Thomas Plant did everything larger than life when it came to baseball, his shoe manufacturing empire and his castle.
Little evidence remains of his triumphs on the baseball diamond and in the shoe factory, but there is a castle in New Hampshire that became a lasting testament to his monumental life.
Born on October 5, 1859, in Bath, Maine to French Canadian parents, Plant had no formal education beyond eighth grade, but he did have a head for business and exceptional athletic ability. He was a tough, gifted baseball catcher in an age where the position was played without benefit of a mask or (often) even a glove. He played in an era where there was no formal, single major league. Teams were sponsored locally and played for a company, town or other affiliation.
Though the era of the superstar athlete was more than 100 years in the future, Plant nevertheless used his baseball skills to catapult himself to success. After working harvesting ice and at other trades, Plant settled on a vocation: the shoe industry. His biographers note his baseball ability may well explain his move to Lynn, Massachusetts, the shoe-making capital of the world, as companies sometimes recruited employee-athletes to bolster their sports teams.
In 1886, Plant became one of ten investors who pitched in $100 each to form the Lynn Union Cooperative Shoe Company. Tradition states that he raised his stake by betting on a baseball team that he managed. Over time, he would venture out on his own to start the Thomas G. Plant Shoe Company. The company history has its highs and lows. Over the years, workers suffered serious injuries that resulted in contentious lawsuits and at one point labor relations were so strained that the union workforce waged a boycott of the company until conditions and wages were improved.
At the same time, the company also was known for its innovations and progressive labor practices. At its Jamaica Plain facility (built in part to escape the powerful unions of Lynn), Plant implemented color-coded uniforms for his workers to aid in efficiency and built ramps so that employees who had to move about the factory could use roller-skates to be more productive. The plant also paid higher wages than others and provided gymnasium facilities and a library to facilitate worker self-improvement. At its peak, the facility was the largest shoe factory in the world with more than 4,000 employees. (It was destroyed by fire in 1976.)
Thomas Plant’s Personal History
Plant’s personal legacy was as complex as his professional one. In 1895, Plant married Caroline Griggs in one of Chicago’s best-attended society weddings of the season. Griggs was of Connecticut descent, and her father was a wealthy, self-made man like Plant. By this point, Plant’s shoe company was generating more than $1 million in annual sales. He had lived frugally, occupying a room in his brother’s home rather than building or buying his own. Plant had aspirations of joining Yankee society and his marriage to Griggs helped his cause when the couple relocated to Boston.
But the marriage was ill-fated. It officially landed on the rocks when Catherine learned that Thomas had a paramour ensconced in a luxurious apartment, possibly a woman he’d met from his factory. Caroline served Tom with notice of divorce proceedings and moved to Cohasset in 1910. For the next two years, the marriage made wonderful newspaper headlines, but it resisted repair. It ended finally when one morning Catherine came down for breakfast in Cohasset to find a check for $1 million in her napkin ring – the final divorce settlement (at least that’s the story that is told).
Thomas Plant Takes on the Trusts
While his marriage was unraveling, Plant’s business was also experiencing headwinds. The United Shoe Machinery Company was formed when six machine-makers joined together and created a virtual monopoly on shoe-making equipment. They convinced the government to place a tariff on foreign equipment while they began putting the shoe industry in a stranglehold. They wouldn’t sell their equipment. Rather, companies had to lease it and pay royalties on shoes produced on the machinery. And if a company used any other manufacturing equipment in a plant with United’s machinery, it was a violation of the lease and United could, and did, repossess its machines.
Thomas Plant was unhappy with United’s business model. He first tried to negotiate with the company, suggesting reduced royalties for companies that produced large quantities of shoes. United declined. So he next set about patenting his own equipment and working with other companies until he could assemble a complete manufacturing line using non-United machines. This touched off a lengthy period of litigation between United and Plant. As his marriage was disintegrating, Plant began negotiations to sell his company to United to end the dispute. Over a period of many months, the two sides negotiated a price and he sold.
Some said Plant intended to sell his equipment and factory to United all along. Others said he was beaten by the monopolistic United and the sale was a defeat. During the negotiations, Plant confided to one friend that he was tired of business, and all he wanted to do was find a place to retire to in peace.
