One who has for a long term of years occupied a prominent place in the development and material and spiritual progress of Burlington is George Sweny, who was born in Warren county, Ohio, Oct. 28, 1820, a son of Robert and Mary (King) Sweny, the father being of Pennsylvania birth and Scotch extraction, while the mother was a native of Virginia and was of German and English parentage. Both laid down the burden of life at Lebanon, Ohio, and are there buried. The father, who passed the greater part of his active life as a miller, was a veteran of the War of 1812, in which he served as a lieutenant in the army of General Hull, and participated in the surrender near Put-in-Bay, in Lake Erie. Two brothers of our subject were soldiers of the Civil War, one of whom held the rank of lieutenant, and lost his life by falling from a boat and drowning. The other brother, James, now of the Soldier's National Home of Kansas, had one son in the Spanish-American War.
Mr. Sweny's early years were passed in acquiring an education in the public schools and in the work of his father's large farm, the sugar camp, the saw-mill, and the gristmill, and at the same time he learned the trade of cabinet-making, at which he continued to work with much success for fifteen years. In the spring of 1845 he wedded Miss Margery J. Scarff, by whom he had one child, Joanna Janetta, who died in Burlington at the age of five years. Mrs. Sweny, who was of Quaker parentage, died about the year 1852 in Kenton, Ohio, and was buried in Xenia, Ohio, her old home. From 1845 to 1849 Mr. Sweny was engaged in the drug business in Xenia, at the end of that time removing to Kenton, where he resided until 1853, engaged in drug and jewelry business. The latter year is the date of his removing to Burlington. Shortly after coming to the West he purchased an interest in J. W. Price's drug store, but the partnership lasted for only two or three years, the business being conducted during that period at the comer of Washington and Third Streets under the style of Price & Sweny. On severing this relation by the sale of his interest, Mr. Sweny engaged in the insurance business, which he carried on in connection with extensive real estate and loan operations. He also served as receiver for several firms, in this capacity having charge of numerous concerns in bankruptcy. His investments in real estate were very large. He purchased a farm and much suburban property, nearly all in its primitive wooded state, the latter of which he platted under the names of Sweny's and the Highland Additions to Burlington, these comprising in all about thirty acres. The additions lie next the Mississippi River, in the southern portion of the city, and include some of the finest residence property in Burlington. Always public-spirited, he labored earnestly for fifteen years to secure the opening and improvement of South Main Street to the present city limits, and finally, upon the city council's offer to open the street provided half the estimated cost be borne by those directly interested, he took personal charge of the matter, and by diligent and unremitting labor raised and collected subscriptions to the required amount, four thousand five hundred dollars. He was also instrumental in securing the building of the street-car line into that part of the city, and built some fifteen or twenty residences in Sweny's Addition, paving all the sidewalks abutting his property on Main Street, and otherwise improving the addition, thus becoming a benefactor of the southern part of the city, and doing perhaps more than any other one man to aid and encourage its development.
At Burlington on Feb. 11, 1868, Mr. Sweny was united in marriage to Miss Mary H. Pine, who was born in New Jersey, but was reared and educated in Philadelphia, the daughter of Ebenezer Pine, of New York. Mrs. Sweny's father was in Philadelphia a wholesale and retail merchant, and both he and his wife, who before marriage was Naomi Higbee, of New Jersey, were of old English Quaker stock, the Higbee family in America having been founded by seven brothers who immigrated together from England and settled at Higbeeville in New Jersey. Mrs. Sweny's great-grandfather Brannon was a noted Quaker preacher, while on the other hand her great-grandfather Higbee so far disregarded the tenets of his sect at one time during the Revolutionary War as to enlist for a time in the patriot army, with the design, however, of protecting his own home, and it may be further urged in extenuation that he was then a young man. Pine Street in the city of Philadelphia was named for the family of which Mrs. Sweny is a member.
