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Major Higginson in 1863  

The Life Story of
Major Henry Lee Higginson

"Practical Idealism and the Gift for Friendship"

Henry's story continues from Part II:
The Civil War Years

Part III: Life in the Business World and among Friends

Early Business Ventures: An Education of a Different Kind

During the final year of the Civil War, Henry had at last found an opportunity for employment. From January through July of 1865, he worked as an agent for the Buckeye Oil Company in Ohio, purchasing equipment and contracting laborers to work in the oil fields. Living out of a "shanty" boardinghouse was a "comfortless, dirty and lonely" existence for Henry, though less dreary after his wife Ida joined him during the latter part of his stay there. However, the wells did not produce the quantity of oil that the owners and investors had anticipated. As a result, the company foundered and the Higginsons returned home to Boston.

By autumn, Henry grew enthusiastic about his next business venture: raising cotton on a plantation in Georgia. In his reminiscences, Higginson relates the details of why and how he purchased "Cottonham":

...[A couple of friends and I] conceived the plan of going South and buying a plantation on which to grow cotton. [We would pay wages to any of the former slaves who chose to remain and work on the plantation, provide private housing for them with their own plot of land on which to grow crops for their sustenance, and set up a store for them to purchase goods they might need. Later on, we planned on having a school for the children, as] ... it seemed fair that we should try to help in their education. Two old comrades and friends—[Captain] Channing Clapp [a Harvard classmate who served with me in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry,] and [Colonel] Charles F. Morse [who graduated from Harvard in 1858 and served with me in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry]—liked the idea, and we three therefore went to Savannah in a remarkably dirty steamer, hoping to proceed from that point and get what we wanted....  

Henry and Ida Higginson

Henry Higginson with his wife Ida, photo care of Bliss Perry's book, image courtesy of Brian Pohanka.

We asked and asked about plantations and about means of getting at them, and at last heard of one called "Cottonham," belonging to an old man named Rogers. After trying for a week to get means of communication, we at last lighted on one venturesome hack-driver who would take us, for there were only two hacks in the town, and no means of conveyance except a dray [cart]. The railroad was gone, and the plantation was fifteen miles from the railroad. So we started out, came to various broken bridges, got across somehow or other, crossed the Ogeechee in a ferry and reached a point on the railroad. From there it was a clean drive in the sand to the plantation, fifteen miles, with not a soul in sight and not an animal except one deer. We came to a bridge some twenty feet wide, and tried it to see if it was good. It seemed sound, and we drove on to it. The horses went through with all eight legs and hung there by their bellies. The driver was frantic, and said we had ruined him. We unhitched the team, and worked hard to get the horses' legs out on to something stable, putting in fence-rails for that purpose. At last we got them up, pulled the carriage over and drove to the plantation.

The house was situated in a large field, and was surrounded by beautiful live oaks. A pleasant-looking old gentleman came out and greeted us, and asked us to come in and pass the night. We had a villainous supper of hominy, sweet potatoes and grease; it was hot as tophet [hell], and we saw what our life was going to be.

The next day, Channing Clapp, being a good negotiator, traded with the old man, and we paid him $30,000 for his five thousand acres of land. Of course there was a good, roomy house, a good stable for that country, a large negro settlement a mile away, and some negro houses on the yard of eight acres where the house stood. We went through the usual formalities of purchase, and then the old gentleman left....

On November 15, 1865, a month after purchasing Cottonham, Higginson wrote to his father about his great expectations for the success of this experiment:

We [Clapp, Morse, and I] mean to cultivate 400 acres of cotton. A good yield is 120 lbs. to the acre on that plantation.... I have here calculated everything to come in low, and every expenditure high. Next year we can probably cultivate much more land, and we shall average, one year with another, much more cotton to the acre. I have left out all gain of stock, such as cattle and hogs, which cost literally nothing and are very productive.

