When the late A. B. Symns passed beyond mortal ken on April 9, 1905, Atchison suffered a loss from its business circles which could never be replaced. He left behind him a monument in the A. B Symns Grocery Company, one of the largest of the wholesale establishments of the city and state, which was the product of his brain and ability. He was one of the noted pioneer figures of a decade which produced great and strong men. From a modest beginning he rose to become a national character in the business world of the great West and realized his ambition during a long and useful life. He not only succeeded in accumulating a comfortable fortune, but left a reputation for integrity and upright citizenship which has never been surpassed by any of his compeers of the building age in Atchison and Kansas. From boyhood to the time he had passed the age of three score years and ten, Mr. Symns was an indefatigable worker and never relaxed except for much needed recreation and rest, occasionally. Early in his career he had great faith in the future of Atchison and that faith was fully justified by his own success in the jobbing field.

A. B. Symns was born in Monroe County, West Virginia, March 27, 1831, and was a son of John and Elizabeth (PETERS) Symns, natives of old Virginia, of Scotch-Irish descent.

As a boy he worked on his father's farm, attending school three months each winter. At the age of eighteen he clerked in a store at Petertown and later on attended Lewisburg Seminary one year. He also worked at White Sulphur Springs before coming west in 1853. He listened to the call of the great unpeopled western country for young and ambitious men to develop her dormant resources, and in 1853 crossed the country to S. Joseph, Mo., where he clerked in a store for two years and then went to St. Louis. After clerking in St. Louis for one year he became an eighth owner of the steamboat "Hesperian" and served as clerk aboard the steamer. This boat made its first trip on the Missouri trade in 1856 and it was while passing up and down the Missouri River that he was attracted to the then flourishing town of Doniphan. It far overshadowed Atchison at that time and he determined to locate in Doniphan. During the time he was connected with the steamboat service he had many interesting experiences. He opened a grocery store in 1858, but during the same year the land office was removed to Atchison and Doniphan lost ground, but the Symns store grew in size and importance and was the nucleus around which his great business was subsequently builded. He removed the store to Atchison in 1872 and began wholesaling in a small way in connection with his retail business. In 1877 he was doing business in the corner store room at Sixth and Commercial Streets, on the southeast corner. While located in this building he closed out his retail business and engaged in jobbing exclusively. With the impetus given by his splendid business mind and his remarkable energy the business grew rapidly and he soon found himself at the head of one of the largest wholesale grocery houses in the western country. Thirty men are employed as traveling salesmen by the Symns Grocer Company alone, and the Symns Utah Grocer Company, which he established, has its own force. Customers of Mr. Symns over Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Colorado and Utah have always agreed that A.B. Symns was the fairest man with whom they ever did business. He had faith in Atchison as a great jobbing center, and the success of his business fully justified that belief. The immense jobbing house of the Symns Grocery Company on Main Street of Atchison was built from plans prepared by Mr. Symns himself and is one of the most complete establishments of the kind to be found anywhere. So extensive did the business become, however, that it was necessary to erect an addition in 1903. The capitalization of the Symns Grocer Company at the time of the demise of Mr. Symns was $300,000 and that of the Utah concern at Salt Lake City was $80,000. Mr. Symns was president of both companies and had a controlling interest in each. He left an estate valued at over $300,000.

One of the interesting episodes of Mr. Symns' mercantile career was the looting of his Doniphan store by Cleveland's band of outlaws, who made Atchison their headquarters in the winter of 1861-62. At the time Mr. Symns was absent in St. Joseph, but his brothers, Sam and William Symns, were in charge when it was surrounded one evening by Cleveland and his gang. They forced William Symns to open the safe and took what money there was on hand in addition to clothing, saddles, etc. While the robbery was in progress, Mrs. Symns ran out to arouse the neighbors, but no help was forthcoming because of the fact that everybody was afraid of Cleveland and his gang, and the thieves got away with their booty unmolested.

A. B. Symns was married in 1858, returning to Old Virginia for his bride, Miss Elizabeth TIFFANY, who was his boyhood sweetheart. Mrs. Symns was a member of an excellent Virginia family and bore him the following children: Mrs. A. S. ROWAN, who died December 31, 1903; Miss Effie Symns of Atchison; Charles, Atchison and Guy. The mother of these children departed this life September 12, 1900, at the age of sixty-four years, having been born in 1836. Six children were born and died in infancy at Doniphan: John, Joseph, Lee, Hugh, Edna and Louis. Mrs. Symns died April 9, 1905 at Hot Springs, Ark. He was sincerely mourned and Atchison business circles suffered a loss which could hardly be estimated.

The Symns family came of old Scotch Presbyterian stock,. Although a southerner by birth, he was a Union man in Kansas. He was an independent Democrat in politics.

Mr. Symns was in active pursuits even after attaining the ave of three score years and ten, and was always found early at his desk. He was not only the active head of the business but closely watched the details,.He was always hurrying and was ever busy, and it was his custom to walk daily to the postoffice for his mail so as to have the benefit of the exercise. Having always been a man of correct habits he belied his years and his demise came unexpectedly at Hot Springs. He was accidentally killed by a locomotive on a railroad crossing at Hot Springs, where it had been his custom to go for his health during the latter ten year of his life. He was fond of his family and dearly loved his home life. He was quiet, unassuming and was one of the kindest and gentlest of men, probably no man being more universally admired and beloved in Atchison during his day. His life story furnishes a decided inspiration for any one who may read of his success in Atchison.

Taken From:

History of Atchison County, Kansas

by Sheffield Ingalls - 1916

Submitted by:

Clemi Higley Blackburn, September 2003