February 8, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
John Purdue

John Purdue was the only son of nine children. It was an accident of birth that continues to have a profound effect on thousands of young men and women each year. Purdue was born in a log cabin in the foothills of eastern Pennsylvania in 1802. When John was 21 the family set out for the western frontier, an arduous journey which took the life of his father and one of his sisters.

The Purdues continued heading west in what became a search for husbands. By the time they reached Illinois six of the seven Purdue girls had married. Now John struck out on his own. He taught school for several years until he had saved $450 to put a 50% downpayment on 160 acres in Marion County, Ohio in 1831.

Purdue farmed for a year and sold his land for $1200, taking the profit to begin a business brokering hogs. He formed a partnership with a former student to expand his mercantile business. In the late 1830s Purdue came to Lafayette, Indiana, a town he had visited on sales trips, to re-establish the mercantile trade.

Lafayette was a town founded only 15 years earlier by a man destined to become the town drunk. It was a bawdy, brawling settlement where pigs rooted freely through the streets. But when the Wabash & Erie Canal opened Lafayette became the leading city of the Wabash River. And Purdue became a leading citizen as Lafayette's most successful merchant.

Purdue never married. He was extremely shy around women, harking back to his female-dominated upbringing. Instead of his own family Purdue took a great interest in the children of Lafayette. He would often entertain children with stories and tea parties. When Indiana provided free schools in 1851 Purdue was one of the first to serve on the school board.

In 1855 Purdue left for New York City to establish a commission house which did spectacular business as a chief supplier of pork to the Union Army during the Civil War. Purdue became known as the "King of Produce" or, more often, "Mr. Pork." When he retired to Lafayette after the war Purdue was a rich man.

He spent the last years of his life in Lafayette earning fame but dismantling his fortune. He lived simply, only taking care of his own needs. His only indulgences were a weakness for oysters which he would ship from the East Coast and a passion for train travel. He never drank. But John Purdue was a vain man.

He received many suggestions on how to spread his wealth - and always had a special fondness for those causes he could put his name on. When it was suggested to build a public library, reading room, lecture hall and art gallery in downtown Lafayette and call it Purdue Institute he readily agreed to cover 1/3 of the $75,000 cost.

His quest for fame extended to politics. He ran for Congress as an independent in favor of a compassionate Reconstruction. To spearhead his campaign he purchased the Lafayette Journal as a sounding board. Purdue lost the election and many friends. He was left with a residue of hard feeling, a newspaper he no longer wanted and a pile of campaign debts he could ill-afford.

Purdue continued to support the children of Indiana. He pledged $150,000 to start Purdue University in 1874, just before he died at the age of 72. His death revealed a splintering personal fortune. His debts approached $500,000, mostly incurred during his last year of life as he tried to build a railroad. He still owed the University $65,000 which they finally received in 1880.

But John Purdue had provided the impetus for one of the great educational institutions of the Midwest. He was buried a few feet east of the unfinished main campus building, now University Hall on the current Memorial Mall.

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