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Posted By: County Coordinator (email)
Date: 9/27/2021 at 09:23:14

JOHN C. ATLEE, an honored pioneer of Lee County, and a prominent resident of Ft. Madison, is one of its most valued and representative citizens. He is in every way a man of note in his locality, and the founder of the most extensive business now being carried on at Ft. Madison. In all enterprises tending to build up the interests of Lee County he has been intimately identified, socially, morally and financially, and has aided greatly in its development and prosperity.

Mr. Atlee is a native of the State of Maryland, the date of his birth being March 22, 1816. He is the son of Samuel J. and Martha (Strickler) Atlee, both natives of Lancaster County, Pa. His mother died while he was an infant, leaving five children beside himself—William A., Samuel, Jacob S., Isaac and Sarah—all of whom are now deceased save the subject of this sketch. The father in due time contracted a second marriage, taking for his wife Miss Rachel Strickland, and of this union eight children were born, two of whom died in childhood and the remaining six attained their majority. They were as follows: Cornelia, Edward, Samuel, George, Julia and Joseph B.

The subject of this sketch was only a few days old when his mother yielded up her life, and he was thus left to the care of his grandmother, Mrs. Strickler, who, with her husband, was one of the pioneers of Lancaster County, Pa. He remained with her until her death, which occurred when he was only twelve years old. He then made his home for a short time with an uncle, Henry Strickler, and afterward with an elder brother, William A. Atlee. At the age of sixteen years he was apprenticed to his brother, Jacob S., to learn the carpenter's trade, and was thus employed nearly two years, at which time his brother retired from the business. Our subject then proceeded to Philadelphia to complete his trade under the instruction of Joshua Colter, and worked on Gerard Square one year. Then, with a cash capital of twelve and one-half cents, he left Philadelphia and proceeded to New York City, where he followed his trade for about nine months. At the expiration of this time, in the fall of 1835, he went by sea to Mobile, Ala., and the following spring by Lake Pontchartrain, La., to New Orleans. He did not like the South as well as he had anticipated, and leaving the Crescent City he went up the Mississippi River as far as Vicksburg, thence to Louisville and Cincinnati; then back to St. Louis, where to his surprise he received word from his brother Isaac, of whom he had heard nothing for three years. His brother had left the city, however, and John C. went up the river to Quincy, and there learned that his brother was at Ft. Madison. He accordingly set out on horseback, and soon met the brother he was in search of, whom he found engaged in carpenter work. He remained here a few months, and was so favorably impressed with the young town and its vicinity that he determined to make this locality his future home. This was in the year 1837.

Mr. Atlee had in the meantime made arrangements for the establishment of domestic ties, and going back to Quincy was there united in marriage with Miss Emeline S. Brooks, a native of New Hampshire, the wedding taking place in Quincy, Ill., in 1838. Immediately after their marriage the young couple came to Ft. Madison, where the husband established himself at his trade, which he successfully pursued for six years. At the expiration of this time, by the exercise of unremitting industry and economy, he had saved sufficient from his hard earnings to purchase a farm, and selected a tract of 400 acres on Little Cedar Creek, twenty-four miles from Ft. Madison. Their nearest neighbors were quite a distance away, and his wife did not see another woman for the space of three months. He employed himself continuously in the cultivation and improvement of his farm for several years, and experienced many hardships and privations. There was no money in circulation, and although his crops were large, he realized but little cash profit from them.

In 1852 Mr. Atlee sold his farm, returned to Ft. Madison, and became associated with his brother in the lumber trade, which they carried on for two years and then dissolved. In 1854 he went into partnership with Nathaniel Bennett, and they erected a steam sawmill, with a capacity of 20,000 feet of lumber daily. The following year they admitted Augustus Kraber as a partner, continuing business under the firm name of Atlee, Bennett & Kraber, but the firm became involved in debt, and the financial crisis of 1856-57 proved very disastrous to them. Messrs. Kraber and Bennett became much discouraged, but Mr. Atlee would harbor no such word as " fail." He accordingly purchased the interest of his partners, and although it involved a debt of $50,000, he determined to persevere. He had a large stock of lumber on hand, for which he could secure no cash, but was obliged to exchange it for hogs, cattle and horses, and with these he in turn purchased more logs, and also made payments on his notes of indebtedness. In the meantime there had been additions to his domestic circle, and he now had a son who was nearly a young man grown. He now associated this son, Samuel by name, with him in business, the firm title becoming S. & J. C. Atlee. Occasionally they were compelled to borrow money, and also obliged to pay 15 to 20 per cent interest. However, by close attention to business, strict integrity and excellent management, they succeeded in clearing themselves of debt, and now no man can say he ever lost a cent by John C. Atlee.

The subject of this sketch is a man of surprising resolution and perseverance. The more opposition and disaster crowded upon him the more he determined to succeed. In 1858 the boiler of their mill exploded, killing four men and blowing the building to atoms. Mr. Atlee assisted in burying the dead, and then commenced re-building his mill, putting everything in running operation again, which continued until May 3, 1866, when the new mill was destroyed by fire. In just six weeks it was re-built on a much larger scale. The second mill had a capacity of 40,000 feet of lumber per day, but this proved too slow for Mr. Atlee, and after the building of the third mill he finally tore it down and erected the present one, which has a capacity of 120,000 feet of lumber, 150,000 shingles and 28,000 lath per day of ten hours. This mill is one if the largest in Lee County, and in connection with it is also a planing-mill and a manufactory of sash, doors, blinds, boxes. and all kinds of carpenter work. The firm continues as it began, operated solely by Mr. Atlee and his son. They give employment to 300 hands, some of whom have served them for over a quarter of a century, and a remarkable harmony prevails among all the employes throughout the works, and the heads of the firm are held in the highest respect and esteem.

On the 3d of July, 1875, a furious hurricane unroofed the residence of Mr. Atlee and otherwise injured it. He was absent from home at the time, but knew that his home was in the pathway of the storm, and when he came in sight of the ruins and found that his family was safe, he swung his hat and shouted "All right; we will try it again." He went to work the same day, drew his plans, and rebuilt on a larger scale than before. The same storm played all sorts of tricks at the mill yard, damaging the property to the extent of $5,000. But none of these things discouraged the proprietor. On the contrary they only seemed to whet his appetite for further struggles, and he gloried in triumphing, as it were, over the elements, and over disasters that would have appalled most men. In short it would seem that nothing but the grim Destroyer himself will ever be able to conquer J. C. Atlee. His excellent wife says, "We never cry over our misfortunes." Mrs. Atlee seems to have been peculiarly fitted for the wife of such a man as her husband. She has never failed to greet him upon his arrival for his meals since the date of their marriage, and has never been out of hearing of the mill whistle. She has become the mother of five children, one of whom died in childhood. The four living are Samuel; Martha, now the wife of Peter Okell; William, and Maggie, who became the wife of George Hanchett.

In early life Mr. Atlee affiliated with the Democratic party, but in 1856 he considered he had reason to change his political opinions, and upon the organization of the Republican party about that time, he cordially indorsed its principles, and has been its firm supporter ever since. He has steadily declined becoming a candidate for any office, and refused the position of County Sheriff, which was tendered him by appointment. As a worthy and honored representative of the county, the publishers are pleased to present the portrait of Mr. Atlee on another page of this Album, also a view of his residence.

Transcription typed/proofed as article was originally published in 1887


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