Biography of William C. Phipps

William C. Phipps played a vital role in turning Saginaw into a key wholesale hub, establishing a major grocery business during a downturn in the lumber industry. Born in 1861 in Ohio to parents Jesse and Isabelle Phipps, he moved to Saginaw at 18. Starting as a reporter, Phipps transitioned to mercantile work, gaining valuable experience. He eventually led Wells-Stone Mercantile Company’s lumbermen’s supply business before creating Phipps, Penoyer & Company, expanding the wholesale grocery trade extensively. Phipps, married twice and father to two, was private yet community-minded, with strong literary interests. He passed away in 1915 following a protracted illness.

Of those men most prominently identified with the wholesale trade of Saginaw, none has done more to make this city a large jobbing center than William C. Phipps. Coming here thirty-four years ago, when lumber production approached its height, he witnessed its decline and at a critical time in the business of the valley, he established the wholesale grocery house, which has since become one of the largest in this section. He was born in Newark, Licking County, Ohio, November 14, 1861, his parents being Jesse and Isabelle Phipps, who were natives of Venango County, Pennsylvania. He is of English-Irish descent, his grandparents on his father’s side having been born and reared in England, while those on his mother’s side were born in Dublin. Although the Phipps name is not a common one, there gathered several years ago in a family reunion at the old homestead in Pennsylvania, about two thousand members of the various branches of the family, in all walks of life, and representing almost every business, trade, and profession.

Jesse Phipps, the father of William C., settled at an early day at Newark, Ohio, where he engaged in farming, and in after years was a general merchant in the town. He died in 1879 and was buried in Newark. The mother, Mrs. Isabelle Phipps, removed to Saginaw in the latter part of 1898, and made her home with her son until her death in 1911.

William C. Phipps was reared in Newark, received his education in the public schools, and graduated from the High School in 1879. Though only eighteen years of age, he had acquired a taste for literature, and at once secured a position as a reporter on the Ohio State Sentinel, of Columbus, Ohio. Merchandising in those days, as now, offered greater inducements to ambitious youth than literature, and soon after he went to Indiana and found employment in a general store owned by five Quaker brothers. He derived much valuable experience and some amusement, too, in their employ which continued for about a year. In the summer of 1881, he came to East Saginaw and for three months was a clerk in the clothing store of “Little Jake” Seligman. In those days all stores were kept open late into the night, and the close confinement of clerking did not promote his general health.

One day in November, when he was pale and apparently far from well, he was approached by William L. Ring who had been attracted by his manly bearing. Believing that the invigorating air of the pine woods would restore the young man’s health, Mr. Ring, with his proverbial kindness, though an entire stranger, invited him to go to his father’s logging camp on the Cedar River. This offer he gladly accepted, and upon arriving in camp was advised to keep out of doors a good portion of the day and to mingle freely with the lumber jacks. Though he had no regular duties he proceeded to make himself useful, and soon had systematized the keeping of the camp accounts and supplies so that he was given a regular salary. He stayed in the woods until the following April when he came down the river with the “drive,” and arrived in Saginaw with renewed strength and vigor.

During the winter, he was closely associated with Eleazer J. Ring, the father of William L. Ring, for whom he formed a strong attachment. Several characteristics of Mr. Ring were indelibly impressed upon his memory, and one in particular. His employer would often stop on the tote road, step to one side, make strange diagrams in the clean, fresh snow, and proceed to demonstrate some difficult problem in geometry, which proceeding was not to the edification of his hearers. He recalls that Mr. Ring was a man of strong convictions, particularly on the question of temperance, and was a self-appointed guardian of young and innocent persons who came within his observation.

In the summer of 1882, Mr. Phipps entered the employ of the Wells-Stone Mercantile Company, which enjoyed a large wholesale trade in lumbermen’s supplies. He rose rapidly with this company and eventually reached the highest position in their trust and confidence. In 1896, when the decline of the lumber business in Northern Michigan had reduced the volume of their business, he organized the corporation of Phipps, Penoyer & Company to take over the old business and to develop the wholesale grocery trade in this section of the State. Although the future of the valley looked dark and the times were hard, he believed in the future development of agriculture in the country surrounding Saginaw, and did not hesitate to extend and develop the territory beyond by sending his salesmen to remote points in the Thumb and in western and northern counties. Other enterprising men soon followed his lead and the competition thus created finally established this wholesale market as the natural point for distribution of grocery supplies to an extensive territory. This territory is now bounded on the east, north and west by the lakes, and on the south and west it overlaps the trade of Detroit and Grand Rapids.

In 1893, Mr. Phipps was married in Saginaw to Miss Kate Richman, daughter of Captain Charles Richman one of the early pioneers of the valley. One son, Richman, was born to them in August 1894, and is now approaching his majority. Mrs. Phipps died in September 1898. She was a woman of rare attainments and charming personality and was greatly beloved by a wide circle of friends.

Though of a retiring disposition, so far as public life and service are concerned, Mr. Phipps was a kind, liberal, and approachable man, and was interested in every move which would promote the development and prosperity of the community. He was possessed of fine literary tastes, a studious mind, and was a reader of the best works of living authors, and was well informed on the current events of the day.

Mr. Phipps was again married in February 1906, to Miss Anna Seligman, Ring, Phipps, Richman, Fair,, of Saginaw, and one daughter, Margaret, was born to them, in 1907. He died after a long illness on February 27, 1915.


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

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