William French Wheeler
(June 12, 1811 - June 6, 1892)
He continued in this branch of lumbering business ten years, when he married Eleanor Knox, of
Blandford, built a mill, and manufactured lumber for the Philadelphia market. In 1813, the family
moved to Deposit (then called Cook House from the Indian name, Kookoose) in Delaware County.
Here, young William F. Wheeler spent a happy boyhood of work and play in company with his four
brothers and two sisters. He could ride a slab either side up on the river, or a horse without saddle or
When fifteen years old, he went to Philadelphia on his father’s lumber and acquired a fondness for
rafts and the life of a lumberman. When ready to return, his father gave him his choice: to ride home
by way of New York or to walk home and save his money. He chose the latter way and walked
home with the younger men.
His father owned mills and timber on the Starucca creek, fourteen miles from Deposit. Here, the son
enjoyed taking charge of men at work, getting in logs in winter and piling lumber in summer. The
quieter life of a farmer, for which his father intended him, was a kind of occupation that did not fit
him well. In April 1833, he was placed in charge of a large farm belonging to his father in Greene,
Chenango County, but though he worked hard, he was always thinking of pine trees, saw-mills, and
rafts. Hearing of great forests of pine timber in the valley of the Allegany River, he studied maps and
statistics of this region with his father and others and decided that this was the only source of lumber
supply for the whole valley of the Mississippi.
The elder William Wheeler (always called “Deacon Wheeler”) and “Deacon” Ezra May (also of
Deposit) went to the Allegany River to look the ground over. They bought 1,500 acres of pine
timber and a saw-mill on Dodge Creek in what is now the town of Portville, then a part of Olean. On
their return to Deposit, a company was formed consisting of Ezra May, William Wheeler, William F.
Wheeler, Henry Dusenbury, Edgar Gregory, and Russell Kelsey, the firm name being Dusenbury,
Wheeler, May & Co. The purpose of the company was to buy more land, build a store, and, in time,
do a large lumbering business. This plan was carried out. At the end of a year, Mr. Kelsey sold his
interest in the firm to Henry Van Bergen, of Cincinnati. Every member of the new firm was an
experienced and practical lumberman. It was their avowed purpose not only to do business in an
energetic and thorough manner, but also to exert a strong moral and Christian influence in the
community where they lived.
In February of 1834, William F. Wheeler first came to the new place of business, making the journey
by stage to Friendship and walking the remaining seventeen miles. Life in the wild forests of the
Allegany was very different from that along the more settled shores of the Delaware. Nothing like a
Christian Sabbath was known in the region to which the young man had come. His first Sunday was
spent in the saw-mill looking out upon the water pouring over the dam and thinking of home and the
friends that he had left.
The partners in Deposit had made a contract with a builder to put up the new store. It was to be
built and raised without the use of liquor. This was difficult to accomplish, for no substantial
building had ever been raised in that vicinity without liquor being provided for the men. Deacon May
had come, and both he and William F. Wheeler determined that, in this case, no liquor should be
furnished. Their builder said they could never find men to raise it, and they replied: “Then let the
timber rot on the ground.” The timber was heavy and the building could not be raised without many
men. Mr. Wheeler rode on horseback for six miles, calling on men to come to a “cold water
raising.” The men laughed and said they had never heard of such a thing. But they came and the
building was raised. It was then said: “There must be liquor in it to treat the customers,” for this
was the universal practice all along the river. But in this also, the strict principles of the firm
prevailed, and no liquor has ever been sold upon their property.
The first lumber they produced (pine lumber of good quality) was sold in Pittsburgh at $4.75 a
thousand feet, and they were obliged to take horses for part of the payment. This price made them a
loss of more than a dollar on a thousand feet. The prospect was gloomy: prices were low, the new
firm was in debt, and it was necessary to buy more land in order to succeed. But their courage
never failed. At this time, mail reached them only one a week, the post office being first in Olean and
afterward in Mill Grove. Religious services were held in Mr. Wheeler’s dining room; and in 1836,
the firm built a little school house, which was also used for a church. Sometimes a Methodist and
sometimes a Presbyterian was the minister. At one time, they engaged a Seventh Day Baptist to
work at rolling logs through the week and preaching Sundays, and they paid him the same price for
both kinds of work. Previous to this, Mr. Wheeler had been in the habit of riding horseback to Olean
and attending service held in an upper room in a house then owned by David Day, afterward by C. V.
B. Barse, and now, in 1892, by F. W. Higgins. The Rev. Mr. Morris, an Episcopal clergyman from
Ellicottville, conducted these services, which were not held at regular intervals.
The mercantile business was conducted chiefly by Mr. Dusenbury. Mr. Wheeler said of him: “Mr.
Dusenbury was a thorough-going, upright business man, well fitted for the position he occupied.
Conscientious in every act, reliable as the sun, he watched every need and development of our
business, and his stability gave success to the firm. We were well fitted to work together, as each
possessed qualities lacking in the other.” Their custom was to make all indebtedness payable on the
first day of July without interest, and they never failed to meet the payments at that time. This
promptness kept their credit good. The banking business was all done at Bath in Steuben county,
seventy miles away, that being the nearest bank. In 1837, they opened a lumber yard in Cincinnati;
about a year afterward, they purchased 4,000 acres of pine timber and a mill on Tionesta creek in
Forest County, Pa. To make this purchase, Mr. Wheeler made a long journey on horseback through
the forests with snow six inches deep. After riding thirty-six miles the first afternoon, he spent the
night in a log house and pushed on the next day by a path through the woods, there being no road.
