In Brevard’s “Sylvan Valley News” between 1911 and 1913, there were semi-frequent mentions of Robert Siniard passing through parts of the county buying fur. This was Robert G. “Dougan” Siniard, born in 1890, and the older brother of Samuel Hale Siniard, Sr.
Dougan, or “Doog,” was a fur dealer, buying pelts from individual trappers and travelling around Transylvania County on horseback. It is unknown whether he was working as an agent for a fur buying company or (more likely) as an independent “country buyer.” Either way he was one cog in a wheel of intermediaries between the individual trappers and the buyers who would eventually acquire the furs at auction to then be made into garments. Newspapers across Western North Carolina like the “Sylvan Valley News” frequently included advertisements from companies offering to buy furs, some as close as Asheville and others as far away as New York City.
According to “Fur Trade Review,” at the time the leading fur markets in the world were New York City, St. Louis, Missouri, and London. C.M. Lampson and Co. was the largest auction house in London, and in March of 1910 the following prices were reported following the most recent fur auction: Raccoon pelts sold (converted from British pounds to US dollars) for 5 cents for the lowest quality up to $7.50 for the very highest quality. The equivalent in today’s dollars would be $1.56 to $233.93. Skunk pelts sold from 12 cents to $6.57 ($3.74 to $204.98 today), and Muskrat (by the bundle) sold from 10 cents to $1.20 ($3.12 to $37.43 today).
As a country buyer and a few steps removed from the auction sellers, Siniard would certainly not have been making this much per pelt. Also, the pelts he was buying in Transylvania County, while of higher quality than a lot of the fur coming out of the Deep South, would have trended towards the lower end of these price ranges. In general, the quality and “fullness” of furs increase as you move further north where temperatures are colder. Despite the lower quality of southern furs, Siniard’s sense of timing was good. He entered the fur trade at a time when prices were on the rise. James Curwood wrote in “The Last Chapter in the Romance of Fur,” reprinted in “The Polk County News” on Jan. 26, 1911: “A Montreal dealer who purchased 80,000 muskrat skins at twenty cents per skin a year before sold them in London for seventy. A month later they had gone to eighty. Two months later they were bringing a dollar.” To put that in perspective of purchasing power at the time, in the US in 1910, on average flour was 18 cents for five pounds, a dozen eggs was 33 cents, and a ten-pound bag of potatoes was 17 cents.
After 1913 reports of Siniard buying furs disappear from the “Sylvan Valley News,” so he presumably got out of the business. This coincides with a sharp decline in fur prices in 1914, and prices did not rise again until 1917. By this time, however, Siniard was far, far away from Transylvania County. During the First World War, he served in the US Army’s 17th Engineer Regiment in France from late 1917 until 1919. The 17th was among the first US troop presences in the war along with several other engineering units. France had given control of wharfage to the U.S. for its incoming troops, and units like Siniard’s were repairing and building docks and railways. He returned from the war in March of 1919 as a Private First Class on the troop transport “Susquehanna” four months after Armistice Day.
Siniard returned to Transylvania County and married Emma Watts in 1923, but there are no indications that he ever returned to the fur business before moving to Florida some time before 1930. About the time Siniard was getting married however, the fur market had finally recovered to the levels he had enjoyed in 1913, and the boom continued until the stock market crashed in 1929, kicking off the Great Depression.
Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Associate Hale Durant. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.