The Rise and Fall of B. J. Ricker
When he arrived back in Grinnell in the mid-1890s B. J. Ricker was young and unproven. Even when he bought a share of the glove company in 1895, he remained a minority partner in a firm that continued to be named after his brothers-in-law, David Morrison and Andrew McIntosh. But things went very well from then on for Ricker. The company that had employed only 25 or so workers in 1895 grew rapidly, leading to the construction of a three-story factory building on south Broad street that employed about 120 persons. In 1906 the company doubled its space, adding a second building to their facilities, and within two years the company was renamed Morrison-Ricker in recognition of B. J.’s increased share in the business (as well as the withdrawal of McIntosh and one other minority partner).
And in fact B. J. clearly was an asset to the company. In 1904 he secured a patent for a new binding for glove seams, and in 1907 he designed what became one of the company’s best-selling gloves, the so-called “Rist-Fit” glove (this, too, protected by patent). More than that, in these years Ricker had the company embark upon an aggressive advertising campaign that significantly multiplied demand. At first limiting advertisements to specialized audiences—railwaymen, bridge-builders, and automobile owners—Ricker soon had the company plastering its advertisements in national publications like Life and Saturday Evening Post. Even some highly-specialized publications, like the Journal of the American Medical Association became a venue for glove company advertisements.
All this business success had its impact on B. J. Ricker’s social profile. In 1905 he was elected to a two-year term on the city council, where Ricker headed the successful drive to pave Grinnell’s downtown streets. Soon thereafter Ricker found himself on the boards of the newly-formed Grinnell hospital, the newly-founded Grinnell Country Club, and the pioneering airplane company of Grinnell’s Billy Robinson. Active in Grinnell’s automobile club, he was also a Mason, member of the Commercial Club, the Poweshiek Club and the Iowa State Manufacturers Association (of which group he was president in 1912). Perhaps most importantly in 1909 Ricker was elected a director of Merchants National Bank, serving along-side the long-time director, former mayor, and former state representative, Dr. E. W. Clark. When Clark died in February 1910, he left a vacancy on the Grinnell College Board of Trustees, and in June of that year B. J. Ricker took his place on the board and on the board’s executive committee, where much of the day-to-day work of the college took place.
In short, B. J. Ricker had become a powerful and rich man. Although the 1919 Chicago newspaper article about the adoption of the twins may have overshot the mark by calling Ricker a millionaire, he was nevertheless very secure, financially and socially. It was therefore all the more painful when Ricker had to confront financial crises in each of the three main areas of his influence—the Grinnell College Board of Trustees; Merchants National Bank; and Morrison-Ricker Manufacturing. These crises not only undercut all the wealth and influence he had accumulated in Grinnell over the preceding twenty-five years; they also drove him and his family out of their dream house designed by Walter Burley Griffin and out of Grinnell to California.
The frequent meetings of the Executive Committee of the Grinnell College Board of Trustees consumed a good deal of Ricker’s time in the fifteen years he served the college. And they were momentous years, as the college embarked upon an ambitious building program, creating dormitory complexes on north and south campus, as well as the new classroom building, Alumni Recitation Hall. At the same time the college acquired properties along the borders of campus so as to permit growth, nearly doubling the size of the campus. In these and many other efforts Ricker, member of both the Finance and Executive committees, played a leading role. Because trustees were also expected to help lead the way in raising funds, Ricker and his wife volunteered sizable gifts to the college, reflecting the couple’s financial well-being. So long as the agrarian economy prospered, all was well.
But on the heels of the World War I peace, things began to slow down, and in the early 1920s rural banks began to fold all across the Midwest. The College also felt this constriction, and tried to keep the budget in line, even choosing to eliminate a half-dozen faculty positions and some scholarships while shortening the academic year. It was in this environment that Ricker’s financial vulnerability first emerged.
At a May, 1922 meeting of the board’s finance committee, Ricker solicited a loan of $4000 to pay off a loan of the same amount that he had taken on some acreage in Idaho. The minutes of that meeting reveal little, merely reporting that a five-year loan at seven per cent was approved. But trustees might well have wondered why a director of one of the town’s banks, a co-owner of one of the biggest businesses in town, and a frequent contributor to college campaigns could not manage his cash flow better.
If any trustees suspected that Ricker was failing, they soon received unwelcome confirmation of those suspicions. At a meeting of the board’s executive committee in May, 1925, Ricker proposed to exchange a Poweshiek County farm that he owned for a $5000 pledge that he had made to the 1919 capital campaign. Evidently there was resistance; the minutes report that, “The farm being considerably encumbered it was voted to ask the treasurer to look up the deal further and report.” The requested report was never delivered, but it could not have helped Ricker who in fact owed $30,000 on the farm, and soon filed quit claims on the property. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that at the June 8, 1925 meeting of the full board, Ricker resigned. The trustees, of course, met anyway, and approved a resolution “that henceforth no loans of any kind or character be made of the funds of the College to any member of the Board of Trustees nor to any officers of the Board.” The resolution went on to call on those who had such loans—as Ricker did—to pay them off “at the earliest convenient moment.” As became plain, however, Ricker simply could not repay the 1922 loan which remained unpaid when the Finance Committee convened in May, 1932 to review the college’s financial health.
