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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: A passionate and nearly forgotten pioneer years ago

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Nate and Eliza Gordon, assisted by their live-in niece, Libbie Parsons, were among Marion’s most prominent and colorful pioneers. In this undated photo, probably from the mid-1890s, portrait photographer Mrs. J.F. McMullin posed them with a stereoscope viewer. The stereoscope, often wrongly referred to by the name of its projector cousin, the stereopticon, allowed viewers to see three-dimensional views printed on cards.

Nearly forgotten among Marion’s most prominent and colorful leaders was financier, merchant, and politician N.W. “Nate” Gordon.

Born in 1829 in New Jersey, he and his wife, Eliza, born two years earlier in New York, arrived in 1873 and quickly established themselves as community leaders.

In 1876, while serving as vice president of the Bank of Marion Centre, he helped organize Christian missionary work in the county. The next year, he became mayor of Marion Centre, as the town was known at the time, and was a Democratic candidate for county commissioner.

As mayor, Gordon wasted little time in presiding over the passage of 23 ordinances that seemed for the first time to set out a civilized system of government for the frontier town.

Among the ordinances passed was one requiring all dog owners to purchase a tag — $1 a year (the equivalent of $24 now) for male dogs and $3 a year ($72 now) for female dogs.

Owners caught with unlicensed dogs faced fines of up to $25 ($598 now). If found running free without tags, dogs were to be shot on sight by the city marshal.

Cattle, horses, hogs, and other livestock fared a bit better. If they were roaming free, they were rounded up and placed in a city pound.

Gordon’s ordinances also required property owners along Main St. from Walnut St. to Lincoln Ave. to construct, for the first time, plank or stone sidewalks, and they forbade most drinking and rowdy behavior in what at the time was a frontier town.

“Every person who shall be found under the influence of intoxicating liquor within the city limits and every person who shall use or indulge in boisterous, profane, or obscene language within the city to the annoyance of any inhabitant thereof shall, on conviction, be fined not less than $1 nor more than $25,” one of his ordinances provided.

Campaigning against what he termed “the growing evil of the demoralizing influences of whisky in our state and national politics” was a lifelong obsession for Gordon, who also taught a senior Bible class at Marion Christian Church.

In 1888, more than three decades before prohibition became official nationwide, he organized a two-day symposium on the topic at the courthouse.

In 1892, he was nominated by the Prohibition Party for state representative.

The party didn’t have much traction in elections. After nominating three candidates, the Record reported, “the party was compelled to desist from further nominations for the want of available material.”

“It is unfortunate for the Prohibition Party in this county that the law prohibits one man from holding two offices at the same time,” the paper reported.

Undeterred, Gordon switched to the Peoples (Populist) Party the next year and became a candidate for county commissioner, losing by a 2-1 margin despite an endorsement from the Populist Marion Times, which, among other things, noted: “He resides here in the county seat, where there ought to be at least one on the county board.”

Lack of success at state and county politics did not prevent continued service to the city. Although his tenure as mayor was for only one year, he continued to serve as a city council member and sometimes as police judge until his death in 1897.

He also was a significant investor in what had promised to be Marion’s future — mineral water baths — up until the Panic of 1893, an economic upheaval not unlike the Great Depression.

Gordon went “all in,” according to the Record, on Walter Sharp’s Marion Mineral Water bathhouse at the north end of 3rd St. The company survived longer than the short-lived and more famous Chingawasa Springs resort but featured similar treatments and used the same railway that branched from the Santa Fe tracks near the present library to Sharp’s bathhouse and then northeast to Chingawasa Springs.

Although both businesses continued to do some work after the panic, they and most banks in town never fully recovered.

For his part, Gordon opened Farmers Exchange Store, which sold groceries, crockery, glass, tin, woodware, and new and second-hand furnishings, from a building he owned on W. Main St., near the present location of Marion Marble and Granite.

At the time, the location was adjacent to the entrance to what was Marion’s premier park, Billings Park, located behind the present-day granite works.

He also opened a flour and feed store one door down from the southwest corner of 2nd and Main Sts. and, in 1894, amid the panic, helped organize a community beautification and repainting campaign.

Gordon and his wife had only one relative, niece Elizabeth “Libbie” Parsons, who lived with them at their home on Walnut St.

Gordon died in 1897. At his request, his remains were cremated — an unusual practice at the time — and placed, for unstated reasons, at a crematory in St. Louis.

Parsons became an invalid in 1912 and moved to New York, where she died in 1915. Eliza (Reifsnyder) Gordon died the next year. Her remains were cremated and inurned next to her husband’s in St. Louis.

“He was an industrious, honest, and economical man, a kind and generous neighbor, and a devoted husband,” the Record wrote in Gordon’s obituary. “He was a man who carefully investigated all social, political, and religious questions, and when he reached conclusions respecting these matters, he adhered to them with a positiveness and conservatism that sometimes antagonized those who differed with him. But he was never dogmatic or overbearing. He was loyal to his convictions and always had the courage to defend them.”

At his wife’s death, the Record added, in the carefully phrased language of eulogies:

“The names of ‘Uncle Nate’ and ‘Aunt Liza’ are stamped indelibly on the early years of the town. While somewhat eccentric in manner, they were always for purity and right and suffered much inconvenience in those days because of the fight they made of prohibition. In the years that followed they were happy in the realization that their efforts were not altogether in vain.”

The nation adopted the 18th Amendment, instituting Prohibition, in 1918, two years after Eliza Gordon’s death. Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Last modified May 1, 2019

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