Biography of Charles William Wells

Charles William Wells, a prominent lumberman born in Upper Jay, New York in 1841, was a key figure in the industrial expansion led by Ammi W. Wright. Son to Benjamin, a farmer and iron manufacturer, and Jane Ann Wadhams, he gained his education through experience and at Rutland Academy. He worked as a store clerk before enlisting as a private in the Union Army during the Civil War, proving his merit to rise to brevet Major. Post-war, he moved to Michigan, partook in lumbering operations, and co-founded numerous successful enterprises including Wells, Stone & Company. His business acumen supported Saginaw Valley’s development significantly. He married Mary Eliza Bingham, fathered two daughters who reached adulthood, and was widely respected for his generosity and business insight. Sadly, his life ended abruptly in 1893 due to heart failure after a canoe accident during a hunting trip.

Another of those able and progressive lumbermen, who were actively identified with the enterprises of which Ammi W. Wright was the leading spirit, was Charles W. Wells. He was born in Upper Jay, New York, on July 16, 1841, his parents being Benjamin and Jane Ann Wadhams Wells who were descended from the oldest families of New England.

Benjamin Wells, the father, was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, on May 13, 1802. When he was fourteen years of age, the family removed from the old home in Massachusetts to Upper Jay, New York, where amid the ancient hills of the Adirondacks, a new home was begun on the banks of the Au Sable River. Reuben Wells, his uncle, was a fur trader in that section, and upon his death, lands fell to his brother, Elisha, the father of Benjamin Wells. This fact led them to make their home in the wilderness. Upon attaining manhood, Benjamin engaged, in association with his brother, in the manufacture of bloom iron, but eventually devoted himself to farming. He was a man of the highest character and one of the founders of the Congregational Church in Upper Jay, serving as one of its deacons for fifty years. He died on January 23, 1889, at the age of eighty-seven, and was buried at Upper Jay.

Jane Wadhams Wells, the mother, was born in Charlotte, Vermont, on March 12, 1804. Her childhood was spent in her native town, where she attended the district school and gained practical knowledge of domestic affairs of the rough border life. On October 23, 1826, she married Mr. Wells at Westport, New York. Of their nine children, Charles William was the seventh. She lived to the venerable age of eighty-one, until February 24, 1885, and was buried at Upper Jay. In all the undertakings of pioneer life — its hardships and privations — she worked faithfully with her husband, and to her, equally with him, was due their success in life.

Charles William Wells, the subject of this sketch, spent his boyhood on the farm at Upper Jay, where he attended school, through which and the practical school of experience, he gained a rudimentary education. Afterward, he attended Rutland Academy, at Rutland, Vermont, and acquired a broad and general knowledge of human affairs. At the age of sixteen, he engaged as a clerk in a general store operated by J. & J. Rogers Co. at Black Brook, New York, and there developed a liking for trade and the pursuit of the merchant.

Soon after the beginning of the Civil War, on August 11, 1862, Mr. Wells enlisted as a private in Company K, 118th New York Volunteer Infantry. His army record, covering a period of nearly three years, in which he participated in active campaigns, is an enviable one and reflects great credit on his ability and patriotism. From a private in the ranks, he advanced steadily by merit and gallantry to an honorable rank — brevet Major — in the Union Army and enjoyed the high regard and confidence of his superior officers. In August 1862, he was made Sergeant of his company; in April 1863, he was First Sergeant; in October of the same year, he was appointed Second Lieutenant, and in May 1864, he was made First Lieutenant. His promotion to the grade of Captain came in May 1865, and he was breveted Major by President Johnson on June 19th of the same year, to rank from April 9th, “for gallant and distinguished services during the late campaign in Virginia.” He was mustered out as Major on June 13, 1865, in the full strength and pride of sturdy manhood.

In 1867, when yet in his youth, he came to Michigan and located at Saginaw City, which was ever after his home, and where he made a successful career and rounded out a life of great usefulness. His strong inclination for barter and trade soon asserted itself and led him to engage in the lumbermen’s supply business, in connection with Henry J. Northrup under the firm name of Northrup, Wells & Company. At that time, lumbering operations were being extended on a large scale in all directions from Saginaw, and the opportunity of supplying the lumber camps and villages with groceries, fodder, tools, and general merchandise was one of great promise, resulting in the building up of a large business in those lines.

