Thursday, April 23, 2009

Harold Isbell

At that particular junction in the history of the settling of the American West where stockgrowing and finance meet, there came to the dusty windswept plains north of Denver three brothers from Burlington, Vermont, who in the waning days of the nineteenth century managed to set up the largest sheepgrowing operation in the state of Wyoming. About 1882, the two older brothers, John and Tom, started a herd with some seed money they'd saved running a freight line into Denver and soon built it into a vast empire running sheep on empty expanses of land spanning several states. By 1890 their brother James joined them in their sweeping enterprise, which by then had moved from early encampment with Mexican foreman Adriana Apadaca near Fort Steele, Wyoming, to headquarters closer to Rawlins.

While their sheep ranged much of the Wyoming landscape, their enterprising spirit began to do the same, as they established nearly fifty trading posts dotting the sparsely populated map. They made their first tiptoe into the waters of banking in Salt Lake City, purchasing the Commercial National Bank in 1903 and changing its name to the Continental National, which became lead bank for a chain of twenty-seven banking locations spread throughout the Rocky Mountains from the dusty roads of Idaho to the glistening streets of Denver, pioneering the concept of the chain bank in the Intermountain West.

By 1910 the herd had grown to 125,000 head and the Cosgriff Sheep Company had established itself has the preeminent sheep ranching operation in that corner of the blossoming Western new world, when the family decided to break up its partnership, leaving James E. Cosgriff the only brother remaining in the enterprise. Prior to that, the largest single shipment of wool ever had been sent out by Cosgriff Sheep Company from Fort Steele, Wyoming, to Boston, Massachusetts, a trainload of 800,000 pounds at 8 cents per pound in 1905. The Cosgriffs had established themselves as stockgrowers, landowners, businessmen and financiers. In the history of wool growing in Wyoming, there was no peer. Those sheep they didn't own personally they financed for other sheep outfits, large and small, supporting the sheepmen in four states--Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado.

Tom passed away in 1915, and John in 1917, both before reaching the age of sixty, but brother James stayed on to tend to the industry the brothers had started with that little bit of seed money all those years earlier in Denver, growing the Continental Bank and Trust Company a state away in Salt Lake City amid a banking industry dominated by the financial interests of the Mormon Church, who had introduced banking and currency to the area after Brigham Young ended his pioneering trek westward in 1847 to determine that the barren valley was indeed "the right place."

It was the right place for J. E. Cosgriff, his family and his business interests, which like the valley began to blossom like a rose. James' son Walter continued the banking business, and by 1947 the bank's assets were in excess of $34 million, and helped to finance Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's new Flamingo Hotel in a bootstrap Las Vegas. Walter purchased a stake in the Bank of Las Vegas in 1954, and sent one of his employees, E. Parry Thomas, to Nevada to see firsthand if the struggling Vegas bank needed to be closed. The bank was not closed, but flourished, and Thomas, who was promoted to President of the bank on the death of Walter Cosgriff in 1961, became one of the pre-eminent bankers financing and influencing the casino industry of Nevada, confidant of Howard Hughes and ultimately mentor to Steve Wynn. The Thomas Mack Arena in Las Vegas bears his name. The little Las Vegas bank that Walter Cosgriff invested in went from equity of $250,000 in 1954 to over $400 million at the time of its purchase by Bank of America in 1992.

Walter and Enid Cosgriff, meanwhile, became known in the Salt Lake City area not only for their industry but for their generous philanthropy, which extended from the Catholic schools and hospitals to the University of Utah, and notably, to the arts. Ballet West and the ballet program at the University of Utah both owe their existence largely to the generosity of the Cosgriff family and Mrs. Enid Cosgriff particularly, who in addition to giving patronage to the arts became, at the untimely death of her husband in an auto accident, the owner and general manager of the Salt Lake Bees baseball team, the first woman in professional baseball to do so. The family established the J. E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School and endowed funds and scholarships in the Diocese of Salt Lake and elsewhere. After her husband's death, Enid Cosgriff was invested as a Lady of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, an honor bestowed by the late Pope John Paul II in 1988. She passed away in Salt Lake City in 1997 at the age of 84. Walter, called by TIME Magazine in 1950 "a Republican who thinks like a Democrat," had mingled with presidents and served as a member of the RFC.

Half a country away on the banks of the Mississippi River, a son of Dubuque, Iowa, who thought he might become a priest left Loras College and continued on to Notre Dame to further his studies, where he became Writer in Residence after completing his Master of Arts and joining the English faculty of St. Mary's College. It was there in the 1960's he met the daughter of Walter and Enid Cosgriff of Salt Lake City, Utah, and was married to her in Salt Lake's historic Cathedral of the Madeleine. Instead of becoming a priest, he became a banker, starting on the ground floor as a teller in his father-in-law's Continental Bank in Salt Lake City, rising ultimately to the position of Vice-President of the bank at which his mother-in-law, Enid Cosgriff, was director following her husband's death.

Like his in-laws, Harold Isbell with his wife Lyn became actively involved in supporting charitable causes and the arts in Utah, raising four children in the state before the Continental Bank interests were eventually sold and the couple moved to San Francisco, where they continue to be actively involved in philanthropic efforts.

I knew Harold Isbell as my roommate's cousin when I was living in Salt Lake City. I adored his parents, Max and Marcella Isbell, who lived near the Mississippi locks in Bellevue, Iowa, not far from the antique shops and the Maid-Rite. After Max's death, Marcy moved to Dubuque where she lived quite independently for many years, passing away in recent months at the age of 97. She was, quite literally, the little old lady from Dubuque, who read the Mayo Clinic Health Letter and The New Yorker with equal enthusiasm.

Harold M. Isbell.

Harold Isbell is best known in recent years as editor and translator for a number of Latin classics for Penguin Books, including Heroides by Ovid and The Last Poets of Imperial Rome.

It is, perhaps, lightyears away from the three brothers in Denver who started a small herd of sheep after leaving Vermont, lightyears away from the commerce and industry of stockgrowing in Wyoming, lightyears away from the bright lights of Las Vegas and the building of a banking empire in Salt Lake City, lightyears away from Dubuque.

Photograph of Continental Bank Building in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, now the Hotel Monaco.


Sid Parham said...

What a nice reminder that history is lives lived in and for their present, but which we see as past. I enjoyed Ballet West's performance without knowing any of this history, but these lives touched mine with no planning or thought on their or my part.

History is the web we live in and if we know its stands, we avoid its tangles

@sn1per said...

This is a story which spans distance, time and generations and I'm sure that there must be a movie in there somewhere :o)

How exciting it must have been, to live in times where it was possible to be a true pioneer, leaving a legacy which still thrives today.

rainbowlighthouse said...

Amazing to have a blend of literary and classical along with a life lived in that big & bigger banking world built in sheep all the way down - and spinning out generously into the arts.

[on sheep - built /on/ sheep, I meant to say :-)]

RiKMeistr said...

What a wonderfully crafted biographical anecdote with all the provocation of a bon mot! I enjoy your ability to keep the reader focused and interested throughout. I think you've pretty much discovered your algorithm of essay writing! Like they say,'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.:) Love/n/kisses, Rick