Anyone who has ever used the library service in Falkirk can thank one of the district’s most famous – and richest – sons who left school at the age 12 with a huge talent for entrepreneurship.
Robert Dollar, Falkirk’s answer to Andrew Carnegie, was a self-made American millionaire who showered his native town with gifts from bells to library books, water fountains to fancy gravestones and the public park which bears his name just off Camelon Road.
He could afford to be generous as at the time of his death in 1932, aged 88, he was one of the richest men in the world with a huge shipping empire covering the Pacific from his San Franscisco base. In return for his attention to the town the council made him a freeman of Falkirk in 1926.
Dollar was born in Bainsford in 1844 to a family involved in the timber trade and his early life was spent among the planks and deals from the Baltic and Canada on the basins of the Forth and Clyde Canal.
He left school at the age of 12 and worked for a time as an errand boy in the timber yard before his father upped sticks for Canada and a new life in 1857.
Dollar found work in a barrel-making factory before moving on to a lumber camp. His ability to write and count and a certain ruthless streak brought rapid advancement. At 22 he was running a lumber camp with 50 men and he later moved to Michigan in the USA and set up his own company, the British Canadian Lumber Company.
By 1884 he was rich enough to return home for the first time and present Falkirk with £1000 to help buy books for what was the first library in the town housed in the YMCA building in Newmarket Street.
Soon after returning to America Dollar moved his family to California where his lumber empire continued to expand and his power and wealth grew in proportion. At the age of 57 when many a man would be looking to ease up a bit Dollar moved into shipping. The high charges convinced him that he should have his own boats and 1901 he bought the 300-ton ‘Newsboy’.
It was the first of many and allowed him to open up trade with China and Japan. He travelled himself all over the Orient seeking products to take back to the US in the empty timber ships. In doing so he made friends with all the key people in business and politics.
One observer said that the ordinary people of China idolised him and that on one of his trips a three-hour procession of thousands of men and women passed by his hotel to honour him!
“A power in his own land, he was all but a god in the Orient”, it was reported. He went on to establish the greatest passenger and freight fleet in the world with 19 offices in the Orient alone.
All of this allowed him to spend money on the things he believed in and Falkirk was one of them. The fountain in Victoria Park in memory of Sir John de Graeme, the 13 Bells in the tower of Falkirk Old and St Modan’s Church and the 11 acres of Arnotdale which became Dollar Park, not forgetting the two Chinese lions at the gate, were only some of his gifts to the town.
He died in 1932 and his house in San Rafael, California called ‘Falkirk’ is now an arts centre. Pride of place inside the house is the beautiful illuminated certificate presented to him by the town on his elevation to freeman and outside the Falkirk burgh lamp standards presented to San Rafael in 1989.