A few months back I had a long conversation with Freke Vuijst, a journalist from the lefty Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland, about the history of the Koch clan—specifically, we talked about what I learned during my trip to Quanah, Texas, the shit-kicker corporate railroad town where granddaddy Harry Koch dropped anchor in 1891 and started a family that eventually spawned the two most powerful oligarchs of our time, Charles and David Koch. Freke was working on a story about the pre-USA origins of the Koch family back in the family’s native Netherlands, using Dutch archive material, and she and I compared notes…
A lot of what she found matched and confirmed what I’d dug up in Austin and Quanah. Grandpa Harry Koch, who emigrated from Holland in 1888, did indeed come from a solidly upper-class background. Harry’s grandfather (that would be Charles Koch’s great-great-grandfather), who was originally from Germany, settled “penniless” in a small coastal town in northwest Holland called Workum. Fortunes changed big-time after great-great-grandpa Koch conveniently married the mayor’s daughter. His new father-in-law wasn’t just the town mayor, he also owned a shipping business that ran sailboats between Workum and Amsterdam, as well as a linseed oil mill and other businesses in town.
Naturally, great-great-grandaddy Koch wormed his way into his new in-laws’ family business, and inherited it in due time.
In other words, the family secret is to marry rich, sponge and absorb, and leave the homilies about “hard work” and “free markets” to the suckers.
“The young German was a big strapping fellow with plenty of ability and character,” wrote Harry Koch in a short autobiographical sketch I dug up in the Texas State Archives in Austin. “Before long he married the daughter of his employer and took charge of the business.”
Koch patriarch—”penniless”—pulled himself up by his rich wife’s bra straps…
Yep, folks. This is how America’s most powerful job creators got their start. But it’s not how they tell it in their inverted rewrite of their own history.
Charles Koch may be the man responsible for creating the libertarian movement, but in so many ways, he’s a lot like neoliberal hack Thomas Friedman, a first generation rich-wife-sponger. As some readers might recall, despite all the free-market cant that Thomas Friedman has puked out over the years, his own success is all due to his wife, Ann Bucksbaum, the billionaire heiress to a shopping mall/real estate empire.
Just imagine: a few generations from now, the Friedman clan might also produce a couple of innovative billionaire-garchs like Charles and David Koch who’ll help steer America into the 22nd century. Now that is the American Dream!
Anne & husband hanger-on Thomas Friedman at the White House
Freke Vuijst’s research also yielded a couple of new insights into the Koch family’s beginnings:
- For instance, I didn’t know that the bulk of the Dutch came to the US in a big immigration wave lasting from the 1850s to WWI, and that most of them were regressive evangelicals who were fleeing church reforms, as well as an economic depression back home.
- But Harry Koch was not part of the religious migration, nor did he come to America because of economic destitution. According to Freke, there was nothing that indicated the Koch family was particularly religious, and the evidence shows that Harry Koch came from a well-to-do family and had an education and plenty of economic opportunities back home. . . . If it wasn’t religion or desperation, then what brought Harry to America? Freke Vuijst couldn’t nail down the exact reason, and I think my initial reading of the situation still stands: Harry Koch came to America as a minor businessman backed by Dutch railroad money.
- But Freke Vuijst was able to uncover a possible motivating factor for Harry’s migration to the Free Land: his evil stepmother. Harry’s mom died when he was 9, and his father, who was a doctor in Workum, remarried a much younger woman (the daughter of a banker) and had 7 more kids. From his writings it is clear that Harry didn’t have a very good relationship with his stepmom. Freke thinks that Harry’s move to America might have been spurred by this antagonism: “Just think about that–America could have been spared the Koch brothers if it hadn’t been for a wicked stepmother. The Brothers Grimm had it right: wicked stepmothers have consequences.” Hey, she said it, folks, not me!
Anyway, her article came out last month. Check it out. It’s worth a read…
Here’s a direct link to the Dutch version. And here’s an image cap of the Google bot translation version, which isn’t half bad . . .
