Biography of Roswell Pettibone Flower


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ROSWELL PETTIBONE FLOWER was born August 7, 1835, at Theresa, Jefferson county, N. Y., the fourth son and sixth child of Nathan Monroe and Mary Ann (Boyle) Flower. The father, who died when Roswell was in his eighth year, was born at Oak Hill, Greene county, N. Y., and learned the cloth dressing and wool carding trade in his father’s mill. Upon reaching his majority he established himself in business at Cooperstown, Otsego county, N. Y. Here he remained for some time, and married in the neighboring village of Cherry Valley. Soon after he removed to Theresa, then in the midst of the “northern wilderness,” and established a woolen mill, but died in 1843, leaving the faithful, Industrious mother to care for their nine children, and to manage the business. The family owned a farm of about thirty acres near the village and another of some two hundred acres eight miles out, and each child worked on these farms, raising general crops and cutting wood. Young Roswell picked wool in the woolen mill and worked industriously on these farms; but his mother was not a woman to neglect the mental training of her children, and he was sent to school with regularity. He had three elder brothers and it was therefore not his good fortune to have a new suit of clothes until he was able to earn them himself. Cut-down clothes were invariably his portion and stories are still told of the depression and mental anguish which this caused him.

One of his elder sisters had married a merchant of Theresa (Silas L. George), and he was given employment as a chore boy in the store at a salary of five dollars per month and board. During the sessions of the Theresa High School he found time to attend and was graduated at the early age of sixteen. Many anecdotes have been related of how young Flower earned extra spending money. He cut wood for the professional men of the little village, worked on the farms in haying time, and in a brick yard, receiving $1.50 a week for driving a yoke of stags around a clay vat (treading).

There is no employment so well calculated to develop earnest character and self-reliance as school teaching, and many a successful man has gained a valuable experience as a country teacher. Roswell P. Flower is one of these; he made a good school teacher and therefore a successful man. Perhaps the following anecdote, which has frequently been published, will give a better idea than other description of the qualities which secured his success in this field, harder then than now, for the master often had to be the physical as well as mental superior of the whole school: “At the noon intermission of his first day in school, the biggest boy came to him for a ‘square-hold wrestle.’ Mr. Flower accepted the challenge and easily threw the lad. After he had thrown all the larger boys, he found them all, with one exception, ready to recognize his authority. One day in the spelling class this boy refused to pronounce his syllables and only did so after a tussle. Mr. Flower then gave notice that a spelling school would be held that evening and stated that he desired only those of the scholars to come who would be willing to do their best, and during the intermission the young man in question was heard to remark that he would attend the school but would not spell. Roswell was boarding at this time with the family of Edward Cooper, with whom lived a young man of twenty-two named James Casey. The young teacher talked over the expected trouble and arranged that Casey should choose one side of the school and if the obstreperous young fellow should make his appearance, Casey should elect him to his side, and if he made any fuss in spelling, the two should join forces and put him out. The evening school had not been opened more than ten minutes before the young man came in and sat down behind one of the old fashioned desks. He was immediately chosen but said he would not spell, and at this young Flower told him he must either spell or leave the school. He replied that he would be

if he would spell and that he would be if he would leave the school. Mr. Flower insisted, which only called forth a repetition of the offensive remarks. The schoolmaster then called upon anybody present who desired to resent the insult to the school and the teacher to assist him in putting the offender out of doors; whereupon young Casey rose up and the young man was speedily ejected. But he was not conquered. He went over to the hotel a few rods distant and persuaded one of the trustees and a big chap by the name of William Waufell to come over and whip the teacher. Nothing daunted Roswell stated the case to his belligerant visitors and then said to the young man, ‘Now, sir, you must either spell or leave this school again.’ This conquered the youthful Sampson and he spelled without further trouble. After school was out the colossal Mr. Waufell remarked that if the young fellow had not spelled he would have whipped him himself.

In 1853 young Flower was offered a position in a general store at Philadelphia (N. Y.). The proprietor, a Mr. Woodford, failed shortly after, and being thrown out of employment he returned to his native village and finding no better employment, worked in the hay field, “keeping up his end in the mowing with eleven men.” In August of the same year he was offered a position in the hardware store of Howell, Cooper & Company of Watertown, but after a few months in this position bettered his condition by accepting a position as deputy postmaster at a salary of $50 a month and board. This position he held for five years under postmaster W. H. Sigourney. In the last year of his employment in the post.offlce he married Sarah M. Woodruff, a daughter of Norris M. Woodruff of Watertown, and of this union three children were born, only one of whom now survives, Emma Gertrude, wife of John B. Taylor of Watertown. Up to this time he had managed to save $1,000 and with this purchased an interest in a jewelry business at 1 Court street in Watertown, the firm name being Hitchcock & Flower. This store now stands and is still used to accommodate a jewelry business. Watertown people point it out to visitors with the remark “There Roswell P. Flower laid the foundation of his fortune.” Mr. Flower’s ability seems to have been purely mercantile, although he once absorbed a considerable knowledge of Blackstone and Kent with a view of entering the legal profession, and many believe that he would have gained a brilliant reputation as a business lawyer.

