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Dotts, Hillegass & Co.
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor
2024-06-19

            The pre-Civil War economy in our area relied on raw materials from nearby regions.  Most of the goods produced here were sold in local markets.  In the years following the Civil War, the emergence of steam-powered manufacturing, the railroad,

When the Civil War ended and prices fell, the Dotts,

Hillegass and Company found their store drastically

overstocked and deeply in debt.

the electric motor, the internal combustion engine, and the practical application of chemistry allowed us to expand our sources of raw materials and grow the region where we could sell local products. 

            One local, pre-Civil War business in Upper Hanover Township rose to the top of its business game only to fall with the Confederate's surrender at Appomattox.  It had an interesting corporate structure for a small general store operating in this region in the mid-1800s, and the quest to keep the store in business provided a look at how local shareholders functioned in such a venture.

            The General Store of John G. Hillegass was built in 1851 and the store stood about one-half mile north of Haring's Hotel.  It was a village then known as, what else, Hillegass.

            Thomas Hersh managed the store for Hillegass when the store opened for business.  When John died, later in 1851, George Hillegass took over the reins of the store, and Hersh now worked for him.  Soon Hersh moved away, and George hired William Paul to run the operation.

            The employer-employee relationship lasted until the winter of 1862-63 when Paul made some politically related comments that rankled Hillegass.  George handed

The store was located in the village of Hillegass in Upper

Hanover Township

Paul his walking papers and sent him packing.  William Paul eventually opened a general store a couple of miles up the road in the village of Fruitville.

            George was too busy operating the Hillegass Post Office out of the local hotel.  He had no desire to manage the store, and he found that none of his neighbors really wanted to manage the store either.  They decided to form a partnership that would be responsible for owning and operating the store.  Hillegass was the major shareholder.  Other shareholders were: George Brey, Reuben Brey, Charles Dotts, Edward Fegley, Hester Kolb, Willoughby Poe, Jacob Renninger, James Renninger, Solomon Schmoyer, Jesse Schwenk, Nathon Schwenk, Henry Seasholtz, Jacob Seasholtz, and John Stout.

            Fegley and Rueben Eckert took on the clerical responsibilities for the company. 

            Dotts, was hired to manage the day-to-day operation of the store.  Before becoming store manager, Charles was the teacher at the Pennsburg School. 

            A sign of respect in those days comes from the fact that Dotts sought the permission of the parents of his students, and the support of his friends before he took the job.

            Capital raised for the business venture amounted to $2,600.  The enterprise opened under the name of Dotts, Hillegass, & Company in April 1863. 

            There was no train service in the Upper Perkiomen Valley yet, so teamsters needed to haul in goods from Alburtis, Quakertown, and Pottstown.  The method of shipments enticed the entrepreneurs to purchase and warehouse large quantities of goods.  Big profits were reportedly made, and the company prospered. 

            After the first year of operation, the company expanded its operation to include manufacturing cigars.  Unlike their neighbors in nearby towns who provided factories for the cigar workers to make larger quantities of the smokes, this effort involved distributing tobacco to local families for at-home processing. 

            There the family members could strip the center rib from the tobacco leaves, chop the filler tobacco, and roll the cigars.  The finished product was returned for packaging and sales at the store.

            Then the beginning of the collapse came.  Prices went up, and sales started to drop.  The operation increased well beyond the capital that was invested.  Management needed to buy more and more on credit to keep the business operating.  The company was able to keep up with their debts for a time, but eventually the red ink spread too far across the ledger. 

            To keep the enterprise operating, Hillegass and a few other investors paid some of the bills.  It was reported that the store had an enormous stock of goods, large quantities of tobacco, and owned more than 4,000,000 cigars.  Then the other shoe dropped.

            Word of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender to Gen. Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, brought a devastating end to the local corporation.  The end of the war caused a drastic depreciation of prices.  Already in debt, the company failed.  Even previous years' sales of over $94,000 could not erase the deficit on the books. 

            When the firm went out of business, it was nearly $30,000 in debt.  That deficit was paid by the solvent shareholders, and the creditors were paid off.  Hillegass, as the largest shareholder, lost $13,000.


 

 

 

 

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