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Jacob P. Chamberlain

As an owner of flour mills and textile factories, as a leader in the Free Soil Party, and later as a Republican Congressman, Jacob P. Chamberlain was part of a small group of entrepreneurs and politicians in Seneca Falls who influenced not only local development but also regional and national events. As a neighbor of the Stantons', he and his family undoubtedly also interacted with Henry, Elizabeth, and their children on a more personal level.*

Jacob P. Chamberlain was born in Dudley, Massachusetts, on August 1, 1802, youngest son of John and Mary Lee Chamberlain. Both Jacob's father and his grandfather had fought in the American Revolution, all the way from Lexington and Concord to Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and beyond. After the war, his father was elected a State Senator in Massachusetts and became a surveyor and civil engineer. Such work lured him to Cortland County, New York, in 1807. Two years later, he took his family to a large square framed house on West Main Street in Waterloo, where rapid settlement on the fertile lands of the Old Military Tract kept him constantly at work. Jacob, the seventh and last of their children, went to the yellow schoolhouse on West William Street in Waterloo, where he excelled in his work.

When he was seventeen years old, Jacob P. Chamberlain's parents died, and he moved to the Town of Varick to become a schoolteacher. Boarding with farm families in the neighborhood, he decided that farming was his real calling. About 1826, in one of those families, Chamberlain met and married Pennsylvania-born Catharine Kuney. Together, they bought a 75-acre farm and began their lives together.

In the spring of 1832, Chamberlain bought a much larger farm located at the Kingdom (on the south side of the Seneca River mid-way between Seneca Falls and Waterloo). The 200 acres of this new farm contained fruit orchards as well as buildings and cultivated fields enough to allow Chamberlain to carry out his progressive ideas about crop rotation and soil fertilization. His success brought the family considerable comfort. Chamberlain became a model for other local farmers, and his life seemed complete. (For a while, Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, worked as a day laborer at the nearby mill.)

But disaster struck. Chamberlain had co-signed a note with his brother-in-law to buy the Lower Red Mills in Seneca Falls. His brother-in-law defaulted, caught in the nation-wide depression of the late 1830s and early 1840s, and Chamberlain had no choice but to move to Seneca Falls and try to turn the mill into a profitable business. So, in the spring of 1843, the whole Chamberlain family moved into a long two-story frame house on the banks of the Seneca River beside the Lower Red Mills, just across the Seneca Turnpike from the Stanton house. Lombardy poplars stood in the front yard along the road. There they would live until the early 1860s, when they moved across the river to 33 Fall Street.

Chamberlain ran the Lower Red Mills profitably, helped by his friendship with farmers, his energy, and his astute analysis of the shifting grain market. He never relied on long-term speculations. Instead, he made a close estimate of how much flour he could produce from wheat he bought each day and of what he could quickly sell it for in the Albany market, the main distributing center for cities on the east coast. If Albany merchants did not buy the flour, Chamberlain himself would take the canal packet to make more lucrative sales at Syracuse, Rome, and Utica. Chamberlain operated these mills until about 1850, when he sold them to a distillery and bought the Upper Red Mills, farther west long the river, which he operated for the rest of his life.

In 1844, Chamberlain helped incorporate a new factory, the Seneca Woolen mill, housed in a large limestone building on the south side of the river just east of the Bridge Street bridge. Although this mill failed to earn money in the 1840s, Chamberlain successfully reorganized it in 1855 as the Phoenix mills.

Although Chamberlain made his money as a miller and textile owner, all of his life he identified with the land and thought of himself as a farmer. Part of his success in both manufacturing and trade resulted from his continuing close association with farmers. To farmers, "he was one of their class," his son, Harrison, recalled. "It was not unusual to see several scores of wagons lining the street, waiting to unload and often the day rolled into the evening hours before the last team could be attended to. The mill rarely lacked for a supply to keep the machinery running night and day, tuning out from 200 to 250 barrels of flour a day."

When he opened the Phoenix mill, Chamberlain continued his strong
relationships with farmers, buying wool from Seneca County sheep growers and opening a sales department, where local customers could buy cloth by the yard at wholesale prices, "a custom unusual," noted his son, "but warmly appreciated."

His economic success was reflected in his Dun and Bradstreet credit rating. He was a "careful man & abundantly good" for loans. In the late
1840s and early 1850s, he had real estate worth between fifteen and thirty thousand dollars. In later life, he was founder and President of the Seneca Falls Savings Bank, where local workers could earn interest on their savings.

