Biography of Joseph A. McKemey
Jefferson County, IA Biographies





JOSEPH ALISON McKEMEY.
Indelibly interwoven with the annals of Jefferson county is the name of Joseph Alison McKemey, numbered among those who laid the foundation for the present progress and prosperity of this section of the state. More than seventy two years have come and gone since he first took up his abode in Iowa, which, however, was then a part of the territory of Wisconsin. The date of his arrival here was June, 1839, and the condition which met him was that which is usually found on the frontier. There was acre after acre of untitled and unclaimed land and in the summer time the prairies were starred with a million wild flowers, while in the winter seasons they presented the appearance of one unbroken and dazzling sheet of snow. Only here and there had a little settlement been made, showing that some courageous pioneer was braving the hardships and dangers of life in a district on the very borders of civilization.

Joseph A. McKemey was a native of Washington county, Pennsylvania, born March 27, 1815, and his parents were James W. and Martha (Alison) McKemey, who were likewise natives of the Keystone state. Both were born in Franklin county, the former in 1785, and the latter March 19, 1793. James W. McKemey died in 1816, at the early age of twenty nine years, and a few years later his widow became the wife of Jacob Slagle, who proved a kind and devoted father to Joseph A. McKemey, who was the only child of the mother's first marriage. Mrs. Slagle died in St. Louis, Missouri, May 15, 1858, while on the way to visit her children in Iowa.

Joseph A. McKemey served a regular apprenticeship to the trade of saddler and harness maker under his stepfather, working in the shop until he attained his majority, after which he was employed as a journeyman in various cities of Ohio and Indiana. In the spring of 1839 he accompanied three older men on the long journey from Washington, Pennsylvania, to the territory of Iowa. They traveled on horseback, crossing the three states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and after a month spent upon the road reached Burlington, Iowa, on the 24th of June. They had proceeded as far as Decatur, Illinois, when they found it was impossible to continue their journey because of swollen streams and remained from Friday until the following Tuesday at a hotel where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were guests. The time was enlivened by the conversation and sallies of wit between the two young men who were later to become national characters. On reaching Springfield, Mr. McKemey and his companion found that Mr. Lincoln was already there, having preceded them on foot. From Burlington, Iowa, Mr. McKemey traveled to Bentonsport, and there established a little general store and harness shop, conducting business at that place until 1842, when he became a resident of Jefferson county. Here he purchased a claim of four hundred and eighty acres, which was situated about two miles south of Fairfield, entering the land at the government sales and immediately afterward beginning the improvement of his property. He possessed the courageous spirit and indomitable energy which characterized so many of the pioneer settlers and had soon converted a considerable portion of his wild prairie into productive fields.

For a companion and helpmate on life's journey Mr. McKemey chose Miss Cynthia Hemphill, whom he wedded February 28, 1844. She was born in Bedford county, Pennsylvania, a daughter of Adley Hemphill, and in her girlhood removed with her parents to Wayne county, Ohio, whence the family came to Jefferson county, Iowa, in 1842. Unto Mr. and Mrs. McKemey were born seven children: Martha Jane, the wife of Daniel De Vecmon, of Denver, Colorado, now deceased; Margaret, who died at the age of thirty years; one who died in infancy; Elizabeth, the wife of Captain S. J. Chester; Jacob S., also of Fairfield; Mary A., the wife of Rollin J. Wilson, son of Senator Wilson, also of Fairfield; and Flora, the wife of Dr. J. C. Sutton, now deceased.

In 1845 Mr. McKemey left the farm and established a harness shop in Fairfield, continuing in that business until elected county treasurer in the fall of 1857. He then sold out and on the 1st of October, that year, resumed the duties of the office to which he was twice reelected, serving for six years, at the end of which time he declined a renomination. He then purchased a harness shop in Fairfield and built up a gratifying trade, continuing in the business until December 18, 1885, when, at the age of seventy years, he retired from active life. His capable management and well directed industry had brought him substantial success and a competency sufficient to meet all of his requirements through the evening of his days.

Throughout the entire period of his residence in the county, Mr. McKemey bore an active and helpful part in public affairs both along political lines and otherwise. In early manhood he gave his support to the Whig party and stanchly maintained an attitude of opposition to slavery. In 1847 he met with seven others in Fairfield and organized an anti slavery association for the purpose of opposing the system that prevailed in the south and also of aiding escaping fugitives. When the republican party was formed to prevent the further extension of slavery he joined its ranks and was a delegate to the first state convention in 1854. He continued an ardent advocate of that party until 1888, when, believing that the temperance question was then the dominant issue before the people, he joined the ranks of the prohibition party, supporting Fisk and Brooks, its nominees for president and vice president respectively. Thereafter he maintained an unfaltering allegiance to the party and was unceasing in his efforts to promulgate temperance principles. He was reared in the faith of the Presbyterian church and remained a member thereof until 1860, when, not being in sympathy with the attitude of that church toward the slavery question, he and his wife withdrew and joined the Congregational church. Mr. McKemey reached a ripe old age and passed away in 1898, "full of years and honors." His life was indeed one of usefulness. His quiet manner, his easy dignity, his frankness and cordiality of address, with a total absence of anything sinister or anything to conceal foretoken a man who was ready to meet any obligation of life with the confidence and courage that come of conscious, personal ability, right conception of things and an habitual regard for what is best in the exercise of human activities.

From:
History of Jefferson County, Iowa
A Record of Settlement, Organizatin,
Progress and Achievement Vol II
BY: Charles J. Fulton
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.
Chiago 1914


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