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P.A. Peterson: ‘Rockford’s Greatest Citizen’

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At the dawn of the 20th century, Rockford was a booming town, driven by many Swedish immigrants, including PA Peterson. Jon McGinty explores the history of Rockford’s greatest philanthropist, whose influence is still felt today.

A portrait of P.A. Peterson (photo provided)

During his lifetime, P.A. Peterson was called the Furniture King, Rockford’s Greatest Citizen, and the city’s all-time industrial captain. His rags-to-riches story is an inspirational tale of hard work, perseverance and generosity, all of which made an indelible mark on our community. Although he died in 1927, his name is still easily recognized in Rockford, and his influence is still felt.

Pehr August Peterson was born in Västergötland, Sweden, on Sept. 8, 1846. When he was six, his family crossed the Atlantic in a sailing ship called Lulia. The Petersons were among the first Swedish immigrants to arrive in Rockford by train, to begin a new life.

Four years later, the family moved to a small farm near Cherry Valley stocked with a team of horses, a cow and some chickens. While his father worked as a tailor in Rockford, Pehr and his mother did most of the farm work. By the time he was 14, he could do the work of a grown man, and was paid accordingly by the neighbors for whom he worked. Evidence of his emerging frugality also appeared at this time, as he was sometimes seen walking barefoot, with his shoes dangling around his neck, in order to save on shoe leather.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Peterson wanted to enlist in the Union Army. But because he was just 15, he needed his parents’ permission, and they refused to grant it. He instead sought employment in the lumber camps and sawmills of Wisconsin and Michigan, where he stayed until 1875. At age 29, Peterson returned to Rockford and attended classes at a business school, while selling insurance and real estate with E.H. Baker.

The furniture industry was founded in Rockford during the 1860s, by Swedish immigrants who set up shop in the water power district, an industrial area along the west bank of the Rock River, near Kent Creek. Many Swedes had settled in Rockford simply because, at that time, the Galena & Chicago Union railroad ended there, on Kishwaukee Street. Most were displaced tenant farmers responding to crop failures in Sweden, who brought with them woodworking skills developed during long Scandinavian winters. By 1870, the Swedes in Rockford numbered around 3,500 – 25 percent of the city’s population.

In 1875, Peterson joined with a small group of Swedish cabinetmakers to start the Union Furniture Company. The others – Jonas Peters, John Erlander, Johs Pehrson and James Sundquist – wanted Peterson to be the secretary/treasurer, since he had taken bookkeeping courses at the business school. He also took on the tasks of crating and team-driving for the company.

The business was a cooperative, modeled after practices common in Sweden. The stockholders were working men who purchased their shares with small deductions from their monthly pay. The initial investment of $12,000 was spread very thinly, and during the first year, the company struggled to make ends meet.

Years later, Peterson would describe it like this: “The day before payday, I would go home early, hitch my horse to the wagon, and drive out to the farmers for whom I had worked. From them I would borrow enough money to meet the payroll. My mother had a good credit. Everybody took her word, and I had succeeded in winning a certain amount of confidence … In spite of hard work and long hours, the first year we lost money, but the second year we could declare a dividend. I got 40 dollars and that was the biggest money I ever received in my life, as it was the first money I received without actually working with my hands for it. Later in life I received many times greater sums, but none ever looked so big to me.”

Peterson repaid every one of the loans, even when it meant borrowing more money to do so. Often, when he was in debt, people would offer him help, but he would usually refuse, thinking it necessary to appear successful.

In 1880, buoyed by the success of his first company, P.A. (as he had come to be called) joined with other stockholders to start the Rockford Chair & Furniture Company. As before, this business at first struggled to succeed. To drum up more sales, Peterson sent the new manager out on the road and took over his job. For about six sleepless weeks, he managed the Union office during the daytime and took care of the new company books at night. What little sleep he got was leaning his head on his desk at 4 a.m., waking up when the Rockford Chair & Furniture men came to work. He would then go back to his office at Union Furniture. The manager soon returned with enough orders to insure the initial success of the new company.

His home on the day of P.A. Peterson’s funeral in 1927. (Midway Village Museum photo)

Peterson’s management style was very “hands-on.” He knew most of the workers by name and made a point of listening to their complaints or suggestions. No receptionist sat between him and the door, and he often held meetings over woodpiles on the factory floor. His energy seemed endless. Rising at 5:30 a.m. each workday, he arrived at his office by 6 a.m., returned home 12 hours later for supper, and read until bedtime at 11 p.m. During World War I, while serving as president of the District Exemption Board, he started his day at 4 a.m., in order to attend 8 a.m. meetings in Freeport.

From 1879 to 1892, the Rockford furniture industry expanded, and Peterson was at its center. He became a controlling stockholder in enterprises including Rockford Mantel, Rockford Folding Bed, Skandia Furniture and Rockford Bookcase. He also invested in Rockford Standard, West End, Central, Rockford Miter Box and Hanson Clock.

By the 1880s, Peterson had established a significant network of credit based on his unflagging reputation for repaying his loans. Many Swedish companies sought his financial help, and bankers were known to approve loans to customers based solely on his signature on a scrap of paper promising to guarantee the loan. If the borrower was unable to repay when the note came due, Peterson paid the debt and often acquired shares in the company as a result.

The Union Furniture factory burned on Aug. 25, 1889, but another facility was quickly built on 18th Avenue, a location which already housed several of Peterson’s businesses. By this time, Rockford had become the second-greatest furniture manufacturing city in the country, second only to Grand Rapids, Mich.

