Bio: Witter, Jeremiah D. (d. before 1923)
Contact: Ken Wood
Surnames: Witter, Longworthy, Webb, Phelps, Scott, Mead
----Source: History of Wood County, Wis. (1923) pages 294-297
Jeremiah D. Witter, philanthropist, banker, jurist, attorney, manufacturer, lumberman, capitalist and public official, was a man inseparably connected with the industrial, educational, financial and social progress of Wis. Rapids, and his life and story are inseparably interwoven in the warp and woof of Wood County history. He founded the First National Bank of Grand Rapids, organized the Bank of Centralia, owned stock in the Commercial National Bank of Appleton, and had banking interests in the Dakotas. He held shares in nearly every important business enterprise in Wis. Rapids, including the Grand Rapids Milling Co., the Johnson & Hill Co., and the Oberbeck Furniture Co. He was largely identified with the paper mills in the Wis. Valley, including those at South Centralia and Biron, and owned extensive interests in paper mills at Appleton. He also had large interests in Wis. lumber, in Texas cattle and Louisiana rice. He founded the Witter Free Traveling Libraries, he fathered the T. B. Scott Library, and he contributed liberally to the schools, the churches and to private charities. Jeremiah Delos Witter was born in Brookfield, Madison County, New York, Sept. 18, 1835, son of Josiah and Calista (Longworthy) Witter. His parents were poor and hardworking farmers. His education was that in general received in close application to the work laid before him on the farm. In 1850 he came with his parents to the town of Dakota, Waushara County, Wis. Here he again helped his father on the farm, teaching school during the winter months, and so continued until he was 18 years of age. The boy soon began to feel that his activities needed a broader field, and after spending a year in Milton College, at Milton, Wis., he left the farm and entered the law office of his brother-in-law, W. C. Webb, at Wautoma, Wis. In May, 1859, he came to Grand Rapids to be admitted to the bar, but returned again the same year to Wautoma. In 1860 Mr. Witter was married at Friendship, N. Y., to Emily L. Phelps, who was born at Ceres, Penn., daughter of Isaac and Laura E. (Rew) Phelps, and who had moved with her parents to Friendship. She attended the Alfred University at Alfred, N. Y.
It was in December, 1860, the year of his marriage, that Mr. Witter came to make Grand Rapids, now Wis. Rapids, his permanent home. He practiced law eight years in partnership with Judge C. M. Webb. He served the people successfully both as district attorney and as county judge. His extremely logical mind would have made him prominent in the legal profession, but he saw larger fields in other directions than the law. He thus gradually took up real estate, insurance, lumber and banking. Through perseverance, pluck and honest dealing he soon became interested in various enterprises in the state, until, at the time of his death he was known as one of the wealthiest and most progressive men in the Wis. Valley. It was in 1872 that he founded the First National Bank of Grand Rapids, thus becoming the pioneer banker of this city, and it was in 1888 that he organized the Bank of Centralia. He was always the executive of these banks and was at all times conservative and safe to trust. It was after becoming interested in the Fox River Paper Co. at Appleton that, seeing no reason why the Wis. River could not be utilized in the development of similar enterprises, he established the first pulp mill in Grand Rapids, he himself being the largest stockholder. This mill was on the south side, at what was then known as Hurley Town, the concern being the first in the valley to operate a pulp mill. Later the company engaged in the manufacture of print paper, at first using poplar and other soft woods, but later spruce, which produced a better quality of print.
In politics Mr. Witter was a staunch Republican, but avoided office except when he saw an opportunity to do the community a service. 7 He used to say that any man had a right to refuse to serve in any public office that paid a compensation, but that it was the duty of every good citizen to serve so far as was able in those public offices that yielded no pay. He was elected a member of the county board, and through his influence raised the moral standard in politics. His opinion was often sought on important questions of city government. He sought no city office, but at times served on the council, and was once elected mayor but declined the office. For a full quarter of a century he served continuously on the board of education, and while on that board no member's opinion carried greater weight. When it was once formed he advanced it without passion or ardor, but with such clearness and dignity that it was usually accepted as correct without question, being always ready to accept suggestions from others. He served on the board of the T. B. Scott Free Public Library from the time of the incorporation of the institution in 1889 until 1901, when he stepped aside to give place to his son, Isaac P. Witter. From the first he had entered earnestly and lovingly into the spirit of the work, and it was his judgment that largely dictated the first list of books that was purchased for the library, a list that gives abundant evidence of his pure and elevated literary taste. When it became apparent that the $5,000 donated by Mr. Scott was not enough to supply the needs of the institution-a fact which he first perceived-he promptly donated to the library a sum equal to the original donation by Mr. Scott. It was suggested at the time that his name be placed by the side of Mr. Scott's in the name of the library, but this he refused to permit, saying that "If the good influence of the library was increased, his sole object was accomplished." He also saw the great need and value of a well-equipped reading room. When the traveling library idea was broached he at once saw its possibilities, and, without waiting for the working out of the details, he donated $5,000 to equip traveling libraries in Wood and adjoining counties, and continued his interest in the work until no less than 42 of these libraries were in operation. When the home librarian needed instruction in library management, Mr. Witter paid the expense of her attendance at the State School of Libraries, and he also donated funds to the latter institution to enable it to establish an advanced course in library practice. His generous activities in this direction placed within the reach of thousands the inspiration for higher, broader and nobler lives. It was Mr. Witter's practice to do good in a quiet way. He sought not to have his benefactions advertised.
The poor and the friendless always found him a friend. He helped young people without means to obtain an education. Behind his fortune and benevolence, his firm and clear grip of facts, his courage and self-command, was a sure and noble Christian belief. His creed was simple but broad, and it was the Sermon on the Mount. He believed that the source of honest and good living was to be found in that chapter. Mr. Witter believed that all churches had a work to do and an influence over the different classes of people. He aided them all without reference to their belief or creed. He was at one time a teacher in the Sunday school of the Congregational church but later became identified with the Methodist church. He was a good friend, and never showed enmity. He loved his city and believed in a great future for it, especially in the development of its water-power, a work that he was anxious to see fully established. Mr. Witter died in the city of Chicago, March 22, 1902, after undergoing a serious operation. He left to the schools of Grand Rapids $50,000; to each church $1,000; and to the Libraries $10,000. The school legacy has since been used to build the Witter Manual Training School. With Mr. Witter's death this community lost a high minded, noble and public spirited citizen.
His home life was beautiful and he was socially a happy man. His wife, Mrs. Emily L. Witter, survived him until August 1, 1914. She was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church and was active in its work and maintenance. She was a prominent member of the women's clubs, and a founder of the Daughters of the American Revolution in this city. She was a member of the Milwaukee Chapter of Colonial Dames. Among her endowments was one of $5,000 to the Riverside Hospital, and an annuity of $10,000 for the Methodist Episcopal Church. Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah Delos Witter had four children: Ellis, born Oct. 6, 1862, who died July 26, 1865; Laura, born June 25, 1868, who died Feb. 6, 1874; Isaac P., born May 11, 1873, and Ruth, now Mrs. George Mead, born Oct. 29, 1875.
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