Jabez Bunting Watkins of Lawrence is one of the most successful lawyers and bankers of the state. His business affairs have not been confined to Kansas but have extended all over the southwestern country. His reputation as a financial authority is likewise wide extended.
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A son of James and Barbara (Sprankle) Watkins, he was born near Punxsutawney in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, June 25, 1845. His father was a native of Wales, came to America at the age of twenty-five and died in Pennsylvania when his son, Jabez, was eight years old. The mother was a native of Pennsylvania of German parentage. Mr. Watkins was named in honor of Jabez Bunting, a noted Methodist minister who was buried in the Wesley churchyard in London, England. Across the road from that grave lie the bodies of John Bunyan, Daniel DeFoe and Isaac Watts, authors respectively of Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe and many of the best loved Gospel hymns.
At the age of fifteen Mr. Watkins accompanied his mother and other members of the family from Pennsylvania to Fairfax County, Virginia. He lived in that county during the stressful days of the Civil war. His home was a cabin of two rooms and an attic. The home was in the country which was so desperately fought for by the armies of the North and the South. The Watkins house was near enough so that the inmates could hear the roar of the cannon in both battles of Bull Run. Soon after the first of those battles four of the Watkins’ horses were taken away by Confederates, but Jabez with the aid of a hired man recovered them. Mr. Watkins as a boy saw much of war times, though he himself was not an active participant. One of his school teachers in Virginia was a sister of Jackson, the man who killed Colonel Ellsworth at Alexandria. During the funeral of Colonel Ellsworth young Watkins witnessed the procession and for a few minutes leaned on the wheel of President Lincoln’s carriage. He had many opportunities of seeing the great war president and heard him deliver the inaugural address in 1861. He was also in the rotunda of the capitol at Washington when the vote was taken upon the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
At the age of nineteen in 1864 Mr. Watkins went North to attend school and in 1869 he completed the law course in the University of Michigan. In the meantime he had taught school for half a dozen terms in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin. From 1870 to 1873 he practiced law at Champaign, Illinois. As a lawyer his forte was in the examination of lands and real estate titles.
Mr. Watkins became a resident of Lawrence, Kansas, in August, 1873. He is one of the active business men of the city and from Lawrence his operations and interests have extended in many directions and in various fields. He early became identified with the business of handling mortgages and as an investment banker. In forty years it is said that he directed the investments of over $12,000,000 in lands and mortgages. In 1876 a branch of his business was established in New York, one in London in 1878, one at Dallas in 1881, and in 1883 the business was incorporated as the J. B. Watkins Land Mortgage Company, of which Mr. Watkins is still president. At London he organized the North American Land and Timber Company in 1882, and retained his interests until 1911, when he sold out for property and cash considerations to the amount of $800,000. Mr. Watkins is also president of the Watkins National Bank of Lawrence.
In the early ’80s Mr. Watkins began an extensive campaign of land buying. He acquired 1,500,000 acres of land from state and federal governments in Southwestern Louisiana. In 1890 he built and operated 100 miles of railway from Lake Charles to Alexandria, owning all the townsites on the railway. One of his cardinal principles is illustrated in the fact that in all the deeds given for lots in these townsites is a clause forbidding forever the sale of intoxicating liquors on the premises. This decision it should be noted had been sustained by the courts. Lake Charles, one of the most thriving cities of Louisiana, today largely owes its development and growth to Mr. Watkins. He still owned thousands of acres of land in Kansas, Louisiana and Texas.
Though what might be called a “country banker” Mr. Watkins’ operations have been on such an extended scale and brought him so prominently in touch with the great financial centers that he had long had a prominent standing in financial circles and had been a recognized and oft quoted authority on financial questions. His studies of financial problems bore special fruit in the historic campaign for sound currency culminating with the election year of 1896. Early in that year Mr. Watkins completed a very carefully prepared and studious address, which was widely published and circulated and was issued in many thousands of pamphlets under the title “The True Money System for the United States.” While its recommendations were not carried out in detail, its arguments were such as to appeal to both factions in the great dispute over currency and many of the principles he laid down twenty years ago have borne the test of time and have undoubtedly contributed to some of the more recent solutions of the financial question. Had Mr. Watkins’ system been adopted at the time, his plan would in a measure have satisfied the proponents of both the gold and the free silver standards and would have gone far to make the flexible monetary system which is now recognized as the ideal.
Mr. Watkins is a conservative and broad minded democrat in politics. He cast his first vote for Horace Greeley for president in 1872.
Visitors to Lawrence know the Watkins home as one of the show places of the city and the state. It is located on Mount Oread, from which it commands a wonderful view of the surrounding landscape. The home known as “The Outlook” was built in 1911. In Brooklyn, New York, November 10, 1909, Mr. Watkins married Elizabeth Josephine Miller, daughter of Dr. V. G. Miller, of Lawrence.