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Parsons Family Papers

 Collection
Identifier: SpC MS 0386

Scope and Contents

The Parsons family papers consist primarily of the business records and personal papers of George Parsons and his sons Henry and William Usher Parsons. They reflect the involvement of the Parsons family in the banking, interurban railroad, steel and coal businesses, primarily in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

The papers are arranged in four series: Business records, Personal papers, Records of Parsons family trusts, and Ancillary materials. Each series has several sub-series. The collection was largely unarranged upon its arrival at Fogler Library so the processing archivist imposed its arrangement scheme. Documentation received with the collection indicates that sections of the papers were shipped at regular intervals from the Parsons’ New York office to their home in Kennebunk starting in 1909 and running through 1959. Although the original arrangement of much of the collection has been lost, almost all of the material was received in its original file folders and those folder titles are retained here.

The collection contains both business records and personal papers of George Parsons and a small number of materials from his brother Edwin Parsons. However the papers of his son Henry Parsons make up the bulk of the collection. Henry worked closely with his father in the various business ventures of the family, and as the eldest sibling also took care of the financial affairs of other family members, especially his sisters. His correspondence, a mixture of business, financial and personal, forms the largest section of his papers. He corresponded regularly with all of his siblings as well as with friends and business associates. The long time span of the letters and their concentration on business give insight into the financial history of a wealthy family and the changing financial history of the country, especially during the Great Depression.

The most complete business records in the Parsons papers are for the street railroad companies in Savannah as well as the Parsons companies in Sheffield, Alabama. These records consist primarily of correspondence along with some legal and financial documents.

Dates

  • 1838-1956
  • Majority of material found within 1880-1954

Restrictions on Access

Kept at Fogler Library's offsite storage facility. One week's notice required for retrieval.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Information on literary rights available in the repository.

Biographical Note : George Parsons

George Parsons was born in 1826 in Alfred, Maine, the son of William and Mary Parsons. Before the Civil War George and his older brother Edwin became cotton merchants. After the war they turned their business interests toward railroads and mining. Edwin Parsons died in 1895. In the 1880s George entered the street railway business in the Savannah, Georgia, area. In 1902 he became interested in the development of Sheffield, Alabama, and in 1903 formed the Sheffield Company which built an interurban railway, a power plant and a waterworks. In 1865 he married Sarah Elizabeth Eddy of Fall River, Massachusetts. They had seven children. George Parsons died on December 4, 1907; Sarah Parsons died on October 28, 1918.

Biographical Note : Henry Parsons

Henry Parsons, the eldest son of George and Sarah, was born in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1866. He was very active in the various business interests of his father. Sometime in the 1920s he seems to have begun to spend longer and longer periods at the family home in Kennebunk, Maine, entering into the life of the town and contributing to its civic and charitable organizations. He never married and died on December 8, 1954.

Biographical Note : William Usher Parsons

William Usher Parsons was born in Kennebunk, Maine, in 1873. Known as Usher to his family he studied law at Columbia from 1895-1897, was a clerk at a law firm in New York City, 1897-1900, assistant United States Attorney in New York, 1900-1902, and practiced law independently in New York from 1902 to 1907. He then entered various family businesses. He married Katharine Corbin in 1897 and lived in Ardsley, Irvington, New York. They had three children. Usher died in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 30, 1933.

Extent

152 cubic feet (117 boxes)

6 linear feet (ledgers)

Language of Materials

English

Arrangement

The papers are arranged in four series: Business records, Personal papers, Records of Parsons family trusts, and Ancillary materials. Each series has several sub-series.

Series Outline and Description

Series I: Business Records

Sub-series 1: Records of Savannah railroads

This sub-series is further subdivided into three sub-sub-series: General Savannah railroad correspondence, Correspondence of Savannah, Thunderbolt and Isle of Hope Railway, and Financial and legal documents, Savannah, Thunderbolt and Isle of Hope Railway.

Street railroads in and around Savannah began about 1866 when the Georgia legislature issued a charter to the Savannah, Skidaway and Seaboard Railroad Company to build and operate a railroad running from Savannah to outlying communities such as Thunderbolt and Isle of Hope. Other rail companies including the Savannah and Thunderbolt and Coast Line Railroad Company were established soon after. Originally the cars were horse-drawn but were later upgraded to steam and then to electricity. In 1882 several mergers resulted in a company called the City & Suburban Railway which was purchased around 1886 by George Parsons. In 1892, the Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope Railway Company was established, with George Parsons as president. The company was re-chartered by the state of Georgia in 1897 with a capital stock of $1,000,000. The City & Suburban Railway Company continued to operate under its own charter although all of its stock was owned by the Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope. At this time, the property of another line, the Electric Railway Company, was consolidated with the Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope. The Board of Directors of the reorganized company included George Parsons, Henry Parsons, John N. Harriman, J.H. Fall, James H. Johnston, and Edward J. Thomas. George Parsons also acted as president of the company, with Henry Parsons as second vice-president.

