Robert Alexander Long. It is perhaps not generally known that the humble beginnings of the great Long-Bell Lumber Company was made in Kansas. The home of the corporation for a number of years has been in Kansas City, Missouri, where the splendid R. A. Long office building, one of the finest and most modern structures of its kind in the Middle West, furnishes the headquarters for the business whose operations are widespread all over the Southwest. But for forty years the retail business of the concern has been largely in Kansas and Kansas may properly claim Robert A. Long as one of its greatest business executives.
On April 30, 1875, a carload of lumber was unloaded at the little town of Columbus, in Cherokee County, Kansas. It was consigned to the firm of R. A. Long & Company. This firm consisted of Robert A. Long, Victor B. Bell and Robert White. The senior member of the firm was twenty-four years of age and his partners had not yet reached their majority. The members of the firm had neither surplus capital nor bank accounts. However, Mr. Bell’s father was president of the Kansas City Savings Bank and Mr. White’s father its cashier. The bank thus gave them the best of recommendations and when cash was required loaned it to them on open account.
In the original yard at Columbus, R. A. Long served as yard manager, bookkeeper and general utility man. He had only the most casual acquaintance with the lumber business. The story is told that when the first invoice was checked, the items “dimensions” and “S. S. & E.” were not understood. This was evidently a case in which the man emphasized the broad general and fundamental principles rather than a knowledge of the smaller technical details. In time Mr. Long knew what the details meant and he became a practical retail lumberman. The first year the firm at Columbus. earned only $800. In the second year its profits were $2,000. By that time the business was so flourishing as to justify the establishment of a branch yard. In the next six or eight years a number of different yards had been established over Southern Kansas. In 1877 Mr. White, the junior member of the firm, died, his interests being purchased by the surviving partners. In 1884 the company was incorporated with a capital of $300,000. This capital was fully taken up by the earnings of the business. Every year saw a notable increase in the establishment of new yards and the general enlargement of the scope of operations. Whereas, Mr. Long at Columbus forty years ago was content to sell lumber a few hundred feet at a time, the business of the present corporation in its retail department alone sells millions of feet of rough and finished lumber and mill work, and vast quantities of lime, cement, coal and other products.
In 1889 a wholesale department was added. In 1891 the capital stock was increased to $500,000. Up to that time Mr. Long had acted as superintendent and manager of the company’s interests, but with the establishment of the wholesale department Samuel H. Wilson, brother-in-law of Mr. Long, who had come into the old firm in 1887, took charge of the retail department and continued its supervision until his death on October 20, 1903.
It would require a book to describe the detailed development of the business or even to give a full account of its present ramifications. The Long-Bell Lumber Company is now the parent organization of a vast business system. Besides the Long-Bell Lumber Company there are nine allied corporations engaged in the manufacture of lumber, and several other corporations for conducting various activities of the business. The organization now owns immense land holdings in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. Its timber interests are chiefly Southern yellow pine and hardwood. The ten sawmill plants have an annual capacity of 500,000,000 feet. The vast extent of cutover timber lands are handled and marketed by the Long-Bell Farm Land Corporation and the Long-Bell Demonstration Farm Company has for its principal purpose to demonstrate the agricultural value of lands from which the timber has been removed.
While the favors of fortune have been so liberally bestowed upon Mr. Long, perhaps no man has worked harder to deserve them and to constitute his life and influence a more important agency for benefit to mankind. There was a time when he was poor, though never desperately so, and he had as close a fellowship with manual toil and with the adversities of life as thousands of men who have never been able to aspire to financial independence. He was born December 17, 1850, on a farm in Shelby County, Kentucky, near the Town of Simpsonville. His parents were Samuel M. and Margaret K. (White) Long. His mother was a cousin of Senator Blackburn and of Governor Luke P. Blackburn of Kentucky. Mr. Long’s father spent his life as a farmer. His father has been described as an intensely practical, methodical and ambitious man, and one who believed in doing, not dreaming. Robert A. Long inherited some of those qualities. He had the imaginative faculty. Imagination has been too frequently confused with idle dreams. As a matter of fact it is the most valuable asset of mental character. Mr. Long to a peculiar degree has been able to translate ideas and plans originating in his brain into practical achievements, has also had the courage of his convictions, and those characteristics perhaps more than anything else have been responsible for his career.
