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John Jacob Astor IV. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-116052).

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Astor, John Jacob, IV (13 July 1864–15 April 1912), businessman, was born at “Ferncliff,” his father’s estate at Rinebeck-on-Hudson, New York, the son of William Backhouse Astor, Jr., and Caroline Webster Schermerhorn ( Caroline Astor). As the great-grandson and namesake of fur trade magnate ...

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Billingsley, Sherman (10 March 1900–04 October 1966), nightclub owner and real estate developer, was born John Sherman Billingsley in Enid, Oklahoma Territory, the son of Robert Billingsley and Emily Collingsworth. Sherman Billingsley’s parents were so poverty stricken that the youngster was forced to quit school after he finished the fourth grade. His first job was collecting discarded whiskey bottles for resale to bootleggers in the new “dry” state of Oklahoma. In 1912 the youth moved to Anadarko, Oklahoma, to join his two older brothers who had developed a chain of cigar shops and drugstores, establishments that also illegally sold whiskey. Later going into business for himself, he owned and managed a confectionery in Houston, Texas, before moving to Charleston, West Virginia, to take over a cigar store. After going into the drug business, he owned drugstores in Seattle and Omaha, successively. While still just a teenager, he moved to Detroit and opened a grocery store; soon, he had three. In 1923, after saving about $5,000 in capital, he moved to the Bronx, New York City, where he opened a drugstore....

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Ford, Barney Launcelot (1822–14 December 1902), conductor on the Underground Railroad, Negro suffrage lobbyist, and real estate baron, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of a Mr. Darington (given name unknown), a slaveholder and plantation owner, and Phoebe (surname unknown), one of Darington’s slaves. Given simply the name “Barney” at birth, he adopted the name Barney Launcelot Ford as an adult to please his soon-to-be wife and to provide himself with a “complete” name....

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Haggin, James Ben Ali (09 December 1822–12 September 1914), mine owner, land developer, and horseman, was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, the son of Terah Temple Haggin, a lawyer and farmer, and Adeline Ben Ali, a schoolteacher. Haggin’s mother was said to have been the daughter of Ibrahim Ben Ali, an exiled Turkish army officer who settled in England and then moved to Philadelphia in the mid-1790s. Ben Ali’s residence in England is well attested, but there is no record that he ever lived in Philadelphia, where he supposedly settled and practiced medicine. Haggin may not have descended from a Turk, but he gloried in the name Ben Ali....

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Lasater, Edward Cunningham (05 November 1860–20 March 1930), rancher, dairyman, and land developer, was born at “Valley Farm,” near Goliad, Texas, the son of Albert H. Lasater, a rancher, and Sarah Jane Cunningham. The Texas frontier offered Edward only a meager education, but he had dreams of becoming a lawyer. Those dreams were shattered when, his father’s health failing, he had to leave school to help with the family’s sheep business in Atascosa County. His father purchased a ranch near Oakville in Live Oak County, and after his father’s death in 1883, Lasater began buying and selling cattle and establishing his credit. In 1892 he married Martha Patti Noble Bennett. They had two children before Martha died in childbirth in 1900. In 1902 Lasater married Mary Gardner Miller; they had five children....

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Levitt, William Jaird (11 February 1907–28 January 1994), real estate developer and building contractor, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Abraham Levitt, a lawyer and building contractor, and Pauline A. Biederman. After attending Brooklyn’s public schools, Levitt studied at New York University for three years but, eager to make money, did not graduate. Although he once aspired to a career in commercial aviation, when he was twenty-two he joined with his father and brother Alfred to create Levitt and Sons, a construction company that specialized in single-family housing. That same year he married Rhoda Kirsher; they had two children....

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Palmer, Potter (20 May 1826–04 May 1902), merchant and developer, was born in Potter’s Hollow, Albany County, New York, the son of Benjamin Palmer, an owner of stock farms, and Rebecca Potter. He attended only elementary school and by age eighteen was working as a clerk in a Durham, New York, store; two years later he was in charge. At age twenty-one he opened his own dry goods store nearby in Oneida, then after almost three years moved west to Lockport. After a year there, he sold out and, with $6,000 in capital, headed for Chicago. Palmer believed that the greatest opportunities would emerge in the rapidly developing West; he expected Chicago would be at the heart of that development, that it would become the distribution center for the whole region—thus offering not only larger opportunities in retail, but also unique ones in wholesale. He persuaded his father and some family friends to let him “have their capital for investing purposes,” augmenting his own resources. In 1852 he opened a dry goods store on Lake Street, then Chicago’s commercial center....

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Singleton, Benjamin (15 August 1809–1892), black nationalist and land promoter, known as “Pap,” was born into slavery in Nashville, Tennessee. Little is known about the first six decades of his life. In his old age Singleton reminisced that his master had sold him to buyers as far away as Alabama and Mississippi several times, but that each time he had escaped and returned to Nashville. Tiring of this treatment, he ran away to Windsor, Ontario, and shortly thereafter moved to Detroit. There he quietly opened a boardinghouse for escaped slaves and supported himself by scavenging. In 1865 he came home to Edgefield, Tennessee, across the Cumberland River from Nashville, and supported himself as a cabinetmaker and carpenter....

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Starrett, William Aiken (14 June 1877–25 March 1932), engineer, building contractor, and real-estate financier, was born in Lawrence, Kansas, the son of William A. Starrett, a Presbyterian minister, farmer, and lawyer, and Helen Martha Ekin, a Quaker teacher, journalist, and editor. He attended the University of Michigan for two years, then returned to graduate with a degree in civil engineering in 1917. In 1900 Starrett married Eloise Gedney of East Orange, New Jersey; they had two children....

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Sutro, Adolph Heinrich Joseph (29 April 1830–08 August 1898), developer and mining engineer, was born into very comfortable circumstances in Aachen, Prussia, the son of Emanuel Sutro, a cloth manufacturer, and Rosa Warendorf. As a child, Adolph was an excellent student, especially in science and mathematics, and he added botany by way of nature walks. He was also an avid, compulsive reader, spending his savings and even his lunch money on books. But the death of his father at age forty-eight, and the concomitant revolution in Germany, ruined the family’s fortune and marked the end of his formal education. The family’s woolen cloth factory had to close, as did one managed in Memel by nineteen-year-old Adolph after he was forced to leave school....

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Torrence, Joseph Thatcher (15 March 1843–31 October 1896), industrial engineer, entrepreneur, and developer, was born in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, the son of James Torrence and Rebecca (maiden name unknown). He began his career working for a blast-furnace operator outside of Pittsburgh at Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. From there he moved west to Youngstown, Ohio, where he became a blacksmith, and by the time of the Civil War, he had worked his way up to assistant foreman at a blast furnace....