When the path came to an end, he followed the creek, in which he rode for about eight miles.
Reaching the property, he examined the timber and secured the land, having to go to Franklin to draw
the necessary papers. He then returned on horseback through the woods to his home. He had
promised to make a cash payment of $8,000 (then a very large amount) within thirty days. Reaching
Portville after his ride of 150 miles from Franklin, he changed his horse for a fresh one and rode on
to Bath without taking rest. Here he obtained some money and then rode on to Deposit to see his
father and obtain the rest. He made the journey of 200 miles in four days from the time of leaving
Portville. They soon purchased more property in Pennsylvania, where they have continued the
lumbering business to the present time.
In 1839, Mr. Wheeler married Miss Flora Atkins, daughter of Judge Q. F. Atkins, of Cleveland, Ohio,
then living in Olean. She was a most devout member of the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Wheeler
himself had united with the Presbyterian Church in Deposit at the age of twenty years. As there was
no Presbyterian church in Cattaraugus county, it was thought best to organize one in Olean, it being a
central point. This was done in 1838, both Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Dusenbury being active in its
organization, which took place in the house occupied by Judge Atkins. Mr. Wheeler and Mr.
Dusenbury with their families attended church regularly in Olean until the formation of the Portville
Church, services at first being held in a wagon shop purchased for a church. In 1849, a
Presbyterian church was organized in Portville and Mr. Dusenbury and Mr. Wheeler were prominent
among its founders. Services were held here, first in a school house and afterward in the Methodist
church. In 1852, the Presbyterian church building in Portville was erected. For eight years, Mr.
Wheeler was superintendent of the Sunday School and for several years, he was the sole trustee of
the public school.
In 1850, Mrs. Wheeler died, leaving three children: Nelson P., Egbert (William E.), and Augusta
(Mrs. E. A. Skinner), two having died. In 1851, Mr. Wheeler, of Deposit, died, and in the following
year, William F. Wheeler married Miss Marilla Clarke, of Peacham, Vt., a wife in every way worthy
of him, and who survives him. Of this marriage, there was but one child, Lilla C.
After the death of Mr. Dusenbury in 1860, Mr. Wheeler, with his two sons, and the three sons of
Mr. Henry Dusenbury, continued the business under the name of William F. Wheeler & Co. This
establishment has not remained merely a firm of lumbermen; its business has extended in many
important and different directions, and through all their varied and complicated transactions, the most
kindly relations have always existed between the members of the firm, and their trust in each other’s
integrity and honor has remained unbroken.
In 1860, Mr. Wheeler was elected an Elder in the Presbyterian Church. When in 1871, the First
National Bank of Olean was organized, (it being the first National Bank in the county), Mr. Wheeler
was elected president and held this office continuously until his death. In 1879, he was elected to the
State Legislature, but refused to be a candidate a second time. He always took a deep interest in
politics and was pronounced and outspoken in his opinions; at first, one of the early Whig party,
afterward a strong and active Republican.
He was always public spirited and generous, taking an interest in all enterprises for the good of his
own and neighboring towns. One of his greatest pleasures was in making a benevolent use of his
means. His gifts were not confined to his own church or his own denomination. The churches of
his own village and (with a single exception) all those of Olean have received aid from him. The
different churches of Deposit, (his early home), and of the regions of Pennsylvania and in Michigan
where his property lay, have received substantial tokens of his generosity. Many a poor student,
struggling toward an education, has found his hand stretched out to help. The children of the
Orphan’s Home at Randolph for years have had abundant cause to thank him. His abounding
cheerfulness, his hearty friendliness, his sound judgment, and his wise counsels have blessed many
who needed a friend.
He retained his strength of mind and his vigor of body to a remarkable degree into old age. He
continued to ride on horseback until he was eighty years old, and he took pleasure in driving a pair of
spirited horses of his own raising until within a few weeks of his death. On the 6th of June, 1892, a
few days before his eighty-first birthday, and surrounded by his wife and children, Mr. Wheeler died
at his home in Portville, where he had spent his long and useful life.
(This biographical sketch was copied from Lyman, Horton & Co's (Limited) Historical Gazetteer and
Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, N. Y., ed. by Wm. Adams, 1893, pp. 1021-1024.
This piece was written for this publication by his daughter, Miss Lilla C. Wheeler).
|The Portville Historical and Preservation Society
|17 Maple Avenue
Portville, NY 14770
Portville, New York
Hon. William F. Wheeler was born in June,
1811, in the town of Hancock, Delaware
County, N. Y. He was the son of William
Wheeler, a native of New London, Conn.
years in Blandford, Mass., and when
twenty-one years old came from there to
Hancock with three brothers.
They had no capital, but purchased pine
timber, built a cabin on the bank of the
Delaware River, and began the business of
lumbering. They cut the trees, hauled them
to the river-bank, and “run” them in rafts to
Philadelphia. Their first raft was “stove,”
as raftsmen say; that is, broken to pieces
and lost. This did not discourage them.
They came back without money, but with
good credit, and at once began getting out
more timber. William Wheeler piloted the
next raft himself and it went safely to