John Plankinton

John Plankinton (March 18, 1820 – March 29, 1891) was an American businessman and a Milwaukee-based meatpacking industrialist. He is noted for expansive real estate developments in Milwaukee, including the Plankinton House Hotel, and also for his generous philanthropy.

John Plankinton
John Plankinton circa 1891.jpg
circa 1891
Born(1820-03-18)March 18, 1820
DiedMarch 29, 1891(1891-03-29) (aged 71)[1]
Burial placeForest Home Cemetery[2]
OccupationBusinessman and industrialist
Spouse(s)Elizabeth née Brachein (m. 1840 – her death, 1872)[3]
Anna née Bradford (m. 1875 – her death, 1900)[4]
ChildrenWilliam Plankinton (b. Allegheny City, PA, November 7, 1843 – d. March 29, 1905)[5][6][7]
Hannah M. Plankinton, (b. 1851 – d. 1870)[8]
Elizabeth Ann Plankinton (b. Milwaukee, WI, 1853 – d. Lucerne, Switzerland, 1923)[9]

Early lifeEdit

Plankinton was born on March 18, 1820, in New Castle County, Delaware,[10] the son of Eli Plankinton and Mary née Johnson.[1] In 1832, when he was 12 years old, the family moved to Pittsburgh,[11] where Plankinton attended public schools and received most of his early formal education.[12] He met his future wife, Elizabeth Brachein, while a teenager in Pittsburgh, and they were married in 1840.[13][14] Plankinton's first job was as a butcher, and he pursued this career for some 22 years.[13][15]

Mid-life and careerEdit

Frederick Layton, 1850
P. Cudahy, 1900

Plankinton was 24 years old in 1844 when he moved with his wife and new son (William Plankinton, 1843–1905) to Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory.[6] He was going to form a business with a friend that had already moved to Milwaukee prior, but his friend formed a partnership with another person before he arrived using as an excuse that this other person had more money and skills available for the new business he had in mind.[16] Plankinton was disappointed and upset over the lack of confidence, so with his capital of $400 ($11,000 with inflation[17]) he built a general store in opposition and operated it for a few years and lived above the business.[18][19] In 1849 he began selling beef and hog products from his store that he processed and packaged himself.[16][20] He became the leading butcher and meat packer in Milwaukee with his first year at $12,000 ($369,000 with inflation[17]) in sales.[16][21][22]

Plankinton became acquainted with Frederick Layton around 1850 and formed a business partnership with him a couple of years later.[20] His two daughters, Hannah (1851–1870)[8] and Elizabeth (1853–1923),[9] were born around this time. The meat packing partnership enterprise of 1852 was called Layton and Plankinton Packing Company.[11][19][23] Layton retired and left the firm in 1861 to start a meat packing firm of his own.[24] Plankinton continued the Milwaukee business for the next couple of years and in 1864 formed a new enterprise with Philip D. Armour[11] – Plankinton & Armour Company.[25] They expanded their facilities by branching out into Chicago and Kansas City. They also had an exporting branch in New York City that operated on a commission basis. Plankinton & Armour Company's sales in 1880 was $15 million ($397,400,000 with inflation[17]).[26] In late 1884, 20 years after they formed their partnership, it was officially broken up. Armour continued with the branch firms in Chicago, Kansas City, and New York City.[27]

Plankinton reorganized his part of the Milwaukee meat packing business and Patrick Cudahy became his facility superintendent and a business partner. The firm was known as John Plankinton and Company.[12] Plankinton's poor health became an issue in 1888 and a major portion of his business went to Cudahy and his brother. The Cudahy brothers eventually renamed the meat packing enterprise "Cudahy Brothers Company". They moved the entire facilities in 1893 some two miles (three kilometers) from the Milwaukee city limits to a 700-acre parcel of farm land known unofficially as "Porkopolis".[28] It was later-named officially as the town of Cudahy, Wisconsin.[29]

Plankinton House HotelEdit

Milwaukee Plankinton House Hotel, as it appeared when built in 1867

When Milwaukee incorporated as a city in 1846, the American House Hotel in the center of town on Grand Avenue had been operating for three years. This wooden structure was completely burned down on July 4, 1861. Plankinton purchased this strategically located piece of real estate and constructed the Plankinton House Hotel there out of sandstone blocks and brick, chosen because they were fireproof.[30]

The hotel was in the French Renaissance architectural style. It had 400 rooms and could accommodate 600 guests. Built as an upscale hotel intended for business people and the wealthy, its frontage occupied 800 feet (240 m) on Grand Avenue. Inside was an elegant dining room that matched those of the most expensive hotels in the world and could accommodate over 300 people. Late in the 1890s, it was expanded to double the size of the hotel.[31][32]

