DAVID J. POWERS

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 63-65

DAVID JOHNSON POWERS, among the foremost and most active pioneers of the Northwest, was born at Westminister, Vermont, June 3, 1814.   His lineage is traced from a Norman named Poore, who came into England with William the Conqueror.  Through gradual changes and modifications the name has assumed its present form, in which it came to America very early in the history of the Colonies.  His grandfather, Josiah Powers, as well as the father of his mother (Esther Johnson), bore a part in the struggle for American independence.

Nathaniel Powers, father of David, was a farmer in Westminister nearly all his life.  Both he and his good wife joined their son at Palmyra, Wisconsin, in 1846, and died there at the ages of seventy-three and seventy-two years, respectively, the wife surviving her husband about one year.  All of their twelve children grew to maturity.  The ninth of these, and the subject of this biography, is the only one now living.

He grew up in his native town, supplementing the training of the district school by one term at an academy in Chester, Vermont.   In his seventeenth year he left home, going on foot to Woodstock, Vermont, where he apprenticed himself to a machinist, under a contract for five years.  The stipulated remuneration was very small, but at the end of a year he had become so proficient and useful to his employer, that the time was reduced to four years at double the original salary, board being furnished.  When he completed his apprenticeship, at the age of twenty, he had been for some time in charge of its machine-shop, and his pay, including extras, had amounted to $460.  He accepted in part payment a note for $375, which was ultimately paid.   Being ambitious for a larger field, he went to West Poultney, Vermont, where he was made foreman of the machine department of a large stove foundry.  Late in 1836 he went to New York city, where he spent the winter in a vain search for employment.  He improved the time, however, in study and sight-seeing, and in the spring of 1837 he went to Nashua, New Hampshire.  The financial panic of that period was probably the most crushing in the history of the United States. President Jackson had upset the United States Bank, and scattered its deposits of United states funds, and thus created a great panic and wild speculation, bringing almost to a standstill all active business.  Arriving at Nashua, however, he began work in a machine-shop without compensation, as the only alternative except remaining idle.  At the end of two weeks he had demonstrated such skill and energy, that he was gladly engaged at a liberal salary, to count from the start. After remaining there a few months he was placed in charge of the machinery of a large muslin-delaine factory at Hookset, New Hampshire.

In the fall of 1838 he was seized with the Western fever, and, much against the wishes of his employers, set out on an exploring tour, arriving at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 5 of that year.  Thence he set out on foot through the country, and soon found a location which pleased him, at what is now the thrifty little city of Whitewater, Wisconsin.   Here he bought a claim, and engaged in farming for about a year and a-half.  He built the first hotel at that place, which he conducted and afterwards sold.  He was appointed Postmaster by President Van Buren, and held the office through the four years of his residence there, through the administration of W. H. Harrison and a part of that of John Tyler.

In 1842 he became the founder of the present village of Palmyra, thirty-seven miles west of Milwaukee, where he built mills and work-shops, and remained eight years.  During this time he became a director of the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad Company, and secured the location of its line through Palmyra.  He became for the time being the first Master Mechanic of this road, and sold out his interests at Palmyra and moved to Waukesha, where he lived two years.  During this time he visited the East and secured bridge and car builders, and a permanent corps of practical railroad operators.  The firm of Bean, Clinton & Powers, of which he was a member, furnished at onetime one hundred and forty thousand cross ties for this railroad, and also contracted and executed the excavations for several miles of the line through the bluffs east of Palmyra, considered quite a heavy job at that time.

In 1852 Mr. Powers returned to Palmyra, and was elected to the Lower House of the Legislature the same year, by a very large majority, taking his seat in January, 1853.  He was also a member of the special session which tried the impeachment case of Judge Hubbell.   During his term he removed to Madison, where he continued to reside fifteen years.  He occupied the first half of this period in the improvement and cultivation of a section of prairie land, then and still known as “Seventy-six Farm.”  He became the editor and proprietor of the Wisconsin Farmer, which had been established two or three years before in a small way.   He also served as Secretary of the State Agricultural Society, and by correspondence succeeded in inducing Abraham Lincoln to address the society and people of the state at the State Fair in Milwaukee in the fall of 1859.  He still treasures among his most valued possessions the autograph letters of Mr. Lincoln.

Mr. Powers became a resident of Chicago in 1868.  By unfortunate business vicissitudes he had become involved in debt to the extent of about twenty thousand dollars, and was urged by his attorney to go through bankruptcy, which he was assured could be completed for $250.  This he refused to do, as most of his creditors were justly entitled to the sums due them, and set out at the age of fifty-four years to retrieve his fortune.  He invented and set up a loom for weaving wire mattresses.  Having demonstrated the practical ability of his idea, he was enabled to organize a company with a small capital, whose first year’s business resulted in a profit of seventeen thousand dollars.  This concern was known as the Union Wire Mattress Company, of which Mr. Powers was, and still is, President.  It is among the most successful manufacturing establishments of Chicago, and is capable of turning out one thousand mattresses, and many other kinds of goods, per day.  Within a short time after the establishment of this business, the last obligation of Mr. Powers was discharged to the mutual satisfaction of himself and his creditors.

Mr. Powers was and is a natural-born machinist and inventor, and has always been making inventions in mechanical devices and machines.   He says he seldom sees a machine that cannot be improved in some respect.  He has applied for some fifty patents for his own inventions, numbers of which have proved quite valuable, and gone into permanent use.  He has also been a   prominent mechanical and scientific expert in patent litigation, having testified in that capacity in from one to two hundred litigated suits in the federal courts.  He has made a snug fortune in his later life out of his ingenuity and industry, instead of speculation in real estate or betting on the markets.

He is now, in the opening of his eighty-second year, a man of vigorous mental and physical powers, and relates many interesting reminiscences of pioneer days in the West.  For over twenty years he attended the services under the ministry of the late David Swing, which indicates the liberality of his religious principles.  His creed may be condensed in seven expressive words, “Behave well, and you will fare well.”  He was among the Whigs in his early manhood, and joined the Republican party at its inception.  His first observation of administrative affairs was in connection with the inauguration of John Quincy Adams as President, in 1825.

In the fall of 1837 Mr. Powers was married to Miss Eliza A. Harris, daughter of Capt. J. A. and Lucy (May) Harris, of Canaan, New Hampshire.  Mrs. Powers was the companion and helpmate of her husband until July 30, 1888, when she passed away, at the age of seventy years.  Two of their three children were born at Whitewater, Wisconsin, and the third at Palmyra.  Loraine Eliza, the eldest, is the wife of John H. Griffith, residing at Cleveland, Ohio.  William P. and Frank A. are residents of Chicago, the latter being active business manager of the Union Wire Mattress Company, and the former another successful inventor.

Mr. Powers is a most genial and affable gentleman of the old school, and his open-hearted, humanity-loving character is the only obstacle that has stood between him and great wealth.  Having learned many lessons by experience, he is now enjoying the fruits of his later years of activity in quiet contentment, and the story of his life is worthy the perusal of every ambitious youth of to-day, and its lessons of courage and industrious energy should be heeded by all who are desirous of success in life, and are willing to work and wait for it.  Time, patience and industry will almost always win a fair, if not a high, degree of success.

                                -- Submitted on 10/11/99 by Sherri Hessick ( slhessick@crosswinds.net )