Orlando Bronson Potter



The Author of the Famous Combination, and Controlling Officer of the Old Grover & Baker Sewing Machine Co. Stricken with Apoplexy in the Street.


The Hon. Orlando Bronson Potter, who, during its life, was President and General Manager of the Grover & Baker Sewing Machine Company, fell on the street in a fit of apoplexy, about nine o’clock the  evening of January 2, and died without recovering consciousness. Though in his 71st year, Mr. Potter was robust and vigorous in health, and had left his home in excellent spirits a few moments before the fatal stroke. The family physician, who viewed the body after death, said that he had not been called upon to attend Mr. Potter for at the least two years, but had congratulated him only a few days ago on his good health. He was as surprised as any one to hear the news, although he said that Mr. Potter was predisposed to apoplexy. Mr. Potter left his home, No. 3 East 57th street, near 5th avenue, at 8.30 p m., to attend a meeting of the Board of Governors of the Democratic Club, which was called for nine o’clock. He walked briskly to Madison avenue, one block, to take the horse cars to Fiftieth street. Within fifteen minutes of this time he was walking through Fiftieth street and had reached the ladies’ entrance of the Buckingham Hotel, which is on the corner of Fifth avenue and Fiftieth street, and is next door to the Democratic Club-rooms. A policeman and a bell-boy of the hotel saw him walking slowly and steadily along, then stagger and fall on his face. Mr. Potter is a large, heavy man, and the blow out his face, bringing blood that rendered his features unrecognizable by those who were first at hand, although some of the persons quickly attracted were friends and fellow club members. It was not until a memorandum book found in his pocket, was examined, that his identity was discovered. He was quickly removed to the club-house, but his breathing which was labored  when taken up, ceased while being removed. Physicians were quickly summoned and his relatives sent for, but they arrived only after death.

Mr. Potter was a prominent citizen of  New York, active in local public affairs, and of National reputation. He was identified with State and National legislation affecting mercantile and commercial interests. He was a member of the Democratic, Manhattan, Reform, Commonwealth and Patria Clubs, the New England Society and Sons of the Revolution, the Bar Association, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society, the American Geographical Society and the Williams College Alumni. He was also a trustee of Cornell University, and a trustee of the Bleecker Street Bank.  Mr. Potter came into the sewing machine business in 1851, through his legal practice. He was employed by Messrs. Grover & Baker—two young men possessed of mechanical ingenuity and a good idea, but without capital. Mr. Potter had capital, saw the prospects of gain, and invested with these young men, forming the firm of Grover, Baker & Company , in which he took the active management of the financial, and, even more important, legal departments. In both these spheres he was eminently successful, and he made the Grover & Baker business one of the most profitable of any sewing machine business known during that time or since.

In 1854 the company was chartered, and from that time known as the Grover & Baker Sewing Machine Company Mr. Potter was its first and only president. As general manager, he directed the policy of the company in the disposal of machines, even to the details of office management and agents’ terms. He was familiar with all features of the business and made it a point to understand all.

The active business of this company terminated in 1876, and from that time he has not been identified with manufacturing or commercial trade. As manager of the Grover & Baker Company he was largely in the interests that, at first conflicted, but eventually united in the formation of the once celebrated “combination ” and he has always been considered the author of that union. He was one of the first to realize that continued  litigation was detrimental to all interests, and it is probable that the first proposition to unite came from him. At any rate, he put the plan in shape, and was the leader in its execution. During the term of  its life he was the virtual head, suggesting and directing the legal and administrative course of the body. To his acumen, judgment and legal ability, through the medium of this combination, much of the success of , the sewing machine in this country is due. Mr. Potter was always, to the day of his death, interested in the subject of sewing machines, and liked to talk with those who were familiar with the art about the progress it had made. He felt that the business had been, and was, an honorable one, and he was proud of the part he had taken in it. He could repeat by heart, and did within a few weeks of his death the salient points of the speech in which he argued before the Congressional Committee on the application for a renewal of Wilson’s patent, that the sewing machine had been an inestimable boon to humanity. It has been stated that Mr. Potter was interested in other sewing machine companies than the Grover & Baker, but this is a mistake, except to the extent of being a creditor. He made no new investments in the business. Potter was an exceptionally energetic and  industrious man, painstaking and thorough in his plans, precise in his methods. handling all details. While constantly directing the business of the Grover & Baker Company, giving attention to all its affairs, he had become thoroughly acquainted  with the history of the art and the inventions on which it rested, and took the direction of the legal proceedings to  maintains the patents for the “combination”. The magnitude of this work may be imagined when it is known that it involved more than two hundred suits. And it is interesting to know that not one of them was lost, though some were long and severe fights.

