James Oakley Davidson.A pioneer family in any community is of more or less historic interest, no matter if its tenure of residence be of long or short duration. But when a family is not only one among the first to settle in a community, but also continues to reside in it for decade after decade, and generation after generation, and certain of its members at all times are leaders in every movement intended to conserve the community's welfare and promote its progress, then that family becomes of special historic interest and prominence.
One of the most prominent families of southern Kansas, and, indeed, of the whole state, is the Davidson family of Wichita, established there, in 1872, by the late Stephen Lock Davidson, who had come to the Sunflower State from the State of New York, and not only became one of the early settlers of Wichita, but was, also, a prominent figure in her early history. Stephen Lock Davidson was born at Ackworth, N. H., Feb. 28, 1814, son of James and Jane Davidson. James Davidson was a son of John Davidson, a Revolutionary soldier, who was severely wounded in the battle of Bunker Hill, and whose father, William Davidson, emigrated from the north of Ireland to New England, in 1720, and became the founder of the family in America. Originally the Davidson family lived in Scotland, and it is, therefore, of Scotch descent. Being a part of the Scottish Clan of Dhai, it possessed a coat-of-arms and belonged to the nobility. When Oliver Cromwell undertook to solve the Irish question by sending a number of sturdy Scotchmen to the north of Ireland, certain members of the Davidson family were among those chosen for the mission, and this is how the family became established in the north of Ireland. It will thus be seen that the Davidson family is not only of good, patriotic Scotch stock, across the water, but that it is, also, of patriotic American descent, on this side; since it was represented in the great struggle for American independence, and, consequently, has in it some of the best blood of which the American nation can boast. Stephen Lock Davidson removed with his parents from New Hampshire to the State of New York, when six years old, the trip being made with an ox team. In 1872 he made a business trip to the State of Kansas. Becoming favorably impressed with the Sunflower State, which had then only fairly begun its wonderful career of industrial development, he decided to bring his family thither and make it his future home. He resided during the rest of his life in Wichita. He was a man of large means, devoted his attention largely to the business of loaning money, and was the founder of the S. L. Davidson Mortgage Company, organized in 1885, a concern which was established on a sound, conservative, business basis, and became one of the strongest and best known financial institutions in Wichita. The S. L. Davidson Mortgage Company soon built up a large and lucrative business and became so thoroughly entrenched in a business way as to be able to "weather all the storms" which have beset the financial world during the past quarter of a century; and it is one of a very few similar concerns, doing business in Kansas, that has been able so to survive. Whether in the midst of crop failure or panic, the company has steadfastly maintained a permanency, and it has thus proved itself to be a boon and a God-send to the agricultural development of both Kansas and Oklahoma. Stephen Lock Davidson was twice married, his first wife being Jane Lancaster. Upon her death he married Susan Rhoda Hampton. Four children of the second marriage survive: James Oakley Davidson, whose career this present sketch is mainly designed to trace; Mrs. A. H. Gossard, of Kansas City, Mo.; Hon. Charles Lock Davidson, the present mayor of Wichita (see sketch); and Mrs. Berdine Woolard, of Wichita.
James Oakley Davidson, who is now one of Wichita's most honored and substantial citizens, was born in the town of Cuba, Allegany county, New York, March 4, 1850, the eldest son of Stephen Lock Davidson, by his second wife, Susan Rhoda Hampton. It is a pleasure to write the history of a man when he who undertakes the task has at his command an abundance of good materialmaterial whose quality and quantity are such as to make the task difficult only to the extent of being able to condense in a limited space a small part of the very best of it. Such is a writer's sole trouble when he undertakes to enumerate and describe fully the traits of character, good deeds, and splendid achievements of a man like James Oakley Davidson, and to condense the whole within the limits of a few pages. James Oakley Davidson's long residence in his adopted city, and his leadership in its affairs, entitle him to the honor of being Wichita's first citizennot politically, for he is not a politician and never held office in his life; but in all those other and more essential respects which have given to the city the very bone and sinew of its life. Reared to early manhood in his native New York county, he came to Wichita with the family in 1872, and with the exception of a period of five years, back in the '90s, during which he lived in Chicago, Wichita has been his home ever since. Residing here fully thirty-five years, and even during the brief period of his absence having large interests here, he has carved his name on the city's industrial and financial history to an extent wholly incomparable to that of any other man.
