Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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Biography ~ Owen T. Denison.

There is no need for conjecture or uncertainty in determining as to the value and success of the life of the late Owen T. DENISON, who died at his home in Mason City on the morning of Thursday, April 7, 1910, for he realized in most sinificant sense that true success is not that gained through commercial pre-eminence or personal aggrandizement, but rather that which lies in the eternal verities of human sympathy and helpfulness. It was given him to attain large success in connection with the material activities of life, and none but worthy means contributed to this success, above which he left the gracious heritage of noble thoughts and noble deeds. He was a man of broad intellectuality and viewed life and its responsibilities in their true proportions. He was not given to half views or rash inferences, but was a man of strength and judgment and lofty motives. He was essentially the foremost citizen of Mason City and none has done as much to further the development and upbuilding of the city and of Cerro Gordo county along civic, industrial and commercial lines. Measured by its beneficence, its rectitude, it productiveness and its insistent altruism, his life counted for much in the city and county that so long represented his home, and it is most consonant that in this publication be paid a tribute of honor to one so worthy of confidence and esteem that were uniformly accorded him. His death was the result of an attack of pneumonia, and a pathetic and yet consistent incident in connection with his passing to the "land o' the dead" was that his cherished and devoted wife, overpowered by her grief and loss, survived him by only a few hours, so that in death they were not divided.

Owen T. DENISON was born at Brookfield, Madison county, New York, on the 28th of August, 1847, and was a son of Tracy and Mary (RANDALL) DENISON, both of whom were likewise natives of Madison county, New York, where their marriage was solemnized on the 31st of January, 1836. The family finally moved to Clarksville, Albany county, New York, where they remained until 1857, when they emigrated to the west and settled as pioneers in Eau Claire county, Wisconsin, where the father secured a tract of government land and reclaimed a farm from the wilderness. There he continued to reside until his death, which occurred on the 25th of June, 1877. In 1881 his widow removed to Mason City, Iowa, to be near her children and other relatives, and here her death occurred on the 16th of February, 1884. She was a sister of Elisha RANDALL, one of the honored and influential pioneers of Cerro Gordo county and one to whom a special memoir is dedicated on other pages of this publication.

Owen T. DENISON gained his rudimentary education in the common schools of his native state and was a lad of about ten years at the time of the family removal to Wisconsin, where he was reared to maturity under the sturdy discipline of the pioneer farm and where he availed himself of such educational advantages as were afforded in the locality and period. His was a mind particularly alert and receptive and in the broad school of experience and through wide reading and study in a private way he effectively supplemented his early training, thus becoming a man of strong intellectuality and broad and exact information.

In 1867, when but twenty years of age, Mr. DENISON came to Cerro Gordo county, Iowa, and cast his lot with others of its sterling pioneers. He established his home in Mason City, and here he continued to reside until the close of his long and useful life. In offering an estimate of his life and labors no more consistent expression can be given than to perpetuate the statements mad at the time of his demise by those familiar with his career, and thus the following extracts are made, with slight elimination and paraphrase, from an appreciative tribute paid by Hon. John CLIGGITT, of Mason City, a lifetime acquaintance and friend.

"Owen T. DENISON is dead. The people of Cerro Gordo county and many others throughout the state mourn his loss. From the time of his first residence here he took a serious and practical interest and was very prominent in all that related to the growth, improvement and advancement of Mason City and Cerro Gordo county. In official capacity her served the county as deputy recorder in 1869-70 and from January, 1871 to January 1876, as recorder. From March, 1881, to March, 1882, he served as a member of the city council, and from March, 1885, to March, 1887, he was mayor of the city, and later he was a member of the board of county supervisors. These represent his share in the official life of the city and county. In all these positions he was active, diligent and faithful in discharge of the trust reposed in him - with him official station was not merely a matter of convenience, advantage or source of gain to the official, but a place of trust, requiring intelligent, faithful, honest and diligent attention to public duty. No man has held office in the city or county who had a higher or more exalted conception of the obligation and responsibility of the public official than he had, and no one has more seriously put into active practice those ideals of duty than he did in all the official positions he held. The most important public improvement that has yet been accomplished in Mason City was the construction of our fine system of waterworks. During the 1885, the first year of his term as mayor, the waterworks system became a successfully accomplished fact. During the entire time of the construction of these works Mr. DENISON faithfully devoted his time and his intelligent and active energies in bringing the work to a successful conclusion. In conjunction with this work he brought together a company of active young men, who under the inspiration of his zeal and interest in the public welfare, organized themselves in a volunteer fire company, and in honor of and as a compliment to the mayor the organization was named the DENISON Hose Company. It continued to serve as a fire company until the recent organization of a regularly paid fire department. All of Mr. DENISON'S services as councilman and as mayor, including his many days and nights of thought, study and labor in the const[r]uction of the waterworks, were done without pay or financial reward. The construction of the waterworks involved and expenditure of about forty thousand dollars, and to use this money to the best public advantage required much knowledge of materials and their value, and of the theory and practice of water systems and their construction, and he possessed himself of the necessary information. The public money was in this instance economically expended with the greatest resulting benefits reaching down to the present time.

