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Of the individuals whose lives have influenced, developed, stabilised and broadened the civic and commercial resources of the State of Kansas, one of the most conspicuous was that of the late Col. John Conover. Coming to Kansas in 1857 and locating in Leavenworth, he was one of the pioneer merchants of that city. Going from Kansas at the outbreak of the war into the service of the Union army, he made a brilliant record as a soldier and officer, and that record is one of the many reasons why Kansas people should have a grateful memory of his life. Following the war there came ten years more of successful participation in the business affairs of Leavenworth, at the end of which time he identified himself with Kansas City, Missouri, and there occurred the culminating achievements of his business career, resulting in the founding and development of the Richards & Conover Hardware Company, the largest wholesale house in that line west of St. Louis.
He died January 8, 1914. Before proceeding to the details of his career there should be quoted the summary of his experience which was happily phrased in the editorial columns of the Kansas City Star:
“Colonel John Conover was a typical pioneer of the sort that had conquered the wilderness and made this western country great. A boy whose endowment lacked the glittering non-essentials of wealth and influence, but included the really important qualities that make men count in the world, he hewed his way up from obscurity by industry, energy and intelligence.
“In the war between the states he answered the call of his country and served with distinction. Later he helped to build up an important business which in its half century of existence had become one of the great business enterprises of the country.
“His career was one that people like to regard as exemplifying the possibilities of American life–the carcer in which the substantial qualities find the door of opportunity open to success.”
He was born on a farm near New Brunswick, New Jersey, November 27, 1835. His great-grandfather came to New Jersey from Holland, where the name was spelled Kovenhoven. His son, John, grandfather of Colonel Conover, was a Revolutionary soldier and among other, battles he participated at Monmouth, not far from his own home. After the war he settled near New Brunswick and built the house where John Conover, Sr., and Colonel Conover were both born. John Conover, Sr., who was born in 1810, was a farmer until 1841, and then for thirty years was in the service of the Camden & Amboy Railroad Company, being located at Camden for twenty-four years and later at Philadelphia. He died in 1871. His wife was Jane E. Cornell.
The only son of his parents, Col. John Conover attended the public schools of Camden and at the age of sixteen gained his first acquaintance with the hardware trade as clerk in a store. Four years later, in October, 1856, he went west, to Chicago and Quincy, Illinois, and Keokuk, Iowa, and for a time was assistant engineer on a United States dredge boat on the Des Moines River. In the spring of 1857 he took the boat from St. Louis and landed at Leavenworth March 18, 1857. For two months he was employed by the assistant city engineer, then engaged in taking up land claims in Kansas, and in the fall of 1857 became salesman for the Leavenworth hardware firm of Reisinger & Fenlon.
He was called from the routine duties of a store to serve his country as a soldier. July 22, 1861, he became second lieutenant of a company which he organized at Leavenworth for thirty days’ service and spent the period stationed at Fort Leavenworth. After being mustered out August 22, 1861, he and other officers recruited a company for three years’ service, and on August 28th was mustered in as second lieutenant of Company A, Eighth Kansas Volunteer Infantry. He became first lieutenant December 12, 1861, and when eighty-three men had been enlisted he was mustered in as captain March 15, 1862. August 23, 1864, he was mustered in as major, was mustered as lieutenant colonel October 21, 1864, was commissioned colonel, though he was not mustered since the regiment was not recruited to the full required strength. However, March 13, 1865, the President of the United States breveted him colonel “for gallant and meritorious service during the war.” The regiment had been formed for service in the state and along the border. The company was, therefore, distributed at various posts and with several commands, and Colonel Conover, as a line officer, remained at Fort Leavenworth until February, 1863, in the meantime participating in several expeditions into Missouri against Quantrell’s guerillas and during August, 1862, participating in skirmishes with Coffee’s, Cockrell’s and Quantrell’s guerilla bands. In February, 1863, the regiment was ordered to Nashville and placed on provost duty. The regiment was subsequently assigned to the Third Brigade First Division, Twentieth Army Corps, Army of the Cumberland, and after the twentieth and twenty-first corps were consolidated and made the fourth corps on October 15, 1863, the Eighth Kansas was assigned to the First Brigade, Third Division, Fourth Corps. From August to November, 1865, the regiment did duty in the Department of Texas.