The Panic of 1893, until then the most serious economic depression ever experienced by the U.S., had a great impact on Rockford. In one day alone, the sheriff closed more than two dozen factories, many of them Swedish furniture manufacturers. Peterson lost between $200,000 and $300,000, but refused to declare bankruptcy. Instead, he resigned his offices in the companies and went to work as a salesman for the Central Furniture Company.

Peterson worked at his new job for three years, saving his earnings to repay his debts – with interest. In 1896, the banks offered to return ownership of the companies to him, if he would repay their investments; apparently the factories had foundered since his departure. Peterson resumed his management responsibilities while continuing to repay his debts. He purchased stock from frightened investors at low prices, and when profits increased, paid them back at full price. When people commented on his integrity in these matters, he said, “No man is entitled to any [special] credit for paying his debts.”

“P.A. was a visionary who recognized opportunities for growth in the community,” says Laura Furman, curator of collections at Rockford’s Midway Village Museum. “He sought out investments in many businesses that weren’t just making furniture, companies which used the same cabinet-making skills, but were niche markets with other components to them.”

Peterson invested in, or purchased outright, Haddorf Piano, Illinois Sewing Machine, Rockford Mirror, Rockford Varnish and National Lock. His later investments included Rockford Drop Forge, Rockford Life Insurance, Stonefield-Evans Shoe Company and the Swedish Building & Loan Association (today’s US Bank).

To ensure an adequate labor force, Peterson advertised in Sweden for woodworkers to come to America, and even financed their journeys to Rockford.

An 1880 photo of the Swedish cabinetmakers who shared ownership of the Union Furniture Co., the first company Peterson helped to found. He’s in the second row from bottom, fourth from the left. (Midway Village Museum photo)

Peterson never owned a car, preferring instead to ride streetcars or walk briskly from his home on 7th Street to his many businesses and back, in all kinds of weather, seldom wearing an overcoat and often carrying a Bible. He was a lifelong member of Trinity Lutheran Church on 1st Street, but he didn’t tolerate long services. One time he brought a prayer meeting to an end by saying, “You will have to quit now, because I am going to turn out the lights and lock up. I have to get up in the morning and go to work.”

In 1903, at age 57, Peterson married 32-year-old Ida Mae Anderson from Marinette, Wis., whom he met on a lumber-buying trip. In 1919, the couple moved from the 7th Street address to an elegant Gothic Revival-style home at 1313 E. State St., built in 1873 by John Lake, a lumber dealer and building contractor.

At the time, Peterson was president of the board of trustees at the newly-opened SwedishAmerican Hospital, another facility he was instrumental in founding. He originally purchased the Lake home to be used as a residence for the hospital’s student nurses, but the young women were reluctant to move into such a big building. Peterson transferred ownership to the hospital, with the provision that his family members could live there until they died. Today, the building is used for hospital executive offices and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While the Chicago Fire of 1871 fueled the emerging furniture industry in Rockford, the depletion of hardwood forests in Wisconsin forecast its ultimate decline. Peterson was aware of both trends and shifted his investments accordingly.

Author Pat Cunningham notes in his book, Rockford: Big Town/Little City: “[Peterson] recognized metal working was the way of the future and eventually had his fingers in as many as 50 corporate pies.”

One Swedish machine shop which Peterson supported in its infancy became a founding division of Borg-Warner Corp. Two others eventually merged to form Sundstrand Corp., now UTC Aerospace Systems, one of Rockford’s largest employers.

Peterson’s generosity extended beyond his own family and church, to include his competitors and his employees. He often cosigned loans for them and gave personal checks to their widows. The Petersons had no children of their own, and Ida Mae’s spinster sister, Winifred, lived with them all her life. When a widowed worker in one of his factories died and left two young daughters, the Petersons took them into their home and raised them as their own, although Mary Ann and Grace were never formally adopted.

Peterson not only contributed to his own church but to others as well, including Calvary Lutheran and the Swedish Methodist Church on 1st Avenue, a building which later housed a Jewish synagogue and, later still, the Charlotte’s Web Coffee House. He was also one of the largest contributors to the Anti-Saloon League, the leading lobby organization which helped to pass the 18th Amendment that created Prohibition in 1920. Late in life, Peterson served on the appointed Rockford School Board for 15 years. A school on 21st Avenue was named for him; today, it’s a remodeled apartment complex.

When Peterson died in 1927, he was a multimillionaire. On the day of his funeral, factories and businesses throughout the city closed their doors for the day in his honor. He was buried in Scandinavian Cemetery on top of a hill. Today, the site is also the final resting place of his parents, wife and sister-in-law.

Peterson’s will designated gifts of $500,000 each to the Augustana Lutheran Church Board of Foreign Missions, for the construction of a home for aged Swedes, and the YMCA, for the building of a local chapter. His wife renounced the will, apparently upset with her portion of the inheritance. After 10 years in the courts, she won her case. The Lutheran Church received its full gift, but the P.A. Peterson Home for the Aged and the YMCA received lesser amounts.

In a letter to a charitable organization he gifted, Peterson stated the following:

“The greatest need of the world is sympathy. There is no investment on earth that pays so large dividends as deeds of mercy. The satisfaction one may have in increasing his holdings in the almighty dollar amounts to nothing compared with it.

“In fact, the accumulation is a curse to anyone who fails to distribute the reasonable part of it day by day to the unfortunate. To him who lives this part for his fellow, comes memories that are ever sweet – and what more than that can be wished for?”

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