Business and Labor

Berkshire Hathaway, The Legacy of a Yankee Carpenter

The man who founded the nucleus of Berkshire Hathaway, one of the largest companies in the world, was not an investor from Omaha named Warren Buffett. He was a self-made Yankee mill owner named Oliver Chace.

Oliver Chance

Oliver Chace

A hardworking Quaker, he started out with limited means and little education. By the time he died, his textile empire would sprawl across New England. It survived financial panics and depressions. From those it emerged as a multinational conglomerate that owns GEICO, BNSF, Dairy Queen, Helzberg Diamonds and parts of Heinz, Mars, Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, American Express and IBM.

Oliver Chace

Oliver Chace was born in Swansea, Mass., on Aug. 24, 1769, to Jonathan Chase and Mary Earle.

His parents had long roots in New England. Though Quakers, their ancestors had sailed to Massachusetts with Gov. John Winthrop in the Puritan fleet.

Oliver had scant education, partly because of his parents’ finances and partly because of the instability of the American Revolution.

At 27 he married Susanna Buffington, and they had seven children. Two sons, Harvey and Samuel, would follow him in the textile manufacturing business. Samuel would marry Elizabeth Buffum, a leader of the anti-slavery movement.

As a young man, Oliver Chace went to work in Pawtucket R.I., as a carpenter for Samuel Slater at his textile mill – the first successful one in America.

In 1806, Chace bought part of a small cotton mill in Swansea. Seven years later he and his business partners built a cotton spinning and weaving mill, the Troy Cotton & Woolen Manufactory, They built it in Fall River, Mass., a village with a hundred or so residents.

Chace would be identified with the growth and commercial prosperity of the city. In 1813 he established another textile company in Fall River, the Pocasset Manufacturing Company.

His empire then grew.

Berkshire cotton mills

The Birth of Berkshire Hathaway

According to Fall River and Its Industries,

Oliver Chace was remarkable for the possession of several prominent traits of character; among them may be mentioned clear and sound judgment, punctuality, industry and integrity. He was regarded as rather harsh in his nature by some; but those who knew him best were ready to bear testimony that, in his case, beneath a somewhat rough and unpolished exterior there lay “a warm heart, that often throbbed in unison with the best impulses of our nature.

Chace bought and reorganized the Valley Falls Company in Valley Falls, R.I.  He then acquired more mills in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

After his death, Oliver Chace’s sons merged the Valley Falls Company with the Berkshire Manufacturing Company of Adams, Mass., to become Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates.

In 1955, Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates merged with Hathaway Manufacturing Company of New Bedford, Mass. to become Berkshire Hathaway.

Ten years later, an enterprising young investor named Warren Buffett would purchase Berkshire Hathaway. He then put a vice president of manufacturing named Ken Chace in charge. Chaces then served on the company board until 2007. Malcom Greene Chace III, was the last Chace director of Berkshire Hathaway.

Oliver Chace died in on May 21, 1852. He was buried in the Old Quaker Burial Ground in Providence, R.I.


This story last updated in 2022.

Images: Berkshire Hathaway headquarters By JonClee86 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11661344.

 

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