Benjamin Chamberlain


It can hardly be expected that, in the brief limit allowed for that purpose, anything like justice can be done to the character and history of one of the most remarkable men of Western New York. Yet in the general results of his life there is so much of interest and lessons of such practical value in his experience and example, that no one can contemplate his history without profit, or fail to draw encouragement from the evidence he has furnished of what may be accomplished by energy and perseverance, even under the most discouraging circumstances.

BENJAMIN CHAMBERLAIN was born July 31, 1791, in the town of Mount Vernon, Kennebec County, in the State of Maine, where he resided until he was ten years of age, when his father and his family removed to the County of Alleghany, in this State, and settled in the town of Belfast, on the Genesee River. At that time the whole of Western New York was little better than a wilderness, and the rewards of industry and enterprise here were only to be reached through scenes of toil and trials and privations that often tried the sternest energies of those who possessed the courage to encounter them. The family of Judge CHAMBERLAIN were in humble life. Their lot was cast amongst the millions whose fate it is to toil, endure, and suffer, and to win their way to such position of prosperity or distinction as it may be their fortune to attain, unaided and alone.

At that early period, the educational advantages of this portion of the state were extremely limited. Schools of any description were scarcely known, and the instruction of children was mostly confined to such information as the parents were able to impart, or as might be secured by their own unaided efforts. The subject of our sketch had none of the advantages that are placed within the reach of the youth of the present day, and he was compelled by a stern necessity, not only by a want of opportunity, but a want of means, to set out in the journey of life without any of the aids derived from a proper training in the schools.

In March, 1807, when only sixteen years of age, CHAMBERLAIN left his home to commence a career seldom equaled in its leading features, among the self-made men of the country. Without money, or clothes, except such as were upon his back, barefoot and alone, he went to Olean, in this county, in search of employment. This place was then known as the village of Hamilton, and was for a long time, and until the opening of the Erie Canal, known all over the State and New England, and famous as the point where emigrants to the Western States of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois began their long journey down the Allegany and Ohio Rivers, upon "rafts," and in "flat boats," and such other craft as were accustomed to navigate those waters.

Here he commenced work for Major Adam Hoops, the founder of the village, and labored diligently, by the month, for five years. His employment was mostly in saw-mills, and at the various branches of lumbering, which was at that time the principal business of the country. The five years here spent were unvaried by any incident worth relating, yet it was the school in which his mind was formed, and the scene where his business character was laid. This time of toil was productive of profit, small, it is true, but sufficient for his wants, and still more of discipline and preparation. As he increased in years and grew in strength, his intellect expanded and his powers enlarged, until the position of a laborer in a saw-mill, at wages by the month, could no longer satisfy his ambition or afford a sufficient field for his energies and active capacity for business, and he began to look abroad for a wider avenue to usefulness and wealth. Chances for business adventures, even for men of capital, in a wilderness country as Cattaraugus then was, were extremely limited and rarely to be found. The idea formed by Chamberlain, of "setting up in business," without capital, without friends or influence, may be regarded as displaying more of courage and determination than sagacity or discretion. But he possessed in his own mind and energies, in his stout heart and iron will, a "capital" that not only supplied the want of money and friends, but fund that was soon found equal to the emergency. In company with Mr.M'KAY, now deceased, he erected a saw-mill in Great Valley, and engaged in the business of lumbering, which he has steadily followed to the present time. After considerable exertion, the mill was completed and put in successful operation, and about one hundred thousand feet of boards manufactured, ready for the market. At this point, the fortitude and courage of the parties were severely tried by a terrible calamity. The mill and all the sawed lumber took fire, and were entirely consumed. CHAMBERLAIN lost all be had in the world, and was not only left without a dollar, but not entirely free from debts contracted in his business; and M'KAY was found to be utterly insolvent. A less hopeful and determined man would have yielded to a misfortune so overwhelming; and for a time even his iron energy seemed paralyzed. At this critical moment he received unexpected encouragement and valuable aid in the warm affection and calm judgment of his wife. With a philosophy that no calamity could shake, and a faith in the future that nothing could disturb, she counseled her husband to a renewed effort to retrieve his fortunes. She called his attention to the fact that they were still young, blessed with health and vigor, and that with industry, perseverance, and economy they could overcome the loss they had sustained, and yet secure a competence. The resolution was soon formed to rebuild the mill, and CHAMBERLAIN set to work alone, to procure the means. At this time there was but one merchant doing business in the county. This was Capt. Henry DE FOREST, who was trading at Olean. To him CHAMBERLAIN applied for aid, and told him the story of his loss, and laid before him his plans for the future. Capt. DE FOREST readily granted him a credit of $1,000 in goods, which enabled him to reconstruct his mill, and again embark in business. We have occasion to know that CHAMBERLAIN attributes his successful commencement in the world to Capt. DE FOREST, and to this day regards him in grateful remembrance as the founder of his fortunes.

At this period, the business of the county was carried on under circumstances of great disadvantage. The prices of provisions and family goods were enormously high, and the articles difficult to be procured. Flour was $20 per barrel, pork $40, coarse satinet $2.75 per yard, cotton shirting five shillings a yard, commonly known as "hum hum," and coarse brogans from $2.50 to $3 a pair.

