A 40-story modernist skyscraper seems like an unlikely home for a picturesque Colonial Revival scene, but that’s exactly what I found at the end of a busy corridor at One Nationwide Plaza in downtown Columbus.
A dimly-lit wood-paneled room with exposed hand-hewn ceiling beams is furnished with a twin bed covered with a handmade quilt, a braided rag rug, a pierced tin lantern, a pewter-filled sideboard, ladderback chairs, and firearms hanging over a mantel. All it needs is a spinning wheel and a demure lady in colonial dress baking an apple pie on the hearth, and it would look just like one of Wallace Nutting’s hand-tinted “Old America” photographs that were so popular during the early years of the 20th century.
To commemorate Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company’s 25th anniversary in 1951, Nationwide executives presented their leader, Murray Danforth Lincoln, with this reproduction of a room in a traditional 18th-century New England farm house. Installed as a small study next to Lincoln’s office, it was his special retreat. Today, it is a reminder of how humble beginnings shaped the mission of one of the largest insurance and financial services companies in the world.
The room was the last stop on a recent tour of the Nationwide Library and History and Archives Center that was organized by the local chapters of the Association for Information Science and Technology and the Special Libraries Association. Since the library and archives are available only to Nationwide employees, the tour was a special opportunity to learn about the company’s history, the evolution of its products and services, and how its heritage helps to engage associates.
For the better part of my life, I’ve associated Nationwide with its catchy slogan and seven-note jingle: “Nationwide Is On Your Side.” However, after seeing that room, I determined to learn more about the man who founded and led Nationwide from 1938 until his retirement in 1962.
To do so, I tracked down the nearest first-edition copy of Vice President in Charge of Revolution, Lincoln’s memoir that McGraw-Hill published in 1960. “It’s been a few years since somebody has checked this out, Betsy – like 40,” Cindy said as she added the book to my circulation record at the State Library of Ohio.
When I saw Lincoln’s picture by Yousuf Karsh, the great portrait photographer, opposite the title page, I started to realize why my grandfather and others of his generation held Lincoln in such esteem.
Born on April 18, 1892, Lincoln grew up on a farm outside Raynham, Massachusetts. After he studied farming at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts), he took a job in 1914 as the first paid county agricultural agent in New London, Connecticut. That was Lincoln’s foray into cooperatives, a practical way to help farmers make more money by buying goods at less-expensive prices and selling their own products to consumers, rather than relying on a distributor.
The next year, Lincoln became an agricultural agent for a Brockton, Massachusetts bank. There, he established a “pig club” in which the bank bought pigs, and then children bought the pigs on money borrowed from the bank, raised and sold them, and repaid the bank from the proceeds. The club helped the local pig population, taught schoolchildren about caring for animals and being thrifty, and provided good public relations for the bank.
These unique projects led Lincoln to attract the attention of Myron T. Herrick, a Cleveland lawyer and bank president who had served as governor of Ohio from 1904 to 1906, and would later be appointed twice as ambassador to France. Herrick wanted to do something similar in Ohio, so he invited Lincoln to become his “cow and pig man” at the Cleveland Society for Savings in 1917. During his time in Cleveland, Lincoln went to night school to study public speaking, banking law and advertising.
After World War I, farmers had trouble getting by, as prices for things they needed rose faster than the prices they received for their products. In 1919, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation was founded to help farmers’ purchasing power, and Lincoln became its executive secretary in March 1920. He, his wife, Anne, and their four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, known as Betty, moved to Columbus.
As Lincoln embarked upon several projects, including rural electric and farm credit cooperatives, he realized that farmers weren’t receiving fair automobile insurance rates. Rates were geared to the accidents and claims of urban drivers, not rural ones, so the Federation set up its own mutual automobile insurance company in 1926. Farmers served as volunteer agents, selling good auto insurance without commission, at much lower rates. This helped the Federation become the second largest mutual auto insurer in the country, even though it was only represented in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Later, it began insuring motorists in metropolitan areas and started writing property insurance policies after purchasing a fire insurance company.
In 1948, the Federation separated from its insurance business, and Lincoln chose to stay with insurance. Headquartered at 246 North High Street in downtown Columbus, Farm Bureau Insurance planned to expand its operating territory to other states, so it changed its name to Nationwide Insurance in 1955.
Photo of Murray Lincoln sitting in his study, next to the recreation of it at Nationwide Insurance
Under Lincoln’s leadership, Nationwide became involved in more than insurance. In 1947, it began radio broadcasting farm news and agribusiness daily to the regional agricultural market under the frequency, WRFD (Rural Free Delivery), with its studios and transmitter located north of Columbus in rural Delaware County.