With business at the plantation running smoothly, Henry returned home to Boston for Christmas. After the holidays he brought Ida with him to Cottonham, and together they put their heart and soul into work with the laborers, educating them and preparing them for life outside the plantation. But their hard efforts and good intentions were not enough to overcome the differences between the two cultures and lifestyles. Concepts such as receiving wages for labor and dealing with cash to purchase goods were difficult for these former slaves to understand, as they never had ownership of anything in this country. How could Henry and Ida convince these workers—who had only known oppression in the hands of white men—that they had their best interests at heart?

In August, Henry brought Ida home to Boston and returned to Cottonham. This time, he encountered new struggles in addition to those that involved his workers. The weather turned foul, and the once-flourishing crops began to perish. In letters to his father written during autumn that year, Henry candidly reported:

The continual rains are injuring our crop considerably. Yesterday we had two tremendous showers lasting several hours altogether, and to-day we found quite a lot of cotton beaten out and lying dirty and useless in the sand.... It [the rain] has [arrived a season too late and has] cut off all our profit, I fancy.... We have made about half a crop; and seem likely to get a low price for our best cotton.... So we have lost a good deal of money.

But in his communications to Ida, Henry tried to assuage her fears about their finances:

Please remember that one great reason for our coming here [to Cottonham] was the work of great importance to be done for these blacks. Money is less valuable than time and thought and labor, which you have given and will give freely....

Ida returned to Cottonham for Christmas to join Henry who was beginning to have doubts about continuing this venture. In January 1867, Henry confessed in his next letter to his father:

I should have done better to enter your office [—the stock brokerage house of Lee, Higginson and Co.—] in '64 as a paid clerk with a prospect of becoming partner: indeed should do so now, if that were possible. Still this work, embracing as it does the whole black question, is highly useful and important. If I were rich enough to disregard gains, and could spend something on the welfare of the blacks, Ida and I could doubtless produce some satisfactory results in a few years. A little money put into better houses and into the simplest home-comforts would tell greatly.

Henry's woes with Cottonham increased as the year progressed. The house servants and some laborers were caught stealing from them. What's more, they discovered that Mr. Rogers had really owned only 2500 of the 5000 acres he had sold them. Though frustrated by the project in general, Higginson remained patient and compassionate towards his workers. In April, Henry wrote to his father:

The blacks will advance, if they are led, and if they will trust anyone. Now they cannot be induced to talk, to ask questions. They will listen, but not heed much from a white man.

By late spring, however, Cottonham's failure seemed inevitable. Channing Clapp headed home after a wave of heat arrived along with an infestation of rats, mice, fleas, and malaria. When Ida developed a touch of malaria, Henry decided it was time to give up the project entirely, despite the fact that Ida believed they could make a difference if they stayed another year. The Higginsons left on May 21, 1867, with Charles Morse now the sole overseer of the plantation. Morse held out hope for the crops that began to revive during summer, but by September when they were consumed by caterpillars, he too realized that all hopes for Cottonham were in vain.

Building a Future with His Family

Higginson in late 1860s or early 1870s   After Henry and Ida returned from Georgia they moved into a small apartment in Boston. Henry's unsuccessful business ventures had left them more than $10,000 in debt, and at age 33—with responsibilities and obligations to significant persons in his life—he could no longer afford to invest much time and money in romantic but impractical dreams. Reluctantly, Henry settled down and faced the reality of a future in the family business of Lee, Higginson and Company.

Henry became a partner in the firm on January 1, 1868, and a year later Frank joined them. The two brothers added energy to the respected brokerage that had a reputation for honesty and integrity regarding their assessment of properties and relationships with clients. At this point in time—with the rebuilding of the nation after the war—investors poured capital into manufacturing industries. Great developments began to unfold in the West, in the construction of railroads and speculation in gold, and the firm enjoyed a renewed prosperity in the volume of stocks and bonds they sold—despite a few setbacks in the stock market.