In 1902, the Savannah Electric Company, managed by the firm Stone & Webster of Boston, purchased the Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope Railway and the City & Suburban Railway, ending the involvement of the Parsons family in the street railroad business in Savannah.

The general Savannah railroad correspondence, most to George Parsons, is primarily from 1893-1902. Correspondents include J.N. Harriman, Daniel H. Chamberlain, and J.H. Johnston, and discussion centers on financial and operating matters of the Parsons interests.

The correspondence of the Savannah, Thunderbolt and Isle of Hope Railway is arranged alphabetically by correspondent’s name and includes letters from J.N. Harriman, J.H. Johnston, and H.M. Lofton, all company officials. Also included is correspondence with the Boston firm, Stone & Webster, about its 1902 purchase of the company. The financial and legal documents include some material from the Coast Line Railroad and the City & Suburban Railway Co., both predecessors of the Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope, as well as stock ledgers, contracts, statements of earnings and expenses, and vouchers, some of which deal with payments of claims against the railroad for accidents and property damage along its line. The legal documents primarily concern a suit between George Parsons and J.H. Fall over the sale of company securities.

Sub-series 2: Records of South Carolina and Georgia Railroad Company

Located in Charleston, South Carolina, this company was reorganized in 1894 from the South Carolina Railway Company, itself reorganized in 1881 from the South Carolina Railroad Company. The South Carolina and Georgia was leased by the Southern Railway Company in 1902. Charles Parsons was president of the company, with George and Henry Parsons serving on the Board of Directors. Henry Parsons also served as secretary and treasurer of the company, maintaining an office in New York City.

Records in this sub-series include company correspondence, 1892-1899, especially that of Henry Parsons as company treasurer, and financial and legal records including contracts, vouchers, and treasurer’s daily statements, 1894-1899.

Sub-series 3: Records of Augusta Southern Railroad Company

This company ran from Augusta to Tenille, Georgia. It was reorganized in 1893 from the Augusta, Gibson, and Sandersville Railroad Company and consolidated in 1894 with the Sandersville and Tennille Railroad. In 1897 it was leased to the South Carolina and Georgia Railroad Company.

Records in this sub-series include correspondence, 1897-1898, and records and correspondence concerning receivership of the company, 1898-1900.

Sub-series 4: Records of Columbia Electric Street Railway, Light and Power Company

This company, located in Columbia, South Carolina, was chartered in 1891, combining several smaller companies established to provide electric power and street railway service in and around Columbia. All of these companies used the Columbia Canal as a source of power. Constructed in the 1820’s as a navigational canal and lock system, it had been converted to a hydroelectric operation in the 1880’s. The Columbia Electric Street Railway, Light and Power Company gradually absorbed other small local companies and under the leadership of Edwin W. Robertson, the company secured control of the Columbia Gas Light Company and the Columbia Water Power Company and consolidated the three companies to form the Columbia Railway, Gas & Electric Company. Robertson also acquired control of the Parr Shoals Power Company, organized in 1904 and located outside Columbia, and constructed a dam and powerhouse there in 1912. Edwin Robertson served as president and treasurer of the Parr Shoals Company and Henry Parsons served as vice-president; the men also owned and operated the Columbia Railway, Gas & Electric Co. Both companies were acquired by the Broad River Power Company in 1925 and later became part of the South Carolina Electric & Gas Company.

Records in this sub-series include correspondence, 1904-1924, of Henry Parsons and various company officials, as well as reports of operation of the power plant, 1907-1911, and financial and statistical reports, 1911-1923.

Sub-series 5: Records of Parr Shoals Power Company

Organized in 1904 by Henry Larkin Parr and his associates, the company developed a water power site on the location of Parr’s father’s grist mill on the Broad River about 25 miles north of Columbia, South Carolina. After the company was acquired by Edwin Robertson, a hydroelectric plant was constructed there in 1912-1914. Henry Parsons served as vice president of this company.

Records include correspondence of Henry Parsons, 1912-1916, and information about a robbery at the company, 1915.

