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John Wilson. Indelibly interwoven with the early and later history of Leavenworth and one of the great industrial captains of his day, was the late John Wilson, one of the solid men of this city for many years. His life story is interesting from every point of view, not alone because of the great business enterprises he fostered and founded, but also for achievements in other fields where his personality counted and where the life he lived so closely touched others that his memory will long be kept green. Mr. Wilson became a permanent resident and property owner in 1857 and for very nearly fifty years was identified with the progress and development of Leavenworth.
John Wilson was born at Oxford, Chester County, Pennsylvania, October 9, 1828. His parents, James and Rebecca (Whiteside) Wilson, were of Scotch-Irish descent. The father was a man of considerable consequence in Chester County, serving for twenty-five years as a magistrate and was an elder in the Presbyterian Church. He served as a sergeant in the company of Captain Holmes in the War of 1812. He and his wife were intelligent practical people and their son John profited by their openmindedness for he was given educational advantages such as many youths of the time and neighborhood did not enjoy. After attending the common schools he was employed for a time as a clerk in a store, performing his duties very willingly, for already he had the business instinct that later was a dominating factor in commercial life. He then spent two years in an academy at New London Chester County, after which he resumed his clerical duties and continued until he was twenty-one years old, when he embarked in a mercantile business for himself at Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. He remained in Lancaster County for two years and then transferred his interests back to Oxford.
About this time much was heard, both favorable and unfavorable, concerning the Territory of Kansas, contending factions in the North and South in their endeavors to make it free or slave giving it a reputation not very encouraging to the peaceful business man. However, in May, 1856, Mr. Wilson visited Kansas and considered the situation for two months and then returned to his eastern home, probably with his ideas crystalized, as in the fall he returned to Leavenworth and in the first month of 1857 purchased property on the corner of Second and Cherokee streets and made preparations for building, which resulted in the erection of the first brick business block in Leavenworth. At the time of his death, on June 7, 1906, that building was yet standing. There he opened his stock of hardware and continued at that location until the fall of 1859, when he removed to Delaware Street. In 1861 he formed a partnership with Stewart Hastings, under the style of Wilson & Hastings, and they carried on business as such until 1864, when they consolidated with the hardware firm of Brace & Baker, the style of the new firm becoming Wilson, Brace & Company. From this firm Mr. Wilson retired in 1869 in order to become a member of the Great Western Manufacturing Company and the Great Western Stove Company, of which he became president and directing head. Mr. Wilson was connected with both enterprises, but eventually disposed of his holdings in the latter, but continued until his death the controlling head of the former, building up this business until it became the most important industry of Leavenworth, affording employment to hundreds of men. He became interested in other enterprises and was one of the organizers and became vice president of the Leavenworth National Bank, and he was also the principal owner of the Mobile Light & Railroad Company of Mobile, Alabama.
In politics Mr. Wilson was nominally a democrat, but in this connection, as in every other, he was a man of independent thought and conscientiously followed his convictions of right. Nevertheless the democratic party in 1862 elected Mr. Wilson to represent Leavenworth County in the State Senate and re-elected him in 1864, and some of the important measures now on the statute books of the state were either introduced by him or had in him a warm advocate. In 1871 he was elected county commissioner of Leavenworth County and was re-elected to this office in 1873. In him the public schools always had a warm friend, and, although immersed in grave and important business cares that required almost his undivided attention, he accepted the responsibilities attaching to membership on the Leavenworth School Board and served during 1871, 1872, 1873 and 1874, his practical ideas and sound common sense making him particularly useful. All his subsequent life he took pride in the progress the schools made and was ever ready to give encouragement and practical assistance.
In the spring of 1857 Mr. Wilson brought his family to Leavenworth. In 1854, in Pennsylvania, he had been married to Miss Eliza J. Holmes. She was a daughter of Samuel Holmes of Chester County, and a granddaughter of the Captain Holmes who distinguished himself at the defense of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Four children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, two daughters and two sons. The daughters died in infancy, but the sons survive: J. Howard, who is president of the Mobile Light & Railway Company, and Samuel H., who is president of the Great Western Manufacturing Company at Leavenworth.
Samuel H. Wilson was born at Leavenworth, January 2, 1864, and this city had always been his home. He was educated here and at Hamilton College, New York, and practically grew up in his father’s business, of which he is the present head. He was married to Miss Mary E. V. Low, a daughter of the late P. G. Low, who was well known in the state and was one of the early freighters. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson have two sons: John Howard and Percival Low.
The death of John Wilson was a source of sincere sorrow to almost every resident of Leavenworth who had any realization of the worth of the quiet, unostentatious man who had passed up and down the same byways as themselves, but ever left behind him, by useful deed or kind act, a pleasant memory. At one time or another he had given employment to thousands of Leavenworth men, and that he was kind, considerate and just in all his relations with them might have been a reason for the industrial peace which prevailed in his factories. He was known to be honest and generous as a citizen and no subscription for any public movement was considered properly launched until the name of John Wilson headed the list. He gave freely to the Presbyterian Church, in which he was a deacon, but he was liberal minded and bestowed charity wherever it seemed to be needed. On the day of his funeral all banks at Leavenworth were closed, the courthouse flag was placed at half mast, the big business houses of the city other than his own also gave tokens of respect, and the whole city seemed to grieve for the man who so long had shown forth in a life worthy of emulation. It was said of him that he had never knowingly wronged any one, even in business contests and political campaigns, and those who knew him best admired, respected and loved him most.