Theodore Burney Wilcox

T. B. Wilcox portrait

Lockley, Fred. "History of the Columbia River Valley, From The Dalles to the Sea." Vol. 2. S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1928. p. 28.


Theodore Roosevelt said that the strongest men of the nation have been produced where eastern birth and training have been grafted onto western enterprise and opportunity. Such was the record of Theodore Burney Wilcox and the result achieved was a notable one, for through many years he figured not only as one of the most prominent residents of Portland and of Oregon but as an outstanding figure in connection with the development of the milling industry of the United States and the extension of its trade relations into the Orient. He was ever a builder. His life was characterized by constructive processes that not only promoted his own fortunes but contributed in substantial measure to the development and upbuilding of those sections in which he labored. While he attained distinction as a representative of the flour manufacturing business and became one of the prosperous men of the northwest, there were other traits in his character that were equally pronounced. Those who came within the closer circle of his acquaintance found him possessed of many admirable characteristics that won not only their respect and esteem but also their friendship and love.

The birthplace of Theodore Burney Wilcox was the little New England village of Agawam, not far from Springfield, Massachusetts, and his natal day was July 8, 1856. He traced his ancestry in direct line back to David Wilcox, who came from Wales to the new world in 1635 and was the village physician of Hebron, Connecticut, while his brother was one of the original settlers of Hartford, that state. Henry S. Wilcox, father of Theodore B. Wilcox, was born in Massachusetts and there wedded Sarah Burney, a daughter of Thomas Burney, who came to the United States from the north of England about 1820, establishing his home in Webster, Massachusetts. Henry S. Wilcox had reached the advanced age of eighty-seven years when he passed away in his native state in 1908, having for seven years survived his wife, who died in 1901, at the age of seventy-five.

There was nothing spectacular in the youthful career of Theodore B. Wilcox - nothing to indicate that he would forge his way to a position of leadership in the business world. His educational advantages were not equal to those offered many, as he did not have the opportunity to attend college. However, he diligently pursued his studies in the public schools of his native state and throughout his entire life remained a student of men, of events, of conditions and opportunities, and thus in the school of experience he learned life's most valuable lessons and became one of the most broad-minded of men. He was a youth of but sixteen years when he started out to provide for his own support, securing employment in the Hampden National Bank at Westfield, Massachusetts. There Asahel Bush of the Bank of Ladd & Bush of Salem, Oregon, himself a native of Massachusetts, found him when he returned to the east, and recognizing in him the qualities that make for capability and success, he offered him a position in the bank of Ladd & Tilton in Portland. Progress is never the result of chance. Promotion is always gained through the recognition of ability on the part of employers, and thus it was that the opportunity came to Theodore B. Wilcox to enter upon a business career in the northwest; and when that career was terminated in death forty-one years later he had become one of the foremost figures in the development of this section of the country. After serving as teller in the Ladd & Tilton Bank until 1884, he became confidential man to W. S. Ladd, so continuing until 1893.

His business versatility is indicated in the fact that at that time he directed his efforts into an entirely different channel, retiring from the banking business to concentrate his attention upon flour manufacturing. He had first entered the field ten years before when in 1884 he organized the Portland Flouring Mills Company, taking over several properties that had ceased to be paying enterprises. These interests he combined and reorganized and it was not long before they were making splendid return to him. The stock of the company was held by Mr. Wilcox and the Ladd estate, the former becoming general manager, with W. S. Ladd as president of the company. Upon the death of the latter in January, 1893, Mr. Wilcox became the president and for many years thereafter concentrated his efforts and attention upon the further development and enlargement of the business until he made it the foremost undertaking of this character in the northwest. "The success of the milling industry brought another problem in its wake - that of securing a market for the unprecedented production of local flour. In the solving of that problem Mr. Wilcox won the gratitude of the northwest and firmly established the basis for a great industry, for he turned to the markets of the Orient, then practically undeveloped. Mr. Wilcox was successful in the development of the Chinese and Japanese markets, with the result that a large expansion in export business followed, stimulating the establishment of flouring mills throughout the Pacific northwest to share in the new trade. With a genius for organization, his milling industry became a smoothly coordinating business of vast proportions, sending its output to the ports of all the world. Oregon flour became known wherever bread is baked, and the natural stimulus to grain-growing in this state and others of the Pacific Coast region created a new and undreamed-of prosperity."