It was under such circumstances that CHAMBERLAIN's second effort was begun, and the obstacles which were overcome may be better understood when it is known that all the iron-work for the mill had to be transported from Pittsburgh, in canoes, on the Alleghany River; and pork and flour were obtained in the same laborious and expensive manner.

From the period last mentioned, Mr. CHAMBERLAIN has been largely engaged in lumbering on the Alleghany, and for thirty-five years has enjoyed a degree of prosperity and an unbounded credit, seldom secured by any individual. He often makes grateful mention of his friend, the Hon. ALLEN AVRAULT, of Geneseo. who early accommodated him with loans, as President of the Livingston County Bank, and never in any emergency refused to discount his paper. the entire field of his operations, during the long period referred to, his bond has been regarded entirely safe, and his draft honored at sight.

In conducting his business, his office was not alone that of a mere overseer. His hands were alike familiar with the axe and the oar, and during the earlier years of his career he labored as constantly and as hard as any workman in his employ. In his operations he received essential aid from his wife, who is no less remarkable in her sphere than he in his. While absent at market with his lumber, she directed the management at home-employed hands, prepared and dispatched the hoards at every freshet, and maintained the same vigilant and successful care over the operations of business as though it were her proper place in life. To her should be given a large share of credit for the achievements of her husband, who now counts his wealth by hundreds Of thousands, the result of their joint industry, intelligence, and perseverance.
Aside from business transactions, Mr. CHAMBERLAIN is largely identified with the political history of the county. The Act erecting the county into separate territory, taken from the old County of Genesee, was passed March 11, 1808, but it was not politically organized until March 18, 1817, with the following gentlemen as county officers: TIMOTHY H. PORTER, First Judge; SANDS BOUTON, County Clerk; ISRAEL CURTIS, Sheriff; and JEREMY WOOSTER, Surrogate. Under the  old Council of Appointment, Mr. CHAMBERLAIN held the office of Sheriff, from February in 1820 to June 1, of the same year, and from February 12, 1821, to December 31, 1822. By the Constitution of 1821, the office was made elective by the people, and at the second election, in November, 1825, he was chosen Sheriff, and served until December, 1828. Having previously served as Associate Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of the county, with Hon. ALS0N LEAVENWORTH as First Judge, Mr CHAMBERLAIN was appointed by the late Gov. MARCY, First Judge of the Common Pleas, of Cattaraugus County, Feb. 15, 1833; reappointed by Gov. MARCY, in 1838, for a second term of five years, and again appointed for a third term by Gov. BOUCK. in 1843, and served until June, 1841, when he was succeeded by the Hon. RENSSELAER LAMB, under the new Constitution of 1846. Although Judge CHAMBERLAIN had no advantages of education, nor the benefit of legal training, he possessed an unsurpassed practical business capacity. To an intuitive knowledge of the motives and character of men, he united a sagacity that penetrated clearly the forensic myths of the bar, enabling him to dispel the legal fogs, sift conflicting evidence, and present every case in a plain, intelligible manner to the jury. His "charges" to juries arc remembered as models of directness, brevity, and perspicuity; and although not bred a lawyer, while on the bench it was often remarked that "lie had it the natural way."

In political affinities, Judge CHAMBERLAIN has acted with the Democratic Party. Although never a noisy partisan, he has possessed the confidence of his party, and frequently been selected as their standard bearer. In 1852, he was elected and served as a member of the Electoral College of New York, which cast the Presidential vote of the State for FRANKLIN PIERCE and WILLIAM R KING.

Judge CHAMBERLAIN has participated in all the efforts at improvement of a public character in the county, and manifested a substantial interest in schools, contributing liberally towards the establishment of the Randolph Academy, which has attained a just popularity under the careful management of the Trustees, of which Board Judge CHAMBERLAIN has been the President from the beginning. The munificent provisions for endowing a professorship in a neighboring college, which it is understood he contemplates, attest his interest in the cause of education, and is an honor to his liberality.

Physically, possessing an "iron constitution," united to large mental capacity and enduring energy, Judge CHAMBERLAIN is one of the remarkable men of Western New York. He at present resides at East Randolph, where he enjoys the comforts of an elegant home, and is ever ready to welcome his friends with a warm-hearted and generous hospitality, which he and his amiable wife know so well how to dispense. Though now sixty-six years of age, he is one of the most active business men in the county. His business extends. to farming, lumbering, dealing in lands, mercantile and banking operations, all of which come constantly under his careful eye and personal supervision. He makes weekly visits to Cuba, sixty-seven miles from his home, to give direction to the officers of the CUBA BANK, of which he is President, and the principal stockholder.

The great element in Judge CHAMBERLAIN'S success has been an iron will and unyielding perseverance. He commenced the great battle of life resolved to conquer and overcome, and the results he has accomplished over the opposing forces that beset his early efforts, show how wisely and how well he has maintained the contest. In his history, no man can fail to find encouragement. The most formidable obstacles yield to the force of a steady determination, and often when least expected the resolute heart finds illustrated, in its own experience, the beautiful Irish aphorism, that "there is a silver lining to every cloud."

SOURCE:  Page(s) 44-49.  Original Portraits and Biographies of the Old Pioneers and Congressmen of Cattaraugus County, By John Manley.  Little Valley, 1857. Hosford & Co., Stationers and Printers.