Herrick Stevens

Herrick Stevens was born at West Port, Essex County, New York, October 18, 1820. His parents, Thomas Stevens and Sally Ann Tappan Stevens were poor people, and his early life was full of hardship. He was taken to Vergennes, Vermont, in his early childhood, 1826. His parents kept the “American House” there until the death of his father, in 1825, from the effects of a wound received in the War of 1812. The mother and her older sons, Carleton Tappan Stevens and Charles Ogden Stevens, continued to keep this until 1840, when the two brothers purchased the “City Hotel,” and changed its name to the “Stevens House,” which, by their excellent management, became widely known. In 1873 the family retired from the hotel. So long as the mother lived she was regarded as the head of the family. Several years of the boyhood of Herrick Stevens were passed in the family of an uncle, Jacob Tappan, at Moriah, New York, and the limited school education he received was while there. At the age of twenty years he entered the employment of his brothers, and remained with them thirteen years. One of his daily duties was to drive the four-horse coach between Basin Harbor on Lake Champlain and the hotel.

In the early fifties Chicago began to be spoken of, particularly amongst hotel people in the East, as sure to be a good hotel town. A traveler from the West informed Mr. Stevens of an excellent opportunity to engage in the hotel business in Chicago, and he went there to look the ground over. He did not, however, go into business with his informant, but returning to Vergennes, induced a friend, Jacob P. Willard, afterwards his cousin, to join with him, and coming to Chicago early in 1853 they leased the Matteson House, a five-story brick building on the northwest corner of Randolph and Dearborn streets.

The three principal hotels in Chicago then were the Tremont, the Sherman House…and the Matteson House, all within one block of each other.

Up to March 1853, the area of Chicago was about fifteen square miles, and the population had increased in a few years from nothing to about sixty thousand people. The streets were simply dirt roads. There were no sewers, and no waterworks. The grade of the city streets was then about eight feet below their present level. The new city lay in a marsh.

There were railroads just completed, to Galena by the Chicago & Alton, to Kankakee by the Illinois Central, to Detroit by the Michigan Central, and another short line built by the Rock Island. Altogether there were less than six hundred miles. The gap between Detroit and Buffalo was not completed for several years. There were a few small grain elevators. There was a stockyard on the West Side.

Railroad communication with the Eastern cities was fully established soon after they moved into the hotel, and they did a tremendous business for those days from the start. Every inch of space in the hotel was utilized, the proprietors and their clerks having but one room between them.

Messrs. Stevens & Willard settled accounts with each other every Saturday night. They never engaged in any real estate purchases or other investments on their joint account. Both invested their savings in Chicago real estate. Two hundred dollars a front foot was the highest-price property in town.

They successfully conducted the hotel for five and one-half years, but when their lease was up did not renew it. When they took the hotel, one of the conditions of the lease was that they must buy the furniture, which inventoried about $8,000. Mr. Stevens’ entire capital was about $2,500, every dollar of which had been earned by himself. Willard was no better off, but Carleton T. Stevens came here with them from Vergennes, and on his report the old Bank of Vergennes loaned them the money, taking a chattel mortgage on the furniture. They paid off the mortgage in the first six months, to the great astonishment of the worthy directors of the old bank, who were never able to fully understand it.

Mr. Stevens was six feet tall and very straight; he weighed about 275 pounds, of light complexion, smooth face, rosy cheeked, black hair, large blue eyes, regular features, fine hands, and small feet.

While Mr. Stevens’ school advantages had been very limited, there were few men better educated in many ways. His letters were models of brevity and clear statement, and his handwriting was very plain and beautiful. His orthography was perfect.

He was a fine horseman and an excellent judge of horses; in fact, of all kinds of animals and enjoyed having fine stock around him.

His speech was pure, he was free from profanity and vulgarity, never used tobacco in any form, and was strictly temperate in drinking and eating. At one time he became so fleshy that his health was seriously endangered. He procured a book written by Banting, and by following it reduced his weight very largely in a few months, and ever after kept it reduced. He was an early riser, and went to bed very early. He dressed plainly and wore no jewelry. He never became bald, but his crown of white hair was a glory to the time of his death. He never seemed to be an old man, nor felt nor acted as old men often do.

After Mr. Stevens had been in Chicago about two years he returned home, and August 15, 1855, was married to Miss Electa J. Willard, daughter of Hosea Willard and Betsey E. Benton, of Vergennes. Mrs. Stevens returned with him to Chicago, and was a most devoted wife, a faithful helpmeet, and fond mother. She was a conscientious Christian woman, of tender sympathies and great kindliness of spirit, and was loved by all who knew her. She died August 18, 1889, in Vergennes.

One of the guests at the Matteson House, whenever he was in Chicago, was a lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln, whom Mr. Stevens early formed the highest opinion of. He always called Mr. Stevens “John P.,” because of his likeness to the distinguished senator, John P. Hale, of New Hampshire. Years after, when that country lawyer had become President of the United States, Mr. and Mrs. Stevens, being in Washington, attended a public reception at the White House. The crowd was great, and the President was very tired; but when Mr. Stevens approached him, Lincoln’s eye brightened and grasping his hand, he said, “How are you, John P.?” and for some time he kept with him, while he recalled old times in Chicago.

