Donora, Pennsylvania, would likely not exist today if town founder William H. Donner hadn’t finally persuaded Margaret Heslep, a surprisingly crafty negotiator, to sell her land.
Margaret, widowed since 1872, owned a 140-acre farm on the Monongahela River in southwest Pennsylvania, where Donner, along with his partners, Andrew and Richard Mellon, wanted to build several steel mills. Donner knew that the Heslep property was critical to those plans, so he asked James McKean, who represented the Mellons and lived in Donora, “Would you have any objection to my meeting with Mrs. Heslep about the property?”
“Certainly not,” McKean said with a knowing laugh, “go ahead.” McKean had already been down that same road, unsuccessfully.
Over the coming days and weeks Donner met with Mrs. Heslep numerous times to ask about purchasing her land. Each time he received a polite but firm, “No.”
“She was always very pleasant to me,” Donner wrote in his autobiography, “and invited me on several occasions to stay for meals.” Mrs. Heslep told him more than once, “Mr. Donner, I’m sorry to have to keep saying ‘no’ to you.”
Persistence was unquestionably the 35-year-old Donner’s most important characteristic. Why should this obstacle, a pleasant, honest woman saying no, keep him from achieving his goal?
“You’re wasting your time,” McKean told him. Andrew Mellon agreed, saying, “It’s hopeless.”
Maybe, thought Donner, but still….
The breakthrough came during one of Donner’s visits when he asked Mrs. Heslep about buying some of the drift coal located on her property. “I won’t sell any coal,” she told him. “It is all in the hill.”
Donner suddenly realized that her repeated denials might be covering up a deeper wish to protect her coal. “Perhaps her husband had told her to hold onto it,” Donner speculated. From his land surveys Donner knew that the Heslep coal deposits, as well as Mrs. Heslep’s home and gardens, occupied about 70 acres. So he asked, “Might you be willing to sell all of your property except for those 70 acres?”
“You might make an offer,” the widow responded.
Donner knew right then the land would be his. “I will pay you $375 per acre,” he said, an amount totaling $26,250, equivalent to nearly $700,000 today. She turned him down.
“You paid $400 an acre for the Allen property,” she told him.
“Yes, we did,” Donner admitted, “but Mr. Allen’s property was the largest in the area.”
Again, she refused. “I positively will not sell at that price.” Her price was $500 per acre, she insisted, “and not one cent less!”
Heslep’s daughter decided at that point to ask Donner to stay for dinner, an offer to which he readily agreed. After what must have been a pleasant but rather tense meal, Donner told Mrs. Heslep that he would accept her price.
But Mrs. Heslep, a cool negotiator, wasn’t finished. She insisted on a stipulation. “Mr. Donner,” she said, “I would ask that you bring me $500 in gold by noon tomorrow. This shall bind our agreement.”
The next morning Donner placed an envelope of gold coins worth $500 on her dining room table. Astonished, Mrs. Heslep threw up her hands and said, “Take it away! I could never sleep with that much money in the house!”
Finally content with the sale but not yet finished negotiating, Mrs. Heslep told Donner he needed to give her one last item. “Mrs. Heslep told me,” said Donner, “that according to some custom, the details of which I cannot recall, I should also give her silk for a dress.”
The next day Donner had a friend purchase a “suitable” piece of black silk, which he immediately presented to Mrs. Heslep at her home. “She was delighted,” Donner said, and a sales agreement was finally signed.
When Donner notified the Mellons that he had succeeded in purchasing the Heslep property, they were stunned. Richard Mellon laughed, and told Donner, “I should like to have a phrenologist examine your skull. That lump for perseverance must be immense!”
Q: How much were Donner and the Mellons prepared to pay Heslep for her land?
A: Per Donner, “Her property was so important to our plans that we would have paid $2,000 per acre if necessary.”
That marvelous negotiator, Margaret Heslep, who died in 1907, is buried alongside her husband, in a distinctive gravesite in Monongahela Cemetery.