"But while not so well know, Mr. DENISON'S thought, studies and labors as an enterprising, active citizen in private life have resulted in great advantage and benefit tot he people of this city and county. Very much of the improvement and advancement that have been made in agricultural, manufacturing and educational lines have been due to his zeal, energy and industrial activity in inspiring, encouraging and supporting them.

"For many years he was engaged in the banking business. In the winter of 1884-5 he went with a number of workmen to the quarries north of town and got out the stone of which the city bank building was constructed and personally superintended the construction of the building from the beginning to the completion thereof. While engaged in the banking business, he superintended the construction and operation of a creamery. He operated a farm on which he erected and put into use a silo.

"He had from early days studied the subject of grasses suitable for the locality and urged the sowing of clover and bluegrass in order to increase and improved the pastorage and feeding capacity of much of our fertile land that seemed to be neglected, or not turned to so profitable use as it might be. In later years he has been active and energetic in encouraging and promoting improvements in crop raising, and as necessary, thereto the matter of drainage, giving premiums to help stimulate the activity and ambitions of the younger generation of farmers to better and more careful and advanced methods. He had great interest in the matter of drainage, both of farm lands and of our public roads. In all this he was more concerned for the general public welfare that must result from such improvements than for any personal interest or gain that might result to him as a manufacturer of drainage material. He had studied very thoroughly the geological structure of northern Iowa and analyzed the soil, clay and rock formations of the country and so became familiar with their properties and learned their industrial value and the practical and profitable uses which they might be made to serve. He learned that brick and tile might be manufactured to an advantage here and an industry organized and carried on that would furnish employment to many workmen and much to the general prosperity of the city, and as the result of his foresight and enterprise we have the present prosperous Mason City Brick and Tile Factory and three others in which he was very largely interested. All of these works were constructed and their machinery purchased and installed under his immediate care and supervision. These works were the inspiration of and pointed the way for others to engage in the manufacture of brick and tile, with the result that several of these factories beside those with which Mr. DENISON was connected are now in successful operation and Mason City now holds prestige as being the largest manufacturing center of these products in the entire world. To Mr. DENISON belongs the credit of being the pioneer in establishing this important industry in Cerro Gordo county.

"Several years ago Mr. DENISON studied and experimented with our rock and sand formations and found that they were suitable for the manufacture of high grade cement. He had so informed many of our people and had given prominence to the fact through newspapers and other vehicles of public information. His work along this line had very much to do in starting the movement which finally resulted in our large cement plant.

"He believed in a system of education that will make good, upright, useful and accomplished men and women of the boys and girls of the present and coming generations, and so had great faith and interest in our common schools for the poor children of the land well as for those of the rich. He believed in higher education and culture, but as the common schools are and will be the limit of opportunity for the large majority of children, he desired and used his influence so afar as he could to have provided in them courses of instruction in some of the works and arts that make up so much of the means of livelihood and add so much to the support and comfort of the people. He was interested in manual training and looked to it as a great means of developing the talents that often lie dormant in the young, but which, with some early stimulous, may be made to work out very useful and beneficial results. He encouraged and, so far as he could, aided all business, educational and charitable enterprises and was liberal in contributions to promote and sustain them. The Memorial University, the public library, all of our churches, have been liberally aided by him. In the cement and other public buildings or enterprises he was a liberal investor and in a business and financial way his life has been a great success."

