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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Robert Fraser

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 96-100 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 Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Portrait of Robert Fraser

Portrait: Robert Fraser

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The record of Robert Fraser, the founder of the Utica establishment known as Robert Fraser, Incorporated, which is one of the largest department stores in central New York, contains much of inspirational value, for he rose from obscurity to a place of prominence in the business life of his community. He had passed the Psalmist's allotted span of threescore years and ten when called to his final rest on the 16th of May, 1920, after a business career covering fifty-five years. His birth occurred in Glasgow, Scotland, on the 31st of July, 1849, his parents being Alex M. and Jean (Buchanan) Fraser, who in the year 1830 emigrated to the United States and took up their abode in Missouri. Subsequently, however, they returned to Scotland, where the mother departed this life in 1855. Nine years later A. M. Fraser again crossed the Atlantic, this time in company with his sons, and after a brief residence in Canada came over the border into this country, establishing his home in Utica. He became associated with the steam cotton mills here and remained a resident of Utica to the time of his death, which occurred in 1908.

Robert Fraser obtained his education as a public school pupil in Glasgow and was a youth of fifteen years when he accompanied his father to the New World. He was a clerk in the store of E. T. Manning in Utica, when, in 1865, came the decision that started him in business for himself. Pooling his financial resources with William Angus of the same store, the young men were able to raise two hundred dollars, which they invested in goods to stock their packs. Trading, about the time the Civil war ended, was a very different proposition from the commercial methods of today. Great stores were then unknown, particularly in communities the size of Utica as it then was. It must be remembered that trolleys were then unknown and that railroad travel was very much more of an undertaking than at present. But they were ambitious and strong and unafraid. They tramped down the Mohawk valley to Ilion, peddling from house to house. They were fairly successful and, returning to Utica, started on a similar trip northward. Business was not so good. Under a tree near Holland Patent they sat down to discuss the situation. As a result they went back to Utica, where the partnership of but a few weeks was terminated, Robert Fraser buying the interest of William Angus and starting for himself. He had made up his mind to win and nothing could swerve him from his purpose. It is gratifying to know that each of these young men attained the goal of his ambition. The same principles that helped Robert Fraser to success enabled William Angus to win wealth and honors for himself, although in a different field. He is today one of the leading furniture dealers in London, England, where he has achieved all that he could have hoped for, when as a boy he faced the world.

For five years Robert Fraser tramped the roads, carrying his packs to the people who would buy his goods. There were disappointments and discouragements those early days. Times came when the road seemed long and dusty, with little of pleasure to lighten the burden of this sturdy young Scotchman. But he had grit, and with grim determination saved his money. After five years he was able to open a store in New York Mills. He succeeded there by the same ambition and integrity that had carried him thus far along the road to greater things. By the year 1876 he desired a larger field, and so he came to Utica, entering the city's business life at a time when competition was bitter. His first store was at No. 178 Genesee street, directly opposite the present location of the Fraser establishment. It was not long before a larger building was required, and in 1880 the store was moved across the street to its present site. An increasing volume of business in 1890 demanded larger quarters, so the two adjoining stores were added. On the 10th of May, 1905, the entire building was completely destroyed by fire, but in three weeks' time a temporary location was secured and the store again was ready to serve the public. The determination to erect the present building followed the securing of a long-term ground lease of the site on June 7, 1905. The new home of the Fraser business, a fireproof structure of six stories and basement, was opened on March 14, 1907. Particularly significant to Uticans is the realization that the opening of this great mercantile establishment marked the beginning of Utica's recent and remarkable development. It was the first of the big buildings downtown, and so an experiment. Uticans have more than a neighborly interest in the Fraser store. They have a sort of proprietary feeling toward it. They are proud of the fact that the great building from its solid concrete foundation thirty-five feet below the street surface, to the tip of its lofty flagstaff, stands as a witness to the genius of local contractors and the brawn of local labor. Thus it epitomizes the spirit of the new Utica and stands as a visible sign of the progress that is hers. Honor is due the rugged honesty of the conservative policies adopted at the beginning by the founder of this great enterprise. To his sure judgment must go the credit for piloting the business past the shoals of periodical panics and times of general depression, in the too-often uncharted seas of commercial competition. But its present enviable position as Utica's biggest retail department store, with all its wonderful resources, financial as well as material, is the direct result also of the loyalty and generous encouragement by the people of Utica and its suburbs.

The following is an excerpt from a booklet which was published in 1915, which year marked the golden anniversary of the house of Fraser:

"It is impossible to divorce the personality of Robert Fraser from the house which bears his name. Although in the early days that business was limited by the pack of merchandise he could carry on his shoulders, the characteristics which have made his success were then being shaped into the foundation-stones on which has been reared the magnificent structure of Utica's great department store — 'the house that makes the pace'. The fact that there has been such a growth is the surest indication that these characteristics were of the right sort, for they won the confidence and cooperation of the public, without which no great commercial undertaking can succeed. So it has worked both ways. The Fraser store has provided means of merchandising that served the needs of Uticans and the people of the Mohawk valley. They in turn have appreciated the fairness of a broad-minded and courteous policy, and through the years have continued to contribute their patronage which has helped make the store what it is… The cordial relation between the management and the customers of the Fraser store has knit them into a sort of big family, rather unusual in these days that are criticized for their cold commercialism… Despite the fact that he is observing a golden anniversary, the years have dealt kindly with Mr. Fraser. He is still an active man — perhaps the busiest in his great store. Apparently nothing worries him, and certainly nothing is allowed to interrupt the routine he has followed so long. It may be a far cry from his present position to the days when he was trudging the roads, bound under the weight of a pack, but there has been no change in his allegiance to the principles by which he made good. Attention to detail, persistency, courtesy — these all have had their share in accomplishing the final result. It was all summed up by Emerson when he wrote, 'The manly part is to do with might and main what you can do'. Judged by that standard, the verdict of fifty years must be that Robert Fraser has done a man's work -and done it well."

In religious faith Robert Fraser was a Presbyterian. Public-spirited and philanthropic, he bequeathed a large amount of money to charitable organizations and also left thousands of dollars to friends and business associates. His memory remains as a blessed benediction to all who knew him. Robert Fraser is survived by his brother, William Fraser, who is now president of the company.

On January 15, 1919, upon the incorporation of the business, the store assumed the name of "Robert Fraser, Incorporated". The officers were as follows: Robert Fraser, president; William Fraser, vice president; Robert Fraser, secretary, and John G. Swan, treasurer. After the death of the first named the following officers were installed: William Fraser, president; Robert Fraser, vice-president, and John G. Swan, secretary and treasurer.

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