In his early young manhood Mr. Davidson was engaged in the mortgage loan business, and it may be said of him that he was not only one among the pioneers in that business in Kansas, but also was one of the most prominent and highly successful mortgage-loan men in the state. Starting in the business as the partner of his father, he later embarked in it on his own account by organizing the Davidson Loan Company, with a paid-up capital of $100,000. He loaned Eastern money to the agriculturalists of the state, and, in order to convey some idea of the extent of his business, it may be said that during the timehe was engaged in this business he was the means of placing fully $15,000,000 on Kansas real estate. It was in that period when Kansas farmers were compelled to borrow in order to save themselves, and to enable them to pave the way for the present commanding position the commonwealth now occupies in the great sisterhood of American states. It was the most crucial period in the state's history. Its tillers of the soil had millions of acres of as fertile lands as the sun ever shone on, and also had a quality of industry never surpassed by that of any other people, but a long succession of crop failures, due to the ravishes of the chinch-bug, the grasshopper, and to droughts, to be followed by a long period of extremely low prices, brought them to a condition of want seldom equalled in the history of the world. But for the millions of dollars of outside capital that was poured into the state, the farming class would simply have been compelled to abandon the great Kansas prairies and allow them once more to become the habitat of the Indian and the buffalo. But confidence in the ultimate triumph of agriculture in the state was never shaken. Millions upon millions of Eastern capital were rushed thither to the rescue. The result was that the state was saved. The chinch-bug and the grasshopper became practically an unknown quantity, the drought periods became less frequent. The prices of her farm products steadily advanced, and today the Kansas farmers form collectively, one of the most prosperous and indqpendent agricultural classes in the world. In that day they were borrowers; today they are lenders. In that day their perambulations were carried on either afoot, astride a broncho, or in a big wagon drawn by oxen, mules or inferior horses; today they move about, either in carriagees drawn by blooded animals, or in palace motor cars. In his capacity of loan agent Mr. Davidson, therefore, became an instrumentality for good in the preservation and development of Kansas, the full effect of which it is beyond the power of any human mind to calculate. However, he lays no claim to philanthropy. He was engaged in a strictly legitimate, private enterprise, and he pursued it, primarily, for the purpose of laying the foundation of his own personal fortune, just as millions of other men, possessed of thrift and business sagacity, have done. He succeeded admirably; interest rates were high; his commissions were princely, and thus was established the nucleus of a private estate which is now one of the largest in Kansas; and today he possesses a distinction enjoyed by few Kansans, that of being classed among the millionaires. The mortgage-loan business received his attention for a number of years. He was also, during this period, prominently identified with the banking business. In June, 1882, he organized the Citizens' State Bank, of Wichita, and served as its president fourteen years. In 1896 he purchased a controlling interest in the Kansas National Bank, and about the same time consolidated these two banks into one, the new institution retaining the name of the Kansas National Bank. Of this consolidated bank he served as president until 1901, when he sold his interest in it and retired from the active banking business. Meanwhile, he had acquired large interests outside the banking indutry. He became one of the pioneers, as well as one of the chief promoters, of the natural gas industry in the State of Kansas. Mr. Davidson has done much to carve his name on the history of Wichita. He built the Kansas National Bank building, in 1882; he furnished the money to build the first street railway in Wichita; he laid out Riverside, which is today one of Wichita's most fashionable suburbs, and in it he built, of stone and slate, at a cost of $105,000, the finest residence that has ever been erected in the state. It served as his private home for several years, or until his removal to Chicago, when he finally sold it. He built the electric sreet railway in Wichitathe line to Riversidewhich was the first electric line built and operated successfully in the Western states, and he has the honor of introducing the first vestibuled street cars in this part of the country. For many years he was president of the Wichita street railway. He promoted the deal which resulted in bringing natural gas to Wichita; was one of the men who established the Union Stock Yards in the city, and was president of the same for twenty years. He has also, throughout his entire career, been active in securing the building of railroads to and through Wichita and the building of factories there. When the Burton Stock Car Company was looking for a location, he induced it to locate on land about four miles north of Wichita, by giving the company seventy acres of ground and assuming responsibility for a bonus of $200,000. The Board of Trade and people of Wichita became responsible for the payment of $50,000 of this sum, and substantially paid that amount. The remaining $150,000 was paid by Mr. Davidson. At one time the car company employed between 500 and 600 workmen and had a little city of 250 homes. Later, however, on account of the inconvenience of returning cars for repair, the plant was removed to Chicago. Mr. Davidson was a stockholder and a director in this concern.
Mr. Davidson was married, in 1876, to Miss Ida Fitch, a daughter of Joseph P. and Frances F. (Guyer) Fitch, of Eldorado, Kan. She died, in 1883, leaving a son, Frank Oakley, born in 1877, and now a prominent young business man of Wichita. He is married, his wife having been a Miss Elsie Bell, of Chicago. in 1887 the father was married to Miss Bessie Carver, of Jacksonville, Ill. Of this latter union two children have been born: Bessie Oakley is attending a young ladies' school in the East, and James Ogden is attending the Wichita public schools.
James Oakley Davidson is also just as prominent in the social and fraternal life of Wichita as in its business circles. He is a thirty-second degree Scottish Rite Mason, is a Noble of the Mystic Shrine, and an Elk. He is a member of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce; a member and director of the Wichita Commercial Club; a director of the Fourth National Bank; a director of the Kansas Gas & Electric Company; is president of the Hutchinson Gas & Fuel Company; president of the Newton Gas & Fuel Company; a director of the Union Stock Yards Company, and president of the Southern Development Company, of Coffeyville, Kan. He is a Republican in politics, and though frequently importuned by his friends to do such, has never been a candidate for office. He is possessed of the spirit of his patriotic ancestors and is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution.
The name of James Oakley Davidson has been so indelibly carved on the early history of the city of Wichita that not even time can efface it. A man of large heart, kindly way, and quiet demeanor, he is a splendid type of those plain, unassuming, cool-headed, successful, Scotch-bred citizens, which form so potent and so integral a part in the personnel and make-up of the American nation. Preëminently Wichita's most estimable citizen, his name deserves to be written in letters of gold in the annals of both his city and his state.Pages 208-212 from volume III, part 1 of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed December 2002 by Carolyn Ward. This volume is identified at the Kansas State Historical Society as microfilm LM195. It is a two-part volume 3.
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