Out with Caroline, In with Olive
The sale complete, Thomas Plant took a vacation in France. He met Olive Cornelia Dewey, who was 24 years younger than he. This put paid to Plant’s marriage as the divorce proceedings resumed and quickly settled once he returned. Plant next married Olive Dewey, and the two began the hunt for Plant’s dream retirement home. His niece had filled his head with stories about the natural beauty of the Ossipee Mountains in New Hampshire and he dispatched his brother and his secretary to begin buying up land.
While other wealthy industrialists chose Bar Harbor or Newport for their summer retreats, the Plants chose a beautiful mountain top in New Hampshire.
The acquisition of the 6,300-acre property did not go without a hitch, as some landowners did not wish to sell. In some cases, Plant paid exorbitant prices for parcels. In others, he resorted to bullying to get people to move. When he finally assembled all the acreage he wanted, work began in earnest on Ossipee Mountain Park.
Thomas Plant Builds His Castle
Architects were hired and fired, as were craftsmen and others. More than 1,000 workers set to work on the project. Work stopped in one early stage when a builder hired on more than 100 Italian craftsmen from Italy only to be told by Plant to fire them. The result was the workers took their foreman captive and only released him when Plant coughed up the pay he owed.
Bit by grinding bit, Plant’s army carved the road to the cliff on which the castle is built. Stables, outbuildings, and other facilities were constructed and pink granite was mined and incorporated into the building.
The 16-room, 10,000-square-foot mansion was completed in 1914, and they called it LUCKNOW, perhaps a reference to a Scottish Castle or perhaps a simple pun because people who went there were in luck.
As everything involving Plant, the house was complicated and unique. It featured a blend of architectural styles, including Arts and Crafts, Mission, and Colonial Revival, reflecting Tom and Olive’s eclectic tastes. Plant himself suggested there were Norwegian, Swiss and Japanese influences in its makeup.
Likewise, the furnishings reflected the couple’s tastes and interests. Tiffany glass skylights and furniture by Irving and Casson represented the current styles they favored. Timber and building materials from locales around the world were incorporated into the construction. Modern indoor plumbing, needle showers, up-to-date kitchen and modern phone system highlighted Thomas Plant’s love of technology.
A suit of armor sized for the diminutive Plant was displayed, as were Tom’s trophies for his horses and an art collection, including several pieces depicting Napoleon. Thomas stood somewhere between 5-feet and 5-feet, 4-inches, depending on what source you believe, and he had a fascination with Napoleon.
Though no longer part of the property, Thomas Plant also established the Bald Peak Colony Club to have a golf course where he could play with friends.
Thomas Plant Strikes Out
Through most of the 1920s, Olive and Thomas Plant entertained guests at LUCKNOW, encouraging them to swim in Lake Winnipesaukee, ride horseback on the 30 miles of trails, enjoy a round of golf or just take in the scenic views.
Unfortunately, Plant’s success in the shoe industry did not translate to success in investing. He was patently bad at that, investing in sugar and Russian bonds, among other failures, and over the years his bank accounts dwindled.
He tried to sell LUCKNOW in the 1920s. His ad for the estate noted that the property was not for someone looking for a bargain and only men of “wealth and high standing and repute” should inquire.
“LUCKNOW is a country home for a man of big thoughts and ideas who can enjoy big things in a big way; a man who wants to make it possible for his family to spend long, happy summers and autumns in the open, close to nature, where they can enjoy within the limits of their own property every conceivable healthful outdoor sport.” He was unsuccessful in finding such a man.
Plant ended his life deep in debt. His former business associate held a mortgage on the LUCKNOW property and held off foreclosing, letting the Plants stay at LUCKNOW until Thomas Plant died in 1941. Upon his death, his friends had to take up a collection to pay funeral expenses, and the estate was sold at auction to settle his debts.
After Plant died, the property passed through a number of hands until it opened to the public as the Castle in the Clouds.
If you visit Castle in the Clouds.
Today the grounds are open for tours and hiking and riding seasonally, and the property includes a restaurant. It is a favorite destination for leaf-peeping. The property is located in Moultonborough, N.H. and offers a number of tours and special events each season. It is owned by the non-profit Castle Preservation Society.
This article draws on many sources of information, including the wonderfully researched Tom Plant: The Making of a Franco-Amer. Entrepreneur, 1859-1941 by Barry H. Rodrigue and Thomas G. Plant Shoe Factory Fire by Walter H. Marx.
Photos: LUCKNOW by Own work CC BY-SA 4.0,–