Plankinton's luxurious hotel had a mansard roof and was the tallest building in Milwaukee at the end of the 19th century. The downtown location proved in the long run to be a good one. Transportation in the city improved considerably in the 20th century, with streetcars operating on the avenue where the hotel was located. The hotel and residence remained popular with the well-to-do until it was torn down in 1915, after spanning almost 50 years of existence.[33]

Associated businessesEdit

Plankinton was associated with Frederick Layton and others when in 1865 they took over the River and Lake Shore City Railway Company and incorporated it into the Milwaukee City Railroad Company.[34] Plankinton also financed the construction of the first Milwaukee public library in 1882, which at the time was on Grand Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Streets.[35][36]

On February 7, 1887, the Plankinton Bank (thought of as Plankinton's pet project)[37] began operations, established with capital of $200,000, the majority from the bank's President (John Plankinton, $43,500) and Vice President (Frederick T. Day, $63,000).[38][39] The bank grew into the leading bank in Milwaukee, but was forced to seek new investors following Plankinton's death, when several smaller stakeholders withdrew entirely and the Plankinton estate reduced its share. Day increased his holding to $96,000 and was appointed as the bank's new President, and was succeeded as Vice President by William Plankinton.[38] Loans made to Frank A. Lappen & Company (primarily by Day) totalling $250,000 precipitated a crisis when, on May 12, 1893, the sheriff took possession of both of the Lappen companys' stores and it became clear that little of the money would be recovered;[40] at the same time, Day had borrowings of $300,000 from the bank.[38] The subsequent run on the bank began on May 14, was ended with rumours of support from Armour,[40][41] but necessitated a bank reorganisation and seeking new investors, who failed to materialise. The failure of the bank was considered inevitable and it ceased operations on June 1, 1893.[41] With Day being blamed for the failure of the bank,[41] William was appointed assignee with a bond of $1,600,000, a role subsequently being passed to Irving M. Bean and then Henry Herman over the following decade.[38][39][40] According to a report in The Evening Republican, it was believed that depositors would not lose money based on "the character of men who are stockholders in the institution".[37]


Line drawings of the mansions of John Plankinton (left) and his son, as drawn by James Smith Buck around 1886[42]

Plankinton was married twice.[13] By his first wife, Elizabeth née Brachein, he had a son and two daughters,[5] his eldest daughter dying of heart disease at the age of 17.[8] After being widowed, Plankinton married his second wife, Anna née Bradford (1826–1900),[43] in 1875.[14] In 1864, Plankinton purchased the James Rogers mansion along with its surrounding seven acres of parkland, and spent $200,000 (equivalent to $2.7 million in 2018)[44] remodelling it into the "most elegant and expensive home in the city".[5][45] In the Fall of 1876, work began on the William Plankinton Mansion, a gift from his father following his wedding of William to Mary Ella Woods in April of that year.[5] It was located adjacent to Plankinton's own mansion and was completed in 1876.[46] The architect, Edward Townsend Mix, was the most illustrious in Milwaukee at the time and the construction supervisor was described as a "master mechanic" who had built other mansions and had handled the renovation of Plankinton's own property.[5] The cost of the John Plankinton mansion is not known, but the scale can be inferred from the $5,000 spent to add a carriage barn just after the mansion was completed, as at the time $750 was sufficient to build a country cottage and $7,000 was enough for a major stone-and-brick villa.[5] Plankinton also built a mansion for his daughter in 1886–87 when she was engaged to Richard Henry Park, at a cost of $150,000[11] (equivalent to $3.8 million in 2018).[44] Elizabeth never occupied the house as the wedding was called off after Park married another woman[11] in September 1887.[47] In fact, she only visited the house a single time.[48] Plankinton's first grandchild was born in 1881, when his son had a son, William Woods Plankinton (1881-1927); Plankinton's will left the bulk of his estate (estimated[11] following his effective retirement for health reasons from the Spring of 1889[49] at between $8 and $10 million (equivalent to $0.2 to $0.3 billion in 2018)[44]) in trust to his grandchildren and in the alternative to the hospital, so the child became the heir to the family fortune.[50][51][52][53] When Elizabeth died childless in 1923, her share went to her nephew.[9]


