawn at tramps, at least at tipsy tramps. For a time he agreed to allow a son-in-law to deal with this branch of his charities. One very stormy night a pair of worthless vagrants rang the bell, and asked for money. Mr. Reber, seeing that they were the worse for liquor, sent them away, and so reported. Mr. Winters' discomfort over the incident was most evident. In order to restore his peace of mind, Mr. Reber was obliged to go after the men, buy each a ticket for a meal and a night's lodging. Mr. Winters' excuse for his apparent inconsistency was thus expressed; "Even if a man is drunk he will suffer out of doors a night like this." Like Miss Eaker, he laid aside business principles in dealing with human suffering!
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Winters essayed the gradual distribution of his estate among his children. Several times during the last five years, the whole relationship would be bidden to dinner, when under the plate, belonging to each guest of the second generation, was concealed a checque, sometimes for ten thousand dollars, sometimes for more. With all this, Mr. Winters found himself at the end of a long life, still rich, but rich in many other things than money; rich in a remarkable record of uninterrupted good health; rich in a wife whose support in all things had been the joy of his life; rich in a large family of children and grandchildren; rich in a home where his descendants could gather to pay him honor; rich in the esteem of the community; rich in friends.
On the evening of the first of January, 1879, the windows of the large house, on West Third Street, (Women’s Christian Association) were alight, from the basement to the roof; the wide steps were filled with groups of old and young, to whom the broad door opened hospitality. It was the occasion of the Golden Wedding of Valentine Winters, to which were bidden two sons, seven daughters, and twenty three grandchildren. In the large parlor, on the west of the hall, they gathered while J. H. Winters presented to the beloved parents their children's offering, a large golden plate, inscribed "Winters--1829, 1879--Harshman." "Honor thy father and thy mother." The wish of the donors was, that its bright surface might be but the reflection of the remaining years of their life. Grandchildren added to the entertainment, and it was said that Mr. Winters was not only the youngest looking man of his years in Dayton, but the-best looking man in Ohio!
There we leave him, secure in that "honor, reverence, and good repute that follows faithful service as its fruit."
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