Bicentennial Biographies No. 71 – 75

A collection of bicentennial biographies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. featuring Davis Hanson Waite (Jamestown), Clarissa D. Wheeler (Jamestown), John Murray Spear (Kiantone), Simeon Howes (Silver Creek) and Oliver Wilcox Norton (Sherman). Originally airing on local radio stations April 18 – April 22, 2011.

No. 71 – David Hanson Waite

Davis Hanson Waite

Davis Hanson Waite was born April 9, 1825 in Jamestown. He was the son of a lawyer, and after a course in the Jamestown Academy he took up the study of law in his father’s office. At the age of 25 he went west and eventually settled in  Princeton, Wis. and engaged in merchandising.

In 1856 Waite was elected a member of the Wisconsin legislature. In 1857 he moved to Houston, Mo., where he taught until the breaking out of the Civil War, when his strong Union sentiments forced him to leave the state. He therefore went to Warren, Pa., and later returned to Jamestown where he became interested in the publication of the Jamestown Journal. He continued in this business until 1876, when he moved to Kansas.

Waite was elected to a term in the Kansas Legislature in 1879, before eventually moving to Colorado, where he started a local newspaper in Aspen. Waite was elected Governor of Colorado in 1892 as a candidate for the Populist Party. A passionate supporter of his party’s Omaha Platform, he was nicknamed “Bloody Bridles” for an 1893 speech, in which he proclaimed, “It is better, infinitely better that blood should flow to the horses’ bridles rather than our national liberties should be destroyed.”

Waite supported the Western Federation of Miners in its successful 1894 Cripple Creek Strike and that same year the American Railroad Union during the national Pullman Strike. He was also instrumental in the passage of women’s suffrage in Colorado during his governorship. He was defeated for reelection in 1894, but continued to be active in the Populist movement until his death on Thanksgiving Day, 1901.

Ref: David Hanson Waite – Colorado.Gov; David H. Waite – Wikipedia

No. 72 – Clarissa D. Wheeler

Clarissa D. Wheeler was born about 1815 and came to the Jamestown area in the 1830s and began teaching at the Quaker School which had been established in 1833. However, just ten years later the school was closed down following a murder involving a family member of the founder of the school.

After the closing of the Quaker school, Wheeler started the Female Seminary of Jamestown in 1849.  Known as “Dame Wheeler”, she distinguished herself in drawing, painting, and intricate needlework. She taught her pupils techniques of embroidery and lovely French designs in addition to offering the usual subjects of the period for young ladies, such as penmanship, grammar, spelling, and geography.

At this time in history, a classical education was considered too rigorous for women. She died on Oct. 18, 1860 in Jamestown.

Ref: City of Jamestown Historical Marker Website – Female Seminary

No. 73 – John Murray Spear

John Murray Spear was born in the city of Boston in 1804, and was from a young age a member of the Universalist Church of America. In 1830, Spear was ordained and became minister of the Barnstable congregation. In the 1840s, Spear was active in petitioning for social reform including women’s rights, labor reform and the removal of the death penalty. Also a prominent abolitionist, Spear organized the first Universalist anti-slavery convention and helped to oversee the stretch of the Underground Railroad which ran through Boston, leading to a relationship with Harriet Tubman.

Author John Benedict Buescher's book on John Murray Spear

In 1852, Spear broke all ties with the Universalist Church, and instead turned to Spiritualism. He claimed that he was in contact with a group of spiritual consultants including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Spear believed that the purpose of this group was to bring new technology so that greater levels of personal and spiritual freedom could be achieved. In 1853 Spear and a handful of followers retreated to a wooden shed atop a hill outside of Boston where they set to work creating the ‘‘New Motive Power’’ or “God Machine” –  a mechanical Messiah which was intended to herald a new era of Utopia. At the end of nine months the contraption was “birthed.”

That same year Spear came to Chautauqua County and established a spiritualist community simply called “Harmonia.” It was located in the Town of Kiantone.  He selected the location after hearing of two magnetic springs on the New York-Pennsylvania border that boasted great healing powers, among other things.

