In 1859 a young man calling himself Colonel Saladee arrived in Jefferson County. Twelve miles west of Beaumont, on Pine Island Bayou, he purchased 500 acres of prairie and set about making improvements.
Before long he had 163 acres fenced and under cultivation. Not bad for a man who was not a farmer.
When the census taker came calling the next year, all his neighbors described themselves as farmers or laborers. But thirty year old “Colonel” Saladee had a different answer. When asked, “What is your occupation, sir?,” Saladee replied, “Inventor!”
Cyrus Wellington Saladee was born in Pittsburgh, which is reportedly in Pennsylvania. His father was a carriage builder and taught him that trade. The young man turned out to be a mechanical genius with an entrepreneurial spirit.
At twenty-four he founded The Coach-Makers Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Each issue featured his innovative designs as he endeavored to turn the craft into a science. He urged his subscribers to improve the quality of their work and adopt the standards of Parisian carriage makers.
Unfortunately, he was not a good judge of character. In 1858, while Saladee was traveling in Europe, his assistant editor ran off with the subscriber list and founded New York Coach-Makers Magazine.
Cyrus then made for Texas and started calling himself Colonel. The reason for either cannot be discerned.
Once in residence at Pine Island Farm (that’s what he called the place) Col. Saladee got busy inventing. On June 25, 1861, he was issued United States patent No.32652 for his steam plow.
The machine was about twenty-five feet long. It carried a 900 gallon boiler and a twenty-five bushel seed box. It’s two cylinder engine turned the eighteen plows at the front of the contraption in the manner of a circular saw, and plowed a swath ten feet wide and from eight to sixteen inches deep.
The “Great Texas Steam Plow” could also “saw lumber, do grinding, gin cotton, thrash and clean the grain ready for market, draw water, (and) saw the wood consumed by itself.”
The date of the patent hints at the fate of Col. Saladee’s plow venture. All the states of the Confederacy had already seceded when it was issued, and the Battle of First Manassas was just a month away.
With the war on, Col. Saladee lit out for Paducah, Kentucky (again, for reasons that can not be discerned) and joined the Confederate Army. He was captured, paroled, and spent the remainder of the war in Kentucky and Ohio, inventing. He was issued six patents in 1864 alone.
In the following decades he continued his inventive ways. In his lifetime he was issued nearly 200 patents. He also lived in at least a dozen locales in the Northern states and even Canada.
Or maybe he didn’t. Our inventive colonel seems to have made a hobby of getting himself listed in multiple city directories for any given year.
On New Years Eve of 1874, just a few months after being widowed, he married Abigail Chubb Chambers. She was the widow of General Thomas Jefferson Chambers, for whom Chambers County is named. They made their home in Galveston. Or at least she did. Col. Saladee continued to wander the country, inventing as he went.
Over the years he received patents for roller skates, padlocks, doorbells, bicycles, springs, springs, and more springs.
Most of his inventions were for things to improve the ride of horse drawn vehicles (springs!). Many of these made other men rich. Cyrus Saladee had the terrible habit of getting into financial straits and selling his patents for cash.
Throughout his life he was noted for his eccentricities, which included always wearing a top hat. Both friends and enemies described him as sensitive, opinionated, and easily offended.
Cyrus Saladee died in 1894 at Freeport, Illinois, when he accidentally overdosed on morphine tablets, trying to cure a headache.
Today, over a century after his death, one of his inventions is still in everyday use all across the world. In fact, I can virtually guarantee you have held it in your hand.
One of those patents Col. Saladee received in 1864 was for the indexed playing card.
He had the idea to place the suit and rank on the corner of each card. Before the Saladee Patent Deck, gamblers had to spread their cards wide to know what they held.
So if you like to play your cards close to the vest, you can thank Colonel Cyrus Wellington Saladee.