Dan Graham painted a picture of a hard worker and a patriot who made his own fortune and then tragically lost everything when he gave his presentation on Mark Bird to a full house at Hopewell Furnace Sunday Aug. 11.
The presentation, which lasted about an hour and a half, briefly covered the life of the founder of Hopewell Furnace, delving into his roles in the advancement of the iron industry and the American Revolution, as well as his eventual financial demise. Graham, a Pennsylvania iron researcher and Potts and Rutter family historian, recently published a paper on William Bird, Mark’s father and the founder of Birdsboro.
The elder Bird came to America as a Northern Irish indentured servant working for Thomas Rudd, considered the founder of the American iron industry. William went on to become wealthy and successful in the industry himself, but Mark only inherited a quarter of his father’s fortune, the rest of which was shared amongst his other and five siblings.
“He likely started Hopewell as his own venture,” Graham said, emphasizing that the young businessman was successful in his own right. “It was something he didn’t have to share with his siblings.”
Bird’s classmates at what would go on to become the University of Pennsylvania included the Potts brothers and William Mayberry, among other ironmasters who Bird would go on to work with. After school, Bird would become involved in Reading politics, beginning his path to becoming involved with the revolution, before inheriting one of his father’s forges with business partner John Patton.
That event, as well as his sister’s marriage to James Wilson, who would later get him involved in questionable investments, and his early involvement in the revolution impacted his life more than anything else, Graham argued.
Bird was so invested in the revolution, he started an early Pennsylvania militia and was the first to confiscated arms for use by the militia, known as the “associators.” He was also a signor of the Pennsylvania Declaration of Independence before the national version was signed, and eventually went on to be the first person the Continental Congress asked to supply Washington’s army with cannons, arms and munitions.
Those contracts were a mistake, Graham said.
“All his friends who signed contracts with the Pennsylvania government got paid by all their buddies in the government,” he said. “Mark had trouble getting his money from the Continental government and actually never got paid. The federal government wasn’t paying – it was a lot like it is today.
“But depreciation killed him more than anything,” Graham added.
Bird sealed his financial ruin with unprofitable land acquisitions and poor investments with the French government he made with Wilson. He and Wilson also put everything they had into an unsuccessful slitting mill, all of this amongst a stagnant post-war economy while his iron forge, like so many others, was suffering.
Bird would eventually die penniless in North Carolina where he took refuge as a debtor. Graham had members of the audience read aloud two quotes from Bird from late in life that demonstrated his poverty and poor health. In one he decried the “vile, unnatural war” and in the other he complains of his failing health and the economic depreciation that ruined him.
“If you look at his writings, you can really see how far he fell,” Graham said.