Plankinton died in his home on the evening of March 29, 1891,[54] attended by his family, close friend Jeremiah Quin, and his long-time doctor.[49] He was buried in the Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee[2] and a large monument and pillar is built on the site.[55] Other family members buried there include both of John's wives and all of three of his children.[7][8][43][56] The obituary began: "Milwaukee today mourns the loss of her foremost citizen, whose generous public spirit and many deeds of benevolence, whose great business ability and modest, upright life are imperishably written on the pages of Milwaukee's history."[49] Acts of philanthropy include Plankinton's donation of two lots for the formation of the First Holland Presbyterian Church, which subsequently became the Perseverance Presbyterian Church.[57] Plankinton also supported the formation of a soup house to feed the poor, by providing the building rent-free, along with a generous amount of money, and a daily supply of meat.[49]


Statue of John Plankinton

A statue in bronze of Plankinton from Park is now located in The Grand's Plankinton Arcade.[58][59] Elizabeth Plankinton commissioned artist Susan Frackelton to prepare and illustrate a hand-illuminated volume, Voices of Friends (also known as the Plankinton memorial book), with reminiscences of her father from his personal friends, those "who knew and loved him well".[60] It included contributions from Cudahy, Frackelton, Frank Gunsaulus, General Charles King, Layton, and Quin. It was displayed at the Layton Art Gallery,[61] to whom Elizabeth bequeathed $25,000 (equivalent to $0.3 million in 2018)[44] in her will.[9] The gallery has since closed, but the volume has become a part of the rare books collection of the Milwaukee Central Library.[60]

The Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Frame was initiated in 1993,[62] and Plankinton was one of three new inductees added in 1995.[63] The accompanying profile describes Plankinton as "A Merchant Prince and Princely Merchant",[14] a title also used in his Milwaukee Sentinel obituary,[49] and states that he "was known for his astute business ability, a religious and modest upright life and as a prolific contributor of benevolent deeds for the public at large".[14]