With all this work on his hands, during much of the time he was building, always by days’ work, and under his personal supervision, stores and warehouses in New York. He had great faith in the future of the city and made his investments on that faith. In this he was not mistaken. His judgment on real estate was considered superior. In commercial transactions, however, he was not so astute. It may have been a knowledge of his weakness in this line that kept him well out of it as a rule. It is known, however, that when the sewing machine was rapidly swelling his fortune be invested some of it in unfortunate mechanical enterprises. But the unexampled success of the sewing machine at that time prompted many people to jump at wild schemes to find its counterpart in profit. He built and owned a number of the finest business buildings in the city. He also owned a great deal of unimproved property, to which he was constantly adding and building on it from time to time. His largest interests were in large downtown buildings and in the far up west side residence section. It is said that scarcely a year has passed since he began to invest in real estate in which he has not had some building under way.

John Potter, the parent of this family in America, is supposed to have arrived here from London about 1635. He settled in New Haven, Conn, in 1639. Succeeding generations, of which Orlando is in the sixth, have continued to live in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Orlando was the third child, and second son, of Samuel, who moved from Northfield, Conn., to Charlemont, Franklin county, Mass, in 1819, and cleared up a farm in the wilderness, one hundred miles from the market town, Boston. There were ten children in the family, and in the absence of the elder brother, much of the care of the farm and of the younger children devolved on Orlando for some time previous to his eighteenth year. But with all this labor and responsibility he prepared himself to enter Williams College, which he did in 1841.

He left college in the sophomore year on account of his health, took a trip to sea, taught school, hired land, on which he raised fifty barrels of potatoes and peddled them from house to house in Province- town, Mass, and with the money thus earned entered the Law School of Harvard College in 1845. He continued the study of law at Harvard, and in the office of the late Charles G. Thomas, at Boston, until 1848, during the time teaching two terms of school. During part of this time, to eke out his means, he boarded himself, buying and cooking his own provvisions. He was admitted to the bar in Boston in 1848.

He opened an office in Court Square in the city, and one at Reading, ten miles from Boston, where he did business evenings. He was successful from the start. His business increased rapidly and his first year’s income was about three thousand dollars. He continued this practice until 1853, at which time he had accumulated ten thousand dollars, which he invested in the sewing machine business, relinquishing his private law business to Mr. S. J. Gordon, and moving to New York to take charge of the new enterprise. He remained a resident of New York until his death, and continued at the head of the sewing machine company devoting his time most assiduously to its interests until its retirement from business.  Mr. Potter was married in 1850 to Martha G. Wiley, of South Reading, Mass. He had seven children by this wife, of whom four are living, Frederick, Martha, Mary and Blanch. Frederick is a member of the New York bar, associated with the management of his father’s business; is married and the father of a family. Mary is the wife of Mr. Walter Geer, of this city, and the two younger daughters are unmarried. The first wife died in 1879. Mr. Potter married again, his second wife being Miss Kate Linsley, of New York. She survives him.

Mr. Potter lived for a long time in Lafayette place, in one of the fine old mansions a few doors from the Astor Library. Ten years ago he moved to his present residence, which is a capacious and elegant home, quite in keeping with the aristocratic neighbourhood in which it is located, but in the absence of outward show, indicative of the owner’s plain and unostentatious nature. He was of simple methodical habits, making no parade of his wealth, economical in his personal expenditures and never figuring in public demonstrations of giving. His charities, which were numerous and generous, were his own, given in his way and under his supervision. In this, as in all his business matters, he chose to have things done as he thought to the best advantage.  In personal appearance he was large, thick-set, broad shouldered, full six feet high, but stooping a little of late years. His hair and whiskers were gray and getting thin, and he walked with the deliberation that comes of age; but his face was fresh and his eye bright, and he was as active if not as brisk as ever. He was at his office daily except when business took him out of the city. He spoke deliberately and it is interesting to know that not one of and seriously and his expression indicated severe thought and only practical ideas.