In the fall of 1841, Chamberlain joined the Methodist Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls and served "almost continuously," as President of its Board of Trustees. He carried out his religious values in his business and family life, too. He was opposed to card playing and dancing, held up high moral standards for his children, and dealt with his business associates frankly and honestly. "Men came to him," noted one observer, "because they knew he would tell them the facts, knew that he would deal with them openly and honorably. It was this disposition, these qualities, that won him success and high character in his milling business and in every enterprise in which he engaged."

Chamberlain was also active politically, beginning with his work as Town Clerk of Varick in 1830 and continuing as Commissioner of Highways, volunteer fireman, Supervisor of Seneca Falls, and member of the Board of Education. Always an anti-slavery man, he left the Whig Party for the Free Soil Party when it was organized in 1848. Elected President of the Free Soil meeting in Seneca Falls on June 15, 1848, he then went in August 1848 as a delegate to the Free Soil convention in Buffalo. His Free Soil and antislavery convictions took him into the Republican Party when it was organized in 1856, and he served as representative from Seneca County to the New York State Assembly (1859-61), and Republican member of the House of Representatives (1861-1863).

Jacob P. and Catharine Kuney Chamberlain eventually had nine children, four girls and five boys. In 1850, their household consisted of themselves, seven of their nine children, ranging in age from 23 to 3; one other child, James Dalrymple, aged 5; and one household helper, Lucy Conn, aged 34. Catharine Chamberlain's focus was clearly on her husband and children, and their home life reflected a strong and loving marriage. After her death, Catharine was eulogized as "an amiable woman, a good neighbor, an affectionate wife and mother. . . .her husband's most trusted counselor and helpmeet. Their devotion to, and love for, each other, adorned their lives with signal beauty and tenderness. . . . They were rarely separated for a single day. . . .Her's [sic] was a life of love, and the endearments of the home circle were to her the greatest earthly joy."

Jacob P. Chamberlain evidently shared her views, for one commentator, probably his son, Harrison, remembered that "in the home he was kind, thoughtful, and affectionate. To invest it with whatever would contribute to the comfort and happiness of each member was his aim. The broad sympathy that led him out in advice and material aid to others was seen best about the fireside, at the evening hour, when he would gather all around him, talk of the events of the day, enter into the plans of each, counsel and give cheer."

Catharine Chamberlain died on September 19, 1878, after an illness of several weeks. Her husband, sick for five or six years, died just three weeks later, on October 5, 1878, aged 76.

Jacob P. Chamberlain's neighbors continued to honor his memory. He was, noted one, "a self-made man, high-minded and honorable, of large business capacities, not without faults but whatever they were they sprung [sic] from a strong and generous nature. He was a conscientious school teacher, a good farmer, a prudent, energetic miller, an enterprising manufacturer, a benevolent churchman, a patriotic and public-spirited citizen, and a kind, noble and generous parent, finding in all his activities the desire and ability to contribute to the good of others both the inspiration to and the ample reward for his efforts." Stephen Monroe, another villager, summed up local opinion many years later when he recalled that "perhaps no man was higher in reputation than Jacob P. Chamberlain."

*Jacob P. Chamberlain had an uncle, Jacob Chamberlain and a cousin, Jacob M. Chamberlain. The name as listed in the first printing of the minutes of the Seneca Falls convention is "Jacob Chamberlain." Jacob P. Chamberlain, however, more closely fits the profile of a signer of the Declaration of Sentiments. Without the original signatures, and with no further evidence to the contrary, we are assuming that Jacob P. Chamberlain was the actual signer.


Sources:

  • Biographical Dictionary of the American Congress, 1774-1861.
  • Chamberlain, Harrison. "Early Flouring Mills," Papers of the Seneca Falls Historical Society (1906), 12-13.
  • [Chamberlain, Harrison?], "Jacob P. Chamberlain," Papers of the Seneca Falls Historical Society (1906), 54-58.
  • Dun and Bradstreet Credit Papers, 55, Baker Library, Harvard.
  • "Genealogical and "Biographical Sketch of Gary V. Sackett," Papers of the Seneca Falls Historical Society (1905), 70.
  • "Grips" Historical Souvenir of Seneca Falls (Syracuse, N.Y.: n.d.), 72-73.
  • Monroe, Stephen. "Seneca Falls in Earlier Days," 38.
  • Obituary, Catharine Chamberlain, September 20, 1878, undated newspaper clipping, files of SFHS.
  • Porter, Origins of the Church of Latter Day Saints, 272-3.


-Judith Wellman, Historian
Historical New York

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