From 1859 until 1862 Mr. Stevens passed his time alternately in Vergennes and Chicago; but in the latter year he returned permanently to live in Vergennes, although he visited Chicago at least once every years, and more often twice a year during the remainder of his life. He built his home in Vergennes, and it is characteristic of the man that it he took three years to build it. He was a practical man, very cautious, and with an intense hatred of shams of all kinds. He always said he owed his success to the little savings he had accumulated, a dollar at a time in Vergennes before he went to Chicago. He always insisted that the first thousand dollars was much the hardest for any one to accumulate. He was extremely tender-hearted and loved little children. He made few close friendships, but those who were his friends he appreciated and valued most highly.

For many years he was interested in the property of the Vergennes Water Power Company and in real estate in Vergennes, and was a large farmer in the neighboring town of Panton. At the time of his death he was president of the old National Bank of Vergennes, of which he had been continuously a director for twenty-seven years. He helped to locate the Vermont Reform School on the United States Government grounds at Vergennes, and was one of the first trustees of that institution. His home life was a most happy one until the death of his wife, 1889, whom he missed and mourned with increasing tenderness as the years passed by. They had four daughters, all of whom survive them.

Said George W. Newcomb, Esq., of Chicago: “I first became acquainted with Mr. Stevens in 1854, when he and his partner were conducting the Matteson House. Mr. Stevens attended the hotel office and Willard purchased the supplies. He was very pleasing in his address, and a person everyone liked.

“They kept a good hotel, which was well patronized by the best class of travelers. The usual rate for ordinary rooms was two dollars per day. Abraham Lincoln was a regular guest of the house whenever in Chicago.

“As their funds accumulated they either loaned them out or bought real estate in Chicago. I had considerable to do about loaning Mr. Stevens’ money. He was a very practical man, careful and very prudent in all his business matters, and although I was a graduate of college and he had only an ordinary common school education, I soon learned to have great respect for him and for his ideas about business. He was an honest man; his word was always good, and he had no use for any one who attempted to beat another person by dishonest ways. He was highly conservative in all his dealings. It took years of constant intercourse to get his confidence, and his opinions of men were generally correct.

“I had occasion to go with him into the country several times. He was a very entertaining companion, although at the same time he was never a great talker. He was one of the shrewdest business men I was ever acquainted with, never in a hurry, always good-natured, and sharp and quick to discover when a good bargain was offered him. No man ever loved his wife and children more than he did. I miss his gentle ways and genial smile, which, although never very demonstrative, was always good and reliable. By his constant industry, great economy and wonderful good judgment, he acquired a large estate. He wanted what justly belonged to him, but nothing more. He never wronged any man, and during his later years, particularly, he was very kind and indulgent to his debtors.

“I have often heard him speak of his mother. He held her in the highest esteem, and sought to do everything possible for her comfort in her declining years. The essence of a man’s character is discovered in his treatment of his mother, whose generous and unselfish love has made him what he is.”

Wrote Judge John D. Smith, of Vergennes: “Mr. Stevens possessed a force of character, excellent business judgment and integrity, that secured the confidence of all who dealt with him. Free from all bad habits, and with sound principles of morality, his private life was without reproach. An unassuming man, he was averse to all boasting or vain display, but deeply in love with the homely virtue of honesty, industry and economy.

“He was a man of positive character, of strong likes and dislikes, and his friendship once given was abiding.

“For the last forty years Mr. Stevens has been conspicuous in Vergennes, and I, with others, have learned to admire him. I have been impressed with his great power of self-control; so great that no allurements of pleasure, no glittering promises of speculation or solicitation of associates could swerve him from the course which he had planned for himself.

“In addition to this great self-control, he had the faculty of close and keen observation, and an unusually tenacious memory, and it is not strange that when his opportunity came, and he stepped to the front as a business man, it was seen that his faculties were of the highest order; that he was cool and unbiased in forming his opinions, clear in his conclusions, and farseeing, sagacious and persistent in the pursuit of his aims.

“It is no wonder that success should come to a man of such character and qualifications, but no man was more surprised at it than Herrick Stevens, for he was withal an unpretentious, unassuming man, with no talent for boasting or vain display.

“He was a loyal, patriotic American, and a firm believer in the principles of the Republican Party; but he was never ambitious of political distinction, and never sought office for himself.

“The death of his wife was a tremendous blow to Mr. Stevens, although her illness was much prolonged. His daughters, particularly Jennie and Herrika, who were unmarried, devoted themselves to his comfort and happiness, and he found great pleasure in gratifying every wish of his daughter and grandchildren.”

Mr. Stevens attended the Congregational Church in Vergennes.

Herrick Stevens came of a distinguished ancestry, although he never knew it. He knew he had a mother, of whom he might well be, and was truly, proud, but beyond that he knew nothing. Of his mother, who died at the home of her elder sons in Vergennes after an illness of only two days, aged eighty-five years, it has truly been said: “To her counsels, her frugality and indomitable industry may her sons’ success in life be largely attributed.”

Herrick Stevens passed away suddenly about daybreak, Monday morning, July 29, 1895, at his home in Vergennes, in the seventy-fifth year of his age.

He lies beside his wife in the beautiful Prospect cemetery of Vergennes. From their graves is a grand view of the mountains and the valley which they both loved so well. The Green Mountains are on the east and the Adirondacks on the west, with the historic Otter Creek winding through farm and woodland down to beautiful Lake Champlain. 

From Herrick Stevens, in Fond Remembrance

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