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Stretching a Dollar

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you want to know how to make ends meet, you have only to go back and read the autobiography of J. M. D. Burrows, a young man from Cincinnati who emigrated to Davenport in 1838 and soon became the most successful businessman in town. His success was no accident. Burrows knew how to stretch a dollar—especially if it was someone else's.

Davenport was only two years old in 1838—a small village of fifteen houses and 150 citizens—but Burrows decided a general store might succeed here. The young entrepreneur had no money, but not to worry. He cut down a number of oak trees, hewed them into lumber, and built a small store on Front Street. Then, in March, he headed back to Cincinnati for goods to stock the store.

After building his store, he had even less money. Not to worry. A fellow Davenporter, James Glaspell—the family that would produce Susan Glaspell, the famous playwright—had emigrated from Covington, Kentucky, leaving an agent to auction off all his goods there. He asked Burrows to pick up his money from the agent and bring it back.

The money amounted to about a thousand dollars in cash, there being no such things as banks and cashier’s checks. Burrows realized that traveling on the frontier with that much money would be dangerous. But not to worry. Burrows converted the cash into goods for his store and brought it all safely back to Davenport—giving him the largest stock of goods in town.

Now what about paying James Glaspell his thousand dollars, which was all in bolts of cloth, hardware and kitchen supplies, and other staples? Again, not to worry. Glaspell was so grateful to have his money safe in Davenport that he told Burrows he didn't need the money for a year.

As it turned out, Glaspell did now and then need items from Burrows thriving store during that year, for which he paid retail prices. At the end of the year, Glaspell had bought back nearly his entire thousand dollars, leaving J. M. D. Burrows a handsome profit on his investment—or rather, on James Glaspell's investment.

Are you surprised to learn that Burrows eventually expanded his growing Davenport business interests into banking?

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.