McFadden’s Treasure

In the book The Free State of Menard, printed in the 1940’s, Wenonah was quoted as saying “Mr. McFadden, the publisher, asked me some years ago to write a story for his magazine on what I had accomplished because of sheer determination to succeed. But I told him I was too busy to write it.” Wenonah, AKA Martha Learn, was a very unique lady from San Antonio who lived next to the San Saba mine site from 1929 or 1930 until her death in 1943. Judging by a sample of her writing, when she wrote a poem promoting war-bonds for the local paper, she was a perfectly capable writer.

But who was McFadden? Brenarr McFadden (1868 – 1955) was one of those people who are relatively unknown today, despite exerting a tremendous influence on the twentieth century. He was first and foremost a heath enthusiast. He himself was a sickly child with failing eyesight and he resolved to become healthy. So he did.

As work began to move to offices, people began to suffer from inactivity and poor diet. McFadden was Johnny on the spot with programs of exercise and diet. Some of his ideas were a little odd, but most of them have stood the test of time. He was actually ahead of his time in many ways. He was really the first body builder and without him perhaps there would have been no Charles Atlas, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. At first he published books, including an encyclopedia on health. He later began printing a magazine named Physical Culture. One feature in that magazine was stories from readers who followed his programs to good health. Those stories were a hit. Stories from the common man had never been printed before—it was entirely a new concept. Readers liked hearing interesting stories from their neighbors, people just like themselves. He took that concept and branched out into printing reader-submitted stories, worked over by his editors, that were not related to health.

Those magazines created an empire, with magazines like True Stories that had its start in 1919. Later on True Detective and True Romance were added. The stories were sensationalized and sometimes on the risqué side. He built up a publishing empire that had a profound influence. One of the editors of Reader’s Digest had his start with McFadden’s magazines. A story of how a poor little German girl from San Antonio became a fearless snake charmer, and then ran a thriving rattlesnake business, would have made a great story. It is unfortunate that she passed up the opportunity.

While he was a visionary on matters of health and publishing, he had no head for finance. He made lots of money, and he spent lots of money. He did not understand that a business owner could not sell company stock and then use the company bank account for various personal projects. He built health spas, tried running for office, attempted to start his own religion that combined the Bible with health food and exercise, and went through a string of wives who all demanded alimony. He was often threatened with bankruptcy and lawsuits.

The story is that when he was facing court problems he placed large sums of cash, millions of dollars, in old cartridge boxes and buried them on various properties that he owned. Such cash hordes would escape plaintiffs, regardless of the court outcomes. And, indeed, in 1960 someone found an old cartridge box on McFadden’s old estate on Long Island. They claimed to have found $89,000 in it.

So while Wenonah was looking for buried treasure out west, McFadden may have been burying treasure on his properties back east. The real treasure would have been a biography of Wenonah’s life, and that was right in front of them both.

For more information on Brenarr McFadden click here.

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