Reared in the Quaker faith, the wife of our subject united in 1868 with the Methodist Episcopal church, of which she has ever since been a faithful and consistent member. Mr. Sweny himself has been a member and a worker in that denomination since the age of sixteen, and almost continuously since that time he has been a member of the official board, serving at different times on the respective boards of the three Methodist Episcopal bodies of Burlington. He is a member of Grace Methodist Episcopal church, in the movement for whose erection he was a leader, and it was Mrs. Sweny who chose its name, bestowing upon it that of Grace Episcopal church of New York, in which city she had relatives. While making his residence at Xenia, Ohio, Mr. Sweny served on the church's official board, was class leader, steward, and trustee, and was likewise engaged and connected while at Kenton, where much of the time he was also superintendent of the Sunday-school. In the organization of the Sunday-school assembly and camp-meeting of Bluff Park at Montrose, Iowa, he took an active part, and to his efforts is largely due the celebrated artesian well that is such an attractive and popular feature of the grounds. He still maintains a cottage at the park, and for many years was accustomed to spend a portion of the season there. As one of the board of trustees and a member of the various committees of the association, he has given much time, money, and earnest effort to advance its interests. At one period he was president of the association, member of the board of trustees, and at the same time was serving upon eight different committees, these being the committee on grounds, finance, transportation, sale of lots, artesian well, sanitarium, old institute property and the executive committee. He has ever been a most generous supporter of all religious movements, giving freely of his substance to the churches, and offering his financial aid in all departments of their work.
In the early days of Iowa's development Mr. Sweny bought a great deal of prairie land in different places, and laid out towns on the sites thus selected, laying out in this manner a number of now flourishing county-seat towns and owning much property outside of Burlington, particularly at Afton. But his interests are now almost exclusively in this city, where he is still largely interested in real estate, owning practically all of the Sweny Addition and a number of lots and some very handsome residence buildings in the Highland Addition. Besides his activities in real estate, he was one of the organizers of the Merchants National Bank of Burlington, in which he is a stockholder and director, and it may be said that the institution owes much to the benefit of his advice and counsel.
In his fraternal connection, Mr. Sweny is a member of Washington Lodge, No. 1, Independent Order Odd Fellows, having been affiliated with the order continuously since 1853, when he became a member at Kenton, Ohio. He has also been a member of the Grand Lodge of Iowa, and a number of years ago was elected and served as its grand chaplain.
His political faith is that of the Republican party, of which he has been an ardent supporter since its organization. He was a delegate from Ohio to the national convention at Niagara Falls, N. Y., which placed General Winfield Scott in nomination for the presidency of the United States. As one taking a prominent part in politics of the time, he became personally acquainted with many famous men, including General Corse, Governor Gear, and Judge Newman, and was an intimate friend of Senator Harlan, who, after the removal of Mr. Sweny to Iowa, secured for him an appointment to a departmental office at Washington, where he served during a session of Congress.
Mr. and Mrs. Sweny have a beautiful home, one of the earliest in that part of the city, at 113 Clay Street, built by Mr. Sweny in 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, which they attended, and here they have resided ever since, the center of a generous and courtly hospitality. They have reared two children, the daughter and son of Mrs. Sweny's sister, these being Anna L. Browne, now wife of H. W. Buford, Chicago, who has one son, Joseph Browne; Buford and Harry G. Browne, the latter of whom, now conducting a successful commission business at Omaha. Nebr., married Miss Lena Nissen, and has two children, Clarissa and Ward Livingston.
Our subject retains many interesting and instructive memories of the early days of Burlington, and mentions especially that Prospect Hill, on which now stand many of the city's finest residences, was then almost entirely covered with underbrush and woods, and having but two dwellings upon its whole extent, was a favorite resort of picnic parties. For his part in her upbuilding and advancement along many lines, the city of Burlington owes him much. He not only deserves the high credit which belongs to the title of self-made man, to which he has an indubitable right, but he is justly the recipient of much honor from all who know him because he has helped many others. Utterly unselfish in all that he has done, he has never sought private gain at public expense, but has proved himself an altruist by lifelong devotion to the general welfare, seeking to confer upon all the material and spiritual benefits which his broad human sympathy will not allow him to arrogate to his own use alone. Such a life is a blessing to any city, and is a credit to American ideals of citizenship and Christian manhood.
That Mr. Sweny possesses business and executive ability of a remarkable order, the great success he has achieved is ample proof, for his accomplishment in the field of practical affairs is beyond all praise, and has elicited universal commendation. That such a man should have many true and devoted friends is almost a matter of course, and this pleasure he enjoys in an eminent degree. But when the facts of his life are sifted and weighed, it will be found that the most important thing of all is not the success he has achieved by reason of his great natural gifts and determined personality, not the friendship, admiration, and applause of his fellow-men, not even the benefits he has directly conferred upon others, but the eternal potency for good which exhales from his life as a whole, the supreme benefit of his example to generations yet to come, the fact that he has been broad-minded, charitable, and self-reliant, — a cultured gentleman, a Christian, and a true man.