The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Hubbell, Frederick Marion
(January 17, 1839–November 11, 1930)

Grover Cooper Hubbel

(February 3, 1883–December 9, 1956), and

Frederick Windsor Hubbell

(November 24, 1891–March 13, 1959)

represent three generations of prominent Des Moines businessmen who helped to shape that city. After arriving as a teenager in mid-19th-century Des Moines, Frederick Marion (F. M.) Hubbell embarked on a 75-year career, building a business empire based on real estate, insurance, and railroads. He also had a lucrative law practice, developed a waterworks, and purchased Terrace Hill, the grandest home in the city. Often referred to as the wealthiest man in Iowa, Hubbell established a trust to preserve his fortune for his family. His descendants continued to play a prominent role in the city throughout the 20th century. His youngest son, Grover, maintained the family seat at Terrace Hill and became well known for community service. Grandson Frederick Windsor (F. W.) became president of the Equitable Life Insurance Company of Iowa, the firm F. M. and others had founded in 1867.

    F. M. Hubbell was the oldest of three children born to Francis B. Hubbell, a successful stonemason, and his wife, Augusta (Church) Hubbell, in Huntington (now Shelton), Connecticut. Following high school, he headed to Fort Des Moines (soon shortened to Des Moines), Iowa, with his father in 1855. Shortly after arriving, Francis acquired some property, sold it at a profit, and prepared to return home, as he intended, but his son chose to remain in Des Moines. Young Hubbell had already found employment at the federal land office and believed he had better prospects in Iowa than in Connecticut. The position proved auspicious: it put him in contact with experienced businessmen who would later be his mentors and partners, and, because it exposed him to many aspects of the real estate trade, it was an ideal training ground for his future career.

    At the end of his one-year term at the land office, he headed to Sioux City and found work at the federal land office there. Soon he was buying and selling land on the side, and with a partner he established a land agency business. To further his real estate career, he began studying law and was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1858. While living in the northwestern part of the state, Hubbell was one of the founders of Sioux County. In 1861 attorney Phineas Casady, under whom Hubbell had worked at the Des Moines land office, and his partner, Jefferson S. Polk, offered the young man a position at their Des Moines law firm.

    Eager to get back to Des Moines, Hubbell took the job, continuing to work in real estate acquisition. After a year Hubbell was made a full partner, and when Casady left the practice in 1864, the firm became known as Polk & Hubbell. By that time the attorneys were largely focused on their real estate business, often buying land at tax auctions and sheriffs' sales, purchases that eventually made Hubbell the largest property owner in Des Moines and led to additional connections with a number of local elites and several important business ventures.

    On Hubbell's initiative in 1867, Polk & Hubbell and 11 other investors established the Equitable Life Insurance Company of Iowa—the first life insurance company west of the Mississippi River. Originally serving as its secretary, Hubbell was named president in 1888 and held the position until 1907. Over the years, he bought out his associates' shares so that by the 1920s he owned the firm outright. Ultimately, this became his most important investment.

    In 1871 Polk & Hubbell, banker Benjamin F. Allen (the businessman who built Terrace Hill), and several others incorporated the Des Moines Water Works. Hubbell served as the company's secretary for a number of years and later ended up owning the firm. He eventually sold his shares in the waterworks but remained in control of a large portion of company bonds. The city purchased the waterworks in 1919 for $3.45 million. Hubbell netted approximately $1 million in the deal.

    Besides insurance and the water business, the two attorneys also became involved in local transportation. Their first interest was in a small streetcar line, but they soon jettisoned that investment in favor of narrow gauge railroads. Along with several partners, who over the years included railroad builder Grenville Dodge and James Clarkson, editor and publisher of the Iowa State Register (forerunner to the Des Moines Register), Polk & Hubbell established a Des Moines-based narrow gauge railway network.

    Initially, they acquired a small narrow gauge railroad west of the city, reincorporated it as the Des Moines North Western Railway, and planned to extend it 110 miles from Des Moines northwest to Fonda. Shortly thereafter, Hubbell, Polk, and their associates incorporated two more railways: the Des Moines and St. Louis Railway to operate a railroad from Des Moines 68 miles southeast to Albia, and the St. Louis, Des Moines & Northern Railway to operate a railroad from Des Moines 40 miles north to Boone. They then established the Narrow Gauge Construction Company to build the lines. When completed, these railroads were leased by Jay Gould's Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific. Finally, with the Wabash, the group also incorporated the Des Moines Union Railway, a terminal and switching company.