Harmonia became his “model” community with a modest beginning. Everything about the creation of Harmonia came from his spirit advisers who urged him to begin making radical changes in government and religion. With him John Murray brought his “God Machine” hoping that the stronger magnetic properties would cause it to work as it should. Not much is known of the machine after that other than supposedly it was stored in a barn in Randolph until one day a group of locals broke in and demolished it.

The community of Harmonia continued to thrive in the area until the operation was picked up and taken south toward New Orleans. Local members stayed to run the businesses that were created out of the movement. John Murray Spear then went to England where he became acquainted with great leaders of the Spiritualist movement. In 1972, Spear claimed to receive a message from his esteemed spiritual advisors to retire from the ministry. He died in Oct. 1887 in Philadelphia.

Ref: Chautauqua Ghosts – John Murray Spear and Harmonia; John Murray Spear – Wikipedia

No. 74 – Simeon Howes

Simeon Howes was born in Massachusetts in 1815 and came to Silver Creek as a young adult. Howes beame one of Silver Creek’s most enterprising citizens after 1853. By 1856, he was a local leader in manufacturing and selling the Eureka smut and separating machines – used to clean grain.

There had been several changes among the proprietors, Howes from 1859 to 1864 was out of the business but came back on  in 1964 and became partners with the Babcock brothers, who had started a repair shop for grain cleaners. About 1888 Howes bought the interest of the company from the Babcock brothers and Carlos Ewell, who had all died, and became sole proprietor.

The first year Eureka was in business, it sold 120 machines. By 1892 more than 2,000 were being sold and it was the national leader in the manufacture of grain cleaning equipment.

Howes married Angeline Ewell and together they had seven children. He also served as mayor from 1889-1890. Howes died in 1892, and the business was carried on by his executors.

Ref: “Once Upon a Time” by Marion Thomas

No. 75 – Oliver Wilcox Norton

Oliver Wilcox Norton

Oliver Willcox Norton – known to his family and friends as O.W. – was born in Allegheny County, N.Y. on December 17, 1839. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he was the oldest of thirteen children. O.W. received his education at the Montrose Academy in Montrose, Pa. During 1857, the family moved to Chautauqua County  where O.W.’s father preached at the Open Meadows Church and O.W. finished schooling in Sherman. O.W. began to teach in the district school at Waites Corner in 1858.

By the start of the Civil War, the family had moved again, this time to Springfield, Pennsylvania, where O.W. was teaching and working on a farm. Norton was among the first to enter the Union army when the Civil War broke out. He initially joined on April 21, 1861, but it wasn’t until July of that year that he became part of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers. O.W. enlisted with Company K and became the bugler for the unit.  He sent many letters to his sister, Libby, during his service. She had married a farmer and moved to Sherman in 1862.

It was while serving with General Daniel Butterfield in March, 1862, that O.W. sounded “Taps” as directed by the General. It is believed that O.W. was the first buggler ever to play “Taps.” After the war, O.W. wrote of his wartime experiences in three books, and was instrumental in bringing the true origin of Taps to light in 1898.

Following his discharge from the army, Norton worked as a clerk for the Fourth National Bank in New York City. It was there that he met Lucy Coit Fanning and married her in October, 1870. O.W. and Lucy had five children.

In 1871 the couple moved to Chicago, Illinois, where O.W. went into business with his younger brother Edwin. This partnership eventually became the American Can Company in 1901, a very successful and profitable business venture. That same year Norton built a summer home at Chautauqua.

Among his many contributions was a financial donation to help in the building of the Minerva Free Library in Sherman, which opened in 1908. He gave money for its construction, upkeep, and renovations and also donated books from his personal collection. The library still holds the original letters he wrote to his sister during the war.

O.W. passed way on Oct 1, 1920 in Chicago at the age of 81. Following his death, his wife contributed money to build a concert hall at Chautauqua Institution. Norton Hall, dedicated to the performing arts, opened in 1929.

Ref: “Twenty-Four Notes That Tap Deep Emotions” by Jari Villanueva [PDF]

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.

View Complete List of Bicentennial Biographies and Audio

– J. Sample

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