“We don’t give a damn how they do it in Minneapolis-St. Paul!”: Geraldine Dodge
There is an old saying around Dodge, Wisconsin, that anyone could do business with a Dodge but you would only do it once. The city was born of chicanery and those roots sank all the way to Hades where, to this day, the patriarch of that family still resides. The community — not yet a city — had been established by a grandson of Henry Dodge, a scalawag of the first order. He worshiped the adjective free particularly when it preceded the word land. He had been — allegedly — a partner of the Aaron Burr cabal to carve out an empire from lands in the Louisiana Purchase. He was taken to trial but acquitted. The legitimacy of that ruling has always been in doubt because he assaulted several of the jurors as they came into the court room to deliver their verdict. Thereafter he served with distinction as Captain in the Missouri State Volunteers during the War of 1812 and in his 40s moved with his large family and slaves to what was then the U. S. Mineral District that included what is now Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. He didn’t pay for the land; he simply stole it from the Indians. Then he fought the same Indians in the Red Bird Uprising. Also known as the Winnebago War, the local Indians, the HoChunks, were reacting violently to whites who were invading their lands in search of lead. Many of the whites found the same lead when it was delivered to them courtesy of gunpowder. That had led to the war.
Henry Dodge also served with distinction in the Black Hawk War and for his service he was named the first Territorial Governor of Wisconsin. He served two terms and during the interregnum he was elected as the non-voting delegate to the 27th and 28th Congress. He declined the nomination to run for President of the United States on the Democratic ticket of 1844. He also turned down an offer to be Territorial Governor of Washington and later served as the United States Senator from Wisconsin with his son, Augustus, the only time a father-and-son combination had served in the United States Senate at the same time. He died shortly after the Civil War.
Legend has it that a collateral relative, in this case in both sense of the term, settled in the northern climes of Wisconsin because his wife, a distant cousin of Henry Dodge, wanted him to change his name to Dodge and move to the shores of Lake Superior. She had the money so she wore the pants and as they became tight a wedding came to pass. The faux Dodge family of three then left for the Duluth area on the new rail line that had just been completed from St. Paul.
Duluth was the perfect end of line. It was to become the terminus for the Northern Pacific Railway which would eventually stretch all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Financier Jay Cooke had personally chosen Duluth because it was on the shore of Lake Superior at the end of a maritime corridor which began with the product-rich ports of New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Merchandise from those cities to the Pacific Coast was then going around-the-horn. That was an 80-day journey of 14,000 miles from the East Coast around the tip of South America and then up the Pacific Coast of South and then Central America to the consumers of California, Oregon and the Territory of Washington. When the rail line was completed, it would be a straight shot by rail for consumer goods from the docks of Duluth to the rail yards of Sacramento, 2,179 miles away.
Building a railroad required a lot of steel and timber. The steel would necessarily come from Pennsylvania but the millions of board feet of lumber for ties, trestles and bridges would have to come from the forests along the shore of Lake Superior. Lumber was gold and the faux Dodge couple was going to make their fortune in the timber industry. Taking advantage of the
Homestead Act, the couple staked two, side-by-side homesteads and built a single cabin that straddled what eventually became the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. They used their money from timber to construct three saloons and a brothel and then strong-armed their real Dodge relatives to flex their federal legislative muscle and get a Post Office, United States Marshal, United States Courthouse and a jail constructed in the newly named city of Dodge, Wisconsin. When the Federal government — dominated by Republicans — expressed reluctance to fund structures and personnel in a city name for a Democrat, the couple established the city of Radissonville named for the French explorer of the area, Pierre-Esprit Radisson. Sylvester Dodge sweetened the pie by becoming a Republican, the first Dodge to be a Republican since Adam. Thus did Radissonville, not Dodge, get the Post Office, United States Marshal’s office and courthouse while Wisconsin, the tutelary home of the Democrat Dodge and his descendant rabble, did not. (Today, driving west, Radissonville ends and Dodge begins where Plew Boulevard enters the Silk Highway.)