Another writer said of him, while he was still an active factor in the world's work: "Coming of a family that for generations has been connected with manufacturing interests, he has always been a believer in the efficacy of manufacturing enterprises as a potent factor in the development of a community and with this principle in mind two aims have been predominant in his work; to make the Portland Flouring Mills one of the largest and best institutions of the kind in the world; to promote the upbuilding of the northwest through the benefits that must accruse by the development and conduct of a.large and successful enterprise. From insignificant proportions the business has steadily grown until it is today the most extensive of the kind on the Pacific coast, with a daily output of over ten thousand barrels. Oregon flour bearing the name of Portland has been carried to all parts of the world, from the Amur river to the Cape of Good Hope, and from Alaska to Cape Horn, to all the Pacific islands and to various European ports. Through this development of the flour trade and the introduction of the output into all parts of the world and through the opening of new markets into which other millers have also sent their products, the interests of the farmers of the northwest have been greatly enhanced, their products commanding better prices, whereby the general prosperity has been greatly promoted. At a banquet given in Portland in honor of J. J. Hill, some time before his death, Mr. Hill, the railway magnate, said : 'Mr. Wilcox has done more than any other man in Portland through the fame of the institution of which he is the head to develop the commerce of the Columbia river and gain recognition for the northwest throughout the world.' Having spent his early life in the banking business Mr. Wilcox has always continued in more or less close connection with financial affairs and is interested in several of the leading banking institutions of the northwest, together with various other enterprises of Portland and the state. His success finds its root in his power as an organizer and his ability to unite varied and ofttimes seemingly diverse interests into a unified and harmonious whole. His initiative spirit has prompted him to continue beyond the paths that others have marked out into new fields where his intelligently directed efforts and appreciation of opportunity have resulted in successful achievement."

One knowing Mr. Wilcox well would not be surprised that he was equally successful in the field of real estate investment. His sound judgment enabled him to recognize the value of realty and the possibility for advance in prices and he became the owner of a number of the finest business houses of Portland. He was also a stockholder and director of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, was financially interested in the United States National Bank and in the Ladd & Tilton Bank, of which he was a director. What he achieved in the business world would alone entitle him to distinction, but there was still another phase of his life work that was of the greatest value to Oregon. He had the keenest interest in projects that made for growth and improvement in the northwest and was closely associated with the development work of the Portland Chamber of Commerce, acting as chairman of its executive committee for several years. It has often been said that the Oregon building, the present home of the Chamber of Commerce, came into existence largely through his efforts. He was also for several years president of the Port of Portland Commission and was one of the early presidents of the Oregon Development League, which he fostered, regarding it as of vital importance to the various communities of the state. He was made a member of the Portland water board when a fund of three million dollars was appropriated in 1909 for the further development of the city's water supply and in this, as in other activities, he assumed his great responsibility and carried forward the work to a notable and successful conclusion. For many years he did most earnest and effective work as a member of the Portland Commercial Club in advancing the interests of the city, extending its trade relations and maintaining high civic standards. He was active in the organization of the Oregon Development League, of which he was president for several years. The purpose of this organization was to encourage the different communities throughout the state to advertise their own sections and the movement resulted in the formation of more than one hundred different organizations, all working along the same lines.

Mr. Wilcox was twice married. A son of his first marriage survives - Raymond B., whose mother passed away many years ago. On the 18th of June, 1890, Mr. Wilcox was married to Miss Nellie Josephine Stevens, a daughter of William and Laura (Pease) Stevens, of Massachusetts. Mrs. Wilcox was a teacher in her early days and is a lady of refined and beautiful character. By her marriage she became the mother of two children: Theodore Burney, a graduate of Yale; and Claire, who is the wife of Cameron Squires, of Portland.