The detailed record of Colonel Conover’s service after he left Kansas is summarized as follows: Provost duty at Nashville, Tennessee, until June, 1863; ordered to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, June 9th; Middle Tennessee or Tullahoma campaign June 22d to July 7th; Liberty Gap, June 24th-27th; Chickamauga campaign August 15th to September 22d; Caperton’s Ferry near Bridgeport, Alabama, August 29th; Battle of Chickamauga September 19th and 20th; on duty in Chattanooga from September 22d until November 23d; Battle of Chattanooga, including capture of Orchard Knob November 23d, and assault that carried Missionary Ridge, November 25th; November 28th on march to relief of Knoxville; December 8th to February, 1864, campaign in East Tennessee, Strawberry Plains and Dandridge; February 17, 1864, regiment sent to Fort Leavenworth on a veteran furlough and returned to the army Anril 5th; arriving at Nashville, Eighth Kansas detailed to escort a pontoon train from there to the front June 17th; rejoined brigade at Big Shanty, near Kenesaw Mountain, June 28th; in the operations against Kenesaw July 2d; Ruff’s Station, Smyrna Camp Ground July 4th; Chattanooga River July 5th to 17th; Battle of Peach Tree Creek July 19th-20th; Siege of Atlanta July 22d to August 25th; flank movement of Atlanta via East Point August 25th to 30th; engagement at Jonesboro August 31st to September 1st; in line front of Lovejoy Station September 2d to 6th; battle at Lovejoy Station, closing Atlanta campaign, September 6th; Fourth Corps in pursuit of Hood and occupying position at Pulaski, Tennessee, September 29th to October 26th, and from November 1st to 23d; Nashville campaign November and December; Columbia Duck River November 24th to 27th; Spring Hill November 29th; Battle of Franklin November 30th; Battle of Nashville December 15th-16th; pursuit of Hood to the Tennessee River December 17th to 28th; march to Huntsville, Alabama, December 31st to January 5, 1865, and on duty there to February 1st; moved to Nashville February 1st, and returned to Huntsville February 8th; on duty to March 15th and then expeditioned to Bull’s Gap and operations in East Tennessee, March 15th to April 22d; duty at Nashville to June 24th; move to New Orleans, Louisiana, July 1, 1865, and July 10th to Indianola, Texas; march to Green Lake and on duty there to August 10th; move to San Antonio August 10th to 23d and on duty to November 29th; mustered out November 30, 1865; to Fort Leavenworth November 28, 1865, and honorably discharged January 9, 1866.
For nearly 4 ½ years he had been in the active service of his country. The service was one that strengthened rather than weakened the sterling qualities of his manhood and almost immediately on his return to Leavenworth he became junior partner and acting commercial salesman for the hardware firm of J. F. Richards & Company. In October, 1875, the partners bought the hardware stock of D. A. McKnight of Kansas City, Missouri, and after that Colonel Conover made his home in Kansas City. He took active charge of the Richards & Conover store in 1882, and in that year the Richards & Conover Hardware Company was incorporated. From a small business it grew until Colonel Conover long before his death had the satisfaction of seeing it one of the greatest wholesale houses in the Missouri Valley.
September 5, 1862, during his army service, Colonel Conover married Mary E. Hathaway of Leavenworth. She died September 3, 1866. April 10, 1875, he married Miss Alice Leona Austin. Mrs. Conover was born near Norwalk, Ohio, daughter of Homer and Adeline Austin. There are four childran: Leona May, John Austin, Ethel Bird, now deceased, and George R.
While Colonel Conover was an active sapporter of the republican party, he never desired to hold office, being content with the service he had rendered as a soldier and the further service he could give as head of a thriving business. He was a Mason, and while not an active member of any church, he believed in and had a deep veneration for Christianity. He was captain of the organization known as Craig’s Rifles, of Kansas City, Missouri; was a member of the Kansas Commandery of the Loyal Legion and of the Kansas City Commercial Club and Hardware and Manufacturers Association. He had a wide business and personal acquaintance in the East as well as in the West, and wherever known he was loved for his character as a man and companion and respected because of his superior achievements and his thorough reetitude of character.
Of his objective life as expressed in war and business, no commentary is required beyond the matter of fact record given above. His personal friends came to know and appreciate many of those finer qualities which permeate and give color and tone to personality. Something of this is expressed in the felieitous editorial that appeared in the Kansas City Journal at the time of his death, and which is quoted in part as the conclusion of this article:
“There are now only a pitiful handful of those who may be counted as the real empire makers of the West. Once their rugged faces were met every-where. Gradually, however, they have relinquished their trust to younger men and the pioneers have fallen one by one before the blasts of time. Colonel Conover was one of the first generation of business men in this part of the West. In his vigorous youth he participated in those splendid activities which wrought out of the desert marvelous development. He lived when men did great deeds, and did them in the course of the day’s work. This environment was remarkably congenial to a man of his temperament and enduring physical vitality.
“Until his fatal illness Colonel Conover loved life with a virile enthusiasm seldom met with among those who have lived long and have seem much. Even in his advancing years he took an interest in all that went on about him–and it was the genuine interest felt by men who have played a good part on the stage and held life at its true value. He was especially fond of youth and the ever fresh and effervescent spirit within him always found sympathetic response among the younger generation. His ready and kindly wit, his native sense of humor, his wonderful aptitude in reminiscence and the rich fund of his experience and inclination made him a delightful companion and a happy addition to every gathering. He made it a point to attend veterans’ meetings, gatherings of the Loyal Legion, etc., and many times he made pilgrimages to battlefields and other points of historic and patriotic association. His life was full and complete. As a soldier, a business man, a citizen and in his family and social relations he reaped that harvest that is life’s best reward–the cousciousness of duty well done and the love and respect of all who knew him.”