John W. Peirce

John W. Peirce, one of the pioneers of Grand Rapids, and a man who for nearly forty years played a leading role in the development of this city from its earliest days, passed from the field of earthly endeavors more than fifty years ago, but so marked was his impress upon the growing city that omission of his name from an historical work even of the present day would be a grievous error. Born at Geneseo, Livingston county, New York on December 4, 1814, one of a family of three sons and three daughters, he was a son of Colonel and Mrs. John Peirce, natives of Virginia who had come to New York state about the time of the War of 1812. John Peirce had won a colonelcy in the New York militia during that conflict, and until about 1830 kept the American and the Fremont hotels at Geneseo, which he had erected. John W. Peirce received a common school education which was supplemented by a limited course of instruction at the Canandaigua Academy, New York. For a time he acted as clerk for Nat Gorham, a merchant of Canandaigua, but the urge to go west was strong upon him, and in 1825 he went to Detroit, clerking for Jason Swift in that city until Hon. Charles H. Carroll purchased what was then called the "Kent plat" in Grand Rapids. In 1836, young Peirce came to the frontier embryo village of Grand Rapids, cast his lot among the people of that place, then so few in number, and here remained until his death. He opened a book store in one of the two buildings erected by the Kent Company for the United States when it was hoped that the government land office, later established at Ionia, would be awarded to this place. This store was located on the northeast corner of Kent and Bronson streets, a site commemorated by a bronze tablet given by Colonel and Mrs. George C. Briggs and Miss Frances E. Peirce in 1909. Mr. Peirce conducted his book store until 1844 at that location, and then embarked in the dry goods and miscellaneous trade on the corner of Canal and Erie streets. His success in this venture was manifest from its inception, and in ten years he was able to erect a handsome three-story brick building on Canal street, which housed his business until destroyed by fire in 1871, entailing a loss of about $30,000. Not discouraged by this catastrophe, he immediately rebuilt his store, and was rapidly recouping his losses when an untimely death took him in his sixtieth year on October 26, 1874. He had amassed a fortune and in so doing had won for himself countless warm friends throughout Kent and adjoining counties by his persistent refusal to sue for debt and the leniency of his dealings with those less fortunate than was he. His interests were varied and many-sided. He was an earnest advocate of all measures which he thought would benefit the city, and in addition to his dry goods business he was for many years the confidential agent of Judge Carroll, of Groveland, New York, who had extensive interests here. He was a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and ever one of its ardent supporters. Some side lights on the character of this man, to whom the present generation owes so much, are taken from the Grand Rapids Daily Eagle of October 27, 1874. "Another distinguishing nark, which many in our midst as they recall the pleasant memories of the past, in connection with the deceased, will dwell upon with no little satisfaction, was his great geniality of disposition, manifested toward all.  His presence in any society or assembly was always welcome; his quick wit and flow of animal spirits were ‘well springs of delight,’ from which any amount of humor and conviviality could be called forth. In his dress and manner of living he was plain an unostentatious, putting on no ‘style’ as the world understands that word, but viewing all questions pertaining to the conventionalities of life from a practical, and perhaps severe, democratic standpoint." Mr. Peirce was married in 1842 to Sarah L., the only daughter of Colonel Amos Roberts, of whom special mention is made hereinafter, and at the time of his death Mr. Peirce was survived by a daughter Julia, who was the wife of Colonel George G. Briggs, Frances E., and a son, A. LeGrand. Mrs. L. Victor Seydel, now residing in Grand Rapids, was before her marriage Ethel Cornelia Peirce, daughter of A. LeGrand Peirce and granddaughter of John W. Peirce, and a great-granddaughter of Colonel Amos Roberts, and her children Frances Louise and Victor Seydel, constitute the fifth generation consecutively living in Grand Rapids.

Transcriber: Nancy Myers
Created: 14 March 2005