March 7, 2004

John Southworth

George Goodrich's Centennial History of Dryden includes a number of biographical portraits of people Goodrich deemed especially important. The name of one of his subjects, John Southworth, is still remembered through both a library and a road in the southeast of Dryden. Goodrich makes plain his importance, but also paints a portrait of a remarkably cantankerous and determined businessman.

Chapter XLVII.

John Southworth

The subject of this chapter impressed those who personally knew him as a man of no ordinary ability. His long life, extending throughout a large portion of our Century Period, during which he accumulated a princely fortune, had a marked influence in the town of Dryden. He was born at Salisbury, Herkimer county, N.Y., September 26, 1796, and died in Dryden, December 2, 1877. His ancestors were from Massachusetts, and his father, Thomas, in August 1806, came to Dryden with his family, which included John, then a lad ten years of age.

Thomas, who was a tanner and currier by trade, and a man of moderate means but of exemplary character and habits, first located in Dryden upon a farm of eighty acres which he purchased at Willow Glen. Afterwards he lived with his son at Dryden village, where he died in July, 1863, 91 years of age.

Soon after coming to Willow Glen, young John was sent off some distance with his father's team, which he took the liberty of trading for another. The exchange, like most of his dealings in after life, proved a fortunate one, but his father was greatly displeased that his son should have taken such unauthorized liberties with his property, and reproved him severely, predicting certain disaster as the result of such precocious tendencies. When John was twenty years of age, he married Nancy, a daughter of Judge Ellis, and purchased fifty acres of land adjoining the farm of his father. He was then obliged to borrow the money in order to pay for a pair of steers with which to do the team work on his farm. After a few years he sold out his first purchase of land and bought the farm in Dryden village which afterward became his homestead. In these early years he developed a remarkably quick and accurate judgment as to the value of property, which followed him through life and enabled him to acquire a fortune, while others, with the same surroundings and with more toil, barely made a living. In a dozen years from the time of his start in business for himself, he was worth as many thousands of dollars.

His first wife died March 16, 1830, while he was living in the house where Will Mespell now resides, on East Main Street in Dryden village. By her he had five children, viz: Rhoda Charlotte, who died December 14, 1847, having become the first wife of John McGraw and the mother of Jennie McGraw-Fiske; Sarah Ann, who became successively the widow of Thomas McGraw; Henry Beach; and Dr. D> C. White, and who is still living at an advanced age in New York city; John Ellis, who became a successful man in business, but who died in early manhood in New York city without issue; Nancy Amelia, the second wife of John McGraw; and Thomas G., who married Malvina Freeland and still lives at Rochelle, Ill. John Willis and his children are the only descendants of Thomas G., and the only living descendants of John Southworth by his first wife.

In 1831 he married Betsey Jagger, by whom he had five children, viz: Betsey Fidelia, who died in youth; Rowena, who became the wife of Hiram W. Sears, and the mother of John Sears, formerly district attorney of Tioga county, N. Y. now a lawyer of Denver, Colorado, and died October 9, 1866; Charles G., who died unmarried in 1872; William H. Harrison, who married Ella Ward and died in 1885, leaving a family of three children; and Albert, who married Diantha Bissell, and died in 1886, leaving a family of three children.

In November, 1833, Mr. Southworth engaged in the mercantile business with Thomas McGraw, afterwards his son-in-law. In 1836 he built the original brick store on the corner of South and West Main streets and in the same year his brick house on North street. He early experienced some business misfortunes, but his dealings were on the whole very successful. The purchase of a large tract of pine lands in Allegany county in partnership with his son Ellis and his son-in-law, John McGraw, was one of his most successful investments. The bulk of his wealth, however, was not made in large transactions, but in the careful, constant, shrewd management of small affairs, out of which his genius derived profits when others would have failed.

