Keeping Up With the Sawyers: Chapter 1, In the Spotlight

Keeping Up With the Sawyers

An inside look at the Sawyer family, former residents of the home now used as the Museum

By: Ginny Gross

Chapter 1:  In the Spotlight   

It is not difficult to follow the activities of the Sawyer family. They were frequently mentioned in the local news columns of the Oshkosh papers, and from these snippets, we know about their social life, travels, home improvements, finances, and illnesses. Privacy was not an issue in the late 19th century.

Much of the news before 1900 revolved around Philetus Sawyer, the family patriarch. He and his wife Melvina had a son, Edgar, whose home is now the cornerstone of the Museum, and two daughters, Emma and Erna. Philetus’ life interested everyone, first as a very wealthy lumberman and mayor of Oshkosh, then as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and finally – and especially -- as a  U.S. Senator. In his day, senators were elected every two years by state legislators, and in 1881 Philetus, an energetic senior of 65 years, took his place in the 47th Congress. He served two six-year terms and retired in 1893 at age 77.

Born in 1816, Philetus Sawyer was a self-made man. He came to Wisconsin in 1847 with working capital of $2000 ($53,800 today) and made wise investments in land, timber, railroads, and manufacturing that brought instant return in the newly formed state. His rule was to buy cheap and sell at a large profit. His personal property and real estate in 1860 was worth $43,000[1] (over $1 million today); ten years later, the figure had increased to $110,000[2] ($1.8 million today). His wealth enabled him to join the exclusive club of millionaire senators, a club that continues today.

In the next blog:  Congressional Colleagues

Image: OPM # P2001.1.534

Philetus Sawyer, U.S. Senator

[1]  Federal Census, 1860.

[2]  Federal Census, 1870.

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