Nov 10 2007
“Once in a while, even in the twentieth century, this country still sees enacted the kind of drama that made America what it is – the story of men tapping an unsuspected natural resource and adding another great industry to the national economy.”
Writer Kathrene Pinkerton, in her 1947 book “Bright with Silver,” was referring to the aspirations of Marathon County brothers, poor farm boys whose calculated risks began in 1903, first by growing ginseng, then by deciding to grow the crop under a banner of shade, which is still done today.
It was a novel approach to farming, but that’s not what made the world of high society take notice of Frederick Fromm’s kids.
Four of his 13 children – Henry, John, Ed and Walter – used a mortgage on the family farm to buy three silver fox pups, which were raised and bred for their fur. The boys had read about how one silver fox pelt commanded a price of $1,200 in London.
By 1917, the Fromm herd had grown to 100 foxes, and the business eventually was described as the biggest commercial fur farm in the world. Fromm Furs were known as home of “the million dollar foxes,” after the New York Auction Company wrote a $1.3 million check for the farm’s pelts in 1929.
The Saturday Evening Post eventually wrote about the brothers’ enterprising nature and fine products. So did National Geographic and Vogue.
The press reports would not be as glowing today, because sensibilities and fashion have changed dramatically. But nearly one century ago, this was the classic story of an American dream-come-true.
Today the former headquarters of Fromm Furs is a rural retreat center and museum whose owners, Gary and Sue Mason, are trying to make more people aware of the property’s historic significance.
“These boys, you didn’t tell them to NOT do something,” says Gary, who bought the remains of the estate eight years ago.
How much power did the Fromms wield in the fur industry? Plenty.
After losing one-third of their foxes to disease, the Fromms invested $1 million and hired a researcher who developed a distemper vaccine that still is used in animals today.
Pelt buyers from around the world came to remote Marathon County for fur auctions in the late 1930s, after the Fromms shunned similar events at the world’s major trading centers, including London and New York City.
The family owned thousands of acres, and amenities at their estate included a nine-car garage, a heated sidewalk and a lap pool. Inside a large and luxurious log clubhouse, built in 1934, are two stone fireplaces and a four-lane bowling alley.
“It was a place to entertain buyers and others,” Gary explains. “We’re trying to preserve the history.”
At peak production times, Fromm Furs had 500 employees. After the silver fox trade proved to be successful, mink also were raised, and that herd peaked at 40,000 in the late 1930s.
The Fromms’ final fox pelts were sold in 1986, as societal attitudes toward fur coats shifted from envy to outrage. Some reports also say the family’s savvy business sense dissolved as generations aged and authority changed.
“They helped their parents in the struggle for a bare existence,” wrote Kathrene Pinkerton, in “Bright with Silver.” The Minneapolis native, who died in 1967, was best known for writing novels for teens and books about living in Canadian wilderness.
“They earned everything they wore and ate,” she continued, in romanticizing the Fromms’ success.
There is a difference between advocating the practice of fur trading today and respecting the history of a once-vibrant industry. The Masons seem to understand the difference, and the lesson is something that has taken me decades to learn.
My father was a backwoods farmer who supplemented his income by trapping wildlife – raccoons and muskrat, an occasional fox and mink – in woods and swampland, from his teens until his late 70s.
The money from pelt sales made it possible for my dad to buy a farm in the 1930s. Trapping was far less laborious and more lucrative than his work as a farmhand.
His ambitions were much smaller than the Fromm brothers’, but they weren’t unusual for the working class during this particular era of history.
The Silver Fox Resort, 436 Hwy. F, Hamburg, is northwest of Wausau and south of Hwy. 64 in Marathon County. Tours of 90 minutes are by appointment and $12 per person; minimum tour size is 10 people.
Accommodations include the estate’s three-story 1926 boarding house, which has nine pleasant but simple bedrooms and space for 15 roll-away beds in another room. House rental, which also includes modern kitchen and conference room access, starts at $450.
A one-bedroom cottage on the grounds rents for $100 per night. The 1934 log clubhouse is rented by the hour.
For more: www.foxtale.org, 715-539-8574.