John Sherman Baker

from History of Washington; The Rise and Progress of the American State
Author Clinton Snowden, pub. 1909, p. 224


John S. Baker
JOHN SHERMAN BAKER, son of Asahel Morse and Martha (Sprague) Baker, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, November 21, 1861, and is a descendant of Edward Baker, a farmer from England, who, accompanied by his wife Joan, came with the fleet commanded by Governor Winthrop which arrived in Boston in June, 1630, and settled almost immediately at Lynn, just across the bay, at a place still known as Baker's Hill. Edward Baker's descendants were prominent in the early history of Massachusetts and Connecticut as soldiers, patriots, and statesmen. Abner, the grandfather of John S., more than a century ago was a pioneer of Ohio, founding the town of Norwalk, where many of the family yet reside.

John Sherman Baker was named for John Sherman, long senator from Ohio and later secretary of the treasury, who was a relative and business associate of General John W. Sprague, Mr. Baker's mother's brother. When the boy was born his mother wished to name him for her brother, General Sprague, then a prisoner of war in Richmond, but did not care to do so while the general remained a prisoner. General Sprague was afterward exchanged through the efforts of Senator Sherman, and by his request young Baker was named for the senator rather than for himself. The family presently moved to Chicago, where the father was for many years a member ofthe board of trade. The son attended public schools until sixteen, and then for three years was employed by a grain commission house.

In 1881, before the age of twenty, he removed to Tacoma, at that time a town of less than a thousand people. He arrived with less than f ifty dollars and a government four per cent one hundred dollar bond, the net result of his boyhood savings. During the f irst ten months he worked in the railroad off ice on the dock and in surveying in eastern Wash- ington and Idaho. In the summer of 1882 he bought, largely on credit, an interest in a general store at Carbonado, and was sole manager for about one year, when he sold out and found himself in suff icient funds with which to purchase a small grocery store, occupying the only brick building on Pacific Avenue near Ninth Street. Early reaching for outside business, in less than six years he had the largest wholesale trade in the state outside of Seattle. He continued in the grocery trade until 1889, when other investments and enterprises claimed his attention.

From an early period of his residence in Tacoma he had begun to deal in real estate, and, having unbounded faith in the future of the place, in less than eight years after his arrival he was the heaviest individual taxpayer in the city and county, as he is to this day. He was among the first to put up modern store and office buildings, among them being the Union block and the Baker, Exchange, Bernice, and Arcade buildings. He acquired and platted large tracts now handsomely built up in the central residence districts, and today owns upward of five hundred acres in the city of Tacoma, including large holdings on the Puyallup River and fully one-half of the entire five miles of waterfront on the west side of the city. In addition, he early became interested in various Tacoma banks, and in 1888, in company with the late John C. Bullitt, of Philadelphia, Colonel C . W. Griggs, Henry Hewitt, Jr., George Browne, L. D. Campbell, T. B. and H. C. Wallace, and others, organized the Fidelity Trust Company, the oldest trust company in the state, of which, during the past few years, he has been the active head. His investments in this line are not conf ined to his home city, as he is interested as a stockholder in many banks throughout the state, and to some extent in Oregon.

For several years he was vice-president of and largely interested in the Tacoma Grain Company, owning and operating a system of fifty warehouses in Washington and Idaho and one of the largest flour mills on the Pacific coast. He was also extensively engaged for some years in fruit farming in the Yakima valley, was at one time in the timber and saw- mill business, was actively concerned in contracting ofvarious kinds, and now owns and operates steamboats on Puget Sound, being president of the Alaska Coast Steamship Company and vice-president of the Alaska Pacific Steamship Company, both of which are agencies for the upbuilding of Tacoma and successful corporations.

In 1890 he began to take an active interest in mining, and was among the first Americans to invade British Columbia in what are known as the Trail Creek and Kootenai mining divisions, where he now has many crown-granted claims, ' some of them being under lease. In the Coeur d Alene lead " and silver district of Idaho he opened up the famous You Like" property, which has since paid immense dividends and is now a part of the holdings of the Federal Mining and Smelting Company. His mining interests include property in the Klondike and Nome districts, the major part of which he has recently disposed of to the Guggenheims.

