Sawyer Home and Grounds

Sawyer Family

The Sawyers moved to Wisconsin in 1847. Philetus and Melvina Sawyer and their child Edgar emigrated from Crown Point, New York, and settled first in a Rosendale homestead before relocating to Oshkosh in 1849. Upon arriving in Oshkosh, Philetus plunged into the lumbering business, where he worked his way up to becoming the chief man in a lumber mill. He soon began making substantial earnings, which he then further invested in railroads and the lumber industry. In one year between August 1883 and August 1884, Philetus purchased more than 2,240 acres of land in what was then Ashland County, Wisconsin. Philetus had excellent business sense and his lumber career flourished. Philetus greatly enjoyed public life and later launched a successful political career, first serving as mayor of Oshkosh in 1863-64, before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1856, where he served five terms. Following, Philetus was elected into the Senate and served for two terms. Philetus Sawyer died in Oshkosh on March 29, 1900, of kidney failure.

His charitable acts to the city and people of Oshkosh were numerous. Perhaps the most well known act is his gift of $25,000 toward the building of the public library. (About $615,000 in 2007 dollars.) His name appears on the library exterior, and one of the lions at the library entrance is named Sawyer in his honor. Sawyer Street in Oshkosh and Sawyer County, Wisconsin, are also named for the Senator.

Edgar Sawyer, born December 2, 1842, was seven years old at the time his family moved to Oshkosh. Edgar grew up in Oshkosh as an early settler and attended Oshkosh High School, followed by a course in a business college in Milwaukee.

When his father was elected to congress in 1857, much of the responsibility for the lumber business was given to Edgar and at the age of 21, Edgar and his father Philetus became partners in a firm called P. Sawyer & Son. New enterprises were undertaken and investments made under Edgar’s direction. Over the next decade his success in business was great. Lumbering was not the only business interest for Edgar; he had an amazing ability to recognize investment opportunities and well-timed expansions. He went on to become a successful banker and businessman with diversified investments. He purchased and operated the Oshkosh Gas Light Company, which included the dual light and power system of gas and electricity, eventually sold to the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation. For many years he was also financially interested in and an officer of the Banderob & Chase Company, furniture manufacturers in Oshkosh. Edgar Sawyer’s other business interests included the Wisconsin-Delaware Company, the Sawyer Company and the First National Bank. Another enterprise in which he was interested was the Sawyer Cattle Company of Texas, which existed under that name between 1884 and 1954. Known originally as the Bar S Ranch, it contained 175,000 acres of land in Irion and Reagan counties, Texas, stocked with 10,000 head of cattle.

Unlike his father, Edgar did not enjoy the public spotlight. He made many philanthropic gifts to the people of Oshkosh without any fanfare. He was a plain and matter-of-fact man, loved literature, travel and his favorite saddle horse, Silver. He owned several fine boats and enjoyed leisure time boating on the lakes. In business he practiced absolute fairness and generosity. The Sawyers were well liked and respected.

In 1864 Edgar married Mary Eleanor Jewell, daughter of Henry C. and Mary Russell Jewell, uniting two prominent Oshkosh families. The wedding took place in the Jewell home at the corner of Oshkosh Avenue and Eagle Street; today the corner is known as Mary Jewell Park. Mary was born in Canaan, New York, on July 3, 1842, and like her husband, came to Wisconsin with her parents when she was very young. Her father, Henry Jewell, was a prominent citizen, at one time mayor of Oshkosh and a member of the state legislature.

Mary Sawyer was a woman of rare intellectual ability and achievements. In an era when women’s clubs began to flourish, she was among the first to recognize their importance. She was a charter member of the Leisure Hour Art Club, formed in 1886 for the purpose of studying art, and was influential in organizing the Twentieth Century Club, which still exists today, and served as its first president. Later she was elected president of the Wisconsin Federation of Women’s Clubs, another organization that still exists today.

During the early years of their marriage the couple lived in Fond du Lac, and later moved to Oshkosh where they raised two children, Philetus II (Phil) and Maria Melvina (Nia). Nia married Charles Chase in 1886 and Phil married Caroline Upham in 1896 and moved into the house immediately south of the Edgar Sawyer residence, which still stands today.

When Edgar and Mary returned to Oshkosh, they lived in a fine Second Empire style house on the same site as the present-day Museum. The original estate encompassed almost the entire block and was on the outskirts of the city when it was constructed. In 1907 the Second Empire house, lovely as it was, was demolished to make room for a grand and modern new house, the structure that now houses the Oshkosh Public Museum. Edgar and Mary moved into their new home in 1909.

Sadly, Mary passed away from heart failure the following year in Augusta, Georgia, where she and members of the family had wintered, hoping that the milder climate would benefit her failing health. Mary is interred in the Sawyer mausoleum at Riverside Cemetery.

After Mary’s death, Edgar spent most of his time at Waldwic, their summer home on the shores of nearby Lake Butte des Morts, and at a home in Palm Beach, Florida. Edgar maintained his Algoma Boulevard residence with a full staff of servants even though he seldom lived in the home. In October 1922 he donated the residence to the City of Oshkosh in memory of his wife.

Edgar Sawyer died at his home in Palm Beach on April 17, 1927, at age 84. Edgar is buried in the family mausoleum in Riverside Cemetery.

Today there are Sawyer descendants living across the country in New York, Oregon, California, Florida, Oklahoma, Oshkosh and in Europe. The names Sawyer, Edgar, Chase, and those of other ancestors live on in the names of the present day lineage. Several family members of the sixth and seventh generations have contacted the Museum for information about their relatives.