In 1859 a sense of overwork and needed rest induced him to buy a farm of seven hundred and fifty acres on the Hudson, one—and-a-half miles above Sing Sing, where he since made his summer home, and, as in all his other work, gave personal supervision. He was well versed in agricultural matters, and was at one time president of the State Agricultural Society. He spared no expense in the practical improvement of this place, going there for a night each week during his winters in the city. There are one hundred blooded cows on this farm, and much of the milk from them, as well as flowers and other products of the farm, found their way to the sick and the poor of New York. Here, too, he each year brought poor children from the city for health and recreation. Mr. Frederick Potter owns the adjoining farm. Mr. Potter is known as the father of our present National banking system. It was immediately after 3 the disastrous battle of Bull Run, when the Grover &  Baker Company were paying fifteen per cent  exchange in currency for drafts on New York, in St. Louis and Chicago, that, impressed with the need he formulated a plan for a National currency, and sub- mitted it to the Secretary of the Treasury. This was on August 14, 1861. February 25th, 1863, this plan, without material alteration, became the law, and the result is a currency that is good all over the United States, and pretty much all over the world. Originally a Whig in politics,  he voted for Lincoln, but attached himself to the Democratic party in 1861, and has been a constant supporter of it ever since. Aside from a justice’s commission in Massachusetts, he never held office until elected to Congress from the Eleventh New York District in 1882. Serving that term, he declined a renomination in 1884, and has held no office since. He is much interested, how ever, in matters of legislation affecting business interests, and especially that relating to New York City. While a member of Congress, laying aside a large and exacting business, he gave his whole time to the duties of his office, and was a participant in most of the important business of the House. He was on the Committee of Banking and Currency and on that of Expenditures in the Treasury Department.

In 1886 there was a movement by the independent citizens of New York City for the election of a mayor independently of party machinery. At a public meeting, called for this purpose, a committee of one hundred was appointed to make such a nomination. This committee unanimously recommended the nomination of Mr. Potter, who, however, declined. Since his retirement from Congress, Mr. Potter has devoted himself to his farm and to the management of his real estate interests in the city, in which he is assisted by his son, Frederick Potter. The funeral was held on the morning of the 6th. After a short private service at the home of the family , the public funeral was held in Grace Church. The services at the Potter home were conducted by the Rev. Dr. George Alexander, pastor of the University Place Presbyterian Church. The Rev. Dr. W. R. Huntington, rector of Grace Church, and his assistant, the Rev. George H. Bottoms, conducted the services. The interment was in Greenwood Cemetery. The pallbearers were ex-Judge Noah Davis, John F. Dillon, Judge Ingraham, Surrogate John H. V. Arnold, George Ticknor Curtis, Ralph W. Townsend, William H. Webb, G. G. Waltham, William B. Isham and C. H. Kelsey.

Among the societies represented at the funeral were : The New York Bar Association—Judge Dugro, ex-Judge Leicester Holme, Judge Lachman, Judge Ehrlich, Judge Newburger and cx-Attorney-General Rosendale; New York Board of Trade Ex Congressman Darwin R. James, William Brookfield, James Talcott, John H. Sprague, Will am Irwin Martin, Aaron Vanderbilt, Colonel E. A. McAlpin, Silas McGiddings, Thomas F. Main, Thomas White ; New York Geographical Society—Judge Charles P. Daly, president; John A. Hedden, Dr. C. 0. Tiffany and ex-Mayor Edson. The American Institute of Civics was represented by Chancellor MacCracken, the Rev. W. H. De Puy, Colonel G. T. Balch, W. A. Wheelock, Cephas Brainerd, James Stokes, J. I. Cov- ington, L. A. Maynard, and Henry Randall White; Democratic Club  John Fox, president; J. Rockwell. Fay, John E. Parsons, Geueral Evan Thomas, Samuel B. Jones, E. G. Neustadt, F. H. Chapin,'Gilbert B. Lamb, Asa A. Alling,Surrogate Arnold, C. B. Hogg, Commissioner Charles F. Allen,Simon Stern, Thomas E. Crimmins, John D. Crimmins, A. Walker Otis, and William L. Dusenberry.

President Frederick A. Sturis was at the head of a delegation from the Stock exchange. President Evan Thomas was at the head of another from the Produce Exchange. Alexander E. Orr and a number of members of the Chamber of Commerce were present, and James T. Barrow was the chairman of a delegation from the Society of the Sons of the Revolution. There were also present representatives of Cornell University and the Bleecker Street Bank. It is understood that the sculptor, Hurley, made a cast of the dead man’s bust. Mr. Potter’s estate has been variously estimated as high as twenty millions. 




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