To the writer, who had some personal intercourse with him in his declining years, John Southworth was a very interesting character. Having no business education except that acquired from common experience and observation, and no schooling except of the most rudimentary kind, he would express himself clearly in unpolished but forcible and terse language, and would write out with his own hand a contract which, for precision and completeness, few lawyers could equal. Of a genial and social nature, he could tell a good story as well as make a good bargain. He was kind-hearted as well as penurious and one of the anecdotes of his career so fully and correctly illustrates the combination of these somewhat conflicting qualities that we feel compelled to insert it here, as follows: In his dealings with a shiftless, unfortunate man who lived in the South Hill neighborhood, he took a mortgage on the poor man's only cow to secure the payment of what was due him, which was about equal to the value of the animal. Receiving no payments, he came to the conclusion that the only way in which he could collect what was justly due him was to take the cow on the mortgage. Convinced of this, he started out one morning with a boy to assist in bringing home his property. Arriving where the man lived and finding the cow in the door-yard, he directed the boy to let her out into the road while he went into the house and made known with his business. The man did not appear, but his wife came to the door with her little children following and clinging around her. She said to Mr. Southworth that her husband was away and that the cow was all that she had left with which to feed her little ones. Bursting into tears she continued, saying that if the cow was taken from her she should die in despair. Mr. Southworth stood at the door listening to her statement, while the children cried in sympathy with their mother, until he, too, commenced to weep. The boy, who was driving out the cow as directed, seeing the situation, hesitated, suspecting that feelings of sympathy would overcome Mr. Southworth's first intentions; but he was mistaken, for, observing the delay in carrying out his instructions, Mr. Southworth dashed the tears from his eyes and, calling to the boy in a severe tone, he said: "Why in h--l don't you drive along that cow?" The firm determination to have what belonged to him overcame his sympathetic impulses, which were also strong. The cow was legally and equitably his property and, as he considered it, he paid in large taxes his full share toward the support of the poor.

While Mr. Southworth never held any public office, his time being fully taken up in his many business interests, to all of which he gave his own personal attention, he was not insensible to his public duties as a private citizen. When volunteers were being called for during the dark hours of the War of the Rebellion, he contributed at one of the war meetings five hundred dollars for the aid of the families of those who should go to the front. When the question of building a railroad, which resulted in securing to Dryden the Southern Central branch of the Lehigh Valley, was being agitated, and other more narrow-minded property holders refused their aid, he was a liberal contributor to its stock, which was then of very doubtful value and afterwards of none at all.

While he was not known as a religious man, and, in his forcible use of language, was quite often profane, the church people of the village did not apply in vain for his assistance in their financial affairs. He was at one time pursuaded to attend one of the meetings of the M. E. church society, the object of which was to raise funds with which to enlarge and repair their church edifice. Bishop Peck, who, in his youth, was one of the first M. E. clergymen located at Dryden, and with whom Mr. Southworth had thus formed an old friendship, was present at this special meeting to raise funds for the church. After Mr. Southworth had consented to subscribe one hundred dollars, the bishop, minister, and church members endeavored to obtain smaller contributions from those of less ability. In this effort Mr. Southworth readily joined, finally offering to contribute fifty dollars more if John Perrigo and another man would sign for twenty-five dollars each, which would thus add another one hundred dollars to the fund. When the others hesitated, Mr. Southworth, in his earnestness to carry out the scheme and unmindful of the company he was in, said: "Why, d-mn it to h--l, Perrigo, you can do that much." It is needless to say that the bishop and church members who surrounded him did not severely rebuke him for his strong language upon that occasion.

While Mr. Southworth was a man of strong will, which would bear no contradiction, he was not altogether heartless or unreasonable, and he always manifested a disposition to help those who were inclined to strive to help themselves. Unmerciful to those who were unfaithful to their agreements with him, there was no limit to the confidence which he placed in those by whom he thought confidence was merited. While extremely simple and economical in his personal habits, his hospitality was unbounded. His faults were for the most part on the surface, and of his better qualities he made no display. Notwithstanding the rapid decline in the value of his real estate shortly before his death, his accumulated property inventories nearly a million.

Goodrich, George B. The Centennial History of the Town of Dryden, 1797-1897. Dryden: Dryden Herald Steam Printing House, 1898. Reprinted 1993 by the Dryden Historical Society. Pages 208-12.

(The Dryden Historical Society, which sells this book, may be reached at 607-844-9209.)

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