Bicentennial Biographies No. 61 – 65

A collection of bicentennial biographies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. featuring Henry Rouse (Westfield), Francis Brewer (Westfield), Bainbridge Colby (Bemus Point), Oliver Smith (Jamestown) and Simeon Clinton (Arkwright). Originally airing on local radio stations April 4 – April 8, 2011.

No. 61 – Henry Rouse

Henry Rouse

Henry R. Rouse was born in the village of Westfield on October 9, 1823. He was educated in both Westfield and Jamestown, including the Westfield Academy. At about the age of 15, Rouse started to “read law” in the office of Abram Dixon, a widely known attorney who later was a member of the New York State Senate.

Rouse developed a talent as a public speaker and Dr. Samuel S. Seward, father of William Seward – the U.S. Secretary of State who successfully negotiated the purchase of Alaska – heard Rouse speak once at Westfield and was so amazed at his ability that he donated a sum of money towards his education.

It’s said that one day Rouse decided to leave Westfield, heading south to Pennsylvania with only a dollar in his pocket. By the winter of 1840, Rouse had settled in Tidioute, Pa. and served as the village school master. With his earnings as a school master, Rouse was able to purchase an interest in a small sawmill. By 1844 he had left his work as a teacher and opened a general store at Enterprise, Pa. In less than 15 years he found himself the owner of a large farm, several sawmills and a thousand acres of pine timber.

Rouse was known throughout the region for his unmatched kindness toward others, especially children, and his square business dealings. He was eventually urged to run for the Pennsylvania legislature. In 1858 he was elected by the Republicans to represent Crawford and Warren counties in Harrisburg.

In 1859, the first commercial oil well was successfully drilled in Titusville, and Rouse at once appreciated some of the potential of crude petroleum and he was astute enough to move promptly to benefit from his opinion. Evidence indicates that Rouse partnered with two other businessmen and started to drill a well in Titusville Pa., which would become the second successful commercial oil well in the world.

On the evening of April 17, 1861, Henry Rouse was called to the location of one of his wells after it made a major oil strike, with oil gushing as high as 60 feet above the derrick. Rouse was standing just 20 feet from the structure when an explosion took place and the entire area went aflame. Rouse was pulled from the inferno, but was so badly burned that he died within five hours. Still, he was able to dictate his will to his close friend and manager, giving the entire balance of his estate to the Commissioners of Warren County, half to be used for the benefit of the poor and half for improving the roads. The total sum realized was just over $186,000.

Today, the Rouse Home remains a showpiece of Warren County, serving as a nursing facility. A children’s center also remains in operation. Consistent to its mission, the Rouse Estate continually seeks to understand and serve the needs of Warren County, its people and its economic development.

Ref: The History of Henry Rouse

Additional Reading: The First Oil Well Fire

No. 62 – Francis Brewer

Dr. Francis Brewer

Francis Brewer was born Oct. 8, 1820 in Keene, New Hampshire. He was raised and educated in Vermont and New Hampshire, graduating from Dartmouth College in 1843 and from the medical department of the same institution in 1846.

From 1849 to 1861, Brewer practiced medicine in several locations including Barnet, Vermont, Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Titusville, Pennsylvania. He was also involved as an oil operator and lumberman while in the Titusville, Pa.

In 1861 Brewer moved to Westfield and engaged in banking, manufacturing, and agricultural pursuits. He was a state military agent with the rank of major during the Civil War. Following the war, he served as member of the board of supervisors of Chautauqua County from 1868 to 1879. In 1872 he served as delegate to the Republican National Convention and as a member of the New York State Assembly in 1873 and 1874.

He was the government director of the Union Pacific Railroad for four years under Presidents Grant and Hayes. In 1881, Brewer was appointed manager of the state insane asylum in Buffalo. He was elected to the 48th Congress, serving one term but was not a candidate for reelection in 1884.

Following public office, he resumed the practice of medicine in Westfield and died July 29, 1892. He was interred in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

Ref: Wikipedia – Francis Brewer

No. 63 – Bainbridge Colby

Bainbridge Colby

Bainbridge Colby didn’t become a resident of Chautauqua County until leaving public life. But because of his accomplishments, and the fact that his final resting place is in Bemus Point, it was felt that we include Colby in this series.

Colby was born on Dec. 22, 1869, in St. Louis. He went to local schools before graduating from Williams College in 1890. He then earned a law degree from the New York Law School in 1892, the same year he was admitted to the bar and opened a New York City law practice. Among his clients was author Mark Twain.