He obtained his first knowledge of large business affairs under the direction of Henry Keep, the well known capitalist, who had married Miss Anna Woodruff, a sister of Mrs. Flower. After Mr. Keep’s death he removed to New York city and took charge of the Henry Keep estate, then worth in the neighborhod of $1,000,000. This has increased under his careful and able management until it is now worth over $4,000,000. Much of the estate was in the West where Mr. Flower was a frequent visitor, gaining a personal knowledge of the vast resources of almost every section of the western country. It would be well perhaps to state here that Mr. Flower’s private fortune, which is estimated in the millions, was not made by speculation in Wall street, but by the shrewd purchasing of properties, which, by careful and prudent management, have developed and proved valuable investments.

In 1872, after Mr. Flower’s serious illness, the firm of Benedict, Flower & Co. was dissolved and Mr. Flower confined his attention to the conduct of the large estates which had been placed in care. In connection with this work he soon found it necessary to establish a New York office at 84 Broadway, and at this time Anson R. Flower, a younger brother, was brought from Watertown in order to become acquainted with the business that he might take charge of it in Mr. Flower’s absence. However, it was difficult for a man of his great insight into the larger business enterprises of the day to readily withdraw, and without any attempt being made in this direction the firm soon found itself doing a large commission trade, and to further provide for these increased cares another brother was admitted (John D. Flower), together with a nephew (Frederick S. Flower). Mr. Flower did not, however, retire from active participation in the management until 1890, when he became a special partner.

The sterling Democracy of Roswell P. Flower is too well known to need comment here. Some one paid him a just compliment in saying that “ His Democracy is ingrained not grafted.” He cast his first vote for Buchanan and from then on was a worker in the Democratic party. Even as a young man he showed himself to be possessed of the great gifts in organizing and handling men. He was chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Committee for several years and helped to start the organization which became known throughout the State as one of the best equipped political organizations within its borders. In 1877 he was chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee when the party won the campaign notwithstanding the bolt against the ticket. It will be remembered that Levi P. Morton was elected to Congress from the Eleventh District by 4,000 majority, and held the seat until appointed minister to France. To fill the vacancy, William Waldorf Astor was nominated by the Republicans, while Mr. Flower was induced by his friends to accept the Democratic nomination after Orlando B. Potter had declined. He accepted it on the platform that he would not purchase a vote to secure his election, and took the seat with the surprising majority of 3,100.

In the Forty-seventh Congress he was a member of the Committee on Banking, and leaped at once into prominence as a financial legislator. He also during his first term made notable speeches on the reduction of taxes, the Chinese question and the River and Harbor bill. At the Democratic State Convention in 1382 General Slocum and Roswell P. Flower each received 134 votes for the gubernatorial nomination, and Grover Cleveland 61. But at this time it was thought better to nominate a man outside of New York city, and he withdrew in favor of Cleveland. In the same year he refused a renomination for Congress, although offered the unanimous support of both factions of the party, and in addition being assured that should he consent to run the Republicans would make no nomination. Orlando P. Potter, who was nominated and elected in his place, received Mr. Flower’s hearty support. In 1885 he declined the nomination for the lieutenant-governorship, and the honor fell to “Jones of Binghamton.” In 1882 he was made chairman of the Democratic Congressional Committee, and his management resulted in a majority of fifty in the House. In the presidential campaign of 1888 he was one of the four delegates at large, and in this same year, for purely unselfish and almost self-sacrificing motives, accepted the nomination for Congress from the Twelfth district. In the Fifty first Congress he was a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means and also a member of the committee on the World’s Fair. Mr. Flower’s efforts to keep the fair in New York State will not be readily forgotten. As a legislator he was a success, primarily because he made it his business to master the details of the subject in hand. He often created surprise in the committee rooms through the remarkable knowledge which he possessed of the different sections of the country. His speech on the irrigation question attracted wide attention, as did the original and thoughtful position which he took on many of the important legislative problems of the times. In 1890 he was chosen to act as chairman of the Congressional Campaign Committee, and no student of politics who recollects the outcome of this campaign and the lines on which it was conducted, fails to give credit for this triumph, largely attained by his shrewd and capable management.

In 1891 the party which he had so faithfully served from early manhood honored him with the gubernatorial nomination, and he was elected to the highest office within the gift of the people of the Empire State, obtaining a plurality over J. Sloat Fassett of 47,937 votes. In the memorable campaign of 1896 he followed his convictions by taking a firm stand with the Gold Democrats.

In this brief synopsis of the life of Mr. Flower we can not presume to adequately write of his well known philanthropy. A gift which must appeal strongly to all was the St. Thomas House in New York city, for which he donated $50,000. The building contains rooms occupied by American, German and Chinese Sunday Schools, a diet kitchen, institution for the instruction of young girls in sewing and mending, a library and a boys’ club room. A slab of marble reads: “Erected to God by Roswell P. Flower and Sarah M. Flower, in memory of their son, Henry Keep Flower.” Other notable gifts are the Memorial Presbyterian Church at his boyhood home, the Flower Hospital in New York city, and the Trinity Church in Watertown (associated with his brother, Anson R. Flower). Mr. Flower has made his life a blessing to many, for he is a man of the noblest emotions. No one will ever be able to enumerate his private charities, and although he has always been an exacting business man and a strong partisan, his personal popularity is great. Even in his youth his character was strongly developed, and those who knew him then call to mind many instances which prove that he must have been a manly boy. He came of good Puritan stock, the family having settled near Hartford, Conn., in 1696.

Our County and it's people
A descriptive work on Jefferson County, New York
Edited by: Edgar C. Emerson
The Boston History Co., Publishers 1898

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