Ale, coal, soap, and vision: the Packers

Some things never change.

Lehigh University’s brochure for 1867 warned students that “Writing or drawing upon the wall or any part of the building of the University is strictly forbidden.” Most of the pamphlet was devoted to lofty educational goals, so this very specific graffiti prohibition struck me funny. Apparently, Lehigh’s founder, Asa Packer, still remembered what it was like to be a teenager, although I doubt he was nostalgic about his own adolescence.

Asa’s grandfather had been a prosperous Groton physician. His father was respected as a “man of solid parts,” but the family struggled financially. Asa had to be apprenticed at a very young age, first to a North Stonington tanner and then to a Mystic carpenter. By 1822, when he was just 17 years old, Asa decided to strike out for opportunities in Pennsylvania.

At first, he worked as a carpenter’s apprentice and eked out a meager existence on a farm, but he knew how to work hard and save money, and soon he began to make astute investments in undeveloped land. By the 1830s, Asa was transporting coal by canal boat from the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia. Believing that a faster method of anthracite delivery would be profitable, Asa acquired the rights to an unfinished railway and built the Lehigh Valley Railroad. He took an enormous risk, but it made him a multi-millionaire, perhaps the richest man in Pennsylvania.

Despite unbelievable wealth, Asa didn’t forget his roots. He gave tens of millions of dollars to his community, and in 1865 he provided the land and funding for Lehigh University. He personally underwrote full scholarships so that qualified poor boys could have the educational opportunities that he had missed. When Asa died in 1879, Harper’s Weekly lauded him as a man of “dauntless energy and unyielding integrity."

It’s appropriate that Packer Road and Packer Lane, both in Groton, remember this family because Asa wasn’t the only local Packer boy to make good. The Packers were among Mystic’s earliest shipbuilders. In 1756, Asa’s uncle, Daniel, built the Captain Daniel Packer Inne on Water Street, where passengers crossing the Mystic River on Daniel’s rope ferry could pause for refreshments. One of Asa’s cousins, Daniel Franklin Packer, made his name in 1868 with the introduction of Packer’s All Healing Pine Tar Soap. Like Asa, he’d had a disadvantaged childhood. He was orphaned when he was 10 years old and worked as an indentured servant for a farmer. Also like Asa, Daniel was bent on improving his fortunes.

For a year or so, Daniel and his brother operated a poultry market in New York City. Then he went to sea, bought his own boat, and traded along the Florida coast. Key West was in its early development stage, and Daniel got involved in the lucrative salvage business, dealing with wrecks caused by hurricanes or close encounters with coral reefs.

Next, Daniel tried his luck at the Gold Rush, and this was the move that made him. In the mining camps, it was obvious that one commodity in short supply was soap, so, despite enjoying some success prospecting, Daniel put down his pickax and opened two soap factories. Business was brisk, and he cleaned up (so to speak).

When Daniel returned to Mystic, he built a lovely home, “Grand View Cottage,” that still stands on High Street. The residence also served as his Mystic soap factory until the business moved to Water Street, and then to Roosevelt Avenue, where the building — although not the business — is still located.

I like the Packers. I like the fact that 250 years after he built it, Daniel’s inn still welcomes guests. I like knowing that you can still buy Packer’s aromatic soap and that its charming little tins are collectibles. Most of all, I like Asa, the man of humble beginnings and little education, who founded a university that has enriched the lives of nearly 80,000 young people.

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