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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
John A. Roberts

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[This information is from Vol. IV, pp. 63-64 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 Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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The great department store of John A. Roberts & Company in Utica stands as a monument to the enterprise, progressiveness and splendid business ability of John A. Roberts, the period of whose identification with the mercantile interests of this city covered nearly six decades. He was in the seventy-eighth year of his age when he departed this life on the 19th of March, 1922, for he was born on September 16, 1844, near Remsen, Oneida county, New York. He was the son of John O. and Jeanette (Owen) Roberts and came of an old Welsh family.

John A. Roberts acquired his education in the Remsen township schools and was a youth of seventeen when he made his initial step into the business world. The year 1863 witnessed his arrival in Utica, where he obtained a position with E. T. Manning, in whose employ he formed the acquaintance of John C. Hieber, with whom he was afterward intimately associated in business. John C. Hieber founded the partnership of Greiss & Hieber in 1865 and in March, 1869, John A. Roberts also became a member of this firm, which purchased the business of Smith, Sanford & Company. Following the admission of John W. Jones as a partner, the firm style was changed to Hieber, Roberts & Jones, while subsequently the concern was reorganized as Hewitt, Roberts & Company, for William O. Hewitt had acquired an interest in the business. Mr. Roberts withdrew from the firm in the spring of 1875 and the same year associated himself with N. H. Hoag and W. E. Tefft in a partnership relation, beginning business at No. 53 Franklin square in Utica. At the close of 1875 the firm moved to No. 169 Genesee street, where a prosperous and growing business was conducted for several years. Following the retirement of Mr. Tefft the firm was continued as Roberts & Hoag and was thus maintained until 1888, when the junior partner withdrew. Thereafter Mr. Roberts conducted the enterprise alone for two years, or until 1890, when he admitted Edgar B. Odell to a partnership and adopted the present firm name. Subsequent to the retirement of Mr. Odell in February, 1905, Mr. Roberts took his sons, Hobart V. and Walter F., into partnership with him and incorporated the business as John A. Roberts & Company. The store continued at No. 169 Genesee street until the completion of the present handsome establishment, which was erected on the site of the old Butterfield House, which property Mr. Roberts had purchased in 1906. The old hotel was razed and in 1911 there stood in its place the fine department store of John A. Roberts & Company, which is a replica of James McCreery's in New York city. During the latter years of his life Mr. Roberts was largely relieved of the heavier responsibilities of management by his two efficient sons, Hobart V. and Walter F. Roberts. His counsel and cooperation were sought in the successful control of various corporate interests. He was a director of the Savage Arms Corporation, director and treasurer of the Capron Knitting Company, was one of the original subscribers who made possible the building of Hotel Utica, served as a director of the Mutual Box Board Company and for years was a member of the directorate of the Utica City National Bank and the Willoughby Carriage Company. His connection with any undertaking insured a prosperous outcome of the same, for it was in his nature to carry forward to successful completion whatever he was associated with. A contemporary biographer said:

"The remarkable career of John A. Roberts was closely interwoven with the growth and development of Utica, whose fair name and prosperity were as dear to him as his own business affairs, for one was in a great measure dependent upon the other. The financial achievements of John A. Roberts carried with them an impetus to the advancement of Utica as a center of business for central New York. He builded for the future. His faith in Utica was strong, and today the great business of John A. Roberts & Company stands as a monument to his vision and faith."

Mr. Roberts was twice married. On the 7th of October, 1873, he wedded Marion E. Vosburgh of Little Falls, New York, who passed away in 1903, leaving four children, namely: Hobart V.; Walter F., a sketch of whom appears on another page of this publication; James O., a resident of Frankfort, Kentucky; and Mrs. Marion R. Kelley, of Newburyport, Massachusetts. In 1915 Mr. Roberts was again married, his second union being with Gertrude Wood of Utica, who survives him.

Mr. Roberts gave his political allegiance to the republican party and was deeply interested in community welfare, becoming a charter member of the Utica Chamber of Commerce. In young manhood he was elected to honorary membership in the Old Continentals, and many times he marched with them. He belonged to the Utica Citizens' Corps and held life membership in the Oneida Historical Society and the Fort Schuyler Club, while his favorite form of recreation was manifest in his connection with the Sadaquada and Yahnundasis Golf Clubs. He had membership in the Central New York Farmers Club during its existence and fraternally was identified with Faxton Lodge No. 697, F. and A. M., being a worthy exemplar of the teachings and purposes of the craft. Mr. Roberts was also a consistent member of Westminster Presbyterian church and was a liberal supporter of Utica's charitable organizations. In his passing Oneida county sustained the loss of one of her prominent and highly esteemed native sons.

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