Bill Wundram

Bill Wundram

Bill Wundram, a lifelong Quad-Citizen, as he would call himself, has been on the staff of the Quad-City Times and its predecessors for more than 70 years. He has worked as a reporter and an award-winning features editor and currently writes five columns a week, down slightly from the seven per week he did just a few years ago. He has won countless writing awards and honors, has authored several books, and his work has appeared in national publications. Bill and his wife, Helen, have been married for more than 60 years. They have two adult children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The mule driver who became a millionaire

1994-12-23T00:00:00Z The mule driver who became a millionaire The Quad-City Times
December 23, 1994 12:00 am

Bill Wundram

On the front page of today's noos-paper, and elsewhere, you'll see the name Kahl all over the place because the giant downtown Daven-port building carrying that name is going to become an education center for Scott Community College.

Now, the point: Was there a person named Kahl? How did he get all that money to build such an enormous building?

Let's talk about one of the most amazing self-made men of our time. He liked to joke that he owed his success to knowing how to handle mules, because that's what Henry C. Kahl first did for a living, begin-ning at the age of 12.

"Hummer" was his nickname, for no known reason. He was certainly not humming on the job. He was working. He never stopped until he be-came Davenport's No. 1 property holder, owning vast sections of Third Street. Some said he owned all of downtown Third Street and had profitable interests in everything from candy manufacturing to insurance companies. But basically, he was a builder of railroad right-of-ways, turning his poverty-stricken begin-nings into millions of dollars and the vice presidency of internation-ally known Walsh Construction Co.

So much for wealth. What made Hummer Kahl such a prodigious person was humble beginnings, and his ascendancy in such a brief time. He was born in a small northwest Davenport cottage. The fam-ily was poor. There was no glistening cut glass, no silver, no Louis XIV desk, as he was to admire in later years in his mansion looking over the wide Mississippi River.

At 12, Hummer was driving a team, hauling dirt in summer and coal from Coal Valley, Ill., in the winter. By the age of 16 he was discovered by P.T. Walsh, the merchant prince of Midwest contractors who headquartered in Davenport. He took a liking to the boy's industry as a mule team driver and promoted him to barn boss for all the company teams. Mule drivers were called "skinners" and Hummer was a tough one. He was strong, could battle the hardiest of these burly galoots, which must have gained him a modicum of superiority.

His star began to rise when Walsh Co. made him a foreman for crews building railroad roadbeds and bridges around America. Hummer, a workaholic, barely slept. Often, dinky engines hauled dirt 24 hours a day to job sites. Hummer slept in 15-minute inter-vals at night during a job, checking each dirt load's on-time arri-val. During a major project for the Rock Island Lines, the rail president took pity on the long hours which young Hummer (only 28) was spending on the job and sent his personal car for his liv-ing quarters. During an inspection of the project, the executive was startled to find Hummer sleeping with his crew in the bunk houses. Furniture from the private car had been removed and the car was being used to haul ties to beat the project's deadline.

Walsh Co. promoted him quickly. He became a vice president, overseeing most of the work of the New York Cen-tral railroad. The president of the railroad, in the late 1920s, said: "We regard Walsh Co. and their Hummer Kahl as the most relia-ble railroad builders and contractors in the country."

Hummer was constantly on the road, often shunning comfort-able Pullman compartments to sleep in the caboose, the better to learn the problems of real railroaders. Still, he kept his pulse on the good old home town, shrewdly buying up Davenport real estate. On the road, he was purchasing interest in diverse companies, from a piano manufacturer to candy manufacturing, banks, hotels and an insurance company. By 45, he was a self-made millionaire-plus. All the while, he kept a promise to his wife and family that he would build a fine home. He certainly did, one of the city's great mansions, an immense cream brick place with a winding drive through a cluster of oaks. It's now incorporated into the Kahl Home for the Aged.

One of Hummer's daughters, Elizabeth, married V.O. Figge, a benefactor for the gift of the building to the college. Hummer's great Kahl Building at West Third and Ripley was his crown. It was built (of course) by Walsh Construction Co. He eye-balled its construction like a mother hen.

Hummer Kahl lived a decade to see his building and his empire grow. He died young, a mere 56. He loved Davenport, and repeatedly told associates: "Just about every big dollar I've made was away from home, and I've brought it back to invest practically every dollar of it in Davenport."

That's how much faith he had in his home town.

Copyright 2015 The Quad-City Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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