  1. ^ a b "Wisconsin Death Records (1867–1907): John Plankinton, 1891". FamilySearch. December 4, 2014. Retrieved January 29, 2017 – via Wisconsin State Historical Society.
  2. ^ a b "John Plankinton (1820 to 1891)". Forest Home Cemetery. Retrieved January 28, 2017.
  3. ^ "John Plankinton Dead". The Inter Ocean. Chicago, Illinois. March 30, 1891 – via  .
  4. ^ West 1918, p. 18.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Zimmermann 1969, p. 7–1.
  6. ^ a b Zimmermann 1969, p. 7–12.
  7. ^ a b "Wisconsin Death Records (1867–1907): William Plankinton, 1905". FamilySearch. December 4, 2014. Retrieved January 29, 2017 – via Wisconsin State Historical Society.
  8. ^ a b c d "Archive Roll Number: 3, Census Year: 1870, Census Place: Milwaukee, Wisconsin". U. S. Census Mortality Schedules, Wisconsin, 1850–1880. United States Census Bureau, Department of Commerce. 1870 – via Wisconsin Historical Society.
  9. ^ a b c d Israel, Herbert M. (June 12, 1933). "Famous Milwaukee Women – Story of Miss Elizabeth A. Plankinton". Wisconsin News. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Retrieved January 27, 2017 – via Wisconsin Historical Society.
  10. ^ Cramer 1891, p. 29.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Yenowine 1890.
  12. ^ a b Usher 1914, p. 1099.
  13. ^ a b c Hill 1891, p. 431.
  14. ^ a b c d WMIHoF 1995, p. 34.
  15. ^ "Personal and General Notes". The Times-Picayune. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 6, 1891 – via  .
  16. ^ a b c "Plankintgon Dead". Rock Island Daily Argus. Rock Island, IL. March 30, 1891. Retrieved January 29, 2017 – via Library of Congress.
  17. ^ a b c Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  18. ^ Hall 1896, p. 632.
  19. ^ a b Austin 1946, p. 120.
  20. ^ a b HS 2009.
  21. ^ Hill 1891, p. 432.
  22. ^ Still 1948, p. 187.
  23. ^ Still 1948, p. 64.
  24. ^ Anderson 1892, p. 187.
  25. ^ Wilson 1918, p. 54.
  26. ^ Yenowine 1887.
  27. ^ Apps 2015, p. 209.
  28. ^ Gurda 1999, p. 161.
  29. ^ Bruce 1922, p. 877.
  30. ^ Hintz 2011, p. 51.
  31. ^ Barton 1886, p. 69.
  32. ^ Anderson 1892, p. 240.
  33. ^ Beutner 2014.
  34. ^ Still 1948, p. 249.
  35. ^ Poole 1885, p. 4.
  36. ^ Still 1948, p. 382.
  37. ^ a b "The Plankinton bank closes up its Doors and Shutters". The Evening Republican. Columbus, IN. June 2, 1893. p. 1. Retrieved January 30, 2017 – via  .
  38. ^ a b c d "Plankinton Bank Records, 1866–1907". Archival Resources in Wisconsin: Descriptive. Wisconsin Historical Society. 2016. Retrieved January 30, 2017 – via University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.
  39. ^ a b "Plankinton Bank records, 1866–1907". University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2016. OCLC 145828990. Retrieved January 30, 2017 – via Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.
  40. ^ a b c "Bank Failure in Milwaukee". Minneapolis Daily Tribune. Minneapolis, MN. June 2, 1893. p. 3. Retrieved January 30, 2017 – via  .
  41. ^ a b c "A Broken Bank: Suspension of the Plankinton at Milwaukee – Unable to Recover from the Effect of the Lappen Failure It is Forced to Close". The Daily Citizen. Iowa City, IA. June 2, 1893. p. 1. Retrieved January 30, 2017 – via  .
  42. ^ Buck 1886, p. 178.
  43. ^ a b "Wisconsin Death Records (1867–1907): Annie B. Bradford Plankinton, 1900". FamilySearch. December 4, 2014. Retrieved January 29, 2017 – via Wisconsin State Historical Society.
  44. ^ a b c d Thomas, Ryland; Williamson, Samuel H. (2019). "What Was the U.S. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved April 6, 2019. United States Gross Domestic Product deflator figures follow the Measuring Worth series.
  45. ^ Buck 1886, pp. 176–179.
  46. ^ Buck 1886, p. 179.
  47. ^ Record #175 in marriages in the County of Ottawa, Michigan
  48. ^ Ackerman 2004, p. 105.
  49. ^ a b c d e "Death Wins Him: John Plankinton Passes Away at 8:40 Last Evening – Milwaukee Merchant Prince and Princely Merchant". The Milwaukee Sentinel. March 30, 1891 – via Wisconsin Historical Society.
  50. ^ "Baby May Save Millions – No Plankinton Money for Hospital if he lives". The Topeka State Journal. Topeka, KS. October 31, 1906. Retrieved January 28, 2017 – via Kansas State Historical Society and the Library of Congress.
  51. ^ "Baby Intervenes – Arrival of Heir to Plankinton Millions May Cost Hospital Millions". Forest City Press. Forest City, SD. November 8, 1906. Retrieved January 28, 2017 – via South Dakota State Historical Society and the Library of Congress.
  52. ^ "Heir to Plankinton Millions – Birth of a Son Lessens Hospital's Chance of Getting Estate". The Sun. New York City, NY. October 31, 1906. Retrieved January 28, 2017 – via The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation and the Library of Congress.
  53. ^ "Heir to the Plankinton Millions". New-York Tribune. New York City, NY. October 31, 1906. Retrieved January 28, 2017 – via Library of Congress.
  54. ^ "Conquered by Death". The Weekly Wisconsin. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. April 4, 1891 – via  .
  55. ^ "Forest Home Cemetery Plankinton memorial". Milwaukee Public Library Historic Photo Collection (F. P. Zeidler Humanities Room). Milwaukee Public Library Digital Collections. November 1973. Retrieved January 28, 2017.
  56. ^ "Elizabeth A Plankinton, 1923". FamilySearch. December 13, 2015. Retrieved January 29, 2017. Burial, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States of America, Forest Home Cemetery
  57. ^ "Church, one of oldest in city, to celebrate its 75th anniversary". Milwaukee Sentinel. November 28, 1931. Retrieved January 29, 2017 – via Wisconsin Historical Society.
  58. ^ Romell 2012.
  59. ^ Davis 2012.
  60. ^ a b Frackleton, S. & G. (1910–13). The Voices of Friends Concerning John Plankinton, Milwaukee's Foremost Citizen, Father of the West Side. Illustrations by Susan S. Frackelton. Inscribed by Gladys Frackelton. Miniature painted by Magda Heuermann. Text provided by the "personal friends of John Plankinton, who knew and loved him well": Edward P. Bacon, Jennie Owen Bradford, Patrick Cudahy, Susan S. Frackelton, Frank Gunsaulus, Amos Augustus Kiehle, Charles King, Frederick Layton, Jeremiah Quin, Charles Ray, Emma Sercomb Rice, Henry Trengrouse, Peter Van Vechten, and George H. Webster. OCLC 37161810 – via Milwaukee Central Library.
  61. ^ "John Plankinton Memorial Ready". Milwaukee Free Press. December 13, 1912. Retrieved January 27, 2017 – via Wisconsin Historical Society.
  62. ^ WMIHoF 2016.
  63. ^ WMIHoF 1994.