In 1932, singer Bing Crosby had a major hit with his recording of E. Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney's song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Its lyrics could have been the story of Wilbur B. Foshay: "Once I built a tower up to the sun/ brick and rivet and lime/ Once I built a tower, now it's done/ Brother, can you spare a dime?" Foshay built a fortune, built a tower in Minneapolis—and then lost it all in the stock market crash of 1929.
Wilbur Burton Foshay was born December 12, 1881, to Joseph and Julia Foshay of Ossining, New York. He graduated from the Mount Pleasant Military Academy of Ossining. In his mid-twenties, he worked as timekeeper, gas piper and electrician for the United Gas Improvement Company of Tarrytown, New York.
The utilities field was a growing business in the early twentieth century. Electricity and indoor plumbing were still relatively new. Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station in New York City, the nation's first centralized power plant, had begun generating electricity in 1882. Rural communities were eager to have the home appliances and conveniences already enjoyed by city dwellers.
In 1906, Foshay was hired to manage the local power-and-light company in Hutchinson, Kansas. In 1907, he married the owner's daughter, Leota Hutchinson Fox, a divorcee three years his senior. During the next few years, the couple moved around the Midwest and West Coast, as Foshay chased utilities jobs. His wife gave birth to two children, William and Julianne.
In 1915, the Foshays settled in Minneapolis. There, Foshay worked for Page and Hill, a manufacturer of electric-light poles and telephone poles. But soon he decided to go into business for himself. In 1916, he borrowed $6,000 and bought the Ponca Electric Company of Nebraska. In August of the following year, he incorporated the W. B. Foshay Company, a public utilities holding company. A holding company's purpose is to buy shares of existing companies. They gain control over them but do not run the day-to-day business. Foshay would spend the next decade buying up utilities companies.
By 1928, he was a prosperous man, at least on paper. His company owned utilities in thirty states, the then-territory of Alaska, Canada, and Central America. The W. B. Foshay Company had become big enough that Foshay figured it deserved its own skyscraper. He wanted his headquarters to be the most beautiful, and tallest, building in downtown Minneapolis.
What he got was a thirty-two-story Art Deco monolith modeled after the Washington Monument in the nation's capital. This was not only the city's tallest building but also the tallest between Chicago and the West Coast. The proud builder celebrated the Foshay Tower's opening with a three-day event over Labor Day weekend in 1929.
Two months later, the stock market crashed. The utilities magnate lost everything. His company filed for bankruptcy. In 1931, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Foshay on charges of mail fraud. He had used the federal postal service to advertise and sell stock in his company, some of which might have been overvalued.
Foshay and his right-hand man in the company, Henry H. Henley, were tried in a much- publicized 1931 court case. The first trial ended without a unanimous verdict after the only female juror, Genevieve Clark, held out for Foshay and Henley's innocence. Prosecution lawyers later learned that Clark had briefly worked for Foshay's company. She was charged with contempt of court for not revealing the association.
Foshay and Henley were tried again and, this time, were convicted. They began serving fifteen-year sentences at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas in May 1934. A vigorous letter-writing campaign moved President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to free the pair in 1937. Ten years later, President Harry S. Truman pardoned both men.
Once out of prison, Foshay worked for chambers of commerce in Colorado and Arizona. Penniless, he returned to Minnesota early in 1957 to move in with his son and daughter-in-law. Foshay suffered a stroke that April. He died in a nursing home near Minneapolis on September 1-the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Foshay Tower's debut.
Aamodt, Britt, "Wilbur B. Foshay: The Man and His Tower, part 1." KFAI radio documentary, 2011. Archived on Ampers.org.
Aamodt, Britt, "Wilbur B. Foshay: The Man and His Tower, part 2." KFAI radio documentary, 2011. Archived on Ampers.org.
Foshay Museum and Observation Deck. About the museum.
McNulty, Marcy Frances. "Wilbur Burton Foshay: The Saga of a Salesman." Master's Thesis, Creighton University, 1964..
In August 1917, Foshay incorporates the W. B. Foshay Company, a company that would end up owning utilities companies in thirty states.
Wilbur Burton Foshay is born in Ossining, New York, on December 12.
Foshay becomes public utilities manager for the Hutchinson Power and Light Company in Hutchinson, Kansas.
Foshay marries Leota Hutchinson Fox, a divorcee and the daughter of Hutchinson Power and Light Company owner William Hutchinson, on January 30.
Foshay moves to Minneapolis to work for Leon Hill, proprietor of Page and Hill, a manufacturer of electric-light and telephone poles.
Foshay incorporates the W. B. Foshay Company on August 14.
The Foshay Tower opens for business with a lavish three-day celebration, August 30 to September 1. But Foshay loses the building after the stock market collapses that October, and his company goes bankrupt.
Foshay moves to Salida, Colorado, to manage the Mountain Cross Granite Company.
The U.S. Department of Justice sues Foshay and six officers of his company for using the mails to sell stock and pay dividends in a fraudulent manner. In September, Foshay and company officers are brought to trial, but the jury cannot reach a verdict.
The mail fraud case is retried in January. Foshay and Henley are found guilty on March 21 and sentenced to serve fifteen years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
A letter-writing campaign organized by Colorado attorney Frazer Arnold prompts President Franklin D. Roosevelt to release Foshay and Henley from prison. They leave Leavenworth April 6. Afterward Foshay works for the Salida, Colorado Chamber of Commerce.
President Harry S. Truman grants Foshay and Henley full, unconditional pardons on June 27. In August, Foshay becomes secretary of the Alamosa, Colorado, chamber of commerce.
Foshay works for the chambers of commerce of Winslow, Arizona, and Fort Collins, Colorado.
Foshay returns to Minnesota and moves in with son, William, and daughter-in-law, Eleanor, in Excelsior. He suffers a stroke in April and dies on September 1 at Oak Ridge Nursing Home, near Minneapolis.