Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Other Overholser

You don't have to look very deep into the history of Oklahoma City to encounter the names of Henry Overholser (1846-1915) and Edward Overholser (1869-1931). Henry came to the city on the day of the 1889 Land Run with six prefabricated wood-frame buildings (above) on railroad cars and quickly became an important real estate and entertainment impresario. The mansion he built in 1903 was for years the city's social center (and is now a house museum operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society).

Edward, Henry's son by his first marriage, inherited some of his father's interests but succeeded where his father had failed: he was elected mayor of Oklahoma City in 1915. (Oklahoma City history blogger Doug Loudenback has written about Henry and Edward on his blog.) It was primarily for Edward but also in part for Henry that the city's reservoir was named Lake Overholser in 1918.

But what does this have to do with my humble origins, you ask? Some of you who are Clara Paxton's descendants or relatives already know that there are Overholsers in our tree: we descend from Henry's older brother Levi (Lee) Overholser (1836–1905), who also came to Oklahoma City in its early days and also did well in business there, though not as spectacularly as his brother. If, as is often said, Henry Overholser was the father of Oklahoma City, that would make our Lee the uncle of Oklahoma City (and me the city's first cousin thrice removed!).

So here's where the Overholser brothers came from: They were born on a farm in Montgomery County, Ohio, near present-day Dayton, sons of John and Elizabeth (Niswonger) Overholser. Their grandfather, Jacob Overholser, was a blacksmith in Pennsylvania before moving to Ohio, and his children were all baptized in the Lutheran-Reformed Church. (The Overholsers of our acquaintance would later be Presbyterians--a close fit theologically with the Calvinism of the Reformed church and probably a concession to the fact that the German Protestant churches were harder to find as they moved southwest.) The Overholser family was German in origin, while Elizabeth Niswonger's forebears (originally Neuenschwangers before they met up with Scotch-Irish attempts to pronounce the name in the hills of Virginia) had come from Switzerland.

Levi and Henry were among 13 children in their family, and it was probably assumed that they, too, would be farmers. The 1850 census shows a 14-year-old Levi on his father's farm, listed as a "laborer." But Levi and Henry both ended up leaving the farm for careers in business--the earliest among any of my ancestors to trade farm life for small-town life.

In the 1860 census, we find Levi living in a hotel in Palestine, Illinois, a town near the Indiana line and about 230 miles from his father's farm. His occupation is "clerk." Also in Palestine in that census is Mary Young, an 18-year-old living with her siblings and widowed mother. (Her father, we know from the previous census, was a shoemaker.) The next year, 1861, Levi and Mary were married. We don't find them in the 1870 census, but we know from other sources that all five of their children who survived into adulthood were born in Palestine between 1863 and 1875. Levi's obituary says that he was "engaged in the general merchandise business and made a success of it" during this period. (They say this happened in Ohio, but the Oklahoman was apparently no less prone to error in 1905 than it is now.) In the 1880 census, no occupation is given for Levi, but he is listed in Palestine with Mary and their five children: "Elley, Charley, Gracey, Hattie M., and William."

Meanwhile, Henry Overholser had left home by 1870. He was living with his wife and two children in Sullivan, Indiana, just 23 miles from Palestine. Probably not coincidentally, he lived next door to Mary Young's brother William, and both were in the dry goods business. There was probably a good deal of collaboration in business among this network of kin.

Some time after 1880, the family left Illinois for southeastern Kansas. We don't know for sure when Levi and Mary moved there, but their oldest child, Ella, married J.C. Haskett in Illinois in 1880 and gave birth to their first child, Frank, in Baxter Springs, Kansas, in 1883.

We don't know why the family moved west, but the usual answer was economic opportunity. It's possible that the Overholsers were already casting their eyes on the Unassigned Lands of Oklahoma, as the Boomer Movement to open those lands had begun as early as 1879. Levi and Mary's oldest son, Charley, spent some time in the territory before the Land Run, according to his 1928 obituary in the Valley Falls (KS) Vindicator: "As a young man Charley had more than the average share of adventure as a cow-boy on the plains of the Indian Territory in the days immediately proceeding [sic] the opening of Oklahoma, when all the bad men from the entire nation seemed to naturally gravitate to this last 'no-man's land.'"

In the meantime, Henry had made his way to Wisconsin, made a fortune, divorced his wife, and was looking toward Oklahoma himself. But unlike so many who came and pitched tents, Henry built some of the city's first "permanent" structures (in quotes because he soon replaced them with brick buildings). And though he's never mentioned in the history books, Levi was there very early on: in an 1889 Oklahoma City directory, Henry is living at 201-1/2 West Grand, on the second floor of one of his buildings, and Levi and his 15-year-old son Will are next door in another of the prefabs at 203-1/2.