The business was reorganized in 1868, with Mr. Northrup retiring, and with Farnum C. Stone as an active member, the firm name became Wells, Stone & Company. The moving spirit of this great enterprise, which became one of the largest mercantile houses in this section of the country, was Ammi W. Wright, but the actual management of the extensive business was vested in Messrs. Wells and Stone, in whose ability and energy Mr. Wright had the fullest confidence. The principal business of the company was that of wholesale grocers, but gradually there was added the trading in pine lands, logs, and lumber. These interests finally conflicted, and in 1885 the grocery and lumbermen’s supply business was taken over by a new corporation, known as the Wells-Stone Mercantile Company, with William C. Phipps as general manager. These large concerns were the parent of Phipps, Penoyer & Company, which is now a part of the National Grocer Company, one of Saginaw’s leading wholesale grocery houses.

In 1871, in extending his lumbering operations, Mr. Wright formed the firm of Wright, Wells & Company in association with Charles W. Wells, Charles H. Davis, and Reuben Kimball. The operations of this company were at Wright’s Lake, Michigan, and continued for ten years when Mr. Wells and Mr. Kimball retired, the business being continued under the name of Wright & Davis.

Through his interests in Wells, Stone & Company, Mr. Wells became identified with other partnerships and corporations, and he was a director in numerous companies, some of which were located in other cities. Notable among these were A. W. Wright & Company, the Swan River Logging Company operating in Minnesota, Wright, Davis & Company, dealing in timber lands in the Northwest, and with Charles H. Davis, Willis T. Knowlton, and others. The parent company, with Albert M. Marshall, who had long been actively identified with large wholesale hardware interests here, organized the Marshall-Wells Hardware Company, of Duluth, which in twenty-five years has grown to be one of the largest in its line in the United States. In addition to these connections, Mr. Wells was interested, in the late eighties, with A. W. Wright, Wellington R. Burt, W. C. McClure, Farnum C. Stone, and others in building the Cincinnati, Saginaw & Mackinaw Railroad, from Bay City to Durand, Michigan, which line is now a branch of the Grand Trunk System.

The benefit to the Saginaw Valley through the multiple operations of these large and active companies is impossible to estimate but must have been very great. It is an undisputable fact that this coterie of broad-minded business men who ever had the development of the Saginaw Valley at heart, and of which Mr. Wells was so prominent a figure, accomplished more for the advancement of this city than any other group of men or individuals. For this reason, they deserve and are given first place in this biographical history.

On October 22, 1868, Mr. Wells married Miss Mary Eliza Bingham, a daughter of Reuben P. Bingham, at Keesville, New York. She was born at Cornwall, Vermont, on August 30, 1844, and spent much of her early life in that State. Four daughters were born to them, two of whom, Eliza Johnson and Mattie Grace, died in infancy and early childhood. Jean Wadhams Wells was born on April 21, 1876, and was married to Wallis Craig Smith on June 29, 1901. Helen Mary Wells was born on February 24, 1880, and was married to Paul Frye Healey Morley on March 7, 1905. The mother, Mary Bingham Wells, who was greatly beloved by a wide circle of friends, was one of the most prominent women of Saginaw City, and, possessing broad sympathies and generous instincts, her benefactions among the deserving poor and those in distress were extensive. After a life of great usefulness and benefit to her home city, she died on January 22, 1892, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery. A portrait of Mrs. Wells appears in group, volume 1, page 390.

In all of life’s relations, whether of business or society, Mr. Wells was a prominent figure. In business, he was shrewd, having a clear-cut idea of the possibilities of every proposition, and had a firm grasp of the entire situation. His knowledge of men and public affairs was extensive, and while deeply interested in municipal matters in general, he never sought public office. A Republican in politics, he believed in the principles of the party and gave of his means to advance them in active campaigns. He was broad and generous, a large man in mind, heart, and action, and was highly regarded by our best citizens in all walks of life.

While on a hunting trip to the wilds of Minnesota, in the Fall of 1893, in the company of some of his partners and friends, Mr. Wells came to an untimely end. The canoe in which he was shooting was accidentally overturned and in making for the shore in the icy cold water, he suffered an attack of heart failure. Before his friends could carry him to civilization and medical care, he died on October 18th. The ending of this vigorous and useful life was a great shock to the community, and for a long time after, was deplored as a public calamity.


Mills, James Cooke, History of Saginaw County, Michigan; historical, commercial, biographical, Saginaw, Michigan : Seemann & Peters, 1918.

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