Biography of James Dodwell

James Dodwell. The career of James Dodwell, pioneer harnessmaker of Butler County and a well known resident of the county seat, El Dorado, is one considerably apart from the ordinary and of unusual interest. In its unfolding it had invaded various fields of endeavor and the occupations of war and peace, and through it Mr. Dodwell had worked out an admirable destiny and had established his right to be numbered among the self-made men who have attained success in spite of the most discouraging circumstances.

James Dodwell was born in the City of New York, in 1845, and, having been left an orphan when an infant, was reared in the home of the Children’s Aid Society. In the fall of 1856 he was sent to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and placed in the home of Mrs. Caroline Hawley, where his lot was that too often experienced by orphaned children. Few, if any, kindnesses came his way, hardly any advantages, and no education, for he was not allowed to attend school with the other children. In fact he only attended school for three months in his entire life. Mr. Dodwell almost welcomed the outbreak of the Civil war, when he was about sixteen years of age, for it renewed his aspirations and awakened new hopes and gave him a chance to break away from his sordid surroundings. Enlisting in the army was considered quite an ordeal for most men and youths at that time, but young Dodwell hailed with delight an opportunity to escape from his unpleasant home and irksome duties, and to serve under duly organized and appreciative authority. Accordingly, in 1861 he ran way from home and enlisted, being attached to the Fifty-sixth Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry, as a drummer boy, being too young to go into the ranks at that time as a regular soldier. He re-enlisted in 1862, in the First Illinois Light Artillery, and participated in a number of important engagements as a member of that organization, notable among which was the battle of Shiloh. He was also in many minor engagements, and shortly before the close of the war was wounded at Corinth, Mississippi, being honorably discharged because of disability. This was also before the term of his second enlistment had expired. Mr. Dodwell next volunteered for service in Company H, Twenty-fifth Regiment, Michigan Volunteer Infantry. for a third term, but was rejected because of injuries received.

In 1865 Mr. Dodwell returned to Kalamazoo. How largely the great Civil war developed the youth of the country can, in its entirety, never be known, but there are some still living, like Mr. Dodwell, who entered upon the hardships incident to a soldier’s life when but boys of sixteen years and so bravely and faithfully faced every vicissitude and uncomplainingly bore suffering and hardship that their valor should be remembered when this country counts over its heroes. The great struggle between the North and the South, with the important issues which it represented, certainly brought about a class of men, trained and disciplined, whose influence had ever since been recognized in the peaceful pursuits which have engaged them. Mr. Dodwell had the benefit of this training and discipline, but he was also severely handicapped. The constant concnssions of the big guns had worked havoe with his hearing and he had also sustained a severe fracture, and added to this he still lacked a proper education. He did not allow himself to be discouraged, however, but apprenticed himself to the harnessmaker’s trade, of which he had learned something while in the army. For three and one-half years he continued to apply himself to the labor of mastering this vocation, and in the meantime, his ambitious aroused, joined the Young Men’s Library Association, which gave him a chance to study and to lay the foundation upon which he subscquently built a good education for himself by hard and persistent study. Mr. Dodwell worked first as a jonrneyman at Kalamazoo and within a short time became foreman in the shop of the leading harnessmaking firm of that city.

In April, 1871, Mr. Dodwell resigned his position at Kalamazoo and came to El Dorado, Butler County, Kansas. While he was a first-class harnessmaker, he could not secure a great deal of work, for there was not much demand for such labor in the early days on the plaints. The country was sparsely settled and most of the settlers had oxen instead of horses and the equipment of an ox-team did not call for the art of the harnessmaker. No one but a blacksmith or a carpenter need apply in equipping an okteam. Not being able to find employment at the trade which was his main asset, he started to cheerfully accept whatever honorable employment presented itself, and one of his first tasks in this county was cutting cord wood at fifty cents per cord. Subsequently he drove stage for four months on the line between Florence and El Dorado for the Southwestern Stage Company, and made several trips even as far as Arkansas City, down on the border, but found this to be a decidedly unpleasant job on account of the cold and the frequency of blizzards in the early days. Mr. Dodwell had to his credit the rescue of J. T. Nye, whom he found in a dazed condition from the extreme cold and the effects of a blizzard and took him to the stage station and gave him shelter. Mr. Nye afterwards became probate judge of Butler County. Later Mr. Dodwell took up a claim of 160 acres, in Fairview Township, Butler County, walking to Wichita to file on the same. His first work at his trade at El Dorado was in the employ of Bob Roberts, and he is said to have made the first handmade single harness manufactured in Butler County. Later he became a partner of Mr. Roberts and eventually bought the latter’s interest in the business. Eventually he purchased two lots and his present place of business, on East Central Avenue, where he was afterward successfully engaged in business. He is accounted one of the old-time business men of the community, having for forty-five years been an important factor in the commercial life of Ell Dorado and Butler County.

Mr. Dodwell had a wide acquaintance. He is well known to William Allen White, and is the original from whom was drawn the character of Watts McCurty in that author’s “A Certain Rich Man.” He had also been an acquaintance and personal friend of such men as the late P. B. Plumb; the late Congressman John J. Ingalls; Roscoe Stubbs; Ex-Governor John Martin, who was commander of the Eighth Kansas Infantry; Noble Prentice, Marsh Murdock, and numerous others of the pioneers and men who have made Kansas history.

Mr. Dodwell was married in 1874, at Plainswell, Allegan County, Michigan, to Miss Rebecca Jane Decou, and to this union there have been born children as follows: Louis, Leona and Lee, all of Carthage, Missouri, all high school graduates of El Dorado, and all now prosperons. Mr. Dodwell is a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and belongs to the Presbyterian Church. He is the author of “A Story of the Days Long Gone,” published in the History of Butler County, 1916. In this he mentions “The Old Chair,” as follows: “The old chair, formerly Jerry Conner’s, referred to in a late issue of the Daily Republican, is still doing service, holding a warm place in the old harness shop (Mr. Dodwell’s), the first bank building in El Dorado, and it had seen its best days. The lumber was freighted overland from Emporia to build the shop. There were very few chairs in its class forty-five years ago in El Dorado Township. The early settlers were not overburdened with furniture of any kind and most of the homes in El Dorado were furnished with the very plainest, often home-made, furniture. Much of the necessary household articles were freighted in overland by emigrants.” Mr. Dodwell further writes: “We take pleasure in giving the best part of the old room in the pioneer harness shop to the old chair that had seen its best days, because the chair is one of the writer’s most cherished belongings; it is to him a reminder of his early days in El Dorado.” The above is quoted because this chair is the oldest in Butler County and because so many people of prominence have graced it during the past forty-five years that it had been a matter of newspaper comment in the state both serious and humorous. The remainder of the article of “A Story of Days Long Gone” is very interestingly told but does not apply particularly to Mr. Dodwell’s history except insofar as he was acquainted with and associated with the early settlers. And their historics will appear, naturally, in other parts of this work.

Few men have had more interesting careers and none are more highly esteemed than James Dodwell.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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