According to Levi's obituary, he didn't move to Oklahoma City until 1892 or '93. But I suspect he and perhaps Will spent a lot of time there in the intervening years, waiting until a semblance of order and civility had been established before bringing Mary to the city. (The other children all left home around this time: Grace married George Paxton in 1893 and was living in Joplin, Missouri; Hattie married Bert L. Jones that same year and lived in Columbus, Kansas. Ella and J.C. Haskett remained in Baxter Springs (before moving to Oklahoma City in 1912), and Charley had traded in the adventurous life of a cow-boy for a career in dry goods in Valley Falls, Kansas.)

While Henry Overholser promoted railroads, telephones, an opera house, the state fair, and real estate, Levi dealt in property and insurance in a partnership called Overholser and Avey. In 1893, Levi and Mary traveled to Chicago for the Worlds Fair (as we know from a souvenir handkerchief of Mary's); the fair's gleaming vision of a planned, classical city must have inspired the Overholsers--and shown them what a long way their young city had to go.

When Henry built his mansion in 1903--way out in the cornfields of NW 15th Street--he and Anna (wife #2, his trophy wife) introduced it to society with a big party. The next day, as we read in the Oklahoman society page, was reserved for family: besides Henry's son Edward, they had Levi and Mary, the Hasketts, and Will Overholser and his wife Ella to dinner.

Levi died in 1905; the cause listed in the cemetery records is "stomach trouble." The Oklahoman, under the headline "Prominent Citizen Dead," reported that he left an estate of $100,000. He and Mary lived at the time at 1602 N. Robinson, an address later occupied by J.C. and Ella Haskett when they moved to the city. (Will and Ella Overholser later lived at 1610 N. Robinson. Neither home still stands.)

Mary died two years later in Baxter Springs, presumably while visiting the Hasketts there. Again, the Oklahoman reported (left, click image to enlarge) that the estate was worth about $100,000 (about $2.1 million in 2006 dollars), most of which was in real estate.

Levi and Mary had five children who survived to adulthood (we know from the 1900 census that Mary had also had five children who were no longer living, presumably having died in infancy) and at least 11 grandchildren. Here's a quick rundown:

Ella Overholser (1863–1937) married J.C. Haskett. As I said, they lived in Kansas until 1912 and then moved to Oklahoma City, where all three of their sons ended up living. Their sons were: Frank C. Haskett (1883-1967), Paul E. Haskett (1886-1966), and Clarence R. Haskett (1892-1962).

Charles L. Overholser (1865–1928) married Susan Gardiner. They had no children, but they raised Grace's orphaned daughter Clara Paxton during her teenage years.

Grace E. Overholser (1869–1901) married George Bailey Paxton. They lived in Joplin, Missouri. She died of pneumonia in 1901. George died of Bright's Disease in 1910. They had two children, George Burton Paxton (1896–1948) and Clara Paxton Jones (1899-1971).

Harriet (Hattie) M. Overholser (1873–aft. 1930) married Bert L. Jones. They lived in Columbus, Kansas, and had three children: George Lee Jones (1896–bef. 1928), Clair L. Jones (1898–?), and Helen Jones Winter (1904–?).

William Levi Overholser (1875–1964) married Ella King. They lived in Oklahoma City and had three children: Mary Overholser Meder (1898–1977), William Levi Overholser Jr. (1907–1993), and Charles Kent Overholser (1909–1962).

As always, I wish I had more information and pictures of some of these people. If you have any to share, please e-mail me at

UPDATE, 6/12/07: A railroad historian has sent me some newspaper references that suggest that Levi was involved in building a railroad near Palestine. It got rather contentious, and at least once Lee had to pull out his revolver. Details here.

UPDATE, 6/15/07: It gets worse. Levi may have been something of a crook. . . .

1 comment:

Dwight Sulc said...

On a tour of the OKC Overholser Mansion I learned that Henry and Anna's daughter suffered a n accident in a stroller from the top floor. The tour guide mentioned that the hired house-keeper was to blame. However, I mentioned the matter to my mother, who exclaimed: "Oh, that was Marguerite's mother who was blamed." Marguerite was mother's childhood schoolmate. She continued stating: "Marguerite's mother worked in the Overholser Mansion. She turned the child over to Anna for a short time while she went down stairs to get something. Anna did not recognize the danger quick enough and the child rolled in her stroller off the stairwell, causing a scarry incident" In other words, it was the mother Anna who should have been paying closer attention, not the hired help, who was easily blamed.