James McEwen

James McEwen

On Ocober 31, 1912, occurred the death of James McEwen and thereby was removed from the life of the city of Postville a man greatly beloved and greatly trusted. As a financial adviser and friend he stood in the same relation to the people as does a family physician or spiritual adviser. They gave him their entire confidence and he never betrayed a trust or failed a friend, for the keynote of his character was scrupulous and conscientious honesty. He was quiet, kindly, liberal in his views, conservative in action and stanch in the support of what he believed to be right.

The story of his life is an interesting one. It began in Canada, at River Rouge, in the province of Quebec, July 25, 1830, his parents being William and Catherine (McClaren) McEwen, both of Scotch descent. The parents were of the plain people but they bequeathed to their son those good old traits of Scotch character -- thrift, industry, hardiness, honesty and enterprise.

James McEwen worked with his father in his early youth, taking advantage of the public-school courses offered in the vicinity and at the early age of sixteen engaged in teaching. In 1854 he came to the United States, spending his first year in Wisconsin working on various farms, and in 1855 came to Iowa, after which time his life was identified with the history of Winneshiek, Clayton and Allamakee counties. The next few years were spent in teaching during the winter months and in work for various people during the summer. In 1860, like many another adventurous youth, he bacame inspired with the desire to go to the west and court fortune in a search for precious metals. He spent a year prospecting in the vicinity of Pike's Peak and it was there that fortune stood at his elbow, but he knew it not. Working with meager results, he became dissatisfied and sold for five dollars a claim which in a short time made wealthy the man who bought it. What would have been Mr. McEwen's history had he worked that claim but a few days longer, no man may know, but this we do know -- that while this good fortune was withheld from him, it was still reserved for him to lead an honored, helpful and useful life and fill an important place in the history of development of Allamakee county.

Returning to Iowa, the next winter found him at Milliken's Bend, Mississippi, chopping wood, for he was not afraid of work, and teaching, for that was second nature to him. This time, however, he taught little colored children and the children of the planter which whom he lived. It was unlawful to teach the negro children in the state of Mississippin in those days, but he did it, and we believe he never regretted that he broke the law. At this time came the outbreak of the great war. It was unsafe for a northern man and an abolitionist, such as Mr. McEwen was, to remain in the south, and upon the friendly advice of the planter, he hastened to leave Mississippi, running the blockade on the last boat that came north. He returned to Iowa and resumed his former work. He was not a naturalized citizen of the United States at that time and he did not feel it his duty to enter the army. He attended Fayette College for a short time, being in the same class with Hon. D.B. Henderson, but war conditions closed the school and Mr. McEwen returned to work.

On the 17th of October, 1863, Mr. McEwen was married to Miss Maria Styles, a daughter of Timothy and Hannah (Shaw) Styles, well known pioneers of Allamakee county. They were from New York state and Mrs. McEwen was born at Whitesville, that state. At the time of her marriage to our subject the family lived at Henderson Prairie, a postoffice in Fayette county. The young people went to housekeeping on a farm, Mr. McEwen still engaging in teaching during the winter months. In 1867 they purchased a farm of one hundred and twenty acres about a mile east of Postville and here they lived and prospered, moving to the city in 1878. Mr. McEwen entered into two partnerships about this time. Under the name of Styles and McEwen he bacame interested in al drug business which was conducted at Postville for about a year, when the stock was removed to Calmar. At the same time he was also interested in a dry-goods store under the firm name of Skelton & McEwen in Postville. To this latter enterprise he gave his personal attention, succeeding well as a merchant. In 1887 several business men of Postville established the Northeastern Iowa Loan & Trust Company and Mr. McEwen succeeded to the management of this concern, which was in successful operation for about five years. At the end of this time the charter expired and the business had grown to such an extent that it was considered best to carry on its affairs through the medium of a bank, and the Citizens State Bank of Postville was accordingly organized. Mr. McEwen being made the cashier upon the establishment of the institution and serving as such to the time of his death. He gave to the bank his personal and careful attention and there was no detail connected with the business too unimportant to be solicitously considered. He became one of the foremost financial men and one of the largest factors in the life of Postville and could always be found in the front rank of those promoting the interests of the city -- material, moral or intellectual -- although he was too modest to seek political honors and too philosophical to care for their possession. However, he never shirked responsibility and, being especially interested in the cause of education, served his community faithfully and well as a member of the school board for thirty-five years, as mayor of the city, as alderman, and in many capacities, gaining him the confidence of the people. All these offices came to him unsolicited, it baing a case of the office seeking the best man available. His influence was always for good and helpful measures. He was liberal in his support of civic improvements, church and school. He was a deep reader, but not only a reader of books but also a reader of human nature and a student of life.

It was in the year 1877 that great grief came into his life, a grief which tinged all his succeeding years, although time ameliorated its cutting edge, making him a tenderer, truer, more sympathetic man than he had ever been before. It was before the discovery of antitoxin had robbed diphtheria of much of its terror that the black "scourge" fell upon the land, fifty little graves in the Postville cemetery marking the visitation of the grim destroyer and three of these marking the resting places of his beloved children: Frederick Eugene, in his fourteenth year; Bertha May, aged eight, and Omar Lee, aged five, all of whom were taken within three weeks. It was one of those staggering, unfathomable blows of fate that time may mellow but cannot cure, and only faith and hope can mitigate. Two children remained to them in the later years: Mrs. Ethel Marsh, of Chicago; and Lynn Shaw McEwen, now assistant cashier of the Citizens State Bank.

It was in the afternoon of October 31, 1912, that Mr. McEwen died. In the midst of a busy day he sat down to read and rest; a favorite magazine was in his hands, and the wife, loved companion of so may years, was close beside him, when there was a little gasp and life had flown, bringing to an end a career rich in usefullness, rich in attainments -- a life which had contributed much toward elevating the fellow spirit in humanity.

-source: Past & Present of Allamakee County; by Ellery M. Hancock; S. J. Clarke Pub. Co.; 1913; pg. 40-44
-transcribed by Sharyl Ferrall
-note: Timothy Styles = Timothy Stiles

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