Sub-series 6: Records of Sheffield Company

This company was incorporated in New Jersey in 1903 by George Parsons, Henry Parsons, and W.H. Goadby, a New York stockbroker. With capital stock of $500,000, the company was organized to hold the stock of the street railway and the electric, gas, water and power companies in Sheffield, Alabama. It also operated the Sheffield Development Company, which owned 40% of the residential and commercial property in the town of Sheffield. The Sheffield Development Company had been incorporated in 1902 by local Sheffield men to develop business and commercial property there. Its name was changed to the Sheffield Land Company in 1932, with stockholders including Henry Parsons, George Parsons Sons, and various other Parsons family members.

The Parsons family also held stock in and directed the Sheffield Water Co., which had been incorporated in 1889 to construct and own a water works in Sheffield; and the Sheffield Light & Power Co., incorporated in 1891 by local men to manufacture and produce gas, oil and electricity. They also formed the Sheffield Railway Company to run a street railway from Sheffield to Tuscumbia to Florence, a total of about 9 miles. Henry Parsons served as company president, J.W. Worthington was vice president, William Usher Parsons was treasurer, and L.H. McIntire was general manager.

From 1906 to 1915 the Parsons family along with others were involved in the Sheffield Trust Company organized to carry on a banking business and to buy and sell real estate. Henry Parsons was president, William S. Hatch, vice president, and U.B. Jones was secretary and treasurer. These three men also served as trustees and directors of the Sheffield National Bank

This area of Alabama, known as Muscle Shoals and encompassing the towns of Sheffield, Florence and Tuscumbia, was of particular interest because of its location near the Tennessee River. Its potential had been recognized early on by John W. Worthington, who came to Sheffield in 1885 and was responsible for organizing the various Sheffield companies in cooperation with the Parsons family. Worthington helped to establish the Tennessee River Improvement Association in 1906 and proposed to make the river navigable by constructing dams which would also produce electric power. In 1918 the building of Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals near Sheffield began. Approval for the dam had arisen from the need for nitrates for ammunition and explosives; this led to plans for building two nitrate plants and a dam to supply electricity to the plants. The first nitrates were produced in November 1918, but the end of World War I lessened the need for nitrates and led to controversy over what to do with the dam and the site. In 1921, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison visited Muscle Shoals with the idea of buying the dam and developing a large city in the area. Ford’s offer to purchase the dam was turned down by Congress, which later formed the Tennessee Valley Authority to develop the whole river valley.

In 1924, after having seen the growth and development of this area for over twenty years, the Parsons family sold all of its various companies in Sheffield to the Alabama Power Company, only retaining an interest in the Sheffield National Bank.

The records of the Sheffield Company are divided into five sub-sub-series: Correspondence, Subject files, Financial records, Data and papers concerning sale of company, and Records of other Sheffield companies.

Much of the correspondence is with J.W. Worthington, 1909-1913, as well as treasurer’s correspondence of Usher Parsons, and correspondence concerning Muscle Shoals, 1907-1924. Subject files include annual reports, 1903-1925, legal documents, and a scrapbook of clippings about the Sheffield area. Financial records include bankbooks, journals and ledgers, records of earnings, 1905-1915, and financial reports, 1903-1924. Papers concerning the sale of the company date primarily from 1924-1925 and include records on an income tax case and appeal centering around the sale.

Records of other Sheffield companies include scattered correspondence, stock information, and financial records of the Sheffield Development Company, the Sheffield Hotel Corporation, the Sheffield Land Company, the Sheffield Light and Power Company, the Sheffield National Bank, the Sheffield Railway, the Sheffield Trust Company, and the Sheffield Water Company.

Sub-series 7: Records of Sheffield Cast Iron Pipe & Foundry Company

This company was incorporated in 1905 and located in Sheffield, Alabama. Original incorporators and members of the first board of directors were J.W. Worthington, S.B. McTyer, and Snowden McGaughy. In 1906, George and Henry Parsons were elected to the board. J.W. Worthington served as president, William Usher Parsons was secretary and treasurer, John Thomson was general manager, and H.M. McNutt was auditor. The company letterhead indicates that it was “manufacturers of cast iron gas and water pipe and specials.”

Records include incorporation papers and minutes of the Board of Directors, 1905-1917; correspondence, 1908-1923, much of it of Usher Parsons as treasurer; and financial information about the company.

Sub-series 8: Records of American Cyanamid Company

This company was located in Niagara Falls, New York, and manufactured cyanamid, a nitrogen compound used in fertilizer. Henry Parsons was a trustee of this company in 1916-1917.

Records include correspondence, 1907-1924, and reports, etc., 1920-1932.

Sub-series 9: Records of Sloss Sheffield Steel & Iron Company

Located in Birmingham, Alabama, the company produced pig iron, coal and coke. George Parsons was a director of the company and Henry Parsons was a member of the executive committee.

