John Watson Wilbur (1839-1926)

Advertisement for J. W. Wilbur’s stove and tin goods store, which was located on Mechanics Street (now East Herrick Avenue), Wellington, Ohio. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 4-20-1876, pg. 4. Photo by author.

In 1839, in a small town on the outskirts of Toronto, Canada, a child was born who would spend most of his adulthood in Wellington. His name was John Watson Wilbur, and his birth came only seven months before–and only twenty miles distant from–that of his future Ohio business partner, Noah Huckins.

The two men had remarkably similar life experiences. Both were born in Canada West in 1839 and emigrated to the United States, where they spent the remainder of their lives. Both attended college but neither graduated. Each went on to become a teacher before buying into a hardware business. Both served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and came home to Ohio to marry immediately after. Both were engaged in a number of successful business partnerships over the course of their careers, and did quite well financially. Each was elected to public office, first as mayor of Wellington, then later as township clerk. Republican in politics, Congregational in religious affiliation, they even had the same number of children–three–though Huckins lost one in infancy.

John Watson and Ann Elizabeth Collins Wilbur married in 1865, the year these images were taken. Private collection.

John Watson and Ann Elizabeth Collins Wilbur married in 1865, the year these images were taken. Private collection.

Wilbur was born to a Canadian mother and a father from New York, who moved the family back to the United States within two years of John’s birth. By 1841, his parents were farming a property in Huntington Township, and stayed there for thirty years before retiring to Wellington in the 1870s. John worked on the farm until he turned eighteen, when he moved to Oberlin to attend the college there. He stayed only seven months, then became a teacher. When war erupted in 1861, he enlisted in the army and served for three years. “He entered the service as a private, and was mustered out as second lieutenant of his company; when he arrived at home he weighed but ninety pounds” (Commemorative Biographical Record, pg. 766). After the war he only stayed in Huntington a few months before moving to Wellington to enter into the hardware business with his uncle, Josiah Bickford (J. B.) Lang.

Lang was also the Wellington correspondent for the Lorain County News, published in Oberlin. In 1865, an advertisement in that paper announced, “NEW FIRM! J. B. LANG, (Late of Huntington,) Would respectfully tender his thanks to his friends and customers, for their patronage in times past, and would take this method to inform them that he has associated with him, as a business partner, J. W. WILBUR, and have [sic] purchased the large and commodious building formerly occupied as a Flour Store, two doors North of E. Benedict’s Hardware Store, in W E L L I N G T O N , Where they intend to keep on hand a good assortment of STOVES AND TIN WARE And every thing usually kept in such an establishment, and will always be prepared to do any kind of Job Work in their line, either in the Town or Country, and will use their best endeavors to give satisfaction to all who may favor them with a call. WANTED IN EXCHANGE FOR WORK: Wrought and Cast Scrap Iron, Old Copper, Brass, Pewter, Lead, Rags, Beeswax &c., &c. LANG AND WILBUR. Wellingon, March 1, ’65” (10-11-1865, pg. 3). Probably because of Lang’s connection to the newspaper, when the first telegraph line between Wellington and Oberlin was erected in 1866, the receiving office was opened inside Lang & Wilbur’s shop (10-3-1866, pg. 3).

That same year after his discharge from the army, John married Ann Elizabeth Collins (1840-1917). The couple eventually had three children: Mabel, Carl, and youngest son, Rollin, who was the only member of the family to remain in Wellington and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Detail of a full-page, illustrated advertisement for Huckins & Wilbur. "The Wellington Enterprise," 5-22-1873, pg. 4. Photo by author.

Detail of a full-page, illustrated advertisement for Huckins & Wilbur. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 5-22-1873, pg. 4. Photo by author.

In 1868, Wilbur left business with his uncle and bought in as the junior partner in the new firm of Huckins & Wilbur. Noah Huckins had only been in the hardware line himself for a year; his former senior partner, Orrin Sage (1830-1874), retired due to ill health just months after Huckins joined his firm. Huckins and Wilbur bought the already-established storefront on Mechanics Street (now 109 East Herrick Avenue) and spent seven years working together. I was able to locate early credit reports for the company and they repeatedly express variations on the sentiment that the partners were “industrious intelligent honest & almost sure to succeed.” The reports estimate that the store was initially worth about $6,000, mainly in real estate; seven years later, that figure had risen to over $10,000. The men did well enough to hire additional staff, as indicated by an 1873 notice in The Wellington Enterprise that a former employee of Huckins & Wilbur had drowned in Medina County (6-19-1873, pg. 3).

Undated image of Mechanics Street, now known as East Herrick Avenue. John Wilbur's hardware store is the second building from the left. In 1879, "The Wellington Enterprise" noted, "J. W. Wilbur has a new sign which eclipses anything of the kind in town" (5-22-1879, pg. 3). Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, "The Spirit of '76" Museum.

Undated image of Mechanics Street, now known as East Herrick Avenue. John Wilbur’s hardware store is the second building from the left. In 1879, “The Wellington Enterprise” noted, “J. W. Wilbur has a new sign which eclipses anything of the kind in town” (5-22-1879, pg. 3). Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

I have not been able to find any indication of a prior connection between Huckins and Wilbur, or their families. Wilbur emigrated from Canada as a small child, but was periodically recorded in the newspaper visiting friends and family in that country while he lived in Ohio. I wonder if these two young men talked about their backgrounds while they worked side-by-side, and if they were conscious of how many things they had in common.

Huckins dissolved the partnership in 1875 to start his own firm, N. Huckins & Co., a cheese box manufacturing facility that existed mainly to provide support services to Horr, Warner & Co. Wilbur remained in the same shop on Mechanics Street for two more decades; he owned the building until at least the end of the century. In May 1890, he brought E. P. Collins in to to form Wilbur & Collins. Son Rollin bought out the entire operation at the end of 1893 and renamed it R. A. Wilbur & Co. (Enterprise, 11-15-1893, pg. 5).

Over the course of his career, John Wilbur was regularly included in the Enterprise feature, “Business Interests of Wellington. Our Dealers and What They are Doing.” His June 1876 profile began, “This large Stove and Tin store is one of the oldest and best known firms in Wellington, and the proprietor a thorough business man, keeps his establishment well stocked with first-class goods” (6-15-1876, pg. 3). He not only sold but also manufactured items in-house; in 1880, for example, he won the contract to supply all the iron work for the new Horr, Warner & Co. ice house (11-25-1880, pg. 3). I previously featured a notice about his installation of new street lamps on the corners of the main intersection in the town.

Ann Elizabeth and John Watson Wilbur in images taken in 1915, the year of their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Private collection.

Ann Elizabeth and John Watson Wilbur in images taken in 1915, the year of their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Private collection.

Two of the Wilburs’ three children relocated to California as adults. In March 1895, the Wilburs left Wellington and followed them to the west coast. John Watson Wilbur died in 1926, nine years after his wife. He was eighty-six years old. The couple is buried with their daughter, Mabel, at Saint Mary Cemetery in Oakland. While I have been unable to locate any business or personal papers for most of the individuals I have been researching, I did discover that ephemera including “invoices, checks, correspondence, and railroad shipping receipts” from Wilbur’s hardware business, dating from 1869 to 1894, are now held in the special collections department at Winterthur, America’s preeminent early American decorative arts museum.

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