“School-books and rules were hard tasks for me, and to obtain knowledge in that way was much like trying to take on fat by eating saw-dust bread.” – Seneca Ladd
If you live for any length of time in the Lakes Region, you are sure to come across the name Seneca Ladd. It’s an unusual and hard-to-forget name. Once you know the story of Ladd and his rise to fortune, with his ethical reputation and philanthropic nature, you will further remember the early Lakes Region entrepreneur.
Seneca was born in Loudon in 1819. He was the fourth son (and sixth child) of Polly and Gideon Ladd. From the start, Seneca Ladd was a free thinker and not one to do well under the constrictions of formal schooling.
It was not for lack of trying that Ladd proved a poor scholar. He attended town school in the summers until he was about 10-years-old and went to winter school until age 17. (At that time, children attended school at various seasonal months of the year in order to be available to help parents with farming and the harvesting of crops.)
In today’s day and age, educators would recognize Ladd as a gifted student. He could not do well with formal training but was very intelligent. At the time, no testing was available to identify a gifted child who learned best in a free-form manner.
One teacher, however, recognized the talent in Ladd. John French, one of Ladd’s instructors, encouraged his wayward pupil to study in his own way, make his own rules, and choose how and when Ladd would study. The creative method worked and Ladd won a prized silver Spanish coin for his good grades. It is said that Ladd kept the coin for years.
In his early teens, Ladd was sent to learn the carriage-maker’s trade in Raymond. He learned quickly, probably due to his high mechanical aptitude. One can assume that, by age 13, Ladd had a grasp of the financial world. If middle- and lower-class families were to survive, it was up to the children to learn a trade and help their parents and any unwed sisters. Most likely there was a lot at stake for the Ladd family, and young Seneca was prepared to do good work.
Always restless and looking for new challenges, Ladd ran a carriage-maker’s business in Meredith for two years and then moved to Boston for a year making pianofortes for Timothy Gilbert in the second manufactory of the kind established in the United States.
Ladd came home to Meredith in the summer of 1839. He had saved his money and was a true entrepreneur. (A few years later, he probably discerned that getting into an up-and-coming business still in its infancy — pianoforte making—would put him ahead of the curve; it is reminiscent of today’s computer visionaries who got into software on the ground floor.) But, upon coming to Meredith, Ladd purchased a mill building and opened a large carriage manufactory. Ladd was ready to enter business on an extensive scale, which was a huge task for a man of only 20 years, but Ladd never looked back. He spent his youth plotting a course to success and it did not take long for the manufactory to thrive.
For 11 years, Ladd built his business and ran it profitably. But, in 1850, fire destroyed his entire plant and the contents went up in flames. Ladd could have given up, but it was not in his forward-thinking nature. He leased a cotton factory, then idle, and fitted it with new machinery and began to manufacture pianos and melodeons.
Once again, Ladd’s business thrived and he ran piano and melodeon factories in Meredith and Boston for about 20 years.
Ladd had become quite wealthy; he was known as a skilled piano manufacturer. But he may have become restless and started looking for new challenges, as all true entrepreneurs tend to do. He also was a caring and highly observant person. He had noticed the recklessness with which the young people working in his factories squandered their money. It pained him to watch his employees fritter away their hard-earned pay packets. He was known to advise his employees to save some of their pay and he took their financial problems seriously. Thus, opening a bank seemed to be the answer to a number of Ladd’s concerns: His employees would have a place to save their money and Ladd could enjoy a new business to satiate his restless nature.
In November 1869, Ladd and his associates procured a charter from the NH Legislature and established the Meredith Village Savings Bank. Ladd was named treasurer (equivalent to today’s president and CEO). The bank’s first home was in the building that now houses the Meredith Historical Society on Main Street in Meredith.
By that time, he had ceased operation of his piano manufacturing business. For the next 20 years, Ladd threw all his energies into running the bank.
Well-known in Meredith, Ladd was, however, a bit of an oddity at a time when free thinkers were few and far between. The History of Merrimack and Belknap Counties, New Hampshire, 1885 stated, “Such a peculiar nature as Mr. Ladd’s must needs have had a peculiar education. This has been given by careful observation of everything that came in his way; by examining the structure and nature of the smallest as well as largest matters in nature; by attending to the needs of each of the many sides of both mental and physical organisms; by practical business, by newspapers, scientific and literary works of a high order, and by avoiding everything tending to sensation or frivolity. He has never read a novel or attended a theatre. This education has given him a mental character of strength and ability far beyond that attained by the usual curriculum of a college course, and on any of the grave subjects under discussion among scholars his opinion is listened to with earnestness and commands respect. From an early day he has been pronounced in his adherence to temperance. When a boy he joined a church, but left it as soon as he found that it was obligatory on him to take wine at communion. Since then he has been a member of no church, but contributed to the support of many. He has never used tobacco or alcohol in any form, and has battled strongly against the rum traffic. In politics, his votes have always been cast in favor of universal freedom. The Liberty, Abolition and Republican parties have, in turn, received his warmest support and most active services, and in all social and public matters he has ever been in accord with the most advanced and progressive minds.
“His regard for the young has been noticeable through life. He rarely passes children without bowing or speaking to them, and during his life he continually scattered kind deeds among them.”
The editor of a New Hampshire newspaper in the 1800s recalled childhood encounters with Ladd: “Mr. Ladd was always giving me something, doing me some favor, speaking kind words to me, encouraging me, giving me to understand that my chances in the world were just as good as anybody’s, providing I kept at school and did it right. Somehow I always felt, while I lived in the neighborhood, that he was watching me, and that I had a friend in him, and for these reasons I tried to be a good boy and meet his approbation.”
Ladd married Susan Tilton of Meredith in 1840. She was highly regarded in Meredith and, when she died in 1850, the whole community mourned the loss. Their children were Fannie C.A. (Mrs. D.W. Coe) and Charles F.A. Ladd.
Seneca married a second time to Catherine Wallace, daughter of William Wallace, Esq., of Henniker in 1852. They had one child, Virginia B. Ladd.
Health concerns did not seem to keep Ladd down. It is said he was quite deaf with advancing age, but he continued to run the bank and involve himself with all sorts of philanthropic causes and also with hobbies.
True to his learn-by-doing, curious nature, Ladd became interested in geology and meteorology. For about 18 years, he kept meteorological records and had one of the finest private collections of minerals, antiquities, and Native American relics in New Hampshire.
A close friend of Ladd’s described the bank owner and the bank in this way for an interview in the Boston Daily News: “This gentleman of boundless courtesy and leisure is very hard of hearing, a man of great reflection, remarkable observation and unusual originality. The establishment [the bank] looks like a professor’s cabinet; there are no signs of a bank, external or internal. Cases of books, minerals, coins, gems and antiquities, a few pictures, a ‘Novelty’ printing press, a moderate safe and a lounge or two, with easy chairs, complete the establishment. Clay-stones and other concretions and results of frost have been an especial study, and also stone arrowheads of both the Old World and the New. Several specimens are of flint and probably came from Europe.” This description speaks to what a curious man, far ahead of his time, Ladd must have been.
Seneca Ladd remained active throughout his life and, when he died in 1892, he left behind a small family but a larger community of friends, business associates, and fellow scholars. Although his beginnings were humble, and he never fit any prescribed mold in the world of the 1800s, Seneca left a positive and lasting impression on Meredith.
In today’s world, Ladd would be called an entrepreneur and a free thinker. We can remember him as Meredith’s early entrepreneur.