A Tycoon's Tycoon Goes to War

By W. Irving Bullard

(Taken from an article that appeared in a Charlotte, NC newspaper in 1942 sent to us by Joseph William Powdrell II, grandson of J. W. Powdrell)

Expertly swinging off the steps of the rear car of the "Boat Train" very early one bitter cold February morning nearly a quarter of a century ago (1918) another Horatio Alger hero arrived in a small Connecticut industrial town. The boat train used to start from the docks of the New England Navigation Co. at New London, Conn., upon the arrival of the overnight passenger and freight boat from New York City. It was never late; citizens of Danielson could check their watches at exactly 7:00 a.m. as the train came to a slow, grinding stop.

Our rosy-cheeked hero, nattily attired in a double-breasted seventeen-year-old’s size blue serge suit, was in his very early thirties. He stepped up to the chairman of our almost frozen Chamber of Commerce greeters with the confidence and self assurance of a man twice his age, and said with great emphasis, "I have arrived, gentlemen, on an empty stomach, but full of ambition and orders for window curtains."From that moment on our hero stepped out of the role of J. W. Powdrell, the enterprising salesman and "back slapper" and became Bill Powdrell, the Window Curtain Tycoon, known the world over as the largest manufacturer of the highest grade novelty curtains.

Our guest had as the object of his visit the location of a manufacturing plant. Our committee quickly arranged for him to get his breakfast of golden yellow griddle cakes and country sausage at the Danielson Inn, and then we were off in a two seater sleigh with a splendid pair of horses-one white and the other black.

We first stopped in front of the old Danielson Cotton Mills on South Main Street which had 38,000 spindles and 867 looms all set and ready to operate. "J.W.," after a long earnest gaze at the huge plant said, "Gentlemen, we’ll need that entire plant in less than three years. Let’s go on." Three years later he bought the mill. Our next stop was at the two small mills owned by the Conn. Mills Co. which were operating on auto tire fabric. "J.W.’s" more or less pertinent remark after we told him that the plants could not be secured, was, "We’ll have them someday." And he did. Then came a visit to Goodyear to look over the huge mill of the Goodyear Cotton Mills whose machinery was shortly to be moved south. We spent hours in that village. Eight years later "J.W." purchased it.

By this time the committee felt that Mr. Powdrell was going to do things in a big way, and probably had extensive financial support. We were a pleased lot of Chamber of Commerce greeters.

At noon our guest suggested that we have dinner; so we drove our span of horses through beautiful, snow laden woods to Pomfret where a feast of local roast suckling pig was served. After finishing off with mince pie, it was suggested by Judge Shumway, who was a member of our Committee, that we would enjoy having Mr. Powdrell outline his plans and requirements to us.

With great self assurance, perfect poise and with a voice endowed with a convincing tone, Bill Powdrell, the Window Curtain Tycoon-to be, quickly arose and with a broad infectious smile said, "Gentlemen of Danielson, let’s get together now and see what can be done. The picture of the old harness shop on Furnace Street, which you sent me, is large enough for me to start in. I believe the repair department and the sales room is about 60 ft. by 40 ft. It should accommodate 30 workers as a maximum. I start with 10, and when I am not on the road selling I work too.

"Now you boys buy the building for me.

"Then a little later on we shall have some fine stock certificates to sell. I shall expect you to cooperate then.

"I can sell more window curtains than can be made in every mill in this town.

"Some day I shall have every cotton mill in town.

"Now let’s go see the harness shop.

"Our young hero had sold his ideas to us, he had sold his optimism and enthusiasm, and he had sold himself.

My friends, that was the beginning of the great industry of Powdrell & Alexander.

From a harness repair shop a quarter of a century ago to seven cotton mills in Connecticut and many curtain-manufacturing factories from Cape Cod to Los Angeles. They now own and operate every cotton mill in my town in Connecticut.

From 10 employees to over 2,000.

From an annual business of $50,000 to many millions.

From a low priced cheap competitive curtain to the highest-grade novelty curtain on the market.

Here is epitomized the making of a great industry by a tycoon who was ambitious, honest, and willing to work.

In building up his organization, he brought the finest young men obtainable in the east to his offices and mills. So many blue-eyed youths arrived on the "boat train" that later on, when the boat stopped running and it became the "milk train" for Boston, we thought it well named.

Bill Powdrell has brought prosperity to my town of Danielson. He is obviously the most influential citizen in Eastern Connecticut. He is at the head of our local bank, director of many enterprises and very public spirited. Only last month he bought a large building site with a hotel on it (Kingswood Inn) at a sacrifice sale; so that when the Town decides to build a much-needed new grade school (Killingly Memorial School) this property will be available at a very low price--his cost or less.

And now a word about the Charlotte branch. A few short years ago it became necessary to change the management of plant and sales here in Charlotte, N.C. "Danielson" was growing so fast that no high executive could be spared.

With his usual brilliant hunch and perfect judgment he put the "apple of his eye" on the Piedmont Limited for Charlotte. It was fun loving, little working, golf playing son, Buck--now the much honored Lt. Earle C. Powdrell, United States Navy.

When I saw Buck and his adorable wife, Helen, upon their arrival at Charlotte, I crossed my fingers; but one week later when I saw young Powdrell and his much beloved and most able Uncle Fred Powdrell (formerly J. P. Morgan’s representative-Treasurer of Montgomery Ward) sit for four hours over an uneaten breakfast in the Hotel Grady at Atlanta, I uncrossed my fingers. Buck had accepted the counsel of his uncle and advice of his dad.

From that very day a son of a Tycoon was in the making to become a Tycoon himself.

With Lt. Powdrell as the sales genius (like his father and Uncle Fred), Joe Loughman in charge of manufacturing, a splendid new factory, and the policy of a square deal to customer and employee, this local branch has doubled and I believe trebled in size, product, and profits. And now, Praise the Lord, Lt. Powdrell has answered in a fine patriotic way the call of his country--THE TYCOON’S TYCOON GOES TO WAR.