Biography of Edward J. Grassmann
Our founder, Edward J. Grassmann, was born on August 3, 1887 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and he died there 85 years later, still active in his business interests until shortly before his death on March 2, 1973. His parents were both from Germany, his father having come over from Hamburgh as a ship’s cabin boy at age 12.
Mr. Grassmann grew up on Elizabeth, New Jersey where after school he worked with the surveying company of Ernest L. Meyer, which he later bought after years of working with the Long Island Railroad doing underground rail construction. At night he studied civil engineering at Brooklyn Polytechnical, Cooper Union in New York City and later at the Pratt Institute.
He returned to Elizabeth to buy the Meyer Surveying Co., a very old firm with surveys that dated back to 1720 and which even owned one of George Washington’s surveying instruments. Through the Meyer Company he began surveying the Jersey Meadows for the New Jersey Central Railroad and in the 1910s he bought a large number of land tracts that the railroad did not want. These meadowland investments later became part of Newark Airport, Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, which became the largest containerized freight port in the world. Mr. Grassmann also did contracting business, building houses, pipelines, dams, tramways and even fuel storage facilities at the United States base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He particularly loved Cuba and kept interests there until Castro’s revolution.
Mr. Grassmann’s interest in mining began with the Cold Springs Mining Company in Virginia but the kaolin clay mined there was of poor quality and he soon learned that the best kaolin was in Georgia. After this initial mining experience in Virginia, his long love affair with our region of Georgia began in 1927 on Lincoln’s birthday when he purchased the Georgia Kaolin Company in Dry Branch, Georgia, from E. Y. Mallory. Immediately, he began ploughing profits back into building the business, developing product research and improving mining and processing technologies. In 1957-58 he built the American Industrial Clay Company processing operation in Sandersville, Georgia. In 1979, just a few years after his death, Georgia Kaolin Company had become the largest kaolin operation in the United States and the second largest in the world, shipping over 1,000,000 tons per year with 800 employees generating a payroll of over $15,000,000 in Georgia. Kaolin products from these operations are used world-wide mainly in paper and as paper coating, and also in china, paint, plastics and automobile tires.
Outside his business career, Mr. Grassmann had many cultural interests but he was primarily a lover of land and nature. He was an excellent lay naturalist, ornithologist and botanist, learning Latin names, habitats and ranges of a large number of birds and plants. It was from these interests that he began work to build arboretums here and in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
On May 13, 1965, Lockerly Arboretum Foundation, located in Milledgeville, Georgia was officially established as a corporation in the state of New Jersey. In August of the following year, Mr. Grassmann gave the land and operating grants to the first Board of Trustees President, The Honorable Carl Vinson and its members, Mr. Frank E. Bone, Dr. H.D. Allen and Dr. J.C. Bonner.
Mr. Grassmann wanted the Arboretum to be a horticultural and botanical laboratory rather than a “show place garden;” consequently, his mandate on providing educational support for students and groups interested in botany, landscape gardening, horticulture, ecology and conservation was crystal clear. Mr. Grassmann envisioned the time when this facility would make a distinct contribution to the natural beauty and cultural atmosphere of the community. He chose this method of expressing his appreciation for the support and business opportunity provided by the area.