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The Town Father

A new book on Lewis Ginter spotlights the man who built up Richmond.

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The visage on the book cover could well be just another Confederate officer, indistinguishable from portraits hanging downtown at the Commonwealth Club or the Museum of the Confederacy. But while Lewis Ginter (1821-1897) — a New Yorker who moved to Richmond in 1842 — enthusiastically served the Lost Cause, his energies and enterprises both before and after the war were considerably more remarkable. He employed thousands of Richmonders in trail-blazing tobacco operations, and he melded many ideas garnered from world travels into our city's economy, landscape and psyche. A short list includes a newspaper, railroads, a bicycle club, a handsome suburban neighborhood, a hospital and a hotel, the beloved Jefferson.

But while he was a businessman's businessman and died Virginia's richest man, he left neither progeny nor a foundation to carry on his name as would such tycoons as Guggenheim, Rockefeller or Mellon. Richmond historian Brian Burns, in researching and writing his engaging and lively new book, "Lewis Ginter: Richmond's Gilded Age Icon" (The History Press, $21.99), also had his work cut out for him because Ginter left precious little in the way of a paper trail.

And there's something else: Burns posits, albeit discreetly: Ginter was gay. Perhaps that's another reason why the man's not-so-distant story has remained murky despite his deep and lasting impact here. Burns sets out to give Ginter his due. He begins the 196-page biography almost cinematically with the entrepreneur standing in the doorway of his new toy store, awaiting customers. Orphaned at 10, the 17-year old Ginter had arrived in Richmond with his pal, John C. Shafer (a tailor who also would prosper here). It seems that a year later Ginter had expanded with his Variety Store advertised as offering "fancy goods, baskets combs, clocks, wooden wares, etc."

He became close friends with the local literati of the day and joined the Democratic Party, whose members included Moses Hoge, a prominent Presbyterian preacher, and Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer. In the 1850s Ginter's widowed sister, Jane Arents, moved to Richmond with her five children. Later a nephew, George Arents, would become a business partner.

With few primary sources at his disposal, Burns cleverly interweaves Ginter's story with those of his contemporary business, professional and civic leaders. These include publisher Joseph Bryan, prominent surgeon Hunter McGuire, and Ginter's life companion, John Pope, a successful businessman who, although much his junior, would predecease him.

Despite the thick veil of the American Revolution and Civil War history that enshrouds Richmond, the city's physical, political and economic present was very much established during the late-19th century. Burns' "Lewis Ginter," while not exhaustive, offers important new insights on one of Richmond's highly important figures while connecting broader historical dots with refreshing ease. S

For more on "Lewis Ginter: Richmond's Gilded Age Icon," go to historypress.net.

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