Industrialist, banker, insurance magnate, merchant, railroad operator, philanthropist, arts patron, civic leader: placing a label on Sherman S. Jewett is not an easy task. His story could readily be mistaken for a piece of Horatio Alger fiction. Even in an era noted for its “self-made” individuals, Jewett stood out from his peers.
Sherman Skinner Jewett was born in Moravia, New York, a small community near Syracuse, on January 17, 1818. His father and mother, Josiah and Sophia Skinner Jewett, were farmers who had migrated to central New York from Connecticut. Sherman was the eldest son of several children. His opportunity for formal education was limited, and he was able to attend school only during the winter months. At 15, Jewett went to work as a clerk in a store operated by a relative. The following year, he left farming for good and sought to find his fortune. He came to the very young city of Buffalo in 1834, afterwards claiming to friends that he had only fifty cents in his pocket upon his arrival.
Jewett located employment in Buffalo at a foundry owned by his uncle, learning the business from the bottom by cleaning castings and painting the plows the firm produced. Subsequently, he learned the trade of molder. He was able to supplement his private studies with some additional formal education, which he put to practical use by serving as timekeeper and clerk for the foundry. A fire, unfortunately, closed his uncle’s establishment not long afterward.
Jewett’s own business career began in September, 1836, when he became the junior partner in the firm of Root, Day & Co., which opened a small foundry in Mississippi Street, near South Park Avenue. Not long afterward, his uncle joined the firm, having bought the interest of one of the partners. In 1838, Jewett formed the partnership of Dudley and Jewett; two years later, he operated the foundry as sole proprietor. In 1843, he formed the firm of Jewett & Root, teaming again with one of his original collaborators. The company’s primary business became stove manufacture. Branches were eventually established in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and San Francisco; and its Buffalo hub of operations grew to encompass nearly five acres of manufacturing, wholesale and retail activity. In 1875, Jewett’s son Josiah joined the firm. It was reorganized as Sherman S. Jewett & Co. in 1878, in partnership with his sons Henry and Josiah.
Jewett was married in 1839 to Deborah Dusenberry of Buffalo. They had six children, two of whom unfortunately failed to live to adulthood. He was called “a most companionable man, extremely cordial and genial, a capital story teller and a delightful, pleasant, agreeable colleague.” He was a founder and officer of both the Buffalo Club and the Falconwood Club, the latter being Buffalo’s most exclusive Niagara River resort of its day. Jewett’s passion was fishing. His steam yacht Titania was a very familiar sight on the river. In his later years he was fond of spending his winters in Florida or California.
S. S. Jewett actively employed his time and wealth to improve his community. He was a member of the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. An active member of the Baptist denomination, his charitable activities transcended sectarian bounds. Buffalo Seminary and Rochester University both benefited from his purse. He served as a trustee for Forest Lawn Cemetery.
He was active with the Young Men’s Association, particularly its efforts to develop a public library. In 1863, its president (who had in a spirited contest recently defeated Jewett for election to that position) proposed a building for the library at a cost which would be extremely difficult to raise by subscription. He suggested that the building committee, of which Jewett was a member, lead the way with personal contributions. Jewett was the first to speak, and it might have been expected that he would oppose his rival’s plan. Instead, he earned the admiration of all by offering his wholehearted support to the proposal and pledging a very sizable sum to ensure its success.
He was also one of the founders of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, not only serving on its board of trustees for eight years and as its president for one, but in 1872 he contributed a $10,000 endowment to the academy at a crucial period in its development. Stimulated by his generosity, other members matched Jewett’s gift, allowing the original sum to be set aside (as the “Jewett fund”) with the interest it earned used for the purchase art works for the academy’s collection.
