In writing the history of a city and county such as Atchison, the reviewer very naturally finds that among the large number of men who have had much to do with the up-building of the community, and who can be counted among the really successful men of the period covered, there are few who stand out preeminently among their fellows, and whose individuality looms far above the average , and who are noted not only for their individual accomplishments on their own behalf, but who have performed deeds which have endeared their memory to posterity for generations to come. In this respect we must consider the late Alfred Jonathan Harwi, founder of the great A. J. Harwi Hardware Company, millionaire statesman, and philanthropist, of Atchison. Mr. Harwi will long be remembered as one of the leading figures in the business world of Atchison. He was a pioneer in the establishment of the great wholesale houses which have made Atchison famous over the western country. Beginning his career a poor man, endowed with financial and business ability of a high order, blessed with a keen foresight into the future, having confidence in the ultimate development of the country, tireless and industrious in all his undertakings, he achieved a truly remarkable success, and through it all he was a man among men, who never lost the respect and regard of his fellow men because of his great success in the realms of business and finance.

Alfred Jonathan Harwi was born at Ritterville, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, January 21, 1847, the eldest of four sons, born to Michael and Lucretia Harwi. One of the children died in infancy and the others, Edwin C. And W. H., followed Alfred J. To Atchison and became associated with him in the hardware business which he had established. Edwin C. died September 4, 1903 and Wilson H. Harwi died May 30 1911. A sister died in Pennsylvania when but a child. Michael Harwi followed the trade of carpenter in heavy construction work during his life, and was engaged in the building of canal locks in the days when the construction of internal waterways was in vogue. He was also a farmer, and at the time of his death was engaged in quarrying and contracting for slate. His sons having all come to the West, he made preparations to join them here in Atchison, but on the pont of his departure on October 8, 1882, he was taken ill and died. His widow, Lucretia Harwi, then came to Atchison and resided here with her children until her demise in November, 1904.

A. J. Harwi received his education in the schools of his native state, attending the district of his neighborhood until ten years of age, then becoming a student at a Moravian school in Bethlehem, which was located four miles from his home and required him to walk the distance across a mountain both morning and evening. After spending two years in diligent study in this institution he entered a general store at Bethlehem for the purpose of acquiring business experience. However, while learning the art of barter and trade over the counters of the general store he did not neglect the cultivation of his mind. He read, listened and learned, and in his spare time continued his studied until his mind was broadened and he became a man of advanced thought, learned to read and judge his fellow men, and acquire a refinement and polish which in later years assisted him in his undertakings and enabled him to command the respect of his fellows. His ambition was to eventually engage in business for himself, and he saved his money to this end, and in 1868, when he was twenty-one years of age, he became a partner in the furniture business with J. B. ZIMMELE, but sold out two years later and hearkened to the advice of Horace Greeley, who said: "Go west, young man, go west, and grow up with the country." While at Bethlehem Mr. Harwi married Cora WHEELER, with whose father he became associated in the hardware and implement business at Butler, Mo. When this partnership was dissolved a few years later, Mr. Harwi went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and for a few months was a clerk in a hardware store. In the year 1875 he came to Atchison equipped with considerable commercial experience, but having little capital. He and C. H. DEARBORN began a retail hardware business in a small way in the building at 408 Commercial Street. The concern prospered from the start and its success was undoubtedly due to Mr. Harwi's intelligence and common-sense business methods and his wonderful capacity for hard and remitting work. This hardware business soon became one of the leading local business enterprises of the rapidly growing city of Atchison. Like other men who have been successful in life, Mr. Harwi was visionary, but his vision did not take on the dream-like character. It was practical and foresaw the inevitable development of the western country and an increased demand for all kinds of products as the country became more and more settled. He believed in common with others of the period that Atchison was destined to become the gateway and the distributing point for a large section of territory. Acting upon this sound, practical belief in the early eighties when the retail business has assumed large proportions and necessitated expansion in other ways, he conceived the idea of engaging in the jobbing business. He did so, and again his wonderful business acumen and ability came into play, with the result that the A. J. Harwi Hardware Company is known throughout the west and middle west, and has done a noteworthy part in making Atchison famous as a wholesale center. The result of its founder's vision and industry is one of the great wholesale houses of the west, represented by about twenty traveling salesmen covering four states, while over fifty local employees are engaged to handle the bast amount of office work and the great warehouse and shipping details incident to such a important commercial institution as the A. J. Harwi Hardware Company has developed into within thirty-five years. Their commodious four-story office and warehouse building, located on the corner of Commercial and Ninth streets, is one of the handsome modern business house of Atchison. One an begin to realize the scope and extend of his business when he stops to think that it requires 75,000 feet of floor space of afford ample warehouse facilities. In 1889 the A J. Harwi Hardware Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $100,000.

Mr. Harwi was three times married. His first, Cora Wheeler, whom he married in Bethlehem, left one daughter, Mr. E. P. RIPLEY, of Boston. His second marriage was with Elizabeth WHITEHEAD, of Atchison, in 1873, to which union to children were born: Mrs. H. P. SHEDD, of Bensonhurst, long Island, and Frank E., president of the A. J. Harwi Hardware Company. The mother of these children died October 14, 1907. Mr. Harwi's third marriage occurred June 3, 1909, to Mrs. Mary E. HOLLAND, who survives him. Mr. Harwi passed away September 5, 1910. During his later years the stress of business and the ceaseless activity which had been his lot during life began to tell upon him, and for over twenty-five years prior to his demise he was a sufferer from locomotor ataxia. The things which he accomplished necessarily demanded that he be a hard and tireless worker, but he never spared himself, and at a time when he should have begun to conserve his bodily strength he worked the hardest, with the result that his span of life was shortened under that it might have been.

It is not alone through the magnificent mercantile concern which Mr. Harwi conceived and built up that he is known, but he was a public spirited gentleman who contributed generously to charity and philanthropic work. Although he accumulated wealth outside of his business to exceed a half million dollars and loaned out considerable money on mortgages, he was never known to have taken advantage of a debtor ane to foreclose a mortgage. Although he was a member of the Congregational church, he was a trustee of Midland College, Atchison and established and endowed the Harwi scholarship prizes, which have been of inestimable benefit to many young students. He was one of the trustees of the Atchison County High School at Effingham, and was also a warm advocate of providing well for the education of the youth of the community. Mr. Harwi was elected state senator from the Atchison district in 1884, but did not allow his duties as legislator to interfere with his business affairs, it being his custom while the legislature was in session to spend the day in the legislative halls at Topeka, return home and spend the greater part of the night in the supervision of the business. His ability as a legislator came naturally into the limelight, and there was talk of running him as the party's candidate for governor of the state, but this talk met with little encouragement from Mr. Harwi, inasmuch as he was wrapped up heart and soul in the reorganized Harwi Hardware Company at the time, the project demanding all of his time and energy.

Taken From:

History of Atchison County, Kansas

by Sheffield Ingalls - 1916

Submitted by:

Clemi Higley Blackburn, September 2003