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William Wesley Woollen, biographer, once said of David White, “No man in his day more deeply impressed himself upon Madison than David White. He came here in 1846 from Pennsylvania, where he had been engaged in the wool trade. He was about six feet tall, with rather less than average flesh for one of his height, had stooped shoulders, and walked with his head well forward and his eyes upon the ground. His life was one of vicissitudes. He was rich today and poor tomorrow. He failed in business in Pennsylvania, in Madison, in Iowa and, I believe, in St. Louis. But failure with him was but a stimulus to new exertions. Most men sink under adversity; not so he. If he touched the bottom it was to reach a foundation for a rebound. He went down under one wave and sprang in triumph upon the top of the next. His energy never gave way and his industry never tired. He was a leader in every public enterprise of his day. Madison is mainly indebted to him for her gas works, for her marine railway, and for the establishment of one of her insurance companies. He labored hard to connect her with the world by a net-work of railroads, but in this effort he failed. He saw the trade which had been hers directed to other cities, and the sight made him sad. He left us and went elsewhere, but so long as the great enterprises he inaugurated remain he will not be forgotten. It was eminently proper that his mortal remains should be brought here and consigned to rest among a people for whom he had done so much.”
Captain David White was a man of tireless energy and great vision. Had Hollywood produced a biographical account of his life, it would have needed an actor who combined the audacity and boldness of an Errol Flynn, the stalwartness and determination of a Gary Cooper and the energy and vitality of a Bugs Bunny. White jumped from one enterprise to the next with the zeal of a duck attacking a June bug. His only constraint to greatness seemed to be his innate capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
His first endeavor was in the wool business in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Through much manipulation and financial maneuvering he had nearly managed to “corner” the wool market in the area when, as a harbinger of things to come, the bottom fell out of the deal and he was forced to leave, his business and financial reputation in tatters.
He went to Pittsburgh where he served as clerk on the steamboat,“Edwin Heckman”. This did not last long for he could not be contained within the confines of clerk’s job. He traveled to Washington where he obtained a contract to deliver mules to the army in Mexico during the war with that country. He shipped them on a fleet of steamboats to Natchez and traveled overland with them to the army. This successful enterprise set him up for another venture and he settled in Madison in about 1846. At about this time he went into partnership with James Cunningham in the Mammoth Cave Pork House. In November of 1852 the newspaper reported the he had made $60,000 in pork in one day and was likely to profit by $200,000 by the end of the week. He built a grist mill for the grinding and processing of corn to be sold abroad, much of it being sent to a starving Ireland. This mill burned and he immediately erected a flouring mill at the corner of Broadway and Ohio Streets. He called the mill Magnolia Mills. He soon rid himself of the mill, selling to Robert and Frank Bowers. In about 1850 he championed the use of gas as a means to light, heat and propel industry forward. He was mainly responsible for the gas works, one of the earliest in the area, and became its president. He was also an investor and great backer of the Madison Marine Railways and championed its craftsmen. Here he had built the “David White”, the “Winslow” and the “Indiana”. He was involved in insurance, shipping, railroads and a host of businesses that would have physically crushed a lesser man. It is inconceivable that without deliberate and concentrated effort anyone could manage to run each and every business into the ground. But during a succession of years when one business disaster after another took place, that’s just what he did. Just before the Civil War we find him painting as a lowly journeyman on the steamboat “Jenny Whipple” at St. Louis.
Never one to indulge in self pity or to be plagued with self doubt, White found himself in the enviable situation of having no way to go but up. With the help of old friends, he scraped together enough money to purchase a third interest in the “Jenny Whipple” and shortly, in the true David White spirit, he was full owner of the boat. The Civil War was just beginning and within a year David White owned the “Magenta” and several other boats and was carrying for the government and supplying the army. He never shied from taking on jobs no one else wanted or those involving danger. Soon he was at the top of the heap again. When peace came, he proceeded to organize the Mississippi Transportation Company, with a full line of steamers plying between St. Louis and New Orleans, using much of the capital he had gained during the war years. Evidently, he lost his toehold on greatness one more time and left the river trade and decided to try his luck on dry land. He managed to invest in and help build a telegraph line through the wilds of Minnesota. In 1867 he made arrangements to place the first section of the Mississippi Valley Telegraph Company lines from Minneapolis to Winona, following a survey of the St. Paul and Chicago Railroad. On August 16th he left St. Paul to place the remaining sections in the course of construction, so as to insure the completion of the line to Saint Louis by the first of January, 1868. He later organized a company to open and exploit lead and coal mines in Missouri. His energy and indefatigable spirit were so remarkable as to earn him the universal name of “Old Enterprise” or, as one newspaper dubbed him, “Old Enterprisus Revivicus”. He was eminently a useful man, aspiring to and reaching the heights of success. His only problem was sustaining his perch once arrived. In the end, the Great Equalizer, death, claimed him and he was laid to rest at Madison in 1893. “Old Enterprise” had come home to rest.