Jewett’s contemporaries ascribed his success to practical knowledge and shrewd commercial sense, not to good fortune or speculation. He was a member of the Board of Directors and a President of the National Association of Stove Manufacturers, the trade association of his industry. He naturally expanded his investments into the areas of banking, insurance and railroads, leaving the more volatile fields of investment, such as real estate development, to others. The activities of several other prominent Buffalo citizens with the same surname have somewhat obscured this point. Newspaper publisher Elam R. Jewett, the namesake of Jewett Parkway, who owned a 450 acre estate north and east of Delaware Park, was unrelated to S. S. Jewett. Sherman Jewett played no role in the development companies which acquired Elam Jewett’s holdings from his estate and engaged Frederick Law Olmsted to help them develop the lands as the Parkside residential community.
S. S. Jewett was a founder or director of several banks, including the Marine Bank and the Manufacturers and Traders Bank. He was president of the Bank of Buffalo from its founding until 1892. He was a founder and director of the Buffalo Mutual Insurance Co., and distinguished himself by over three years of diligent work when selected assignee for the principal Buffalo insurance firms which were among many across the nation bankrupted in the aftermath of the great Chicago fire of 1871. The need for cheap coal for his foundry led Jewett to investment in railroads, and he served as a director of the New York Central railroad and as president of both the Western Transit Co. and the Buffalo, New York & Philadelphia railroad. He guided the later railroad from near bankruptcy to full profitability and on its sale in 1881 returned the entire $700,000 investment of the City of Buffalo – as unusual a situation then as it would be now.
Elected to the Buffalo Board of Alderman several times during the 1840s, Jewett was nominated to run for Congress in 1878, but he declined to accept the honor. In 1880, he was chosen a presidential elector. He was on familiar terms with President U. S. Grant and other prominent Republican political figures. Some of the nation’s most powerful business leaders, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, were Jewett’s intimates as well.
Jewett was prominent among the Buffalo citizens who sought to establish a public park for Buffalo modeled after Central Park in New York. At William Dorsheimer’s invitation, Frederick Law Olmsted came to Buffalo to tour possible sites. A meeting of those interested in the park project was held August 25, 1868, with Jewett hosting the meeting at his mansion at 256 Delaware Avenue. With about 60 prominent citizens in attendance, Dorsheimer first explained why the gathering had been called. Then Olmsted described the benefits of a park to a city, gave his impressions of possible sites, and outlined his vision of a unique park system for consisting of distinct and complementary parks interconnected by several broad parkways.
Olmsted’s proposals found an enthusiastic audience. The assembly resolved to form a committee to consult with Olmsted and have prepared detailed plans which they would then present to the Common Council. Jewett, Dorsheimer, Pascal P. Pratt, Joseph Warren and Richard Flach were chosen as the committee. They completed their work on October 1st, and the plans were accepted by the City the next month. The State Legislature having passed required enabling legislation, on May 1, 1869, the mayor appointed the first Board of Parks Commissioners. Prominent among the citizens chosen to serve on the uncompensated board was S. S. Jewett.
Jewett faithfully served on the Park Board right up until his death. When fellow industrialist and banker Pascal Pratt retired as President of the Board in 1879, Jewett was selected to succeed him. His standing with his fellow members is underlined by his annual reelection to that office for the remainder of his life.
S. S. Jewett was fervent in his support of the principles of Frederick Law Olmsted, and staunchly stood behind William McMillan, the Park Superintendent and senior employee of the Board, in efforts to shape the park system in conformance to Olmsted’s principles. The pressures for changes to the parks as Olmsted envisioned them, which later led to McMillan’s dismissal from his post and the intrusion of large structures into the rural beauty of the parks, came only after Jewett succumbed to several months of illness on February 28, 1897, at the age of 79. He was buried in Forest Lawn cemetery.
Under Jewett’s leadership, the Park Board was known as “the most incorruptible municipal body in Buffalo. No scandals have occurred to mar its bright record, no suspicion has ever attached to any of its work.” The Buffalo Courier proclaimed that “…the thing that will endear his name to future generations of Buffalonians as yet unborn – was his devotion to the Buffalo Park system – his zeal and public spirit, his fearless honesty, his incorruptible and indefatigable loyalty to the city and the taxpayers.” The words ring true. Whatever label we ascribe to Sherman S. Jewett, the Buffalo park system is indeed his legacy.