Kolthof, William, 1829-1907
Posted By: Lydia Lucas, volunteer (email)
Date: 1/17/2013 at 23:22:31
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER'S HUMBLEST SERVANT
One of the greatest corporations in all the wide world is the Standard Oil company. It has hundreds of millions of dollars invested and employs an army of men. Its branch houses and tanks and wagons are seen in all parts of the United States. Perhaps the oldest and humblest of all the great Standard Oil family is Uncle Billy Kolthof of Alton. We present his picture herewith [photo of him standing behind his horse and wagon]. But it needs no introduction. Uncle Billy and his horse and wagon and tank are familiar to every man and woman and child in Alton. For fourteen years--day after day--rain or shine--Uncle Billy has made the rounds of the town to supply his customers with Standard oil and gasoline.
Uncle Billy was born in 1829 of poor parents in the town of Tjummarum province of Friesland Holland. He is therefore seventyfive years old. School advantages were slim in the days of Uncle Billy's youth and most of his learning was gathered at spare moments by himself. And he gathered considerable too for his opportunity. He has a quick wit and is always ready with a joke. When he got old enough to work he spent many days in the fields at fifteen cents a day and boarded at home. Then he got his board and five dollars a year for awhile. When twenty-four years old he was working on a farm for his keep and fifty dollars a year--which was considered good wages in Holland.
When King William the First of Holland died Uncle Billy--then a lad on the farm--rang the church bell in the hamlet for three hours every day for eight days. This was at a little cluster of farm dwellings called Ferdgum, county of Barradeel. They had no church but merely a tower and bell. Ferdgum was a cluster of houses like several claim shanties grouped on the Dakota plains. Religious services were held in the houses. Uncle Billy got a dollar and forty cents from the government for ringing the bell and thought himself well paid. In 1848 under William the Second Uncle Billy drew lots with the other youth of the land for military duty and it fell to his lot to serve. Before he entered the army however William the Second died and Uncle Billy entered the service under King William the Third--father of the present Queen Wilhelmina.
Uncle Billy was married early but lost his wife and in 1861 at Bolsward Friesland he was married to Mrs. Ynsche De Bruin a widow. They lived five years in Friesland and fourteen in the province of Groningen. Five children were born to them, all in Holland, and in 1881 the family came to America and settled at Alton. The children are Mrs. Reijer Branch of Sioux Center, Mrs. Henry De Gooyer of Pella, Mrs. John Ver Hoef of Boyden, Mrs. Harry Boatsma of Maiden Rock, Wisconsin and a son--Percy Kolthof at Montrose, South Dakota in the newspaper business.
Had Uncly Billy come to America when he was young he might now be comparatively rich. His life in Holland was a hand-to-mouth existence and only by borrowing money from his wife's sister already here was he able to transport his family. Coming to a new land at the age of fifty-two with a family to support and a new language to learn he had a hard struggle. But he obtained work as janitor of the church and school and at odd jobs about town and soon had the debt paid for his family's passage. By hard work and economy he provided for his family and raised them respectably. They had little with which to start for themselves but are making their way in the world. Fourteen years ago--being unable longer to toil at manual labor Uncle Billy started to sell oil. Few have been the days he was not seen on the streets. At first he bought of local merchants but afterward had tanks of his own.
The merchants favored him a little in price and sometimes the people bought because it was Uncle Billy and gave him a few cents more on a five gallon can than they would have given someone else. At best his profits were small--but a few cents a day sometimes--but little by little he has been paying for the humble roof that shelters himself and his aged wife. Everyone knows the little rambling one-story dwelling in the edge of Alton. It is almost paid for now and it is well--for Uncle Billy's steps are not so sprightly as they were in days of yore. It has been a wonder to many how a man of past seventy has stood the rigors of heat and cold that Uncle Billy has weathered the past few years. They have expected almost daily that next day they would not see the old horse and wagon plodding along the streets and hear the cheery voice of the old man with the gray hair and beard and the twinkling blue eyes. But each succeeding day has brought them forth until some almost begin to doubt if there will be a time when Uncle Billy won't be seen on the streets of Alton.
But his friends can hardly hope that he or his horse or wagon will survive many more winters. All three are slowly wearing out. Uncle Billy has suffered with rheumatism for several years past and this winter it has been worse than ever before. A year ago he could carry a five gallon can of oil but he can't do it now. He can't life a pail of water for his horse any more but must take half a pail at a time. But he's just as cheery as of old. His horse too is not so young as when she started out to peddle oil fourteen years ago--and the wagon doesn't run as true as it once did.
To watch the rig and horse and driver it seems the motions of each grow slower and slower as if some day they would all stop in the street and never start again. The Standard Oil company has millions. It has done much for colleges and in other lines of charity. Uncle Billy is probably--as said before--its oldest and humblest representative. He has worked for it without its encouragement or its knowledge for many years. He has sold its product and fought its battles in summer and winter. He can't work much longer and has little to fall back upon in his old age. It would be a gracious thing if the great Standard Oil company could look down upon this humblest member of its great family of employees and say: "Well done--good and faithful servant" and pension him for his few remaining years. The small amount that would put him beyond want would be as nothing to the company. It would be better than endowing a college. Not a person who knows Uncle Billy but would rejoice if the Standard Oil company should lighten the burdens of his old age.
Source: Alton Democrat, March 12, 1904.
His obituary was published in the Alton Democrat, February 7, 1907.
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