And here’s the original investigation I did for the Texas Observer into the origins of the Koch family:
This summer I traveled to Quanah, the dusty North Texas railroad town that Harry Koch called home, to find out more about the life of the man who spawned the two most powerful oligarchs of our time…
CHARLES AND DAVID KOCH are the most powerful right-wing billionaires of our time. They have spent hundreds of millions bankrolling a broad attack against Social Security, organized labor, financial regulations, environmental protection and public education. The brothers plan to funnel at least $200 million to elect right-wing, anti-government Republicans in 2012, according to Politico. They seem hell-bent on dragging America back to the dark days of unregulated capitalism. The history of their grandfather in Texas may help explain why. Because, apparently, it runs in the family.
Little has been written about Harry Koch. He’s the least-known member of the Koch family. What has not been reported is that the Koch family has been marching under the same laissez-faire banner for the past three generations, ever since Harry emigrated to America in 1888, settled in a North Texas railroad town and became an aggressive newspaper publisher and booster. He shamelessly shilled for railroad and banking interests, amassing his wealth by helping big business fight organized labor and squelch reforms.
Much of the Koch brothers’ ideology can be found in Harry Koch’s newspaper editorials of nearly a century ago. Take, for instance, the Kochs’ current fight against Social Security. Harry Koch took part in a multi-year right-wing propaganda campaign to shoot down New Deal programs. Grandfather and grandsons employ eerily familiar talking points to bash government pension and welfare programs.
“No political system can possibly guarantee either a national economic security or an individual standard of living. Government can guarantee no man a job or a livelihood,” Harry Koch wrote on February 1, 1935, nine months before Charles Koch was born.
Fast-forward 75 years and you can see Charles Koch using the same lines of attack in his company’s newsletter: “government actions … stifle economic growth and job creation, which in turn will significantly reduce the standard of living of American families.”
This summer I traveled to Quanah, the dusty North Texas railroad town that Harry Koch called home, to find out more about the life of the man who spawned the two most powerful oligarchs of our time. After spending days hunkered over newspaper archives and rifling through a century’s worth of county records in the town’s tiny courthouse, I began to see a picture emerge of a man who spent his life learning how to use newspapers and media for ideological manipulation and as a platform for pro-business agendas. As I strained to read the battered microfilm, I was constantly surprised at the degree to which Harry’s views—on everything from the economy to the role of government in a democratic society—have been passed on nearly unchanged through two generations, and are now being pushed by Charles and David Koch.
HARRY KOCH WAS BORN in Holland in 1867 to a wealthy German-Dutch family of merchants, farmers and doctors. After apprenticing to a newspaper publisher, he decided to seek his fortune in America. At 21, he set off on a steamer and arrived in New York on Dec. 5, 1888. He spent his first few years in America working for various Dutch newspapers in Chicago, New Orleans, Grand Rapids and Austin until, in 1891, he finally settled down in Quanah, a town that the railroad had established just a few years before. Harry always remained curiously vague and evasive about why he decided to stake his claim in a remote North Texas town, but there is no real mystery to it: he came because of the railroads.
In the second half of the 19th century, America was in the grip of a massive railroad boom. Boosted by eager investors, lucrative subsidies and free land, railroads sprung up connecting every corner of the United States without much thought for demand or necessity. America’s rail mileage quadrupled from 1870 to 1900, with enough track laid down by the end of the century to stretch from New York to San Francisco 66 times.
In those wild early days of the railroad age, real estate speculation was a central plank of the business plan. The U.S. government had given vast stretches of public land to railroad companies, and the companies needed to sell that land to settlers to create customers and pay off debts. And that meant railroads were in constant need of local publishers to promote the countless railroad towns that had been planned and parceled by the railroad companies across the country, with the aim of luring enough gullible settlers with wildly exaggerated stories of fertile soil and prosperity to trigger real estate booms—all so that railroad insiders could make easy money offloading overpriced dirt lots on the hapless settlers.
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