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Our attitudes toward business come full circle

March 13, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

Editor's Note: Tim Rowland had the day off Monday. This column was first published on Aug. 9, 2006.




In my dad's quirky, self-titled "Atomic Library" I found a lot of books about 19th century robber barons, which seemed a bit out-of-place amongst titles relating to the splitting of the atom, the complete works of Josephus and the Bible translated into, among other languages, Navajo and original Hebrew.

I'm not sure why that was. He always kind of conceived a spite against anyone who had "made his pile" and had more money than he did, which, at points in his life, represented pretty much all on the non-Bangladeshi human race.

So maybe the books were simply an accumulated targeting of his derision.

But they do make for superior reading in my view, at least over Navajo script which kind of makes Chinese look like "Dick and Jane."

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What's interesting is the full circle in our attitude toward business that has evolved over the past century. In 1900, power was in the hands of a few, and competing concerns united into trusts or pools to guarantee profits and universally hold down labor costs so they could wildly fatten their own wallets.

When these autocratic titans went too far, came the progressives, the trust busters, the government regulators and the unions, which ruled the roost for a half century until they in turn went too far and now we're all pretty much back to the way it was 100 years ago following the trends of mega-mergers, underpaid workers and spectacular CEO bonuses.

In another 50 years, I suppose the Exxon-Mobils, Wal-Marts and unregulated utilities will have gone too far and everything will flip yet again. No one ever learns. When people have the upper hand, they always try to make it upperer, even though it really isn't necessary.

In the days before air conditioning, lots of these old robber barons of the Northeast would vacate the cities for the cool of the Adirondack Mountains where they had used their surplus cash to build "camps." These complexes are camps in the way that Manhattan is a village.

Unfortunately, I missed taking part in the East Coast steam bath last week, because I was in these same Adirondacks, where people complain if the temperature gets up to 83.

This fact gave me a sentimental tie with the great moguls of yesteryear. In fact, I felt a certain kinship with them, up there beating the heat in the midst of glorious green mountains and sparking blue lakes. I was exactly like a robber baron, without the money.

So I decided to visit one of their old palaces. The best remaining example of a Great Camp is near the tiny town of Newcomb, which has to its credit exactly one more Great Camp than it has a place to buy a Coke.

Camp Santanoni, once the playground of an Albany banker, is a 5-mile hike or bike ride from the main road through pleasant forests and over a couple of rustic, moss-covered stone bridges. It sits on a large lake with a marvelous view of the southern High Peaks and lists, among its accessories, its own farm, which provided the meat, milk and vegetables for the "campers."

It's one of these sprawling architectural wonders that is supposed to resemble something, but doesn't. In this case, the multiple log buildings, connected by covered breezeways and grand porches are said to resemble a "rising phoenix." The fault here is probably mine, as I am not terribly up on my rising phoenixes, so as to know one when I see it. Also, it looks that way from the air - or from nearby hillsides which I suppose were cleared back in the day, but are now shrouded in woods.

It is quite the place and in good shape even though it hasn't served as a residence in decades. It's devoid of furnishings, but the monumental fieldstone fireplaces and birchbark wallpaper give an idea of past grandeur.

And yet, I couldn't help feeling a bit sad for the robber barons. I wonder what they would have thought if they could have seen what I saw, that being a gaggle of sticky-fingered urchins in bicycle helmets eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the very same front porch that was once the purview of great financiers, poets and dukes? How, they might wonder, did it come to this?

With time, there is never any dignity. Even for a robber baron.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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