    When the Wabash went bankrupt, Polk & Hubbell regained control of the Fonda and Boone lines, which were later combined and ultimately sold to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. By the time of that sale in 1898, the firm of Polk & Hubbell was no more. The two attorneys had gone their separate ways in 1887, leaving Hubbell with the firm's interest in commercial real estate, railroads, insurance, and the waterworks. To manage his massive real estate holdings, Hubbell organized F. M. Hubbell, Son and Company, a partnership with his eldest son, Frederick C. (F. C.) Hubbell, and brother-in-law H. Devere Thompson.

    In 1863 Hubbell had married Frances Cooper, a daughter of one of his early business associates. The couple had three children: F. C., Beulah, and Grover. In 1884 the family moved into the grand home of Terrace Hill after Hubbell bought it from a bankrupt Benjamin F. Allen. There, in 1899, his daughter, Beulah, married a European aristocrat, Count Carl Wachtmeister.

    In 1903 Hubbell established an estate trust to preserve his wealth for future generations of the family. The trust would last until 1983. By that time, its value had grown to approximately $200 million, which was distributed to 13 heirs. Hubbell died at Terrace Hill in 1930 and was buried in the family's private mausoleum in Des Moines' Woodland Cemetery.

    His sons and two eldest grandsons stayed in Des Moines, working for the family companies and serving as trustees for the Hubbell Estate Trust. Hubbell's youngest son, Grover, was educated in public and private schools before attending Yale University. After graduating in 1905, he returned to Des Moines and began working for F. M. Hubbell, Son and Company and was active as an estate trustee as well. Besides the family companies, Grover developed several holdings of his own, including a concrete company, a milling business, and a sawmill that produced gunstocks for the United States and its allies during World War I.

    Once back in Des Moines, Grover married Anna Godfrey, and the couple had three children: Frances, Helen Virginia, and Mary Belle. When his mother died in 1924, Grover and Anna moved into Terrace Hill to take care of his father.

    Grover made significant contributions to the city in the area of community service. He served as a member and then chair of Drake University's board of trustees and was involved with local organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Community Chest (United Way), Iowa Lutheran Hospital, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). In 1947 the Des Moines Tribune awarded him its Community Service Award. He died in Des Moines in 1956.

    F. W. Hubbell, Grover's nephew and F. M.'s eldest grandson, was born and raised in Des Moines. After graduating from Harvard in 1913, he joined Equitable Life. He served in the army during World War I, then returned to Equitable and rose through the ranks until he was named company president in 1939, the position his grandfather and father had held earlier. F. W. led the company for 20 years.

    He married Helen Clark in 1915, and they had two children: F. W. Jr., who died of polio in 1935, and Helen Ann. F. W. died while on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1959. He was interred in Des Moines with his grandfather, his uncle Grover, and other family members in the Hubbell mausoleum.

    The Hubbell involvement in Des Moines continued long after F. W. died. The family remained active in community and civic affairs. In 1971 they donated Terrace Hill to the state. The home was converted for use as the governor's mansion and a public museum. Equitable, F. M.'s greatest asset, remained in family hands until the late 1980s, when the Hubbells' interest in the company dropped to 49 percent. Then headed by one of F. M.'s great-great-grandsons, the company was purchased by ING, a Dutch financial services firm in 1997. Finally, F. M. Hubbell, Son and Company, eventually renamed Hubbell Realty, continued as a family-owned real estate firm, actively involved in developing commercial and residential properties in the greater Des Moines area.
Sources The F. M. Hubbell Papers are held at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. For secondary sources on the Hubbells, see William Friedricks, Investing in Iowa: The Life and Times of F. M. Hubbell (2007); George Mills, The Little Man with the Long Shadow (1955); George Pease, Patriarch of the Prairie: The Story of Equitable of Iowa, 1867–1967 (1967); and Scherrie Goettsch and Steve Weinburg, Terrace Hill: The Story of a House and the People Who Touched It (1978).
Contributor: William Friedricks