Biography of William Turnor Lewis
When death called William Tumor Lewis on the 30th of December, 1915, Racine lost one of its prominent pioneer manufacturers and capitalists, a man who was freely accorded honor and respect, not only because of the success which he had achieved, but also on account of the straightforward and commendable business principles which he always followed and the spirit of helpfulness which he manifested throughout his entire life. He never deviated from a course which he believed to be right in all of his relations with his fellowmen and his memory remains both as an inspiration and a benediction of those with whom he was associated.
A native of New York, Mr. Lewis was born in Utica on the 10th of March, 1840, and received his early education in that city. In 1855, when a boy of fifteen, he became a resident of Racine and at an early age studied telegraphy under the guidance of his older brother, James F. Lewis, who afterward became chief justice of the supreme court of Nevada. At the outbreak of the Civil war Mr. Lewis was manager of the Racine office of the Western Union Telegraph Company and handled hundreds of messages relative to the great conflict. He soon enlisted in the Federal Military Telegraph Corps and was stationed at Cartersville, Georgia, at the headquarters of the Fifteenth Army Corps as military telegraph operator and railroad agent.
On the 27th of October, 1864, Mr. Lewis was united in marriage to Mary Isabel Mitchell, a daughter of Henry Mitchell, deceased, who was the founder in 1834, of the business which later was incorporated as the Mitchell & Lewis Company, Ltd., manufacturers of the famous Mitchell wagon. Toward the close of the Civil war Mr. Lewis was offered by his father-in-law, Henry Mitchell, a one-third interest in the wagon business for five thousand dollars and the offer was accepted. C. D. Sinclair, another son-in-law, since deceased, also became a one-third owner a year or two later, the net worth of the business then being about $10,000. It was from this small beginning that Racine’s notable wagon industry grew. After the Civil war, many of the soldiers purchased government lands in the western states and the demand for farm implements, such as wagons and plows, rapidly increased, and it was then that Messrs. Henry Mitchell, W. T. Lewis and C. D. Sinclair decided to push the production of farm wagons as fast as their capital would permit. In the ’70s Henry G. Mitchell, since deceased, and Frank L. Mitchell, sons of Henry Mitchell, joined the organization. By 1884 the business had grown to such an extent that it was incorporated under the name of Mitchell & Lewis Company, Ltd., with capital stock of six hundred thousand dollars all paid in and a surplus of fifty thousand dollars. The company made money every year and paid dividends, leaving the larger part of the earnings in the business. By 1900 the capital and surplus amounted to one million eight hundred thousand dollars and the capacity of the factory had grown from three hundred farm wagons per year in 1866 to twenty-five thousand per year in 1900.
In 1903 Mr. Lewis and his son, William Mitchell Lewis, founded the Mitchell Motor Car Company which under their guidance had an even more remarkable growth than had the wagon business. In the establishment and direction of this enterprise pace was kept with the changing and advancing conditions of the day and an automobile was put on the market which immediately won favor and popularity and its sales became not only country-wide, but international in scope. In 1910 the automobile and the wagon businesses were incorporated as one company, known as the Mitchell-Lewis Motor Company, and Mr. Lewis was the principal owner and actively engaged in the conduct of its affairs up to the time of his death. Mr. Lewis, with his son, William Mitchell Lewis, was also the founder of one other of Racine’s most important industries, namely, the Racine Rubber Company. He was always known as a practical business man, energetic, prompt and reliable. With clear insight he recognized the possibilities of a business situation, as evidenced by the industries which he founded and for which he successfully labored, and he used the forces at his command to the best possible advantage. His methods were always constructive and he never promoted his own interests to the detriment of his associates or his fellowmen.
To Mr. and Mrs. Lewis were born two daughters and two sons: Mary I., the wife of Dr. George W. Mosher, a practicing physician of Chicago; William Mitchell Lewis, mentioned elsewhere in this work Helen Tumor, the wife of George B. Wilson, who is also mentioned on another page of this volume, and James Henry, who died in infancy.
Mr. Lewis belonged to various fraternal organizations, having membership in Belle City Lodge. No. 18, F. & A. M., while in the consistory he attained the thirty-second degree of the Scottish Rite. He also belonged to Racine Lodge, No. 252, B. P. O. E., and was one of the early members of Racine Lodge, No. 32, K. P. He was one of the charter members of the Racine branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. In matters of citizenship Mr. Lewis took the deepest interest. He was a prominent republican and represented the first district, of Wisconsin in the general assembly of 1897. He was a delegate to the national republican convention of 1888 and to the National Tariff Commission Congress of 1909. While a member of the general assembly, he was the author of the Lewis primary election bill, and as a member of the visiting committee of state institutions took a deep interest, in the subject of prison reform. He also served for a term or two as a member of the city council. His interest in politics, however, was not that of an office seeker, as he always preferred that his public duties should be done as a private citizen.
Mr. Lewis gave generous, helpful and moral support to every worthy project for the upbuilding of city and state, and he was one of the oldest and most loyal members of the First Baptist church, in which for many years he served as superintendent of the Sunday school, deacon and trustee. It is not difficult to speak of him, for his life and his character were as clear as the sunlight. No man came in contact with him who did not speedily appreciate him at his true worth and know that he was a man who not only cherished a high ideal of duty but lived up to it. He constantly labored for the right and from his earliest youth devoted a large portion of his time to the service of others. While at the head of large business interests which he conducted successfully, it was nevertheless his rules to set apart time for the labors of love to which he was so devoted. His friends will miss him, but the memory of his honorable career, of his sincerity and simplicity, will not be forgotten, and those who knew him best will rejoice in the thought that he laid down his task in the twilight of the day, when all that he had to do had been nobly, beautifully and fully completed.