Will Fielding and the Railroad Tycoon

Rose and James Fielding’s eldest son, William James Fielding, was the first of the Fielding children to leave Hamilton, Ontario for better opportunities in the States. His first stop was Whitestown, New York, where the 1900 US Census records him living in a boardinghouse on Henderson Street and working as a “loom fixer”. Family lore tells us that Will went off to fight in the Boer War in south Africa, but as already established, I have found no proof of Will’s military service. To this date, I have no records for Will after the 1900 US Census until he shows up in a Portland Maine City Directory in 1906. Those years from 1900 to 1906 remain one of our family’s mysteries. Perhaps one day it will be solved.

I have, however, been able to piece together Will’s life from 1906 until his marriage in 1912. Will Fielding worked in cotton mills as a boy and young man, but his career path changed in 1906 by the time he moved to Portland, Maine.

The 1906 Portland City Directory shows Will working as a machinist at 18 Forest Avenue and boarding at 1 Sherman.

1906 Portland City Directory. Notice a “William J. Fielding, fireman” is listed. This is NOT our Will.

The 1907 Portland City Directory places him working at 244 Spring Street, again as a machinist, and boarding at 237 Spring Street. In that same 1907 directory, I learned that the H.J. Willard Company garage was located at 240-244 Spring Street.

1907 Portland City Directory. William J. Fielding – machinist at 244 Spring Street.
H. J. Willard Co., 1906 Chamber of Commerce Journal, Portland, Maine

I found a Chamber of Commerce Journal from 1906 that gives some history of H.J. Willard Company. Apparently, this company ran the largest automobile dealership and garages in Maine at the time.

H. J. Willard Company garage. From 1906 article in Chamber of Commerce Journal, Portland, Maine

In that same Journal, I learned that, in addition to the garage on Spring Street, the Willard Company also ran a school, at the same address. The article states “A large number of the very best chauffeurs and repair-men found in this State have secured their technical training and driving lessons through this school, as well as practical repair work and thorough knowledge of the construction of the different cars in the repair shops.”

From this information, I think it’s safe to assume that William Fielding was trained as a chauffeur and repairman at the H. J. Willard Company’s school in Portland, Maine. It would certainly help to explain this picture that our cousin Debby from Maine sent to me. (Debby is Will’s granddaughter.)

Will Fielding – Chauffeur – Early 1900s

When Debby first shared this picture of her grandfather, neither of us thought that Will Fielding could have afforded a car like that in the early 1900s. With the training he received at the Willard Company, it was more likely that Will was the chauffeur for whoever owned this car. That piece of the puzzle finally fell into place once I found the next record documenting Will’s life.


By 1908, Will is no longer listed in the Portland City Directory. He shows up next in 1910 in Maryland. According to the 1910 US Census, 38-year-old William J. Fielding was in Baltimore living with the Cate family, working as a “machinist” in the garage of Isaac Martin Cate. I did some research into the Cate family with whom Will was living that year. In the household were Isaac Cate (72yo), his wife, Charlotte (68yo), and their son Horace (39yo). The Cate family had SEVEN “servants”. In addition to Will, the family had a laundress, a chambermaid, a butler, a cook, and 2 other servants. That seemed like a lot of servants for a family of three, so I dug a little deeper into the Cates.

It turns out that Isaac Martin Cate was a self-made rail and steel mogul in the late 19th century. As early as 1874, he was the President of the Iowa Central Railway. He went on to become a large stockholder in the American Locomotive Company. (Isaac is noted for his successful lawsuits against that company around 1912 – 1916.) In addition to owning part of American Locomotive, Isaac and Charlotte Cate were major stockholders in the early days of US Steel.

Isaac Cate (courtesy of Baltimore County Public Library, Towson, Maryland)

Isaac’s wife, Charlotte Abbott Cate, was a powerful woman in her own right. She was the daughter of Horace Abbott, the owner of Abbott Iron Company in Baltimore. In 1850, Abbott Iron was the largest iron mill in the United States. In the early 1860s, Abbott Iron made the iron plates for a new ironclad ship – the U.S.S. Monitor – which fought the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia during the Civil War. Charlotte’s father was also the founder of Baltimore’s First National Bank, and a director of the Union Railroad of Baltimore. It seems that Charlotte brought her own wealth to her marriage to Isaac Cate. Isaac and Charlotte Cate were truly a “power couple” in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Charlotte Abbott Cate

In 1900, Isaac and Charlotte lived in Portland, Maine per the US Census. By 1910, the couple moved closer to Charlotte’s family, settling in Baltimore, Maryland, where they spent the rest of their years.

In addition to his various business ventures, Isaac Cate loved his automobiles. He owned a 1906 6-cylinder Berliet, which was a French car that was built in the United States by the American Locomotive Company starting in 1906. The Berliet was a luxury car, competing with the likes of Packard, Pierce Arrow, Mercedes and Stutz. 

The following article appeared in the Atlanta Constitution on March 24, 1907. I was thrilled to find this clipping! I think it, combined with the picture of Will as “chauffeur”, ties up a loose end in our story of William Fielding.

“How true it is that no account of praise makes such friends for a car as its own reliability and efficiency under adverse conditions, is illustrated by the case of Isaac M. Cate, a capitalist of Baltimore. Mr. Cate made a trip from New York to Baltimore in his 60-horsepower Berliet last fall, when the roads were so bad that the mud curled over the rear axle and piled up on the gasoline tank, yet the car never faltered. He traveled more than 18,000 miles in the same French-American car last year, without a bit of trouble and has ordered another 60-horsepower car and one of 40 from the American Locomotive Automobile Company. His enthusiasm, born of experience, is more impressive than the talk of any salesman.”

Atlanta Constitution – March 24, 1907

I believe that Uncle Will travelled with Isaac Cate on some of those 18,000 miles, in order to ensure the Berliet was kept in top-notch shape. It’s likely that Cate approached the H. J. Willard Company to hire one of their finest students to work as Isaac’s chauffeur and mechanic. Certainly, the wealthy capitalist wouldn’t be changing his own tires!  

While the Cates were living in Baltimore by 1910, according to the Maine Tax Rolls, they also maintained property in the Portland area. It is likely that, during a trip to Maine with Isaac Cate, Will met Magna Olive Nilsen – the girl who would become his wife. Magna had immigrated to America from Norway in 1911 and worked at the Homewood Inn and Cottages in Yarmouth, Maine. In 1912, she traveled with Will to Youngstown, Ohio, where the two married. They returned to Maine by 1913 where the couple raised three children and spent the rest of their years. The rest, as they say, is history!

Magna Olive Nilsen Fielding and William James Fielding circa 1912 – Photo taken in Baltimore, Maryland

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