Concerning Mr. DENISON, Col. James H. McCONOLOGUE, of Mason City, gave an estimate of his character, from which the following quotations are made: "Of all the noble characters who have had hand in shaping the destinies of Mason City from its earliest days no one has left his individual efforts, along moral and industrial lines, so permanently attached to the life of the city as Mr. DENISON. Possessing a mind intensely active and well balanced by an exceptional judgment he forged his way, in an early day, through the unknown realms of industrial efforts and emerged from the darkness and unknown results into the broad sunlight of phenomenal success. Mr. DENISON was possessed with a genius of a high order. In every problem he took up he sought the underlying philosophy and by indefatigable effort and energy he brushed aside the mists and haze that surround great problems and found the kernel and meat of such questions, after which he successfully worked out a solution. Not only was he great in the accomplishing of industrial and business enterprises but he was a leader in the moral affairs that make up our social life. He loved sobriety, he loved honesty, he loved purity in the home and individual life and all of these manfully practiced during his whole career. A dominant trait of his character was the beautiful virtue of charity; and his was the purest charity. It sought not the limelight, it never paraded gaudily to receive applause and commendation, but quietly, innocently and timidly, the angel of Mr. DENISON'S charity went to all, aiding and assisting where it could encouraging by good advice and often materially aiding wherever it was possible so to do. The years to come will bring to light the great good that was done along those lines by this great citizen of Mason City. He loved his fellow men of every creed and of every opinion and was glad when the individual advanced along the road of prosperity to the goal of well doing and well being.He was without ostentation or parade and was religious in thought, purpose and mode of living. In many ways of often and at different places he gave liberally to the aid of persons in distress or trouble. No one will every know how much he has done in this way because his many acts of kindness and beneficence were done quietly and privately."

In politics Mr. DENISON gave his support in a generic way to the Republican party but in this, as in all other relations of life, he maintained an independent attitude and never lacked the courage of his convictions, giving his support to all men and measures meeting the approval of his judgment. He was a member of the Congregational church, as was also his devoted wife, and signal purity and fidelity characterized his life in all it relations. His devotion to principle was inflexible and better than this cannot be said of any man. It has become a trite saying to pronounce the death of a prominent citizen an irreparable loss to the community, but there is no impropriety in the utilizing of the expression in connection with this honored citizen of Cerro Gordo county, for the people of the community have given definite recognition of their appreciation of the fact.

The home life of Mr. DENISON was ideal in character and in review of this order there can be no desire to lift the gracious veil that guarded the sacred precincts of the home. It has been noted that Mr. DENISON died on the morning of April 7, 1910, and on the following Saturday night his wife likewise passed to the eternal life. She had been in precarious health for some time and her extreme grief over the death of her husband undoubtedly caused he death. On the 19th of December, 1871, at Waterford, Wisconsin, was solemnized the marriage of Mr. DENISON to Miss Orpha A. WILLARD, who was born in that place on the 24th of April 1848, and was a daughter of George and Mary (RANSOME) WILLARD, who later established their home in Mason City, Iowa, where they passed the residue of their lives. Mr. and Mrs. DENISON became the parents of three children: Mary, who is now the wife of Frederick E. KEELER, of Mason City; Lynn W., who is associated with his brother-in-law in the continuing of the various enterprises with which his father had been identified; and Willard, who died in infancy. Mr. DENISON is also survived by three sisters, all of whom reside in Mason City - Mrs. Selah ALLEN, Mrs. Ella STEVENS and Miss Libby DENISON. Concerning Mrs. DENISON the following statements are taken from the Mason City Globe-Gazette, of April 11, 1910.

"Broken like a frail flower in the face of the storm of grief which came to her in the death of her husband but a few hours before, Mrs. Owen T. DENISON pas[s]ed away at 11:15 o'clock Saturday night, after lingering since the first physical collapse when she saw the lines of death stamped upon the beloved face whose heart's devotion for a lifetime had been hers. "At no time in its history has Mason City been so stirred up as at this time. Sorrow struck deep when its foremost citizen was called, but today it comes with a force with all the proportions of a tragedy when the wife, whose share in the life work of Owen DENISON counted for so much, passed beyond. Though the disease had made its inroads, of late the chances were for complete recovery and a long lease of life, till cruel disease struck down her husband; but from the first moment that hope fled the hope of living became nothing. 'A broken heart,' said the physicians and attendants, 'did its work.' "Distinctively a lover of the home-life, Mrs. DENISON had a heart full of sympathy and love for others, and scores of friends, who knew her best and have been close to her in life, tell of the kindly ministry to the sick and unfortunate in scores of Mason City homes. Whatever is due to the memory of O. T. DENISON as a man whose sympathies were broader than the daily routine of business [l]ife, is as much due to his wife, for her charities were sweet and were just as manifold and came with the tenderness of a loving woman.

"Their home was an ideal one. Love abounded, was nurtured and grew strong from the beginning. Married after a romantic courtship, their hearts were happily linked with a bond of mutual sympathy that went outside the four walls of their home. Through a mutual friend their first acquaintance was through a letter written by the husband, then a young man and a county official. This first letter resulted in a correspondence, later a visit to her home in Wisconsin and finally their marriage. With every recurrence of that date a wedding journey has been taken that years only increased in pleasures. The tie which was cemented by years of devotion could not remain broken long without being reunited."

SOURCE: Wheeler, J. H. History of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa. Vol. II. Pp. 376-83 Lewis Pub. Co. Chicago. 1910

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, February of 2011



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