He acquired an education in the common schools of Shelby County and spent fifteen months in a school for boys at Shelbyville. In the usual sense of the term he did not have a liberal education. Some men have been credited with such an education merely because they went through a college and ever afterward ceased to interest themselves in the larger affairs of life. The reverse has been true of Mr. Long. His education really began after he left school and he has been an intense student of life ever since. As a boy he looked beyond the horizon of a simple farm existence, but beyond an unsatisfactory clerkship in a local store found no opportunity to broaden his interests until the age of twenty-two. Part of his boyhood had been spent during the period of the Civil war. Three of his older brothers, Thomas, E. S. and Belvard, had spent a few months in the Union army, but Mr. Long himself was too young for that service.
It was during a visit to Kansas City at the home of his uncle, C. J. White, then cashier of the Kansas City Savings Bank, that Mr. Long had his first big opportunity. How he and the son of Mr. White and the son of Dr. J. B. Bell, president of the bank, made their pioneer venture as lumber dealers has already been described.
Mr. Long is a man of ideas and ideals. He is a constructive thinker, and as a speaker his words are listened to with respect. He is not a one-subject man. He knows lumber but he knows other things as well. A remark of his has often been quoted and deserves quotation: “Every big business man should write a paper or make a speech at least twice a year on some live subject, not necessarily connected with his business, that would require investigation. Investigation means more knowledge and knowledge is an asset.” He has personally applied this truth in many ways. He is identified with many organizations, and his addresses have been listened to by the great bankers of the Nation, by lumbermen’s associations, and by many of the civic organizations of his home city. He has always realized the responsibility of wealth and position and has given his time and means unreservedly to the benefit of others. Another remark of his that has been quoted and expresses an important fact of his own character is the following: “No man will get much out of life who lives wholly for himself. The man who shuts himself away from the world and thinks that he and his family circle are all that matters will find he’s in a mighty narrow circle.”
The extent and variety of his interests were aptly indicated by an article that appeared in the Daily Banker and Stockholder: “To many who know something of the extent of the Long-Bell interests it is a matter of wonderment that Mr. Long and his associates should find time and capacity for direct and close personal supervision of all their manifold business affairs, and still be able to take an active interest in other things. Yet the heads of this big institution are associated with numerous other interests almost as prominently as they are with the lumber business and its allied activities. While consistently avoiding any hint of ostentation, Mr. Long has ever been profoundly interested in religious matters, and in the material advancement of the Christian church in the Middle West his efforts and money have had a larger influence than even his best friends suspect. True to his Kentucky nativity, he is a lover of fine horses, and maintains a lively interest in the famous stables that are under the direct supervision of his daughter, Miss Loula Long. Mr. Long is a breeder of blooded dairy cattle, and one of Kansas City’s principal sources of supply for certified milk is ‘Longview,’ Mr. Long’s wonderful country estate near Kansas City. As if these things were not enough to fully employ him outside of business hours, Mr. Long has given much attention to welfare work among the many thousands of Long-Bell employes in the sawmill districts, working with the International Young Men’s Christian Association in improving living conditions in the lumber camps and establishing club houses, schools and places of entertainment for workmen and their families.”
Mr. Long is a member of the Blue Hills Country Club, the Mid-Day Club, the Hill Crest Club, the Kansas City Club and the Chamber of Commerce. He is one of the most liberal benefactors of the Independence Boulevard Christian Church. On December 16, 1875, at Columbus, Kansas, he married Miss Ella Wilson, daughter of George and Eliza (Hughes) Wilson. They are the parents of two daughters: Loula Long, still at home and mentioned above as especially interested in looking after her father’s splendid stables, and Sally America, now wife of Lieut. Comm, Hayne Ellis of the United States Navy.
Mr. and Mrs. Long’s first home in Columbus was a small three-room cottage with his lumber yard only a short distance away on the same piece of ground. In that home his children were born and he and his wife lived there happily for several years. Later they built a larger and more commanding house also in Columbus, and they remained residents of that little Kansas town upwards of sixteen years. In 1891 Mr. Long came to Kansas City, and his city home here is one of the show places, while his country estate, Longview, comprises about 1,500 acres and is operated as a model dairy farm, with a prize herd of Jersey cattle.