Fred Seely made business happen in the time of factories
by Rob Neufeld
In the Special Collections of Ramsey Library at UNCA, the Fred Loring Seely Family Collection comes to light, revealing how commerce worked a century ago.
“I have abandoned hope of getting you over the phone,” Judge J.D. Murphy urgently wrote Seely in 1927, sending a letter from his Jackson Building office to Seely’s at the Grove Park Inn.
Seely was a go-to guy. He managed the Grove Park Inn. He had newspaper and industry successes behind him. He played host to the players with the most.
“I have reached the conclusion,” Murphy said, “that the only way we can stabilize things in this community and build up a large and prosperous city will be to locate industries (such as) the Beacon Plant in Swannanoa and the Sayles Finishing plant near Biltmore”—that is, factories with villages.
“Developments in this country are a thing of the past,” Murphy professed, meaning companies that fed and fled. “We must now build on a sane and safe foundation.”
On Aug. 28, 1928, Seely wrote Dennis Brummit, N.C. Attorney General, on behalf of Eerste Nederlandsche Kunzydfabriek Arnhem—E.N.K.A., a Dutch rayon manufacturer looking to build a plant and village in Buncombe.
“They have understood,” Seely clued Brummit in, “that Tennessee would have an advantage over us of something like $130,000 per annum in taxes.”
North Carolina worked things out. ENKA built the factory, the smokestacks of which were demolished in 2007; and the village, which bears the name, Enka; and had a huge effect on people and history in this region, starting at the time of the Depression.
The ENKA deal seemed especially fortuitous to Seely. He had gotten to know and understand top Dutch capitalists early in his career.
After Seely had married Evelyn Grove in 1898, his father-in-law, Edwin Wiley Grove, had sent the couple to Java—what had been a ripe field for the Dutch East India Company in the 1700s; and promised to be one for Grove, deriving quinine from cinchona trees for Grove’s Chill Tonic.
Seely’s Indonesia scrapbook, held by Ramsey Library, includes a photo of bright, young Fred, in white attire, looking right at the camera, relaxing with Dr. Van Linge, Dutch quinine chief, on a porch.
Thirty years later, Seely evoked that time in a letter to Dr. J.C. Hartogs, ENKA’s owner in Arnhem, Holland.
“I do not have any selfish interest in wanting to be of service to Enka,” he began, “and because of my acquaintance and my long friendship with Dr. Van Linge and Dr. Camphius…I presume I have a little closer relation and a better understanding than men who have not had these advantages.”
Seely was a director of Wachovia Bank and Trust. ENKA put him on their board of directors in America. Thousands of locals were going to get jobs.
The ultimate goal of the great businessman in America’s industrial era was to serve as the people’s papa, which required relationships with other papas in business marriages.
“I began to work at manufacturing chemistry in a large laboratory in New York when I was but thirteen years old,” Seely revealed to Hartogs, “and I finally became connected with the largest laboratory in the United States at Detroit where I was foreman at the age of twenty-four.”
Big business deal-making was something like match.com.
Seely indicated his pleasure with American ENKA’s vice-president-in-charge, Dr. A.J.L. Moritz, “who has adapted himself to conditions until we hardly know him from one of our own people.”
When Hartogs was next in the U.S., Seely concluded, “I shall look forward with great pleasure to…having a visit with you at my home.”
ABOUT THE COLLECTION
The Fred Loring Seely Collection of the Special Collections department of Ramsey Library at UNCA, is featured on its website, http://toto.lib.unca.edu. This article has been drawn from an exhibit created by Robert Cuningham titled, “Fred Loring Seely and American E.N.K.A.)