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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
James Benton

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 547-549 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Though it has been nearly thirty years since the death of James Benton, a former mayor of the city of Utica and for many years one of the foremost figures in the general commercial, industrial and civic life of that city, his memory is kept green in those circles in which he moved and it is but proper that for the benefit and information of coming generations here some reference be made to his life and career, in this history of the region in which he wrought. As one of the local newspapers said following the death of Mr. Benton in 1895: "He was known of all men, high and low, rich and poor, and to the day of his death was honored by all." It is well, therefore, that something of the interesting story of this man's life be here perpetuated.

James Benton was English by birth but had been a resident of Utica since not long after he had attained his majority, a period of more than sixty-five years, for he lived to be nearly ninety, and thus had long been as much a part of this community as though indeed "native and to the manner born". Mr. Benton was born in the year 1805, in Leamington Priors (now Leamington Spa) in Warwickshire, England. The place of his birth is about ten miles from the birthplace of the immortal Shakespeare, two miles from Warwick Castle and five miles from the famous ruins of Kenilworth Castle, in a region of the "Merrie Isle" among the most interesting to tour of any in all England. Mr. Benton grew up with few advantages in the way of education, the most of which was obtained from the Sunday schools of the parish. In his younger days he engaged in any kind of work where he could turn an honest penny and from his twelfth year was entirely dependent upon his own labor. But under circumstances which would have discouraged many he labored on and saved his money until he had accumulated sufficient to purchase a position with a master mechanic, where he could learn a profitable trade, and apprenticed himself to a plasterer and worker in stucco, with whom he remained until he was an accomplished workman.

Mr. Benton left England for America about April 1, 1829, and landed in New York early in June. There he remained a few weeks, working as a journeyman. In the latter part of June he determined to go to Lexington, Kentucky. He started west, taking the canal route. At Utica one of the packet horses attached to the boat in which he was traveling sickened and died. During the delay which ensued Mr. Benton strolled about the village. He was so favorably impressed that he determined to stay here. He went to an inn at the corner of Genesee and Elizabeth streets, kept by Joseph Taylor, and the next day he was offered work by Captain William Clark, then president of the village. Next he obtained employment with James McGregor, at stucco work and plastering. He lived in Utica ever after, with the exception of nine months spent in Toronto, Ontario (then called Little York) and at Buckville in 1830-32. It was while in the former place that his attention to business and the superior excellence of his work attracted the notice of his employers, who had a contract on the government buildings. This led to an increase in his wages and his subsequent advancement to the direct superintendence of the workmen, without any solicitation on his part. He was, at the date of his experience in Canada, a part of the time in the employ of Samuel Stocking of Utica, a well known and prominent business man.

After working as a journeyman for several years Mr. Benton began business for himself as a contractor and builder and the many evidences of his handiwork in Utica stand not only as monuments and an honor to their builder but as a source of pride to the citizens. Among these may be mentioned Mechanics Hall, Utica Opera House, Faxton Hospital, Home for the Homeless, the Gardner and Hackett blocks, Matter's and Buchanan's banks, South Street and Francis Street schools, the residences of Ephraim Hart, A. Munson, Jesse Newell, Theodore Butterfield, John C. Kiefer, Hugh Glenn, H. B. Wells, James McQuade and many others. He also did considerable building in the vicinity of Utica and worked on the courthouse at Fonda, before that place was a village. For nearly half a century he was an active business man and no one was more industrious nor looked more carefully after the details of his business. The work he had done was sufficient recommendation and he was sought for by men who wanted the best of workmanship. He became known not only to the moneyed men of the town but to the laboring men, of whom in the long years of his business career he had employed hundreds. He set his men an example of industry and diligence and was very kind and considerate toward them always, assisting many of them who wanted to get houses of their own.

Mr. Benton had taken no active part in politics, but in 1878 the working men nominated him for mayor. He ran against two popular candidates, nominated by the respective parties, one of whom had made an excellent record in the office of mayor. But so popular was Mr. Benton with the masses and in such a large measure did he have the confidence of the community that he was elected by a handsome majority. His administration was marked with integrity and the strictest economy in the expenditure of public funds. He was not an orator nor one who sought to make votes or friends, but he was a practical business man who saw to it that the city received good work and who made the interests of the city and its taxpayers his only object.

For a number of years Mr. Benton lived on a farm in Frankfort. Then for thirty-five years he lived on a farm in New Hartford, back of the asylum. He drove to town daily and so regular was his going and coming that the people living along the route said they could set their clocks by the trips he made. For a time his son James was in the building business with him. About 1873 he purchased the property on Genesee street, opposite Pleasant street, and there made his home. This home was later razed and the street paved through, and the statue of General Sherman now stands on the site. Shortly after he finished his term as mayor Mr. Benton retired from business and the evening of his life was spent quietly and pleasantly. About 1885 his eyesight began to fail, but this did not lessen his cheerfulness or patience. His children and grandchildren read to him and thus he kept abreast of the topics of the day.

Mr. Benton lived in Utica when it was a village of about six thousand. He saw the population grown to more than fifty thousand, and witnessed most of the material improvements, having a hand in many of them. He was one of the original members of the Utica Mechanics Association and had always done his part toward its support. A native of England, he was one of the members of the old St. George's Society and generally attended its meetings. He also was a member of the Oneida Historical Society and of the Central New York Farmers Club. Born near the home of Shakespeare, he was an admirer of the great bard, and often, even in his later years, recited selections from his writings for the edification of his children and grandchildren. Mr. Benton's figure was quite a familiar one on the streets of Utica and though bent with age, it was a striking figure withal. His face was kindly but gave evidence of the strong character that was his. His hair was long and snow-white and he generally wore a large white felt hat, by which he could be distinguished at a distance. Mr. Benton was a shining example of a "self-made" man. Coming to America without means, he acquired a competence and at one time paid taxes on more pieces of real estate than any other citizen. His habits of life were simple and although he had always been a hard worker he kept good hours and so lived a some [sic] of years beyond many of his contemporaries. For many years he had been a member of St. Stephens church, New Hartford. Mr. Benton died at his home in Utica, on September 19, 1895, and his funeral was one of the most largely attended ever held in that city.

In 1883 James Benton was married to Miss Susan Bradley, also a native of England, who was born in Giddington, Northamptonshire, and passed away in 1888. Mr. Benton was survived by five children — three sons, George Benton of New Hartford, and James R. and Charles E. Benton of Utica; and two daughters, Mrs. T. P. French of New Hartford, and Miss Lucy A. Benton of Utica.

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