Records include correspondence, 1886-1921; reports to the executive committee, 1904-1918; financial reports; and reports and information about coke and coal.

Sub-series 10: Records of Yolande Coal & Coke Company

With offices in Birmingham, Alabama, and mines and ovens at Yolande, Alabama, the company mined coal and manufactured coke. Members of the Parsons family served as trustees of the company. G.B. Crowe was the company president.

Records include correspondence with G.B. Crowe, 1907-1909; reports and correspondence with other coal companies and concerning Alabama coal lands; and financial reports, etc., of the Davis Creek Coal & Coke Co., located at Abernant, Alabama. Henry Parsons served as vice president of this company.

Sub-series 11: Records of the Trustees of the Cairo Trust Property

The Trustees administered the property of the Cairo City and Canal Company which was involved in development of property in Cairo, Illinois. George and Henry Parsons were among the stockholders of the company, which was run by Parsons family cousins, Edwin and George Parsons.

Records include correspondence and reports, 1895-1922, as well as annual reports, 1896-1916, and financial information, 1895-1899.

Sub-series 12: Records of Sunny Pecan Orchards Company

Located near Albany, Georgia, the orchards had almost 300 acres of pecan trees, along with houses, barns, and machinery sheds. The company was organized around 1929, with Henry and Usher Parsons among the stockholders. Henry Parsons also served as president of the company after 1942. Vladimir F. Gniessin was the general manager. The company seems never to have been particularly profitable, and it was sold in 1952.

Records include correspondence, 1929-1954; information about the sale of the company; and income tax returns, 1930-1939.

Series II: Personal papers

Sub-series 1: Papers of George Parsons

This sub-series is further divided into three sub-sub-series: Correspondence, Financial and legal records, and Estate of George Parsons.

The correspondence includes copies of outgoing letters, 1875-1907, to family members and about various personal and household matters. Incoming correspondence includes letters from the Parsons children as teenagers and young adults as well as letters received by George Parsons in honor of his 80th birthday in 1906. It also contains correspondence with Augustus Oemler who had a long-standing arrangement with the Parsons family to grow and harvest oysters in the waterways of their Georgia properties.

Financial and legal records primarily include copies of personal and household receipts and invoices, 1879-1898, and personal financial information. Records of George Parsons’ estate include correspondence about probate, property inventories and appraisals, and financial information.

Sub-series 2: Papers of Henry Parsons

This sub-series is divided into four sub-sub-series: Correspondence, Financial, Income tax records, and Legal documents.

The correspondence is the largest section of the collection and dates from 1892 to 1954. A meticulous record-keeper, Henry Parsons arranged his letters alphabetically by subject or by correspondent, and the folder headings used here are those assigned by him. The wide-ranging subject matter reflects Henry’s involvement in activities in Kennebunk and New York City as well as in the South. Letters to and from his siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins make up a significant portion of the collection and reflect his affection for and interest in his family. He also corresponded regularly with George Towne, the manager of the Parsons’ office at 101 Park Avenue in New York, and with Charles Belyea and C.F. Green, who oversaw the Parsons property in Kennebunk. He remained in contact with business associates such as J.W. Worthington, J.H. Johnston and others long after their professional activities were finished. His support for charitable and civic organizations in both New York and Kennebunk as well as loans he made to individuals and small business ventures he undertook can also be seen in these files.

Sub-sub-series 2, Financial, contains information about Henry Parsons’ personal finances, including cashbooks, journals, check registers, etc., as well as information about his personal investments during the 1930’s.

Sub-sub-series 3, Income tax records, 1913-1940, contain forms filed for the seven Parsons siblings as well as the family trusts. Henry Parsons appears to have been responsible for preparation of these forms for the entire family.

Sub-sub-series 4, Legal documents, includes deeds, leases, etc., for property in New York City, Minnesota, and Ontario. It also contains records of estates for which Henry served as executor, as well as a small amount of information about his own estate.

Sub-series 3: Papers of William Usher Parsons

This sub-series is further subdivided into four sub-sub-series: Correspondence, Subject and legal records, Financial, and Estate of W.U. Parsons.

The correspondence, arranged chronologically, is a mixture of business correspondence and personal letters. Usher Parsons, like his father and brother, maintained an office in New York City and traveled to the various Parsons businesses in the South. Many of his letters also concern his financial investments, and the letters from 1929 until his death in 1933, with their numerous references to the condition of the stock market, bank closings and other financial difficulties, reflect the growing effect of the Great Depression on the fortunes of the family. His personal letters include his war correspondence, 1918-1919, and numerous letters to his daughters, Katharine Parsons Wistrand and Edythe Parsons Rich, and his son, George Parsons. Katharine Wistrand, whose husband Hugo was a Swedish diplomat, was living in Berlin for most of the period of these letters; George Parsons wrote many letters from Saranac Lake, New York, where he was sent to recover from tuberculosis in 1932. Letters to Usher’s estranged wife Katharine, primarily about her financial arrangements, also make up part of the personal correspondence.

