Biography of John Sayre Downes

John Sayre Downes. The City of Topeka is the home of the largest organization of its kind in the United States, the Aetna Building and Loan Association, which maintains about 600 agencies in Kansas and Oklahoma. The growth and development of this institution during the quarter of a century in which it has been in existence is a commentary upon the success to be attained by enterprises in the Sunflower State when their policies are directed by men of substantial ability, strict integrity and business foresight. At the head of the Aetna Building and Loan Association today, in the office of president, is found John Sayre Downes, a business man of sterling capacity, who during the twenty years of his connection with the company has been appreciative of the value of fair treatment for policy holders and the results occruing therefrom. President Downes is a self-made man, whose own experience should serve as an encouraging example to those starting life in modest circumstances, as well as being illustrative of the desirable results attainable through thrift and wise investment.

John Sayre Downes was born on a farm in Oneida County, New York, August 31, 1855, and has been a resident of Kansas since 1878. He is one of six children born to Thomas and Mary (Sparrow) Downes, natives of England, who were brought as small children from that country to the United States by their respective parents in a sailing vessel in 1833, and in the absence of other transportation, they traveled from New York City to their Oneida County homes by way of the Erie Canal. Thomas Downes passed his life in farming in the Empire State, and being a man of industry and good judgment managed to accumulate a comfortable property, so that at the time of his death, in 1880, he was accounted a substantial citizen of his community.

John Sayre Downes was given a country school education by his parents, but as he was ambitious and enterprising he desired a better training and earned the money therefor by teaching in the schools of his native vicinity and clerking in a general store. Thus he was enabled to take courses in the Whitesboro and Cazenovia seminaries, and after his graduation from the latter, at the age of twenty years, came to Kansas and located in Marion County, where it was his intention to devote his career to raising stock. This he followed with some success for three years, but the possibilities offered by the rapidly advancing real estate values were too tempting to be put aside, and he entered the ranks of dealers in realty, a line for which he soon developed a remarkable aptitude. Opening an office at Marion, he began handling city real estate and dealing in farm loans, and during the thirteen years that he was so engaged placed himself in a position where he was ready to advance still further in the business world.

In 1896 Mr. Downes received an attractive offer from Byron Roberts, of Topeka, the first president of the Aetna Building and Loan Association, an institution which had been established several years before, and which already gave promise of becoming an important enterprise. Mr. Downes, disposing of his Marion holdings, came to Topeka, and, in order to learn the business from the ground up, took a clerkship. After three years he was promoted to the position of examiner, and remained in that capacity for twelve years, when he was elected to the presidency. Some idea of the growth of the Aetna may be seen in the rapid development of the association’s assets, as follows: January 1, 1894, $49,210.10; 1896, $118,738.86; 1898, $316,972.77; 1900, $496,347.93; 1902, $854,840.92; 1904, $1,189,775.04; 1906, $1,642,981.76; 1908, $2,170,948.16; 1910, $2,496,664.07; 1912, $3,415,671.58; 1914, $4,067,466.91; 1915, $4,576,502.20; 1916, $5,062,900.78. While the Aetna, the largest general building and loan association in the country, has agencies only in Kansas and Oklahoma, its stockholders, numbering more than 18,000, represent practically every state in the Union, and are to be found in Canada, Mexico and the Philippine Islands, from the trenches of Europe to the gold-fields of Alaska. The security upon which Aetna money is invested consists of first mortgages on real estate up to fifty per cent of its value, or of Aetna stock up to ninety per cent of its cash value, and the State Banking Departments of Kansas and Oklahoma maintain the same strict supervision over this association for the safeguarding of the stockholders’ interests that is maintained over banks. The Aetna is of the mutual type of building and loan associations, as there are no preferred stockholders, but all members share equally in the results. The authorized capital of the concern is $20,000,000, and the association belongs to the Topeka Commercial Club and to the American Bankers’ Association.

Mr. Downes’ business career in Topeka dates only since 1896, but during this time he has achieved such a success as most men would regard as a triumph if accomplished through a half century of patient effort. Coming here at a time when the keenness of business competition, particularly in the matter of loans and investments, rendered success impossible unless through the exercise of sound judgment, allied to a certain degree of venturesome determination, he has achieved a reputation and acquired wealth through developing one of the country’s great institutions. While Mr. Downes is a supporter of republican principles, he is not a politician, for his business affairs have been of such scope and importance that he has not had time to enter public life. However, he takes a keen interest in affairs which affect his community, and is always found allied with other public-spirited men in the advancement of movements for the civic welfare. Fraternally, he is affiliated with the Modern Woodmen of America. He and Mrs. Downes are members of the Episcopalian and Methodist churches, and Mrs. Downes takes an active part in church work and in the advancement of charitable enterprises.

Mr. Downes was married in June, 1883, to Miss Liza W. Carter, of Kentucky, at Florence, Kansas. To this union a son and a daughter have been born: Roy H., who is maintenance clerk in the office of the general manager of the Santa Fe Railroad; and Mrs. Marie Mize, of Topeka.



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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