Thursday, June 16, 2016

I W Mowrey, Early Lawrenceville Merchant 1866

Lawrence County News   June 1, 1933

Early Days In Lawrenceville
Iron Pot Served As Safe Deposit Box And Credit Was Extended From Harvest To Harvest

An iron pot with a lid, lowered into a hole in the basement of the store was one of the banking facilities in 1870, when I. W. Mowrey worked in the Ed Tracy grocery, Lawrenceville. A recent visit with Mr. Mowrey, who now lives on North 12th St., brought out a number of incidents of early business life in Lawrenceville.

I. W. Mowrey came to Lawrenceville from Ohio in 1866 and has lived here ever since. The first few years were spent at any kind of labor obtainable, from cutting wood for firing engines on the O & M railroad to building flatboats for service down the Embarras, Wabash, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Mr. Mowrey tells of one's boatbuilding job at the mouth of Raccoon Creek when he helped with the construction of six flatboats, one of which was 110 feet long. These boats were for floating walnut lumber to New Orleans where it was picked up by ships for the foreign trade.

In the year 1870 he began working in a grocery for Ed Tracy and remained with him for 19 years. Following his employment with Mr. Tracy, he was with Robert Fitch and George Carr for three years in the same line of work. About 1895 he went into business for himself with James Hollankamp as a partner, but after a short time he bought the interest from Mr. Hollankamp and became the sole owner of the business. Directing the store building recently vacated by Harry Gray, on the North side of the square, he was an active Lawrenceville merchant until about 1910 when he turned the business over to Harry Gray and George Tennyson. Since that time he has led a retired life.

The early business was mostly credit. The farmers’ accounts ran from harvest to harvest and the merchandise bought by them was strictly staples. Rice, beans, sugar, tobacco and flour were the things heading the list. Many farmers had their wheat ground at the mill at the north edge of town, and most of them cured their pork and made lye soap for washing.

The liquor business was handled by almost all the stores. It was a regular thing for grocery to buy whiskey in five barrel lots, the favorite brand being Old Duncan Bourbon. These barrels are kept in the back of the store and tin cups were used for dispensing. Naturally there was much drunkenness and fights were not uncommon.

In speaking of cured meats, Mr. Mowrey said that there was no such bacon in the 1870s as we have now. The sides were 4 to 5 inches thick and often weighed as much as 75 pounds. It was often strong and generally salty. This cured meat was bought in Vincennes from the pork packers and was hauled to Lawrenceville over the plank road in a spring wagon. The best grade of sugar was a light brown known as Coffee A. This sugar, if kept on hand for any length of time, became quite hard in the barrel so it was necessary to chop it out with a hatchet. However, it was the best sugar to be had so no complaint was made by the customers.

There being no bank in Lawrenceville until 1888, Mr. Mowrey was asked how the merchants cared for their money prior to that time. It was then that he told of the hole in the basement and the big iron pot that Ed Tracy use for a depository. There was little money in circulation, but the little that came into the Tracy store was carefully hidden in the pot and then covered with barrels and boxes of merchandise.

Mr. Mowrey was fortunate in several deals in the early years of this century. Being able to see ahead he bought heavily in commodities that were advancing. He tells of two particular buys that made him a nice profit. In 1903 he bought three cars of eating potatoes out of Michigan. The purchase price was $.35 a bushel for the first two cars and an average of 38 1/2 cents a bushel for those in the third car.  Before the potatoes were unloaded the price jumped to $.65, advancing steadily until they were as high as a $1.20 a bushel, at which price he sold. Merchants for miles around drove in wagons to buy potatoes for their trade. 

His other good deal was in flour. Feeling that flour was due for a sharp advance in price he purchased 250 barrels at $2.50 a barrel. By the time he had the flour nicely stored in his warehouse the price had risen to $5.50. Mr. Mowrey gets a lot of pleasure out of telling about J. E. McGaughey at the time the flour was bought. Mr. McGaughey couldn't see why a grocery in Lawrenceville would buy 250 barrels of flour. In telling of it Mr. Mowrey said: "Thunder and Tom Walker, I just knew flour was due for an advance, so I bought every barrel I could possibly pay for. I went to Eagle River with John after the order was in for the flour, and all the time we were in, John worried me about the disposal of it. On the way home we got a paper in Chicago and I showed him that flour was already worth almost twice as much as I had paid."

Mr. Mowrey's conversation is interesting all the time. He picks up bits of local history 65 years old and weaves them into his conversation. The story of the building of the Big Four Railroad and the celebration of the event is a story in itself; likewise the stories of the water-powered mill on the River and early hunting and fishing.

Few men and women who lived in Lawrenceville in 1866 remain to talk over old times with I. W. Mowrey. He is a lonesome old-age. With no family or old friends, he depends upon the younger people to brighten his declining years with visits. He is looked upon as one of the honorable, outstanding businessman of early Lawrenceville.