1 of 5
Henry W. Rountree with his wife (middle right), Elizabeth, and sons Russell (left) and Alexander. The other two women and the year are unknown. Photo courtesy Rountree descendants
2 of 5
Catalog and trunk courtesy Rountree’s Luggage Co. Photo by Steve Hedberg
3 of 5
Rountree's sprawling luggage plant filled a downtown city block at 14th and East Broad streets Image courtesy Rountree Luggae Co.
4 of 5
Flowers covered Rountree’s grave after his October 1928 funeral Image courtesy Rountree descendants
5 of 5
By the time Henry W. Rountree died on Oct. 4, 1928, he had become one of the richest and most prominent men in Richmond. It was more than 50 years after he had launched into business with his brother, both as young men, to create a luggage manufacturing company that would spawn an empire of sorts and propel Rountree to the top circles of Richmond society.
In his upscale apartment near the corner of Boulevard and Monument Avenue, Rountree succumbed to a prolonged illness at age 78, three months after his wife, Elizabeth, passed away. His obituary the next day ran at the top of the Richmond Times-Dispatch's front page and included a list of more than 75 honorary pallbearers, largely from the upper ranks of government and commerce in the city.
The community showered praise on him alongside the funeral announcement: "The Richmond Chamber of Commerce sorrowfully records the death of Mr. Henry W. Rountree, a former member of the board of directors and for more than a quarter century an active figure in aggressive efforts of the organization for the growth and improvement of this city."
An editorial also summed up his life: "He was fifteen, the age at which most boys in easy circumstances are choosing a college to attend, when the Confederate debacle at Appomattox came. In the heartrending days of Reconstruction he was a vigorous young man, who shared the hardships of the time and was subject to their depressing influence. Mr. Rountree witnessed a quarter of a century ago, while he was in the early fifties, the complete redemption of the State from those forces that held it back in both spiritual and material progress. … Mr. Rountree of whom Richmond will see the last at noon today, when he is to be buried … gave much to the city during his lifetime; his memory will remain a rich legacy of patriotic endeavor and an inspiration to those who come after him to take up the burden he has laid down." A photo of Rountree's burial site in the Hollywood Cemetery from his funeral day speaks of his status in Richmond. His final resting place is near the vaunted "Presidents' Circle" and was ringed by a dozen or more wreaths on stands. A mountain of flowers covered his grave — Richmond florists did a brisk business that day because of him. Surviving him were four sons and a daughter, and just a year later, these inheritors of his success would collide with an historic fate — the Black Friday stock market crash of 1929. In the ensuing years, Rountree's family would struggle to preserve his legacy against the odds. Such a future seemed impossible for the family who inherited a fortune worth more than $10 million in today's dollars. Now, even though his company changed hands several times beyond his own family, Rountree's name survives as a footnote in local history, with a luggage shop on West Broad Street. In the decades since Henry W. Rountree's death, his story managed to fade from the collective memory of his descendants, one of whom is my wife, Dana Tozer. We stumbled on her great-grandfather's tombstone by chance three years ago on a walk through Hollywood Cemetery while visiting our son, a graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. And with that, a fascinating history opened up to us. Brothers in Business Rountree took his entrepreneurial leap in 1875, while Richmond was nursing the still-vivid memory of the Civil War. With his brother William, he founded H.W. Rountree & Brother, Trunk and Bags Co. The business was luggage — they manufactured and sold suitcases and steamer trunks — and Americans' burgeoning wanderlust drove the demand. By the turn of the century, travel by trains, ships and the first mass-produced automobiles had made destination travel easier and fashionable. Henry and William were there for the boom. The business took off in earnest after he developed and patented the "roller tray trunk" in 1889. This trunk allowed the user to open the lid to 90 degrees, then roll the top compartment into the lid, revealing the contents of the trunk. This novel design was the foundation on which he built his fortune As his business grew, he soon had offices all over town. By 1915, Rountree's trunk manufacturing plant had grown to occupy the entire block between East Broad Street, old 14th Street and East Franklin Street — now the state government complex. His