For the next century and a half, Dodge remained true to its frontier roots. To this day it is still just as by-the-seat-of-your-pants as it was when it was founded. Rules are made to be broken and when in doubt, residents and the City Council simply make things up as they go along. As far as state oversight is concerned, as they say in Dodge, “Hey, this is Wisconsin!” This is why the combat zone is in Dodge and not Radissonville. Dodge is the ‘Las Vegas of the North,’ a city where the police are blind, the beer is cold and the faro wheels never stop turning. Radissonville, on the other hand, has rules people follow, laws residents obey and a police force that takes a very dim view of drunk driving, concealed weapons and the selling of illegal substances. After all, the local expression goes, “Where do you think you are, Dodge?”
Three generations after its founding the litter of Dodges were living down to their great, great, great, grandfather’s tradition. They cut a deal when they had to, strong armed the legislature when they needed to and suckled federal dollars as though the United State Treasury was filled with their own mother’s milk. Radissonville businessmen only conduct business in Dodge when they have to or it is a federal contract.
The Dodge family never left the logging business. Their empire had started on a flooring of timber and they built a mansion on that footing. They rode the crest of the prosperity wave through the era of the railroad into the rebuilding boom of Europe after the First World War. They prospered again with the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War and coupled it with the housing boom of the 1950s. At the same time, they expanded into every cubbyhole of the wood products industry including paper manufacturing, furniture construction, hobby woodworking, sports equipment and the highly specialized fields of guitar and violin creation, antique repair and sculpture. As a promotional gimmick to highlight their preeminence in the wood industries — as well as a tax dodge — they searched the world for the best antique wood horses, zebras, giraffes, griffons and lions to assemble and create the only authentic Civil War era carousel complete with the calliope. The carousel, complete with a brass ring and plaque publicizing the Dodge Merry-Go-Round was donated to the Dodge Museum in Dodge as a charitable donation by the Dodge family.
Toward the end of the 20th Century, the family saw the forest of opportunity thinning so it went into the charcoal business. Even though this was a crowded field by the 1980s, the family saw an unrealized profit. It did not bother the family that their return on the charcoal investment would be barely 2%. They were not, hard as this must have been for them to say, in the charcoal business for the money. They were in it for the shelf space. Being masters at turning trash to gold or, in this case, timber to treasure, they knew that charcoal traditionally sold well during the four months of summer, June to September, and poorly over the balance of the year. So, they created a wood product that would sell poorly during those four months but like gangbusters over the next eight. That product was pressed logs. They took sawdust, of which they had a plethora but had no value, mixed the particles with wax and created fire logs. Then they replaced all their bags of charcoal on store shelves with the pressed logs in October. Suddenly they had an 8-month profitable product to replace the 4-month revenue plateau from charcoal. From there they went into the newly exploding industries of pressed wood, unfinished furniture, fence poles and staves, gates, shims and build-it-yourself porches, sheds and gazebos.
By 2005 the Dodge family was a tribe of one. The only descendant of the original faux Dodge line was Geraldine, a feisty 84-year-old with a financial stake in every enterprise in town.
But not across the state line.
Because of her Sir name she could never be queen, but she was a crackerjack when it came to making money. She had tripled the family fortune but would have to donate it to charity because she had neither kin to inherit the wealth nor kith whom she liked. She was the feminine embodiment of Scrooge McDuck swimming alone in a pool of money. Devious, manipulative and cold-blooded, she was the only person alive who had been able to squeeze the Minnesota legislature for a project in Wisconsin. This finagle had been the cornerstone of her Carnegiean legacy.
As the Dodge fortune was spreading in the late 1970s, Geraldine made an uncharacteristically bold move: she entered the construction arena. While timber and land were predictable industries, construction never has been. Worse, you are dealing with a food chain of subcontractors, hostage to world market prices and supplies, must deal with unions, be hounded by federal and state inspectors and regulators and, last and most important, the largest projects are at the mercy of state legislators who are undependable, mercurial and loose liquid into their trousers over Letters to the Editor which no one ever reads.
But Geraldine did not get into the construction industry without allies. While she could not control the world market price of building supplies, she could control the subcontractors. The way to do that was to form her own construction company and use the same subcontractors on every job. This kept the subcontractors happy. She kept an excellent rapport with the unions because she only went after federal and state projects which meant that the wages were little and big Davis-Bacon and thus there were no negotiations. To shield herself from meddlesome federal and state inspectors and regulators, she put high powered state and federal legislators on her boards of directors.
