Birge, Martin Howland - Erie County

MARTIN HOWLAND BIRGE, who died October 3, 1900, was for over half a century one of the most prominent business men of Buffalo, and no resident of that community ever stood more deservedly high in the general esteem.

The Birge family is of English origin. Richard Birge came from England to this country in 1630, in the ship "Mary and John," and settled in Dorchester, Mass. His son, Joseph, was the father of Joseph, one of the first settlers of Litchfield, Conn. Elijah, son of Joseph Birge (2d), was the father of David Birge, who was a soldier of the Revolution and served under Washington at the battles of Long Island, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Trenton and Princeton.; fought in Gen. Stark's army at the battle of Bennington; took part in the campaigns of Gates and Schuyler in 1777, and was present at the surrender of Burgoyne. He married Abigail Howland, a descendant of John Howland, who came over in the Mayflower. Their son, Elijah Birge (2d), was born in Lenox, Mass., March 2, 1782, and died at Underhill, Vt., April 11, 1854. November 18, 1805, he married Mary Olds. During the War of 1812 Elijah Birge (2d) was Captain of a company of militia.

Martin Howland Birge, son of Elijah and Mary Olds Birge, was born at Underhill, Chittenden County, Vt., July 30, 1806. He attended the district school and the village academy. When twenty years old he became clerk in a general store in Middlebury, Vt. After three years he engaged in business for himself, and for several years successfully conducted a dry-goods and general store in Middlebury. Here he joined the first Total Abstinence Society in the State, and though stores then always carried a stock of liquors he absolutely refused to sell spirits.

In 1834 Mr. Birge disposed of his business and journeyed to Western New York, intending ultimately to settle in Chicago. He was, however, induced to remain in Buffalo, where he opened a store for the sale of dry-goods and paper hangings. The business prospered for about three years, and then came the financial panic of 1837, in which Mr. Birge suffered with others. Hundreds of men were going into bankruptcy, but he firmly refused to take advantage of the Bankruptcy Act. What cash he could raise he turned over to his creditors; his splendid reputation for honor and capability enabled him to continue in business and he resolutely set to work to pay his indebtedness in full. By 1846 he had paid every dollar of his obligations. The same year he sold his dry-goods business, thereafter devoting himself to paper hangings exclusively, building up the largest trade in that line in this section of the State. In 1878 Mr. Birge organized the firm of M. H. Birge & Sons and founded the first paper hangings factory west of New York City. The enterprise was enlarged until the manufactory became the best equipped of its kind in the United States. In 1892 Mr. Birge disposed of his interests to his sons and retired from business after an active career of sixty-six years.

October 21, 1836, Mr. Birge married Elizabeth Ann Kingsley, daughter of the Kev. Phineas Kingsley and Parnel (Keith) of Sheldon, Vt. Mrs. Birge was born in Rutland, Vt., August 15, 1812. The children of the marriage were: Julia Elizabeth, Mary Olds, George Kingsley, and Henry Martin Birge.

SOURCE: Memorial and Family History of Erie County New York; Volume I