Photo of Higginson from late 1860s or early 1870s, care of Massachusetts/MOLLUS, USAMHI, Carlisle, PA. Image courtesy of Brian Pohanka.

The start of the next decade found the Higginsons celebrating the birth of their daughter Cécile on January 5, 1870. That summer, the family left their residence at Hotel Hamilton and stayed in a rented cottage at Beverly Farms, near the coast. Henry did not spend too much time away from work, however, as his new career kept him well occupied, often traveling to sites of prospective investment opportunities. In this decade, he also began to expend efforts to honor those dearest to him in some tangible form that could benefit a number of people. The first of these projects was the construction of the Hotel Agassiz, a French flat (apartment house) that he named for Ida. Built in 1872, this edifice still stands at 191 Commonwealth Avenue, its living spaces converted to condominiums in recent times.

In the spring of 1873, for the first time since he began his employment at the firm, Higginson traveled to Europe on a non-business trip to the Vienna Exposition. As one of the honorary commissioners appointed by the Massachusetts Legislature, he was reunited with friends and former Civil War comrades Charles Adams (chairman of the commission) and Greely Curtis (also an honorary commissioner). During the several months he remained overseas, Henry revisited Paris and London, and ventured on to Venice. As in his former days abroad, he enjoyed the theatre, read books, and wrote letters home. However, life was different than it had been 15 years ago, and he spent a considerable amount of his free time planning for his immediate family's future, having dresses made for Ida, and shopping for furniture in preparation for their move to the Hotel Agassiz. Henry also pursued business opportunities with British investors and bankers.

But despite the external changes in his life, Henry remained true to himself and his desires. While in Vienna in July, he called upon friends in the music business whom he hadn't seen in years. He reported joyously in a letter to his father:

...I'm pleased very much to be so kindly and affectionately received by all and to find that I've not been forgotten during this eighth of a century—egotistical, is n't it? but very pleasant for one who prizes friends. Then too I 'm greatly pleased to see how sundry men, whom I knew, have grown larger and better. One of them is director of the opera, another is sub-director, another leader of the orchestra, etc., and the chief of the Conservatorium, which is greatly improved....

A month later, Henry's letter to his father expressed his pensive side. As in days past when he first contemplated a career in the firm, he was filled with self-doubt regarding the non-fulfillment of his personal goals and his work in the world. However, as he now approached his 39th birthday, his view of his father had broadened and matured over time. Having come to know George Higginson as a business partner, Henry could now better appreciate his father's personal character and accomplishments.

My real regret down-town, beyond my own ability to regulate my life well and to do much without so much worry to me, is, that I don't gain wisdom much. To lose money is no such serious matter, but to see clearly that one will lose and to act accordingly in due season to avoid it—that is worth working for; and when shall I get it? Another thing came to me clearly one day in London: "We can't serve God and Mammon," which always had a distinct enough meaning for me, but—if one wishes a thing very much indeed and works and struggles for it, one is likely to lose balance a little and may sacrifice better things. You have preserved your honesty entirely thro' a long and hard life, and it is a wonder. Well, perhaps one reason has been that you 've cared more to keep your balance and your honesty than to get money....

Henry also reflected fondly on his mother:

To-day [August 16 (mother's birthday)] is to be remembered always—and has been here. Sixty-two years old—and 24 years since she died. It is a great while, and has been a great deal longer for you than for us, and I am older than mother was. You have had a hard life—certainly not without its joys too, but still a hard and dry life, which is all the more reason for my being at home soon. How well I remember the last summer of mother's life!

When Higginson returned to Boston in September, panic hit the financial world as cash became scarce due to over-trading, over-construction in America, and excessive borrowing overseas. Businesses shut down over night and many laborers lost their jobs. Though it would take years for the economy to recover, Lee, Higginson and Co. survived in its industry.

