The life of Michael Joseph Shields affords an illustration of the vicissitudes of business under modern conditions; it emphasizes the importance of doing the right thing at the right time, and it teaches a lesson of patience under difficulties and perseverance against obstacles, a lesson that should not be lost upon all of the many who need it. It is suggestive in another way, too, because it affords an example, in addition to many others that have been given in the past, of the excellent quality of the sturdy Irish-American character.
Mr. Shields, who is one of the most enterprising and influential citizens of Moscow and who has the reputation of having done as much toward the upbuilding of that city as any other man, was born near Lockport, New York, September 15, 1853. His parents were natives of Ireland. His father, John Shields a well known contractor, was drowned at the age of thirty-one while making improvements on a section of the Erie Canal. After his death his widow, with three children, removed to Lockport where she died in her fifty-seventh year. After having attended school at Rochester and Lockport, New York, Michael Joseph Shields began the battle of life as a driver on the Erie Canal. His business ability was exhibited early in his career, for at seventeen we find him the owner of a team, at work independently, towing canal-boats from station to station, at two dollars a trip. From this work he advanced to towing rafts of lumber between Tonawanda and Troy, New York. In 1871, when he was eighteen, he went to San Francisco, California, and found employment as teamster for a wholesale commission house.
He soon won the confidence of his employers to such an extent that he was made collector and general outside man for the concern. In 1872 he had saved enough money to enable him to buy a truck and team and engage in trucking on his own account. He prosecuted that business successfully until 1878, and then went with a very snug sum of money, the result of his enterprise and good management, to Walla Walla, Washington. He found an investment at Dayton, Washington, where he completed and equipped a hotel, which he sold, however, before it was opened. He then bargained for a ranch consisting of land for which he was to have paid the sum of two thousand seven hundred dollars, but other opportunities came to him which he accepted as more promising, and he let the deal fall through. In the light of subsequent events he has considered this the great mistake of his life; yet other men have made just such mistakes, some of them on a large scale. How could he have known that a portion of the big city would in a few years spring forth upon that ranch? If he had possessed such foreknowledge he would have made a still greater mistake in not securing all the land now covered by Spokane and its suburbs.
It was at Moscow that Mr. Shields made the investment that he might have made at Spokane. In March 1879, he opened up a trade in farm implements in Moscow. In 1882 he added hardware stock and in 1885 a lumber yard, and he did a growing, profitable business until 1895. At that time the whole country was involved in financial difficulty. Banks were failing, shops were shut down, crops failed and productive energy was paralyzed. There were many failures in the new west as a result of these conditions, and Mr. Shields’ failure was by no means one of the largest of them. He had been engaged in very extensive business operations for some years. In 1887 he had built the Moscow planing mills, and he owned and operated four sawmills. He had built the works of the Moscow water system and the Moscow electric-light plant. He had built the Idaho University building, the contract price for which was one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, and he had built, under contract, some of Idaho’s largest public-school buildings, and was thought to be worth at least three hundred thousand dollars. He was literally “driven to the wall” by adverse circumstances, but his spirit was not broken, nor did his enterprise slumber. The Shields Company, Limited, was organized and incorporated, and Mr. Shields was made its manager. Its success has been noteworthy and it is now one of the strongest concerns of the kind in the state. It occupies a brick block, one hundred and forty by one hundred and twenty-five feet, which Mr. Shields erected in 1890.
There was not a citizen of Moscow who did not sympathize with Mr. Shields in his trouble, and there is not one who is not glad that he is coming to the front again with a pronounced business success that promises well for his future.
Mr. Shields was married, in June, 1885, to Miss Sarah A. Henry, a native of Massachusetts, who has borne him four children, Frederick Milton, Madeline Mary, James Henry and John Lewis. In politics Mr. Shields is a Republican, in religion a Catholic. He was a regent of the State University of Idaho, and in that capacity did much excellent and far-reaching work to advance the cause of public education in his adopted state.