Sub-sub-series 2, Subject and legal records, includes information about Usher Parsons’ father-in-law, Gen. Henry C. Corbin and other members of the Corbin family, as well as correspondence and legal documents concerning Usher’s involvement in developing property on West 138th Street in New York.

Sub-sub-series 3, Financial records, includes check registers, 1905-1932, for Usher Parsons’ personal and household expenses.

Sub-sub-series 4 contains correspondence, financial information and legal documents from the settlement of Usher’s estate after his death in 1933.

Series III: Records of family trusts

After the estate of George Parsons was closed in 1910, the assets were not divided among his heirs. Instead they remained in various family trusts and were managed by George Parsons Sons, Inc., consisting of Henry Parsons, Joseph Parsons, and W.U. Parsons.

Sub-series 1: Trust Number 1

This trust was formed by George Parsons in February, 1905. The original trustees were Henry Parsons, Charles E. Milmine, William Usher Parsons, and Mary A. Parsons Coolidge. The trust was based on $800,000 worth of Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope bonds, which were later sold by the Trustees, with the proceeds reinvested in a diversified list of stocks and bonds.

Records in this sub-series include information about securities, legal documents, financial ledgers, check registers, and a scrapbook of information and trust documents.

Sub-series 2: Trust Number 2

This trust was formed by George Parsons in November, 1907. The original trustees were George Parsons, Henry Parsons, Joseph Parsons, William Usher Parsons, and Mary A. Parsons Coolidge. George Parsons died shortly after this trust was established.

Records include reports of the Trustees, financial ledgers, lists of investments, check registers, etc.

Sub-series 3: Account Numbers 3 and 4

Trustees for both of these accounts were Henry Parsons, Joseph Parsons, Theodore W. Dwight and George P. Milmine.

Records include accounts ledgers and check registers.

Sub-series 4: All accounts

This sub-series contains information on holdings and distributions of all of the accounts combined.

Sub-series 5: George Parsons Sons

George Parsons Sons was organized in December, 1907, to buy and sell securities as agents for the heirs of George Parsons. It also handled the business affairs of all of the various Parsons family trusts including receiving and disbursing income, paying bills, etc.

Records include information about the transactions as agents for Sarah E. Parsons, 1911-1920; financial ledgers and check registers; and financial statements from the various brokerage houses which handled Trust investments.

Sub-series 6: Wassaw Trust

The Wassaw Trust was set up by George Parsons’ descendants to manage the property on Wassaw Island. George Parsons purchased the island in 1866 and built a home in the center of the island where the family spent holiday and vacation time through the years. In 1969 the island was sold by the family to the Nature Conservancy which in turn deeded it to the U.S. Department of the Interior to be kept as a wildlife refuge. The Parsons family retained 180 acres for its own use.

Records in this sub-series include papers about the formation of the Trust, 1928-1929, check registers and cancelled checks.

Series IV: Ancillary materials

Sub-series 1: Papers of Edwin Parsons

The materials in this sub-series reflect the business interests of Edwin Parsons, older brother of George Parsons. They include letter books of his outgoing correspondence, 1860-1878, and legal and financial documents concerning his purchase from S.W. Wright & Co. to the right of title to the Savannah Tyler Cotton Press.

Sub-series 2: Records of Bank of Middle Georgia

This bank, located in Macon, Georgia, was incorporated in 1856. Edwin Parsons was one of the initial shareholders, and he and George Parsons were members of the Board of Directors.

Records include a volume of directors’ minutes, 1856-1874, deposit records, and financial journals.

Sub-series 3: Records of Brigham & Parsons

Little information is available about the history of this firm. From its correspondence it seems to have been a cotton broker or cotton commission agent.

Records include letter books of outgoing correspondence, 1858-1861, and weigh master returns for cotton, 1859-1861.

Sub-series 4: Miscellaneous

This small sub-series contains items primarily concerning Parsons siblings May Eddy Parsons Dwight and Joseph Parsons.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated in 1993 and 1999.

Title
Guide to the Parsons Family Papers
Status
Box And Folder List Available
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Code for uncoded script
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections Repository

Contact:
5729 Raymond H. Fogler Library
University of Maine
Orono ME 04469-5729 United States
207-581-1686