Chester Franklin Wickwire was the second child of Raymond and Elmira Wickwire, farmers living in McGraw, NY. In 1865, Chester left home at the age of 22 to seek his fortune in the nearby city of Cortland, NY. He opened a grocery store and a hardware store on Main Street. One year after moving to Cortland, Chester married Ardell Lucy Rouse and they moved into her mother’s house at 17 Tompkins Street. In 1873, a customer, Rowland Hall of Elmira, NY, entered Chester store in order to purchase some plant stands. Unable to pay in cash, he bartered with Chester. Chester received several dog muzzles, rat traps, and egg beaters along with a carpet loom in payment for the plant stands. Having always been mechanically minded, Chester tinkered with the carpet loom so that is would weave wire. He started producing wire cloth for his hardware store and found a ready market for weaved wire goods. Chester purchased more looms to accommodate the growing business and developed a partnership with his younger brother, Theodore. Together they created Wickwire Brothers Company. In 1876, they sold the hardware store in order to start producing wire cloth full time. In 1880, they had outgrown their space on Main Street and so Chester purchased land on South Main Street where the brothers erected their new 40-acres factory. By 1883, they had become the second largest producer of wire goods in the United States. Chester was an effective and efficient businessman. He knew his business from top-to-bottom. Chester could operate and fix all of the machines in his factory. His employees respected him and admired his inventiveness and mechanical ability.
Even after becoming one of Cortland’s most prominent citizens, Chester was described by his contemporaries as quiet, modest, sincere, kindly, and genuine. Victorians believed that hard work and improvement were important and that everyone had a civic responsibility. Chester was often called on for advice and leadership and commonly assisted with municipal works such as paving roads and running sewer lines. He was a trustee of the First National Bank, the First Presbyterian Church, and the Franklin Hatch Library Association. The best demonstration of his concern for Cortland’s citizens, however, was his gift of the first Cortland County hospital.
Chester showed that he was a typical Victorian by his devotion to family. Raymond, Chester’s first son, was born in 1872. Unfortunately, Raymond passed away at the age of five from scarlet fever. It was several years later that Chester and Ardell’s second son Charles was born followed closely by their third son, Frederic. Chester played a large role in the boys’ education and training. Both boys took music and French lessons and attended Ivy League schools. Chester took them on trips to NYC, the west coast, and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in order to educate them about the world outside Cortland.
In 1888, Chester was 45 years old and a successful businessman. His family had grown and he started to think that his family needed a new home. That summer, Chester was in New York City for business when a house caught his eye. He knocked on the door and discovered that is was the residence of James Anthony Bailey of Barnum and Bailey Circus. He liked the house so much that he hired the same architect, Samuel Burrage Reed, to build a mirror-image of it for him in Cortland. Construction on the house began in June 1888 and finished in June 1889. After furnishing his new home, Chester and his family moved in in the summer of 1890. The house cost Chester $75,000 and is 15,000 sq. feet.
Chester and his family, while typically Victorian in many ways, never lived as flamboyantly as was common among other successful industrialists of the period. Ardell made the house a pleasant retreat for Chester where he could relax while not at work. Chester also spent his free time on his favorite hobby of raising and racing horses.
Chester lived in his house for 20 years before passing away from a heart attack in 1910 at the age of 67. The hospital that he donated to Cortland was nearly completion at the time.
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