Edward Ball

Edward Ball (businessman)

Edward Ball (March 21, 1888 - June 24, 1981) was a powerful figure in business and politics in Florida for decades despite the fact that he never held public office and did not own the assets he controlled. He worked for and with his brother-in-law, Alfred I. du Pont for nine years before running the trust's businesses by himself for another 46 years.

Early years

Edward Ball was born at Ball's Neck in Northumberland County, Virginia and educated in the one-room Shiloh Schoolhouse. After completing primary school, he convinced his father to let him quit school and get a job. He had always been obsessed with making money; at one time, he prospected for gold in Alaska. However, when Ball's older sister, Jessie became the third wife of Alfred I. du Pont in 1921, Edward was given the chance of a lifetime. He began working for his brother-in-law in 1923 at the lofty salary of $5,000 a year, and moved to Delaware where he was publicly named manager of the Clean Food Products Company. Privately, he was Mr. du Pont’s confidential business partner and became a shrewd financier and caretaker of the du Pont de Nemours estate fortune. After Jessie & Alfred moved to Florida in 1926, Edward joined them.

du Pont's death

When Alfred died in 1935, his estate was valued at over $56 million, which, after estate taxs of $30 million, left $26 million. Alfred's will named Jessie as the principal trustee, but in reality, she deferred business decisions to her brother, Edward, who took control of the assets of the testamentary trusts, which included large Florida landholdings and industrial interests, including the Florida East Coast Railway. Jessie preferred to handle the philanthropic activities of the trust while Edward concentrated on making money.

Power

Ball had no interest in running for office and little desire for material things; for most of his life, he didn't even own an automobile. Ball used various means to acquire enormous unofficial political power in Florida. He amassed a wide network of connections, and was the key figure in a group of 20 rural, conservative, north Florida politicians that controlled Florida from the 1930s to the 1960's called the Pork Chop Gang that was Florida's version of McCarthyism. Their public spokesman was Florida Senate President Charley Eugene Johns from Starke. The coalition supported racial segregation (which was practiced at the St. Joe Paper Mill) and was known for toasting, "Confusion to the Enemy!" with Jack Daniel's whiskey.

Ball rarely, if ever, took a public role is politics. With control over the vast du Pont business empire, he exerted political influence through his Florida banking empire, his ownership of numerous Florida newspapers, and by funneling unregulated and unreported cash to political operatives. Ball did not need to get his hands dirty or risk personal resources. Ball was a main (but not the only) financer of the defeat of Claude Pepper's effort to be reelected to the United States Senate in 1950. Pepper's liberalism and Ball's conservatism feuded through much of the 1940s and 1950's.

According to a 1979 article in the New York Times, Edward Ball at various times was called a Robber Baron and a political power broker; a clever man with a dollar and a dangerous man to cross; a courtly Virginian with the ladies and a ruthless foe. He is known for "orneriness" but insists his reputation is undeserved; he claims he was just a trusted functionary who did his best for the institution he served. Critics say he hijacked the trust as a tool of his personal power, treating the assets like a miser hoarding pieces of gold. He had the reputation of a "tart-tongued, hard-nosed conservative financier".

Personal life

By all accounts, Edward Ball took little time for a personal life. Early on, he travelled constantly, scouting for possible acquisitions and checking up on existing assets.

Marriage

He was married one time, and it survived more than ten years, but Ball approached marriage like a business deal and wanted everything in writing. His Prenuptial agreement had 19 provisions which described their wedded lifestyle and included a definition of "nagging". Edward Ball fought and delayed the divorce settlement for six years before agreeing to pay his ex-wife $250,000.

Thrifty

In an interview, Ball said, "I suppose some people might call me tight with a dollar." The stories of Ball's frugal nature border on the legendary. Ed Ball owned a country estate outside of Tallahassee, but for years lived in a hotel across the street from his office in the Florida National Bank Building. When the hotel was sold, he tried renting a room in a senior citizen hotel, but that didn't suit him. He ended up buying a condominium that became the site of a 5:30 weekday ritual for Mr. Ball, his business associates and buddies. Happy hour began when everyone was present, and lasted until the network news began at 6:00pm, at which time all conversation and movement ceased. After the news concluded, the group moved to the River House for dinner.

Banking

Alfred du Pont acquired a major interest in Florida National Bank (founded 1905) of Jacksonville shortly after arriving in Florida in the mid-1920's. Other banks were gradually added into what became the Florida National Group, which was one of the strongest banks in the state. In size, the branches eventually numbered 185, second only to Barnett Bank..

Ball built the Florida National Bank building at 214 North Hogan Street in Jacksonville in 1961. The structure was eleven stories tall and contained the corporate offices for the bank. Ed Ball also kept his principal office there for managing the du Pont Trust. After Ball's death, the structure was renamed the Ed Ball Building.

On March 7, 1989, First Union Corporation, based in Charlotte, North Carolina announced that it would acquire Florida National Banks in a deal worth $849 million. The transaction was consummated the following year.

Paper Mill

In anticipation of increased trade through the Panama Canal, the Apalachicola Northern Railroad extended its network from Chattahoochee to Port St. Joe in 1910 with plans to load large ships with goods to be taken through the canal, advertised as the “Panama Route”. When the depression hit, business dropped off and the railroad was in bad shape financially. Alfred I. DuPont purchased the struggling railroad in 1933 and created the St. Joe Paper Company. Dupont drew up elaborate plans for the development of his mill town as “The Model City of the South”, and then died. Ed Ball took control of the company in 1935 but never acted on the master city plan.