Nationwide also ventured into real estate under Lincoln’s leadership. The post-World War II housing shortage inspired Nationwide to demonstrate how a cooperative could work in the housing market. In 1948, it established a real estate development subsidiary called Peoples Development Company (later called Nationwide Development Company). Its most notable endeavor was developing affordable, attractive housing near the Westinghouse Electric and General Motors plants on Route 40, the National Road, in Prairie Township on the west side of Columbus.
Lincoln envisioned a new kind of neighborhood, a “model city” with more than 800 single-family homes, apartments, its own shopping center, parks, churches, schools, a library and other amenities. In 1953, construction began on the 1,170-acre Lincoln Village, named in honor of Murray Lincoln. The neighborhood still exists today.
Lincoln Village’s model homes included the open floor plan of the “Deerhaven,” the Colonial Cape Cod “Woodhaven” and the saltbox-style “Stowbridge.” Its winding streets were named after towns and symbols of Lincoln’s home state of Massachusetts, such as Beacon Hill Road, Revere Court, Musket Way, Sturbridge Road and Deerfield Road.
The development also included the Lincoln Lodge Motel, a five-acre complex that was also named after Lincoln. The 135-room, Colonial-themed motel opened in 1956 and featured a swimming pool, a golf course, and a restaurant popular for its Sunday-night German buffet and Friday-night “seafood jamboree.” In the 1970s, the golf course was sold and the land was turned into a shopping center. In the 1990s, parts of the motel were torn down and the remaining structure was redeveloped into an assisted-living facility known today as National Church Residences’ Lincoln Village. Click here to see a vintage postcard of the motel.
Lincoln wrote that his aim in life was not to make money, but “to find out what people need, and then help them get it as quickly and inexpensively as possible.” No matter how successful Nationwide became, Lincoln remained the same grounded New Englander who stayed true to what his grandfather taught him. One was a proper respect for things, and the other was good housekeeping.
“When we had finally grown large enough so that I could have a company car, I made up my mind that this was one thing, at least, which would be properly cared for – washed, cleaned, oiled, greased, and gassed for use whenever it was needed,” Lincoln wrote in Vice President for Revolution. “Today, we keep a fleet of executive cars for our vice presidents and other staff people. I am still enough my grandfather’s child to check these cars from time to time and to warn my vice presidents that if they are given company cars they ought to appreciate them well enough to take care of them.”
During a routine stop at a gasoline station in the 1930s, Lincoln made the acquaintance of Eddie Wagner, my grandfather’s grade-school classmate and First Communion partner. Wagner became Lincoln’s personal driver; then, he traded the driver’s seat for a desk chair at Nationwide.
Lincoln joined John W. Galbreath and others in establishing and belonging to the River Ridge Riding Club, once located in the vicinity of 3115 Henderson Road. In 1923, the Lincolns became the first owners of a shingle-sided home at 1234 West First Avenue in Grandview Heights. (The home was featured in the Grandview Heights/Marble Cliff Historical Society’s 2004 Tour of Homes.)
The large pine tree in the yard was planted in honor of Betty Lincoln’s 10th birthday in 1925. The Lincolns moved from the home and Grandview in 1936, five years after 14-year-old Betty died of a heart attack after a week-long illness.
“I cannot, to this day, find words to discuss that tragedy,” Lincoln wrote on pages 158 and 159 of Vice President of Revolution. “Betty’s life was full and happy – and brief. I did not enjoy much of it with her because during those years in which she was growing up I was busy with a thousand matters, all of which seemed terribly important. Not all of them were. I sometimes wonder whether any of them were, compared to some days with my daughter that I might have had.”
Later, Lincoln and his wife lived at 5099 Sunbury Road, where he relaxed by helping with farm chores. The New England-style home pictured in Vice President of Revolution is no longer standing. Lincoln also maintained his love of rural life through his friendship with Louis Bromfield, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who experimented with sustainable farming practices at his Malabar Farm near Mansfield.
Lincoln passed away on November 7, 1966. His funeral service was held at First Community Church, and he is buried at Blendon Central Cemetery in Westerville. Mourners were encouraged to make a donation to CARE, a cooperative for Americans to use in sending relief packages to Europe; Lincoln served as CARE’s first president from 1945 to 1957.
Lincoln concluded Vice President of Revolution with a story about John Dewey, the American philosopher and teacher. During his last illness, Dewey advised his wife to call Lincoln about a problem she was having about a small business she owned, because Lincoln was an honest man and knew something about business. “I’m not making any plans to have an epitaph written for myself, but that’s how I’d like to be remembered,” Lincoln wrote.