The life of William Reinholt Baumbach

(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles about Wadena founder W.R. Baumbach.) Founding fathers As with any community, certain people stand out as forbearers, leaders who took risks, used wise judgment and happened to be in the ri...

(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles about Wadena founder W.R. Baumbach.)

Founding fathers

As with any community, certain people stand out as forbearers, leaders who took risks, used wise judgment and happened to be in the right place at the right time to create a successful town. While not inclusive, the following are among the elite group who are part of Wadena's beginnings.

William Reinholt (W.R.) Baumbach, July 16, 1849 - Sept. 25, 1933.

Storekeeper, banker, telephone pioneer -- all describe W. R. Baumbach who visited Wadena twice in 1879 and decided to move his family from their Rochelle, Ill., home. It is not known exactly how he came to know of Wadena to make such a move. What ever the reason, he had ambition and an entrepreneurial spirit.



Baumbach was born July 16, 1849 in Racine, Wis., to German parents, Dr. Wilhelm (William) and Augusta Von Baumbach, recent immigrants from Germany. He had three sisters, Ida (Weltstein), Emma (Borsby) and Tillie (Hisle); and two brothers, Albert Moritz and a younger brother (name unknown), an animal trainer with the circus, last known to have headed for Australia in 1876.

In 1859, the family moved to Mendota, Ill. At 14, Baumbach ran away from home and joined the 132nd Illinois infantry, a 100 day regiment. Such regiments were established, because leaders thought the Civil War would be over soon. Baumbach's regiment relieved veterans who fought hard battles under Sherman, but Baumbach's replacement force never experienced any hard battles. They traveled to posts in Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri before being mustered out.

In an April 22, 1911, letter to his niece Edna (Baumbach) Dower, Baumbach sums up the experience:

"My service was not very long or very dangerous," he wrote. "The hardest part of my service was the loss of my mother, who died while we were in camp at Paducah. For years after the war I would never admit that I had been in the Army, because it seemed to me that a 100 day soldier amounted to nothing as compared with the veterans of three and four years service."

Baumbach added it bothered him that civilians looked equally upon soldiers who served short terms and those who served for years. Still, he wrote, "I am proud (now) that I had courage enough at 14 to shoulder a musket in the defense of the union."

After returning home he worked in the saddler business, then as a store clerk.

At 19, Baumbach married a teacher, Rebecca (Jenny) Dawson, on Jan. 18, 1869, in Rochelle, Ill. He worked as a clerk in Rochelle's J. C. Phelps store. After eight years, he and J. J. (Jake) Meyer formed a partnership and sold general merchandise at Baumbach & Meyer in Rochelle.


That was the business they brought to Wadena in 1879 at 7 Aldrich SW. The following year the men moved to a new, much larger (30 by 80 feet and 24 feet tall) building at 1 Aldrich SW. It was big news in Wadena's newspaper, the Northern Pacific Farmer, July 1, 1880.

"Sixty feet of the Front Street end of the building is to be occupied by the general merchandise store of Baumbach & Meyer, who propose (and whatever they propose may be relied upon as a foregone conclusion) to put in the largest and best stock of general merchandise in Minnesota north of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The entire capital of the firm will be invested in their business in Wadena, making one of the most wealthy concerns in the Northwest. The whole building, inside and out, will be constructed and fitted up in true metropolitan style, and will be a great addition to the village."

The rest of the building was leased to the Bank of Wadena and as offices. Still, the store was large enough to roller skate, which was what Mrs. Baumbach was doing in March 1884, when she fell and broke both bones in her left forearm.

The store was a stepping stone to Baumbach's next business -- banking. In 1885, he sold his share of the business to Frank B. Coon, also from Rochelle, Ill. By that time, Baumbach had proven himself to be in the league of wise businessmen. In 1882, for example, he was among other businessmen who incorporated and helped start the expansion of Clayton Manufacturing Co., which made steel and cast iron plows and other implements. The Northern Pacific Farmer described Baumbach and fellow investors as "far seeing citizens who put their shoulders to the wheel of progress and organized this industry."

In 1883, he and other businessmen engaged in a less serious pursuit, building a boathouse on East Battle Lake for their Wadena Boat club. They were well stocked with rowboats.

Banker Baumbach

Baumbach's Wadena Exchange Bank was private and lightly regulated when he purchased the Bank of Wadena, which had moved from his former store to 105 South Jefferson. In 1888, it burned down in a fire that destroyed a whole block of buildings, except the Merchants Hotel. Baumbach moved Wadena Exchange Bank temporarily to 112 ½ Jefferson, then back to a new building in 1890.

On Jan. 22, 1885, the Northern Pacific Farmer reported, "He will do a strictly banking business, and as he is a careful, level headed businessman, his depositors can lie down at night and their sleep need not be disturbed by dreams of lost deposits and howling creditors."


Baumbach was fortunate to have money to start his enterprises. He and his relatives divided a $55,000 estate left by an uncle in Germany. Baumbach's father invested in Lake Superior Consolidated stock for iron mines near Duluth. Thought worthless for years (and available at one point for 8 cents a share), the stocks became very valuable when the Rockefellers went into the steel trust. In 1901, Baumbach helped sell stocks owned by his father and a friend, Hulett Merritt. They received $5 million for their stocks.

In 1892, the bank moved in a new direction, with Baumbach's leadership and his vigilant cashiers, son Clifford W., and Albert L. Irwin (Wadena county sheriff from 1897-1922) and with authorized capital of $100,000 Wadena Exchange Bank became the First National Bank. Though outsiders were eager to purchase stock, Baumbach offered the opportunity first to local residents. About 10 locals signed on; other stock holders were from other parts of Minnesota, surrounding states and Illinois and New York. In a Dec. 8, 1892 article, the newspaper (now called the Wadena County Pioneer) said of Baumbach, "He is fair and honorable in all of his deals, and is a fit head for such an important institution."

Repeatedly the newspaper praised Baumbach as a conservative and wise businessman. Investors who followed his lead also did well, receiving about 8 percent interest each year.

As the Wadena bank grew, Baumbach organized and became president of banks in other areas: New York Mills in 1899, Bemidji in 1901, Sebeka in 1902, Blackduck in 1902, Grand Rapids and Hibbing in 1903, Perham in 1904.

Because his work took him out of town often, rumors started that he was leaving Wadena. He denied the rumors in a Jan. 4, 1906, Pioneer Journal article. "During my long residence here I have formed ties that could not easily be broken, and I certainly have no thought and no desire to make a change of residence at my time of life, reports to the contrary withstanding."

But a year later, things changed, Baumbach's wife had died after a long illness and Baumbach wanted to be with his son, who had moved to Indian Territory in Ardmore, Okla., as the head of Banker's Trust Company.

For $80,000 Baumbach sold his home and interest in the banks in Wadena, Sebeka and New York Mills, to Arthur Jesse and Watson Delano Merickel, of Eagle Bend in March 1907.

Next week: other interests

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