Construction began in 1936 and from 1938 to 1996, the company operated a paper mill at Port St. Joe, Florida. The company invigorated the local economy following the depression, employing thousands and paying good wages, but wreaked havoc on the environment. The mill released sulfurous exhaust and dioxin, a byproduct of the paper bleaching process that is a carcinogen. By the 1950s, the company was drawing 35 million gallons of water a day from the Florida aquifer, seriously depleting the water table. St Joe Paper also clear-cut millions of acres of old growth forest, engaging in silviculture to replant the areas with slash pine. The practice decimated the native longleaf pine stands, reducing the species to "2 percent of its former range." Because of this, the United States Department of the Interior designated parts of the region a Critically Endangered Ecosystem. Under Ball, the company also kept workers at the mill racially segregated.

Ball continued the trust's aggressive land purchases throughout the 1940s and 1950's, sometimes for "mere dollars an acre" and landholdings reached 1.2 million acres. Most of the land was situated between Tallahassee and Pensacola, but there was substantial acreage in southern Georgia. The paper mill was most profitable in the 1960s, with products being directly marketed to company-owned box plants.

Wakulla Springs

Wakulla Springs is the deepest and largest freshwater spring in the world. Ball purchased 4,000 acres surrounding Wakulla Springs in 1937 and constructed the Wakulla Springs Lodge as a guest house. He imported marble and tile and hired craftsmen and artisans who built everything needed for the lodge on-site. Blacksmiths, millwrights, masons, stone cutters, painters and artists created an elegant retreat using iron and stone; the high ceilings were painted with murals. There are 27 unique guestrooms, each with a voluminous marble bathroom, walk-in closet, and antique or period furniture.

Ball dynamited parts of the Wakulla River to open the way for boats bringing his guests to the springs, then fenced off the water passage to keep out the riff-raff.

In the mid-1960s, he donated land to Florida State University for a marine laboratory, which was completed in 1968 and named in his honor. Ball then sold the remaining land surrounding Wakulla Springs to the state of Florida, who created Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.

Railroads

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression were particularly hard on the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC). The railroad declared banktuptcy and was in receivership by September 1931, just 18 years after Henry Morrison Flagler’s death. Bus service began to be substituted for trains on the branches in 1932, and the Key West Extension was abandoned after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. However, streamliners terminating in Miami nevertheless plied the rails between 1939 and 1968, including such famous trains as The Champion and The Florida Special jointly operated with the Atlantic Coast Line. Adding to the woes was the Cuban embargo, thus reducing a significant portion of FEC's revenue.

In 1961, Ball purchased a majority ownership of FEC for the DuPont Trusts, allowing the FEC to emerge from bankruptcy. That same year, a labor contract negotiation turned sour, leading to a prolonged work stoppage by non-operating unions beginning January 23, 1963, and whose picket lines were honored by the operating unions (the train crews).

Arguably the most noteworthy chapter in Ball's business career was his battle against the railroad unions in the Florida East Coast Railway strike of 1963 to 1977. In order to try to save the railroad from its three decades-long state of bankruptcy, which if allowed to continue would have threatened the railroad with physical deterioration and even partial abandonment, Ball fought for the company's right to engage in its own contract negotiations with the railroad unions rather than accept an industrywide settlement that Ball thought would include featherbedding and wasteful work rules. His use of replacement workers to keep the railroad running during the strike led to violence by strikers that included shootings and bombings. Eventually, Federal intervention helped quell the violence, and the railroad's right to operate during the strike with replacement workers was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. As the strike continued, the Florida East Coast took numerous steps to improve its physical plant, install various forms of automation, and drastically cut labor costs, all to an extent that most other railroads would not succeed in matching until years later. Ball therefore was a pioneer in the American railroad industry's struggle, beginning in the 1960's, to improve its' economic efficiency.

Jessie's death

After his sister died in 1970, Ball came under strong criticism for reinvesting the trust's income to build up their value instead of fully respecting the requirements of du Pont's will, which stipulated that after Jessie Ball du Pont's death, trust income was to be used to aid the Nemours Foundation in caring for the crippled children and indigent elderly of Delaware. Ball ignored the criticism, but he couldn't ignore the wave of lawsuits that were brought by other trustees, the State of Delaware and others.

Across the Creek

Ed Ball's favorite euphemism for death was "going across the creek", a reference to the river Styx, which separated Earth from the underworld. In a New York Times interview two years before his passing, he said that his life had been long and the critics be damned; he lived it the best way he could.
"When I go across the creek, it will be because I can't help myself or can't work any longer." Shortly before his death, he said, "I waited until I was too old to decide what to do with my own personal assets and have decided that I worked most of my business life managing the duPont estate."
Ball said he was very proud of what duPont had established in the Nemours Foundation and he decided to leave it his entire estate, other than a few minor bequests, to the Nemours Foundation, with one stipulation. He wanted his money to be used in Florida only."

No one can dispute that he was an astute investor: when Ball died at the Oschner Clinic in New Orleans in 1981, the value of the du Pont trust had ballooned to $2 billion. His late sister's foundation, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, had assets of $75 million. Ball's own estate, estimated to be worth $75-200 million, was destined to help the citizens of the state where he lived most of his life, Florida.

References

External links

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