John C. Pritzlaff: From penniless immigrant to hardware tycoon

Researching real can be real cool.

In digging around for information for my upcoming screenplay adaptation of my book, “Murder in Wauwatosa: The Mysterious Death of Buddy Schumacher,” I’ve come across a real cool story of an immigrant who came to this country broke and ended up building a virtual hardware empire in Milwaukee.

John C. Pritzlaff (1820-1900)
John C. Pritzlaff (1820-1900)

John C. Pritzlaff, great-uncle to Buddy Schumacher’s father, Art Schumacher, was said to have absolutely no money when he sailed to New York City from Pomerania (an area now divided between Germany and Poland). In fact, he later said that he actually was $10 in debt at the time.

He managed to work his way up to becoming president of one of the country’s biggest hardware companies, on that at one time employed 400 people. When he died in 1900, he left a fortune that in today’s dollars might amount to near $8 million.

It took Pritzlaff a number of years to get where he got, and it started with the humblest of beginnings.

His father died when he was 19 years old, and young John decided to try his luck in America. He sailed to New York with a group of Lutherans, a trip that took four months. He then moved onto Buffalo, N.Y., where he worked for two years on the Genesee Canal.

In late October 1841, Pritzlaff reached Milwaukee. He performed many odd jobs – wagon driver, cook, wood chopper – until he landed a job as a shipping clerk for Shepardson & Farwell, hardware merchants. His salary his first year with the company was just $200 (about $5,600 in today’s money). It is said that he typically worked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. for this low pay.

Pritzlaff stayed employed at the company through new ownership, and planned to open his own hardware store in 1949. But owner John Nazro convinced him to stay on another year with the promise that he’d help get Pritzlaff started in the business at that time.

Nazro kept his promise, and in 1850, he bought the stock for Pritzlaff and partner August Suelflohn for their downtown Milwaukee firm. Three years later, Suelflohn retired. In 1866, Prtizlaff bought out Nazro. Annual sales of $12,000 grew to hundreds of thousands under Prtizlaff, considered to be unusually honest for a businessman of such stature at that time.

It was said that Pritzlaff “enjoyed universal respect wherever he was known,” according to a story in the Weekly Wisconsin newspaper that was published immediately after his death. He was also “always on hand to contribute to enterprises of public usefulness.”

He was also said to be a zealous Lutheran. He was one of the founders of the Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Congregation in Milwaukee and donated land for a new church to be built at 9th Street and Highland Avenue in Milwaukee. The church is still located there today.

Pritzlaff married while he was still employed by Shepardson & Farwell. His wife, Sophia, preceded him in death by six years. The couple had eight children. One of his children, Elizabeth, married John C. Koch, a vice president at Pritzlaff Hardware who would go on to become mayor of Milwaukee. His younger brother, Henry, is one of Art Schumacher’s grandfathers.

The Pritzlaff Hardware Co. stayed in the family until 1958, when it was sold for $1.7 million.

 

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