retail locations were peppered throughout downtown at 100 Governors St., 1300-1304 E. Franklin St. and 703 E. Broad St., a block from the then-new Miller & Rhoads. By this time, he had also expanded into furniture, with a retail store at 111 W. Broad St. He had stores in Atlanta, Norfolk and Washington, D.C., as well. Along the way, in December 1910, the American National Bank announced its grand opening at 1001 E. Main St. in a full-page advertisement in the Times-Dispatch. Rountree, one of its founders, was named as the chairman of the bank's board. The downtown bank building still stands. Rountree was nothing if not tirelessly industrious. In addition to his luggage manufacturing company, he also founded the Rountree Corp., which specialized in home furnishings; he was president of a plumbing and roofing supplies company, McGraw-Yarbrough Co.; and he was a member of the Rotary Club, Commonwealth Club, Country Club of Virginia, Meridian Lodge and was a Shriner. Beyond his business dealings, Rountree and his wife, Elizabeth, played leading roles in Richmond society. When the body of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was reinterred in Hollywood Cemetery in 1893 (he died in New Orleans in 1889), Elizabeth Rountree attended the reception for widow Varina Davis at the White House of the Confederacy. While there is no proof, the couple likely was in attendance at the cemetery as well. And when the Rotary Club held its first meeting in April 1913, Henry Rountree was voted in by the 73 business leaders in attendance as a member of the executive committee. Rountree's fortune would have paled in comparison to the richest man of his time — billionaire industrialist John D. Rockefeller — but Rountree was rich by any standard, worth millions in today's dollars. An audit of his estate was done after he died and took three years to settle. The 38-page document showed that he had more than $250,000 in stocks, $390,000 in real estate — including a stretch in the 200 block of West Broad Street that was valued at $125,000 — and rental properties across Richmond. In 1928, the average annual income per person was $750. In today's dollars, Rountree's combined wealth of more than $750,000 would equal $10 million-plus. But just over a year after his death, on Oct. 28 and 29, 1929, the stock market lost $30 billion in capital. The Great Depression that followed would last 10 years and destroy the Rountree fortune. By 1932, 10,000 banks had failed — including the American National Bank Rountree helped found in Richmond. With unemployment in the 25 percent range, consumer spending was only for essentials. The Rountree furniture company, which Henry's son Russell Rountree inherited, was forced to fold. Russell died of asthmatic bronchitis at age 45, on May 21, 1937. His obituary was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The New York Times. Russell, who was the grandfather of my wife, died with his last dime left in his pocket. The Canadian coin is still in the family. Another son, Henry Rountree Jr., consolidated the luggage company into one sales office at Fourth and Grace streets. He died nearly 19 years after his father in 1947, also in October. The family was able to hold on to the business until 1954 before selling; it changed hands again in 1959. Grace Rountree, Russell's wife and the grandmother of my wife, Dana, had never recounted the family's fall from fortune. The reason for her years of silence became clear in the research for this story. Not long after Russell's death, she had to leave her 4,000-square-foot home at 6106 Three Chopt Road and move her young son and daughter to an apartment in Arlington. A member of one of Richmond's most prominent families became a teller with the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C. Her son, Russell Jr., died in a tragic motorcycle accident in 1947; she also outlived her daughter (and Dana's mother), Betty, who died of lung cancer in 1983. Grace died, at age 88, in 1989. Henry's portrait dominated a wall in her living room, but she never spoke of her days in Richmond. I wish she had told Henry Rountree's story to her grandchildren, how the son of an illiterate shoemaker came to Richmond from Hanover County in his 20s and became one of the city's biggest successes. Although we discovered many facts about Rountree, we know very little of the real man himself. One thing, however, seems certain from what was written about him: Once he had earned his fortune, he was content to keep working for it. "At the age when most successful business men had retired on a competency and were enjoying in the sunset of life the fruits of their earlier labors," wrote the Times-Dispatch editors, "Mr. Rountree, as vigorous as ever and as youthful in his outlook, was giving of his ripened wisdom to the city in which he lived."