At about the same time Ricker had to deal with yet another financial embarrassment. A director of Merchants National Bank since 1909, Ricker, along with all the other directors, was reelected in early 1924. Grinnell newspapers published the quarterly notices of the bank, its reported assets and liabilities providing no hint of trouble. Since the January, 1915 opening of the fine Louis Sullivan-designed building, Merchants National had enjoyed evident prosperity.
Rather suddenly, however, the bank closed its doors November 1, 1924, in this way mimicking the small-town banks all across the Midwest that had begun to fail in the early 1920s. First reports seemed encouraging, anticipating a quick revival and reopening. But when a second Grinnell bank failed (Grinnell Savings Bank) the following January, the local economy contracted sharply. So severe was the cash crisis that in February, 1925 the Grinnell Herald sponsored a “Pay Your Bills Day,” hoping to prop up businesses anxious about the slowdown.
Grinnell Savings Bank did recover and reopened later in 1925 as Grinnell State Bank. But Merchants National Bank did not, and a federal receiver arrived to oversee efforts to sort out the mess. Depositors received partial payment from the bank’s assets (including the building, which was sold to Citizens National Bank in 1926). The directors, however, met a less happy fate. Not only did they lose their investments in the bank, but in 1926 the receiver also took them to court, alleging that they had knowingly violated banking regulations. Strangely, only eight of the ten directors had to answer the suit; one director—J. C. Manly—had died in late summer, 1924, and thereby escaped litigation. The only other director not named was B. J. Ricker, but how he avoided prosecution is unclear; nothing in the extant court record explains his absence. The other eight were ultimately assessed some $120,000 for their actions, so it was certainly to Ricker’s benefit to have been omitted.
But perhaps the bitterest pill of all for Ricker came from the glove factory, the site of his first successes and the engine of much of his wealth. As the agrarian economy slipped into crisis, dragging down banks and ruining many farms, the market for items like gloves inevitably contracted. Officially the company maintained a facade of normalcy, feeding stories to the local newspapers about how busy the factory was. Behind the scenes, however, B. J. Ricker knew otherwise, and sought what he hoped would be an easy solution to the company’s troubles. At the suggestion of his Chicago bankers, in 1923 he negotiated a buy-out of a Tennessee manufacturer of baseballs, Lannom Manufacturing. The idea was to broaden product diversity and take advantage of consolidated lines of supply, since both factories depended upon animal hides. Ricker offered Lannom shares in Morrison-Ricker in exchange for the Tennessee company’s assets. What he evidently did not disclose was that, at the time the merger was being negotiated, Morrison-Ricker was deeply in debt: subsequent litigation proved that the company owed the U.S. government more than $90,000 in back taxes. In addition, as Lannom himself later contended, the Grinnell company owed more than $300,000 to First National Bank of Chicago.
Once made aware of the troubles, Lannom renegotiated the debt and downsized the company, both to good effect. No doubt he was furious at Ricker for the misrepresentation, although the surviving record contains no trace of this anger. One very clear consequence of the imbroglio, however, was the easing out of B. J. Ricker from the glove company. Exactly how it happened remains obscure; no announcement appeared in the papers, and the company’s records for these years have disappeared. It seems reasonable to infer, however, that Ricker yielded his shares, because the company was soon renamed, omitting reference to Ricker, the man who over the last twenty-five years had been central to its success.
Consequently, as 1925 dawned in Grinnell, B. J. Ricker found himself in a very tight spot. Over the last few years he had had trouble managing his personal fortunes, embracing debts that his present income could not afford. In addition, the bank, among whose directors he had served for fifteen years, had collapsed, and the government’s receiver was threatening to take the directors to court. The glove business, to which Ricker had contributed patents, a well-regarded advertising campaign, and from which he had derived a very comfortable income, was also in deep trouble. Not only were company finances desperate; Ricker himself had been implicated in misrepresenting the company’s situation to a prospective partner.
It seemed a long way from the heady days of 1919 when the Chicago Tribune fantasized about the millionaire and the luxuries the newly-adopted twins might expect. Although nothing survives to confirm that Ricker was in fact bankrupt, he must have been very close to indigent. What could he have done? How could he explain his failures to friends who had grown accustomed to seeing Ricker rich and powerful?
With thoughts like these, B. J. Ricker attempted to sell his house at bargain-basement prices—unsuccessfully. Then he fled to California, first alone to get work and a place to live, and then, without ever returning to Grinnell, he summoned his wife and children. Nothing has yet surfaced that exposes Ricker’s state of mind at this important juncture. What does survive is the record of how, back in California where his post-collegiate career began, he set about reinventing himself.