They key to her success, it should be quickly added, was the word boards in the last sentence. Because she was a significant player in Wisconsin and a pariah in Minnesota, she formed two companies with almost identical members of the board. The companies, referred to as the MDJ twins, were housed in a single structure which straddled the state line. The Wisconsin company was McKibben, Dodge, Johnson, Inc. The Minnesota subsidiary was McKibben, Darmore, Johnson, Inc. The Wisconsin company had Jason Sandborn, a long-time Republican mover-and-shaker in Radissonville and the environs of the north shore of Lake Superior on its board. But Sandborn was not on the MDJ board in Minnesota because that would have been illegal. The Minnesota MDJ had Cornelius Vandergriff, III, son of United States Senator Cornelius Vandergriff II of Wisconsin who was the son of the late United States Senator Cornelius Vandergriff from Wisconsin. This gave the Minnesota partner the veneer of integrity without invoking the name Dodge which, in Minnesota, was the legislative kiss of death. Both MDJs were fronts but when you deal with Geraldine Dodge, you were well paid to be a front.
Both perceptive and devious, Geraldine knew that her machinations were flawed. Neither of the companies was good as an upfront bidder. That is, everyone in politics knew that both MDJs were a front for the Dodge family. So did the press. So Geraldine removed the company one step back from the public eye. MDJ did not propose on projects. MDJ appeared on the bidding documents as a subcontractor to another engineering firm, B. A. Adams, the owner of which was a man of impeccable ethics. Adams Engineering did the design documents and then passed along the subcontract work to MDJ, either of them — or both if it was a federal project.
B. A. Adams knew he was dealing with a den of thieves but, then again, there were not that many large construction firms in either Dodge or Radissonville that were totally above board. The companies in Duluth and Saginaw weren’t any more trustworthy and the firms in St. Paul and Grand Rapids were too far away. So B. A. Adams held his nose and dealt with MDJ, Inc.
But he took his money upfront.
There was real reason for Geraldine Dodge to wish to keep a low profile. In the fall of 1999, the Minnesota MDJ had won a bid for a large construction project for a civic center, municipal office building, satellite police station, bus terminal and parking garage for Radissonville. The funding was actually a mix of federal and state dollars, the state dollars coming to Radissonville courtesy of revenue sharing. It was federal money distributed to the State of Minnesota and then allocated to the construction project in Radissonville. After the project was finished it was discovered that the parking garage had actually been constructed across the state line where, oddly, it was conveniently close to a large shopping mall which was owned by the Dodge family. When pressed, a spokesman for the Minnesota MDJ was
1. Surprised that the parking garage was on Wisconsin land,
2. Unconcerned as federal money was involved and as long as the money was spent for the contracted structure, all was well,
3. Diligent in pointing out that there was no way to ascertain if any specific dollars earmarked by the State of Minnesota had been spent on a fraction of a square foot of land in Wisconsin,
4. Lamented the fact there might have been a glitch in the initial survey because of Y2K, then
5. Shrugged and said that the parking garage was completed and even if there had been a mistake, it would cost more to fix it than to live with the “alleged error which MDJ, Inc. does not concede exists.”
The same spokesperson also stated that it was “simply coincidental” that the three-story parking garage was within a two-block walk of the six-story Dodge Shopping Mall in Wisconsin which, also coincidentally, did not have a parking garage at all.
At 84 years of age, one cannot reasonably count on another decade of life. Though she was in good health, Geraldine could feel the chilly nip of Grim Reaper. She was sure she had time for at least one more big project. She did not care to see her name on the building which, considering that it was going to be in Minnesota was not going to happen, but did want to see one last flood of black ink into her portfolio. Why someone with no kin, distant kith and an aversion to giving money to charity would want “one more big project” at 84 is unknown but when Geraldine wanted something she got it, by hook, crook, bully, bombast or bluster.
Thus it was in late 2002 that she connived to transubstantiate Chippewa Meadows from slum to a legislative office building. All the pieces were in place for a capital project that would make all of her subcontractors rich and she could leave this mortal coil with whatever satisfaction there might that comes from dying with no children and money in the bank.
[This short story is from Steven Levi’s “We Don’t Give a Damn How They Do It in Minneapolis-St. Paul!” available on Kindle.]