Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Otto Plath Was "A Good Boy, But a Poor Businessman"

This Berkeley newspaper classified ad is so over-thought and overwrought it first made me laugh. Otto Plath, “Going East” in May 1914, offered an 80 x 130 urban lot for sale at below market value. Its virtues include proximity to the post office.

Berkeley Evening Gazette, May 30, 1914, p. 6

In May 1914 Otto Plath was 29, a graduate student at U.C.-Berkeley, and unhappily married. He said his first wife Lydia was “cold,” meaning sexually, but it was her and her sisters' money he lost trying to deal in real estate, and she was angry. Otto was going east, without his wife, to Columbia University in New York, to study there toward a Ph.D. in German. Despite this promising career plan, war with Germany derailed it and pauperized Otto through no fault of his own.

Most anyone will tell you that land by itself is a poor investment. It might one day be sold at a profit but no one can say when, or how much of a profit, or what might be erected next door. Meanwhile it produces no income or benefit yet is taxable. That said, immigrants such as Otto or his father Theodor arriving in the U.S. with only what they could carry--that was the rule at Ellis Island--might deeply value being able to say they owned land. The Europe that Otto and Theodor came from measured wealth in terms of land ownership. In the United States, wealth meant having money in the bank. Otto’s attempt at flipping land to put money in the bank bridged the old world and the new.

Looking into this, I quit laughing. Otto was trying to accumulate wealth using the only money available to him. American banks did not lend to immigrants with no collateral or credit history. So for loans of all types, immigrants went to their families, in-laws, or fellow immigrants. Some ethnic communities had their own loan associations. At least they spoke your language. A loan shark was another alternative. For a financial foothold with no money down, the U.S. government invited all citizens, excluding only rebels, to claim 160 acres of free public land purged of Indians. Under the 1862 Homestead Act, claimants had five years to turn the land into a farm or ranch. After that they owned it and could sell it. It was a great opportunity and an enormous gamble.

Otto Plath’s father Theodor Plath came to the U.S. in 1901. A traveling master blacksmith, he settled his wife and five of their six kids and finally himself on a North Dakota farm. There his wife showed signs of mental illness. Around 1907, Theodor moved to Harney County in southeastern Oregon and was a blacksmith there. This is sagebrush desert land at an altitude of 4000 feet. Annual rainfall is 10 inches, and the gravelly soil is good only for raising cattle and sheep and grasses to feed them. In all of Harney County's 10,000 square miles there were two towns. Today those towns are cities. There are still only two.

Harney County's Pueblo Mountains area. Irrigation efforts failed. [1]

Given the challenges of staging and funding a whole new life in inhospitable places, an immigrant’s living apart from a spouse or leaving children with relatives or simply going mad was (and still is) not unusual. The 1910 federal census shows Theodor, without his wife, in Harney County with his son Paul, and son Max was a hired man nearby. Two daughters remained in the Midwest, one a servant, the other with an aunt. Theodor’s immigrant parents in Wisconsin were paying for Otto’s education: a student loan. Otto defaulted by changing his major and the family cut him off. As Aurelia put it, he was on his own for the rest of his life.

Otto’s marriage in August 1912 got him access to money. Parted from his wife, Otto borrowed from friends or worked low-level jobs. One of his very rare letters (I’ve seen two) asks a friend for more time to repay $30. [2] In 1917 he was $1400 in debt -- the equivalent of $30,000 today. In 1920 he was 35 years old and the federal census says he was unemployed. When Otto, at last fully employed, married Aurelia Schober in 1932 he and Aurelia took a side trip to San Francisco where Aurelia said he sold or disposed of an urban property with an ocean view. She gave no further details.

Five days before writing his will, broke and sickly Theodor Plath claimed homestead acreage in Washington State, not to dwell there but to own it without buying it and leave it to his younger daughter. Theodor was buried in a pauper’s lot with no headstone. His wife died in an insane asylum. As a graduate student on a new degree track, Otto in his thirties kept borrowing from housemates and obsessing about interest rates. He pinched pennies, but any nest egg he ever had he sank into stocks and lost. He gambled with his health and died miserably, maybe in part because doctors cost money.

Otto’s uncle had rightly called him “a good boy but a poor businessman.” Consider along with his bumblebees and their ways that Sylvia Plath’s father was 51 before he was able to buy a house. He left Aurelia to dispel with starch and sunshine the carnage of the immigration experience and by herself lift Otto’s children permanently into the middle class.

[1] State of Oregon Harney County history, retrieved 7 April 2022. The area Theodor lived in is now ZIP code 97720.

[2] Otto Plath to Hans Gaebler, 18 October 1917. (Smith)

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