Mr. Wilcox was never ambitious along political lines. He cared nothing for public office, yet few men have labored so consistently, earnestly and effectively to promote public welfare. He was one of the executive committee of the Lewis and Clark Exposition and contributed in notable measure to its success. During the World war period he was made a member of the milling commission of the food administration, and while it had been his desire to retire somewhat from active business, he nevertheless took up his this work with the same zeal that had ever characterized him and his devotion thereto was the direct cause of his death, for when in ill health he attended a meeting of the commission in Washington and on the return trip was Again taken very ill, his death resulting a few days later. He held membership in the First Presbyterian church and his life was at all times in accord with its teachings. He was a man of the highest principles and of unassailable honor and commanded the respect of all with whom he came in contact. He was popular in such organizations as the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club, the Arlington Club and the Waverly Club, in all of which he held membership. "Theodore Burney Wilcox was a master builder - a man of magnificent vision, never a dreamer. He was a practical man but one who keenly understood the power of the ideal. He had a rare grasp of the perspective and in the furthering of an accepted plan, which was always thoroughly thought out, he was like the driving wheel of an engine in his execution. He had the courage of his convictions and though in his keen business sense he was as strong as steel, there was an essential softness in his soul that but few were privileged to know. He was an inspiration and counselor to many young men starting out in life and was always ready with his energy and other means to assist in any worthy cause. At a time of life when he wished to conserve his energies and enjoy the fruits of his many years of labor and success in partial retirement on a newly developed farm, the call to duty in the great war threw him more closely than ever into the harness of affairs and as chairman of the federal milling division of the Pacific northwest he closed his career. In the pursuit of this work it was necessary to make frequent trips across the continent and on the 6th of March, 1918, though ill at the time, in response to a sense of duty, he insisted upon taking what proved to be his final trip, as he was stricken on the train. During his last days at home the beauties of his soul were laid bare to those near him to an extent that they had never recognized before. The story of his life is cherished by all who knew him and his memory enshrined in the hearts of those who came within the close circle of his friendship."

At his passing, when he was only about sixty-two years of age, the press of the country made frequent mention of him editorially. Some years before, when the Chicago Record-Herald began the publication of a series of articles of men who were accomplishing big things, particularly men who raised themselves to prominence by their own intelligence and energy, Mr. Wilcox was given first place among the distinguished citizens of Oregon. The Spectator of April 6, 1918, said editorially: "Now that Theodore B. Wilcox has passed away, the fine things that could have been said of him while he was still with us, and which, no doubt, he would have been pleased to have heard, are spoken over his bier. At the graves of our friends we try to make amends for withholding our words of encouragement and of praise. Mr. Wilcox was a big man, who did big things in a big way. He was successful, because he had the ability to command success. He had no golden opportunities that were not shared by all his contemporaries. He saw them, grasped them, and molded them to great ends. He had big thoughts, and his advice and counsel were sought and followed by those who occupied high places. He was a commonwealth builder, and added to the prosperity of the community. Those who did not know T. B. Wilcox very well, thought he did not get all out of life that was his due. We usually get all out of life that we ask for. If Mr. Wilcox had asked for more than he had - political or diplomatic preference, for instance╦ťhe would have gained it. He had a warm, genial, lovable side that was not exposed to everybody; those who were favored with his liking were very fortunate. Mr. Wilcox overworked. The added labor which he undertook, and which caused his death, was in the public service. He was just regaining his strength after a threatened breakdown when he was asked to assume the chairmanship of the Northwest milling interests for the National Food Administration. He knew it would prove burdensome work; it took exactly the time that his physician said he should devote to recreation. 'This,' he said to the writer one day, `isn't a time for recreation. It's war time. When the war is over, we can take up our golf and fishing and vacations. But nobody who can do anything worth while has time for anything but war service.' And so he kept on. In the death of Theodore Wilcox, the country has lost a big man, and Oregon one of its most notable citizens." So long as history bears testimony to those who have been the builders of the empire of the northwest, the name of Theodore B. Wilcox will be indelibly inscribed upon its pages.


Submitted to the Oregon Bios. Project in March 2007 by Diana Smith. Submitter has no additional information about the person(s) or family mentioned above.


Updated on 28 Mar 2007.