John Emerson, a lawyer in Ironton, Missouri, became a small-town Victorian gentleman who lived a significant public life in southeast Missouri and St. Louis. His cosmopolitan interests included the law, poetry, literature, philosophy, public speaking and education, building and landscape design, and wilderness sporting and conservation. He devoted much energy to land, timber, and mineral speculation, local and state Democratic politics, and researching the life of Ulysses S. Grant. Emerson was the financial founder of Emerson Electric Company in St. Louis.
John Emerson descended from the famous Emerson family of New England. His father, William Emerson, was a professor of mathematics and literature while the family lived in Massachusetts, New York, and Canada. Both parents, however, were dead by the time Emerson reached age eighteen. He worked his way through college, graduating from the University of Michigan. He studied law in Pennsylvania, married, and took his wife, Sarah, and his younger brother, George, to the Arcadia valley in Missouri in 1857. His legal talents quickly earned him a judicial seat in the Fifteenth District.
In 1862 the young judge began his military career by enlisting in the Sixty-Eighth Regiment Enrolled Missouri Militia, but later paid the $300 commutation tax to continue his legal work. In early 1864, Missouri governor Willard Preble Hall appointed Emerson as colonel of the Sixty-Eighth Regiment, and he resigned his judgeship. By spring 1864 he began to lobby the adjutant general to form a new volunteer regiment and received permission by late summer to develop the Forty-Seventh Missouri Infantry; the colonel became a major in the new militia. He spent most of his time, however, guarding communications in middle Tennessee, mustering out at St. Louis in March 1865.
The war veteran returned home and resumed his duties on the judicial bench. Emerson inherited some money and made investments in land, commercial farms, and timber while purchasing numerous delinquent-tax lands. By 1871 the judge had become the landlord of the local newspaper (the Ironton Register), completed a new Gothic frame house in Ironton, promoted many commercial enterprises with his pen and on the podium in southeast Missouri, and traveled the St. Louis Iron Mountain Railway looking after his investments. Plagued with ill health, perhaps recurring malaria, throughout his life, Emerson announced his retirement from the law in June 1871 to attend Berkeley Divinity School in Middleton, Connecticut. In March 1873 he withdrew his name as a candidate for the Episcopalian Orders, again citing ill health. He and his wife left for Colorado, where he had mineral investments, and traveled the Pacific coast in quest of restored health.
The Emersons always retained investments in southeast Missouri and property in Ironton. For the rest of their lives they traveled extensively throughout the United States and Canada while Emerson enjoyed writing romantic, florid narratives that described the sublime wonders of nature. These works were popular in Victorian America, and he published them as travelogues in the Ironton Register. When riding the rails in southeast Missouri, he wrote about former Irontonians who had become business people throughout the region. In June 1875 he reopened his law practice in Ironton.
At age forty-five, Emerson assumed the mantle of a small-town aristocrat. Throughout southeast Missouri he delivered keynote addresses at civic, fraternal, and Democratic political meetings. He was always on the stage at Independence Day rallies, spoke at educational exercises in private and public schools, delivered eulogies, and gave popular law lectures at Arcadia College. Eli Ake, the Ironton Register’s editor, often printed his speeches, even his legal briefs, for public circulation.
In late 1876 Emerson decided his ill health demanded liquidation of many Missouri properties and a move to Colorado. He sold his sawmill, and businessmen gave him a farewell supper in January 1877. The Emersons spent months traveling and also lived with John’s brother George in Pennsylvania, but the unsettled and indecisive couple was back in Ironton by September.
Emerson was about to renew his efforts in the Ozarks. He still owned thousands of acres in Butler County and immediately challenged all southeast Missouri newspaper editors to “go to work and write up the country, and try to get a share of immigration to the Southeast.” By late fall the promoter had purchased the old Lindsay-Grandhomme estate in Ironton, the grandest house in the county. The Emersons finally made a long-term commitment to stay in the area and turned the property into a model that was soon imitated by a number of St. Louisans who began building summer estates in the Arcadia valley during the 1880s.
The couple poured their wealth into creating a landscape that became known throughout southeast Missouri and in St. Louis. The brick Italianate house sat in a terrain designed for public view. Guests stayed in summer cottages, fished in the trout-stocked ponds, walked about Sylvan Lake, and enjoyed yard lanterns and all the handsome appointments that adorned a great estate. St. Louis designers and tradesmen worked on the grounds, completing it in five years. Emerson used his estate to promote the area for recreation and the embryonic conservation movement. Neighbors imitated his experiments in fish ponds and in stocking creeks and rivers.
The Emerson estate almost became a personality itself in efforts to celebrate patriotism and General Grant. In 1882, Civil War veterans held a Blue and Gray reunion at Pilot Knob. The occasion began efforts to locate a statue of Grant on Emerson’s grounds, the place where Grant first assumed duties as a brigadier general under the “Grant Oak.” Emerson regularly made his spacious grounds available for militia encampments. In 1886 the gentleman promoter and the Twenty-First Illinois veterans proudly witnessed the unveiling of a bronze statue on the historic site. Public calls for Emerson’s entry into Democratic politics came regularly to the Ironton counselor, but he declined them all until offered a post in 1887 as a US marshal in St. Louis. The presidential appointment allowed Emerson to maintain an office in St. Louis, where he already spent considerable time and had numerous business and social connections.
Emerson required a staff in his St. Louis office. He hired a law clerk, Alexander Metson, to handle much of his business. At night Metson and his brother experimented in electricity. When the marshalship ended in 1890, Emerson staked the Metson brothers with $25,000 to begin an infant manufacturing business in electric lighting and “railway specialties” and called it Emerson Electric. For a couple of years Emerson maintained a St. Louis law office, riding the train back and forth to Ironton. In 1892 he returned full-time to Sylvan Lake, leaving the business of Emerson Electric to others.
Emerson continued to travel, write for the newspaper, and entertain frequent ecclesiastical, political, and business elites. In 1894 he received Grant’s widow, their son, Frederick Grant, and a group of distinguished St. Louisans. At lakeside Emerson presented Julia Dent Grant with a pencil sketch of the “Grant Oak,” the spring, and the memorial monument. He published magazine articles about Grant and made annual pilgrimages to famous Civil War battle sites to collect information on the general. He intended to write a Grant biography in Ironton, but a final illness overcame him, and he died on June 20, 1899.
Ironically, the fastidious Emerson died intestate, his wife passing away in 1904. Canadian and Massachusetts heirs began a battle for his assets. By 1911 Emerson’s former law partner, W. R. Edgar, was representing him in the settlement before the Missouri Supreme Court. By then heirs had sold or appropriated for themselves all personal properties at the estate, leaving the house to be sold to new owners.
Dyer, Davis, and Jeffrey L. Cruikshank. Emerson Electric Co.: A Century of Manufacturing, 1890–1990. St. Louis: Emerson Electric, 1989.
Morrow, Lynn. “Estate Building in the Missouri Ozarks: Establishing a St. Louis Tradition.” Gateway Heritage 2 (winter 1981–1982): 42–48.
——. “John Wesley Emerson.” St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society.
Published March 4, 2021; Last updated March 7, 2021
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