IN THE line of mercantile industries, Albany has its fair share of notable, solid men. And in a special department of trade none of our citizens enjoys a higher distinction than the subject of the present sketch, Hon. Henry Russell, whose career furnishes another remarkable example of what may be accomplished by those whose aims in life are high and honorable and over whose daily walk industry and perseverance have had a controlling influence.
Born on the 7th of December, 1835, in the town of Broome, Schoharie county, N. Y., his life opened in the midst of ” rural sights and rural scenes,” so conducive to health, virtue and happiness. His father, John Russell, was a substantial farmer of Schoharie county, and a man of high character, who drew around him many true, admiring friends. His grandfather was of New England origin, and lived in Salem, Mass., till, stirred by the enterprising spirit of eastern men, he came, nearly a hundred years ago, as a pioneer to this state, and settled amidst the wilds of old Schoharie county, where, by the sturdy blows of his axe and the sweat of his brow, he cleared up the wilderness around him till the sunlight beamed upon his rustic habitation and his newly cultivated fields rejoiced with corn, wheat, rye and other grains, while his garden bloomed with fruits and flowers.
Like the children of other Schoharie farmers, Henry Russell was sent at a very early age to the district school, where he acquired a good education in the elementary branches. But he was not to have a continuous course of study ending with a college curriculum. As he grew older and was able to perform manual labor his services were required on his father’s farm; and there, like a dutiful son, he worked hard through spring, summer and autumn, attending the district school in the winter till he had reached the age of fourteen. At that time his father, who also owned a small store in the vicinity of Franklinton, concluded to take Henry from the farm, give him a new employment, and the opportunity of qualifying himself for some commercial business. Accordingly he started out on a market wagon. His route lay between the villages of Franklinton and Coxsackie, a distance of about thirty-three miles. And there almost daily for a period of twelve years the slender, growing figure of young Henry Russell might have been seen seated upon his market wagon behind his trusty horses, traveling over the roads in all kinds of weather, taking orders, delivering goods, and carefully keeping account of all his sales. He was thus laying the foundation of his extensive knowledge of business – forming those tastes and habits which have since been so carefully cultivated by him. So faithfully, economically and persistently did he follow this branch of business that at the end of six years he had made a little capital, and with his brother Calvin commenced store-keeping in 1856. While Calvin attended to the store Henry continued the delivery business on the road, with which he was so well acquainted, about six years longer. He was a genial, obliging, popular young man, and many were the sincere wishes for his future success by his neighbors and acquaintances.
For about eighteen years did these brothers carry on a co-partnership business under the firm-name of C. & H. Russell. During all this time Henry Russell was devoting what spare time he could command to the study and investigation of trade and commerce, in which he soon became a well-trained, self-made student. He read extensively on subjects connected with this branch, and his early ambition was to establish a leading business in his favorite department. And with the practical knowledge and experience he had already acquired in this line, he ventured to strike out where larger opportunities were to be afforded in maturing his original plans. While in business for himself in Broome Mr. Russell was a frequent visitor to Albany, and he had fully made up his mind that this city was a good place for his future operations on a larger scale. And in 1866, a year after the close of the civil war, he came here to engage in the wholesale flour trade; and from that period he became a resident of the city of Albany, and was henceforth to be identified with its commercial interests, and a leading promoter of its municipal prosperity.
In the same year a new flour house was opened here in what is known as the Delavan block under the firm name of Russell, Van Pelt & Co. This firm succeeded that of Lape & Van Pelt, and the individual partners of it were Calvin Russell, Henry Russell, George H. Van Pelt and Franklin Krum. Adopting the commission business directly from the millers, and especially the western producers, it was not long before the sales of the firm averaged about 10,000 barrels yearly.
On the retirement of Mr. Krum in 1868, and of Mr. Van Pelt in 1869, the business was continued by Henry Russell and his brother, Calvin, under the firm-name of C. & H. Russell. During five years the business was continued under the above firm-name, Henry being the active partner, after which Calvin retired and Henry conducted the business alone.
About that time the machinery was introduced for making the Haxall Patent and New Process flour, finally resulting in the use of rollers, now so generally adopted by the great millers of the west. The naturally wide-awake and progressive spirit of Henry Russell led to a careful investigation of this new method in the manufacture of wheat flour. Visiting Minneapolis in 1870 and becoming acquainted with Mr. Charles A. Pillsbury, the well-known miller of that place, he obtained from him a most favorable statement of the working of the new system of manufacturing flour, the ultimate success of which he clearly perceived. Securing the agency of some of the best brands manufactured by the millers of the country, he devoted all his energies to selling the same. His success was soon assured. The great panic of 1873, which was disastrous to so many throughout the country, was really advantageous to Mr. Russell, by his obtaining new consignments from shippers who, in consequence of the universal depression in trade and commerce, were glad to secure such responsible agents as Mr. Russell. This at once gave a new impetus to his trade, and in 1873 his sales are said to have amounted to 70,000 barrels of flour. A continued and rapid increase in his business was maintained from that year to the present time. Two years ago his sales footed up over half a million barrels.
In politics, Mr. Russell has always espoused the principles of the Republican Party, and while he was frequently urged by his friends to enter the field as a candidate for political honors he invariably declined, until in the fall of 1887 he was induced to accept the republican nomination for state senator from the district. His opponent was the young and popular Norton Chase, ex-member of the legislature. It was one of the closest and most exciting senatorial contests ever witnessed in this county, the circumstances of which are still fresh in the minds of the public. After a bitter fight in the Supreme Court Mr. Russell was declared elected by eight plurality. In the senate, Mr. Russell was an active and useful member, courageously supporting the measures of his party, while exhibiting the characteristics of a true gentleman to members of the opposite side.
Mr. Russell has filled with honor and efficiency several official business positions. He was one of the original stockholders of the Schoharie County National bank, and a director and vice-president of the same institution. In 1878 he was elected president of the Board of Trade in Albany. He is at present a director of the Merchants’ National bank of Albany, and president of the Commercial Union Telegraph Company.
A man of thorough business qualifications, especially devoted to the interests of trade and commerce, honorable and upright in all his dealings of a public and private nature, with a mind cultivated by extensive reading, travel and observation, he is justly regarded as one of Albany’s solid representative men, and commands the respect and esteem of our citizens irrespective of party.