During the second year of his store-keeping experience the through line of the Northern Pacif ic Railway was com- pleted to Tacoma. He was appointed the first agent of the Northern Pacific Express Company, and personally made daily trips to deliver the money-box to the earliest outgoing trains long before daylight in the winter months. At times he represented several English fire insurance companies, being ready to undertake anything that spoke for early success and financial independence. In those days grocery stocks for Puget Sound were bought in San Francisco, communication with which was by steamer only. On one occasion Mr. Baker received advance information of a big jump in the price of sugar, and immediately bought up all the sugar obtainable in Portland and the Sound cities, reselling it to the trade at a large profit a few days later.

When Washington was admitted as a state in 1889 he was elected to the state senate (where he served four years), receiving at the election the highest vote ofthe six contestants, three of whom were chosen at large from his home county of Pierce.

Always interested in baseball, he organized the game in Tacoma, played with the team for several years, and later at times presided over the professional baseball club. In 1887 Mr. Baker married Laura Ainsworth, eldest daughter of the late Captain John C. Ainsworth, founder and lifelong head of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, the greatest factor in the early development of Portland and the state of Oregon, and director of the Northern Pacific Railway during its construction period. Mrs. Baker died in 1890, leaving one child, Bernice Ainsworth Baker. He is a charter member of the Union Club (of which he has been treasurer and president), the Commercial Club, and the Chamber of Commerce, and a life member of the oldest Masonic lodge in the city.

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Additional information by donor Karen Swanson-Woolf

John Sherman Baker married his second wife Florence Graham Mackey (1887-1969) in 1916, on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. Florence Mackey was the daughter of the Rev. William Anderson Mackey (of Scotch descent, born February 17, 1849 in Columbus, Ohio) and Mildred C. Fletcher (of English descent, born in Virginia on November 5, 1855). The Rev. Mackey was an early pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma and presided over John & Florence wedding. The society page of the Tacoma paper (26 March 1916) ran quite the article with the headline, “John S. Baker Wedding Chief Topic Among Tacoma Society Folk During the Week.”

John and Florence had three daughters: Martha Agnes (1917-2002), Virginia (1918-), and Anne Catherine (1921-2016). The daughters all attended Annie Wright Seminary for girls, an Episcopal school and remained in the Pacific Northwest (Washington and Oregon).

The 1929 edition of Tacoma Who’s Who,” list John Baker’s businesses at that time as: “Banking and Investments. Officer, trustee or stockholder in Tacoma Oriental Steamship Co., Fidelity Trust Co., Tacoma Safe Deposit Co., Gregory Furniture Co., Western Fiber Furniture Co., Buffelen Lumber Co., Shaffer Box and Pulp Co., Steilacoom Sand & Gravel Co., Consumer’s Central Heating Co., Winthrop Hotel, U.S. National Bank, Portland, Grote Rankin Co., Seattle, North American Oil, Consolidated, of California, Baker Investment Co., Union Oil Co., Standard Oil of California, Firtex Board Co., St. Helens, Oregon, First National Fire Insurance Co., Western States Life Insurance Co., Tacoma Drug Co., Warren, Soule Fairhurst Co., Maple Leaf Oil and Refining Co., Alberta, Canada, Mexican Premier Mine, National Bank of Tacoma, Tacoma Grain Co., Arro Oil and Refining Co., Lewiston, Montana, Mazda Oil and Refining Co., Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Mr. Baker was always helping somebody. He liked to celebrate his birthday by handing out dollar bills to everyone in the McMillan Drug Store, with its lunch counter where he sometimes ate. And, often as not, he would pick up the lunch ticket of someone he felt needed it. He made possible the athletic field that bore his name at the University of Puget Sound and also the field house at Pacific Lutheran University (although after his death they named it for someone else because of a later donation).

Twice Mr. Baker retired, but he missed the challenge of business. So he remained actively involved in the business community even when confined to his room, and his secretary would come out to confer with him regularly. His mind remained clear and active until the end. After several small strokes and heart problems, he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 93 in 1955. He watched his weight and diet and, until his doctors forbid it because of his heart, daily walked from his office up the hill to the Union Club for lunch and a domino game. That club merged with the University Club, where there is still a group of avid domino players who use “the Baker system” of play.