The ensuing years of the decade brought more dynamic changes in Henry's personal life. In February 1874, Henry and his family moved into the Hotel Agassiz. Two months later, at the urging of his partners, George Higginson retired from the firm at the age of 70. The collapse of the economy had caused a great deal of stress, and his family and friends did not want George burdened with the day-to-day activities of the business. In August 1875, the death of five-year-old Cécile brought heartbreak to Henry and Ida. Despite the joy over the birth of their son Alexander on April 2, 1876, Henry secretly bore his grief over the loss of his daughter for the rest of his life.

The Beginnings of a Musical Legacy

Henry Higginson was not one to quit in the face of adversity. During the course of his life, challenges were not obstacles but opportunities for learning, personal growth, and higher achievement. Though he was dealt his share of suffering, Henry continued with his noble ideals for the betterment of the lives of his friends—even those whom he would never meet—and his gifts to humanity were enduring.

In March 1881, Henry unveiled to Boston his plan for an orchestra that would perform "concerts of a lighter kind of music." The product of Higginson's vision was the
Boston Symphony Orchestra—the first of his great gifts—world renowned as one of the finest orchestras to this day. On April 27, 1914, when Henry was nearly 80 years old, he delivered an address to members of the orchestra, describing when his idea of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was conceived, and how his dream came to fruition:

Sixty years ago I wished to be a musician, and therefore went to Vienna, where I studied two years and a half diligently, learned of music, something about musicians, and one other thing—that I had no talent for music. I heard there and in other European cities the best orchestras, and much wished that our own country should have such fine orchestras. Coming home at the end of 1860, I found our country in trouble, and presently in a great war. Naturally I took part in the war, [and thereafter pursued a few opportunities before becoming a partner at the firm of Lee, Higginson, and Co.].

For many years I had hard work to earn my living and support my wife.... All these years I watched the musical conditions in Boston, hoping to make them better. I believed that an orchestra of excellent musicians under one head and devoted to a single purpose could produce fine results, and wished for the ability to support such an undertaking; for I saw that it was impossible to give music at fair prices and make the Orchestra pay expenses.

After consulting with some European friends, I laid out a plan, and at the end of two very good years of business began concerts in the fall of 1881. It seemed best to undertake the matter single-handed, and, beyond one fine gift from a dear friend, I have borne the costs alone.... [The annual costs amounted to] a large sum of money, which depended on my business each year and on the public. If the concert halls were filled, that would help me; if my own business went well, that would help me; and the truth is, that the great public has stood by me nobly.

In my eyes the requisites about the Orchestra were these: to leave the choice and care of the musicians, the choice and care of the music, the rehearsals and direction of the Orchestra, to the conductor, giving him every power possible; to leave to an able manager the business affairs of the enterprise; and on my part, to pay the bills, to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection, and always to remember that we were seeking high art and not money: art came first, then the good of the public, and the money must be an after consideration.

...Do not suppose that I am ignorant about the various members of the orchestra. At one time I knew every man; and if that is not the case now, I know many of you, and listen carefully to the playing of this or that man.... I watch the musicians almost too much, for it often interferes with my pleasure, thinking whether they are playing their best, and listening for the various points instead of listening for the whole. Whenever I go to a concert, there is always a sense of responsibility on my mind, and there is always great joy.

...Ever since my boyhood I have longed to have a part in some good work which would leave a lasting mark in the world. To-day we have a noble orchestra—the work of our hands—which gives joy and comfort to many people....

But it was more than a boyhood desire and a love of music that motivated Higginson to establish the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In a letter to Miss Frances R. Morse on September 18, 1881, he credited the sources of his inspiration for undertaking this monumental achievement:

I had a noble set of men-friends and loved them much and lived on them. They led me in part to thoughts and hopes which have resulted in this scheme. It seems to me to be worth while, and to be a little gravestone to them if anything, for they are all dead but one—a great loss to me and the world. To these friends I tried to give everything, because my belief was that one cannot do or give or take too much from a friend.


Part III of Henry's story continues:

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4


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