Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Ralph Connable

by Frank Boles

Recently at the Michigan Hemingway Society’s annual meeting, a participant from Canada asked me an interesting question. “What can you find out about Ralph Connable, the man who invited Hemingway to Toronto in 1920?”

To be honest, I had never heard of Ralph Connable, but based on a promise to “find out what I could and get back to you” I began to do my homework. It was worth the effort. Connable was a fascinating, Michigan-based, character.

Connable’s Hemingway connection was clear, and relatively brief. In December 1919 Harriet Connable, Ralph’s spouse, happened to hear Ernest Hemingway talk at the Petoskey Public Library. She took a liking to the young man, deciding he would be just the thing to introduce the Connable’s somewhat sickly son to the joys of physical activity. Hemingway was hired to spend the winter of 1920-21 in Toronto with the Connable’s son, while the rest of the family enjoyed an extended Florida vacation. The job was not particularly demanding and the Connables had also introduced Hemingway to the editors at the Toronto Star, for whom he started to write – eventually publishing 172 pieces in the Star over a four year period, many of them while in Paris.

That story is well told in the literature printed about Ernest Hemingway. But who was Ralph Connable? I spent an afternoon looking into the question and found one of those stories that had to be real, since no one would believe it were it put into a work of fiction.

Born in 1873 in Petoskey, Ralph Connable could politely be referred to as a gentleman who engaged in many careers, primarily because he failed in the one preceding his move to the next. His father was postmaster in Petoskey and relatively prosperous – a blessing that seems to have save Connable several times.

Connable attended Albion College’s Preparatory School where, by his own admission, his major interest was in stud poker. His scholarly career at Albion was short-lived. At 15, Connable’s father gave his son his first job -- charge of the stationary counter in the post office, a private concern for which the boy was to receive 10 percent of sales as his salary.

Connable himself, in an amusing autobiography from which most of this account is taken, admitted that had he been less interested in dime novels and more willing to serve his customers this arrangement would have worked out well. The counter, after all, was the only place to buy stationary in town. Unfortunately, Connable was much more interested in reading dime novels than the business, and saw no reason why a customer shouldn’t wait to be helped until he finished reading a sentence, or a paragraph, or maybe a page, or a bit more of the book. Business did not go well. This was a pattern that was repeated many times.

Next, he and his brothers got involved in fishing. Commercial fishing was a profitable business. With three steam tugs and almost 500 miles of gill nets, it seemed the firm’s future was bright. However the business did not go well.

With little prospect of making a go of fishing on the Great Lakes, Connable hit upon a new scheme – going to northern Minnesota to make caviar from sturgeon eggs. After spending a fall fortune to learn how to make caviar and a year in Minnesota he came to the sad realization that there were too few sturgeon in the area he had selected to make money in caviar.

Again out of a job, Connable found work with the Booth Packing Company of Chicago, acting as their agent in scouting potential fishing sites in Minnesota. This too did not amount to much, but it did introduce him to people in Chicago, which would play an important role in his future.

Leaving Minnesota and the Booth Packing Company, and returning to Chicago, Connable found work at an “Edison Phonograph Co.” on State St. in the Loop. The emporium had 30 or so phonographs where ”drunks with ‘sporting ladies’” would pay to hear songs played. Told he needed to go west for health reasons, he raised the money to buy two “Kinetoscope Fight Machines,” and shipped them to Colorado. He was assured by the company his would be the first “moving images” west of Chicago, an assurance he decided was not worth much when he arrived in Denver to discover someone had preceded him by about a month, with the same machines. Nevertheless by taking his machines to various mining towns he managed to make some profit.

But in the end he shipped the machines back to Chicago and in 1895 returned to that city. Looking for a line of work that would not be seasonal, he learned to run a laundry business by volunteering to work for free. After three weeks of “training”, he discovered that the owner of Petoskey’s White Swan Laundry was dead – and the business for sale. With a $500 loan from his father and several notes to various creditors the White Swan Laundry became his.

He learned two things running the laundry. Business was steady during the tourist season, but come October it slumped badly. The second thing he learned was that, when the business burned one night, the insurance money he planned to use to rebuild it went instead to the various creditors whose notes he had signed.

With the help of his father he ended up managing a bookstore in Traverse City. Having read little since those dime novels many years earlier Connable nevertheless was undeterred, writing that “Being completely uncultured adds a degree of assurance that spells success in any line.” While running the bookstore he first encountered the 5 & 10 business. Travelling to Chicago he bought a small stock of items from Siebert, Good & Company, which ran several large 5 & 10 stores. The five and dime business sold discounted general merchandise, generally as the name implied for either a nickel or a dime. Connable’s 5 & 10 business did well and soon proved much more profitable than the book store, so profitable the store was sold, and the new owner installed his son as the new manager.

As a substitute, Connable was offered the opportunity to manage another store in Kalamazoo, but with the sum of $2.85 in his pocket he turned down the offer to return to Petoskey.

In 1900 he decided to follow up on a casual remark made by Daniel Good, from whom he had bought that small stock of merchandise, that he would hire him should the opportunity arise. Good was indeed good to his word – and employed Connable at the company’s State St. store in Chicago at a salary of $12 a week. After about seven weeks Connable went back to Mr. Good and announced he was ready to become a store manager. The manager of the branch store in Bloomington, Illinois had just been fired – and Mr. Good gave Connable that job.

Given Connable’s past history, unsurprisingly things went poorly. The store burned. But something magical happened. Connable managed to persuade the more than peculiar owner of the property to allow him to rebuild on the site, something Mr. Good had been unable to accomplish. Good was so impressed Connable was recalled to Chicago to serve as Good’s assistant and general buyer for the chain’s nine stores – at the generous pay of $1,800 a year. Within six months Connable had proved so adept at the business his pay was raised to $3,600 a year.

Siebert Good & Company was first bought out by a company headquartered in Buffalo, New York, which in 1911 subsequently merged with several other 5 & 10 chains to form the 900 store strong Woolworth Company. The Woolworth Company wasn’t quite sure what to do with Connable, so they sent him to run their eleven stores in Canada. 

The stores were poorly managed, something Connable addressed quickly. They were also buying most of their stock in the United States, and as a result paying a 40 percent tariff to import the goods into Canada. Connable turned to domestic Canadian suppliers for most of his needs and avoided the 40 percent tariff – a change that made the stores profit soar.

Connable was opening eight to ten new stores a year, but was convinced that the biggest profits were to be made in Canada’s far west. Investors however balked at the high overhead Western stores would require. Eventually Connable was given permission to open three as an experiment, with the first in Calgary. After the store’s first month, Connable was given authority to open stores wherever he wanted. In 1915 he was made president of Woolworth - Canada. In 1926 he retired from Woolworth, a wealthy man despite the many business failures during his younger years.

Somewhere in this long career Connable developed a love for golf. He thought of it both as the perfect recreation for he and his staff, and a very, very good way to seal deals with suppliers. Connable’s love of the game, was such that he was responsible for the construction of Toronto’s earliest public golf course, sharing his passion with those unable to join a country club, which previously was the only way one gained access to the links.

Connable was also an inveterate practical joker.'His favorite escapade was to dress like a woman and walk into the men's locker room of the staid Lambton Golf Club. While men shouted and tried to hide behind doors, Connable would whisper, "I'm looking for my gentleman friend." 

Connable’s connection to Hemingway was brief. His connection to Michigan much stronger. And his story truly one of persistence in the face of repeated failure, eventually leading to finding his way to great success. It is amazing what kind of story can be found answering a simply question.