Colby was involved in Republican politics, but in 1912 he walked out of the Republican national convention to support Theodore Roosevelt’s bid for the presidency under the banner of the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. Colby himself ran as a Progressive candidate for a U.S. Senate seat from New York but was defeated in both 1914 and 1916.

Following American entrance into the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Colby to the U.S. Shipping Board. In 1917, Wilson named him to serve as U.S. delegate to the Inter-allied conference to promote cooperation between the Allies. In 1920, he took over as Wilson’s Secretary of State.

Following the end of the Wilson administration in 1921, Colby formed a Washington, D.C., law practice with former President Wilson until he founded his own practice. He remained there until retirement in 1936. It was while in Washington D.C. that Colby married Ann Ahlstrand, who had family in Chautauqua County. Upon retirement, Colby moved to Bemus Point and lived there until his death on April 11, 1950.

Ref: Wikipedia – Bainbridge Colby; Loraine C. Smith, Town of Ellery Historian, 2002-06

No. 64 – Oliver Smith

A 1960s photo of the Smith Bly House in Ashville, NY (Photo by Jack Boucher)

Oilver Smith was born in 1806 near Utica, NY, the first of seven children. At the age of ten, he moved with his parents to be among the first settlers of Busti. His father was the community’s first commissioner of schools and was an important organizer in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. His younger brother, Harvey Smith, was both a lawyer and an active abolitionist who started many newspapers in the state.

Oliver and three of his brothers were all in the building trades. Ransom Smith was a carpenter-joiner and inherited the family farm in Busti. The youngest brother, Jewett Smith, followed a path similar to Ransom’s. Sheldon, learned architecture from Oliver and set up schools in Ohio, eventually becoming an important architect in Detroit.

Even though he was the traditional heir to the family farm, Oliver turned his energy toward building houses in Jamestown. He also advertised in the local newspapers to promote classes in architectural theory and drawing. In 1843, his published lecture demonstrated detailed knowledge of classical architecture and described steps to becoming an architect, although how he himself was educated is unclear.

Oliver remained a builder in the Jamestown area for about two-dozen years, utilizing Greek-revival and neo-classical designs. Among his works were the Smith-Bly House in Ashville and the Allen Tavern, William Hall Mansion, Nathan Breed Mansion and Arthur Wade House – all in Jamestown. William Hall – one of Jamestown’s first industrialists – went so far as to describe the Allen Tavern as the best building in the county.

Later in his career, Smith moved to Buffalo and continued to make a name for himself building homes in the Queen city. Examples of Oliver Smith’s work can still be found today in communities like Ashville, Sinclairville and Panama. He is considered one of the foremost domestic architects of the 19th century.

Ref: American Architects and their Books, 1840-1915

No. 65 – Simeon Clinton

Simeon Clinton was born in Ballston, N.Y. on February 13, 1779. In early life he moved to Fly Creek, N.Y., where he remained about fifteen years.

In 1813 at the age of 34, he journeyed to Buffalo and then traveled along the shores of Lake Erie until he nearly reached the present site of Dunkirk. From there he headed south until he found land in the town of Gerry that he though desirable. He secured purchase of the land and then returned to Fly Creek to get his wife and three children and started with his ox-team back to Chautauqua County.

After many hardships – including witnessing the burning of Buffalo during the War of 1812 – Clinton and his family arrived at their Gerry home. He remained there only a short time, for the creek overflowed and came near carrying away his dwelling. Selling his land in Gerry, Clinton then purchased a new farm at the center of the present site of the town of Arkwright.

Clinton, an honest and educated man, took great interest in public affairs and was instrumental in forming the township of Arkwright. He was the first postmaster, and held that office for twenty years. The first town meeting was held at his house, May 2, 1830. At different times he also held the office of justice of the peace, superintendent of schools, town clerk and commissioner of deeds. He made the first survey of the plot of Dunkirk. He also surveyed the present site of Sinclairville, and with the help of William Peacock, laid out the Chautauqua road.

A short time before his death he was talking to a neighbor, when a fly landed on his hand, which he killed with the other. “There,” said he, “when I pass from time to eternity, I wish to go just as quick as that.”

It seems that his request was granted. On April 29, 1858, Clinton was standing in his barn door when he was struck by lightning and instantly killed. He was 79 years old.

Ref: History of Chautauqua County, NY and its People – Arkwright

Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit or contact your local historical society.

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