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Alemaker Frank Jones was Hero and Heel

Frank Jones Maplewood House2

Movin' on up

In 1866 he purchased the Charles E. Meyers farm on the outskirts of town. Over the next two decades Jones turned the farmhouse into an elegant mansion on 1,000 acres that stretched to what is now the shopping district and Pease Tradeport. Eventually the property included a 147-foot piazza, fountain, racing stables, and beautiful trees, gardens, and greenhouses. However, Jones preferred living at the Rockingham Hotel and reportedly only occupied his Maplewood mansion in August, leaving the lavish grounds open for the public to wander.

After serving as Portsmouth's youngest and wealthiest mayor in 1868-69, Jones used his popular name to win a bigger election. He served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, DC. Despite a tepid career as a legislator, he did work to keep the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard alive in the military doldrums that followed the Civil War. But Jones grew tired of Congress where he was not master of the game. His  wife grew weary of his high-powered party nightlife and his obvious affair with a young socialite.  Jones returned to Portsmouth in 1879 and purchased the ailing Wentworth Hotel in New Castle. He poured money into the renovation of the seaside hotel, adding the golf course, stables, tennis courts, marina, and enormous additions. He also owned hotels in Maine (where he built a home for his mistress) and Florida. He sold his brewery to a British company in 1880 for $6.3 million.

 Like the top-hatted man in the Monopoly game, Jones knew how to buy low, add value, employ the best managers, and sell high. Besides hotels and real estate, he owned early telephone and electric utilities and racing stables. He was president of the  Granite State Fire Insurance Company, local banks, and two railroad companies, and more. He made important Washington contacts (one of his congressional colleagues became President of the United States) and they never forgot the lavish Mr. Jones. He wined and dined his powerful contacts and, legend says, provided young women from the local brothels to guests at the Rockingham Hotel.  

An "elder" statesmen in his early 40s, Frank Jones then ran for governor in 1880. But he had made as many enemies in New Hampshire politics as he had cronies. Although he campaigned again as a "common man," once the barefoot farm boy from the boondocks, opponents pointed out that his vast wealth had not benefited the general public at all, other than to get them drunk. The idea of a former brewer as governor in an era of evolving temperance left many voters with a bitter taste. Opponents warned that a Jones administration would be a "Rum-ocracy." Soundly defeated as governor, Jones retired from public service and devoted his considerable resources to buying other politicians instead. 

Famous or infamous? 

Frank Jones olderDoes rich mean great? While Jones the millionaire, through his many enterprises, was a key employer in the region, his record as a philanthropist is poor. He supported baseball teams emblazoned with his name and logo, gave $500 gifts to launch the public library and Frank Jones grammar school, and donated funds towards a church baptismal font, pews, and an organ. He reportedly donated $1,000 towards the Civil War monument in Goodwin Park. He left no public buildings or endowments. Things he owned he sometimes shared, but he owned a lot more, including a yacht, private railroad cars, and private homes, that he kept to himself. His public gifts to the city were miniscule compared to the largesse of 20th century business leaders like the late Joe Sawtelle and Jay Smith, or to the annual nonprofit donations of countless city residents today.

It may even be said that Jones cared little for the common man. Whenever his employees attempted to organize to improve wages or working conditions, he simply fired all the troublemakers and hired new people. When workers at the Wentworth Hotel were off duty, they were often locked into their dormitories until the next morning. Yet businesses closed and bells rang across the city when Frank Jones died in 1902. He was eulogized as "the most public-spirited citizen of the state." He was laid to rest under a 29-foot tall tombstone that he bought for himself in Harmony Grove in South Cemetery.  Money from Jones' estate, then valued at $15 million helped pay for the room and board of the Russian and Japanese ambassadors at the month-long Treaty of Portsmouth negotiations in 1905. 

Was he a robber baron?

One of the best investments Frank Jones ever made was loaning $2,000 to Fernando W. Hartford, who used the money to purchase the Penny Post newspaper. Hartford eventually bought up all the other city newspapers and transformed them into a daily renamed The Portsmouth Herald. And it was Herald editor and owner Raymond Brighton who became so fascinated with Frank Jones that he wrote and paid for 1,000 copies of the only Jones biography. Frank Jones: King of the Alemakers, although long out-of-print, remains our key source on the life, loves, and lavish world of Frank Jones. 

"It was my first original book," says photographer and editor Peter E. Randall, who published the Jones biography for Brighton in 1976. At the end of his research, mostly drawn from local newspapers, Brighton seemed disappointed in Jones. "Despite what many think," Brighton concluded in his book, "Jones was not Portsmouth's angel."

 "I don't think Ray thought Jones was a hero," Peter Randall says today. "Here Jones had all this money and he left, what, $5,000 to the city? He wasn't a benevolent character. I don't think he was a great guy, and I don't think Ray thought so. But he was important."

"He [Jones] was a robber baron on a small scale," Randall says. "He was a robber baron, no doubt about it. He ran roughshod over everyone. But he was a brilliant businessman."

Historian Richard E. Winslow III takes a lighter approach. Winslow wrote his 1965 master's thesis on Frank Jones, a document that helped inspire and inform Brighton's 400-page biography. Winslow prefers the term "captain of industry" to "robber baron" when describing Jones.

"What I liked about Jones," Winslow says, "was that a lot of these eminent millionaires of the Gilded Age, like Jay Gould and Andrew Carnegie, they left their home towns and never came back. Jones, at least, put his money into his adopted home of Portsmouth."

And for a time, for beer drinkers at least, the names "Portsmouth" and "Frank Jones" were one in the same. 

SOURCE NOTE:  A portion of this essay was adapted from the book Wentworth by the Sea: The Life and Times of a Grand Hotel (2004) by J. Dennis Robinson, published by Peter E. Randall. 

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS. 

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