Thomas W. Sheriffs
Thomas W. Sheriffs, the secretary, treasurer and general manager of the Sheriffs Manufacturing Company, of Milwaukee, Wis., is the eldest son of James Sheriffs, the founder of this establishment, which is known as the oldest foundry and machine shop in Milwaukee, and which has been conducted practically under the same management ever since it was established in the year 1854, being one of the oldest on the Great Lakes.
James Sheriffs was one of the pioneer manufacturers of Milwaukee, where he spent the most active years of his life, having arrived in the then comparatively unimportant city when a young man, to become, in a few years, prominent in the iron manufacturing industry. He was a native of Scotland, born September 22, 1822, in Banff, the chief town in Banffshire, where he was reared and educated. Naturally ambitious and independent of spirit, he early had a desire to take up mechanical pursuits, and as a consequence his schooling was somewhat limited, for he was only a boy when he commenced his apprenticeship to the iron maker's trade in the Banff foundry, where he served four years, learning molding in all its branches. His apprenticeship completed, he followed the custom of the times and traveled through England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Belgium, working in some of the leading shops of those countries as a journeyman molder. After working for a time in Belgium he returned to London, whence, in 1847, he set out for America, inspired by the glowing accounts of the opportunities for success which awaited young men of enterprise and energy in the United States. He landed in New York City in April, and for some time, traveled quite extensively, visiting Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis before coming to Milwaukee, where he found employment in the old Menominee shops of Lee & Walton, located on Reed street, where for many years afterward the old Union Depot stood. While with this firm he held the position of foreman, and it was under his supervision that the castings for the first locomotive constructed in the West were made. This was what was known as an inside connected engine, and was built for and used by the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad Company.
In June 1854, not long after settling in Milwaukee, Mr. Sheriffs opened the machine shop and foundry known as the Vulcan Iron Works, which still stands at the corner of South Water and Barclay streets, and is now the property of the Sheriffs Manufacturing Company, the entire plant having been sold to that corporation after his decease, which occurred July 18, 1887. He operated the business as sole proprietor, at first doing jobbing and general foundry work, making kettles for boiling feed, building castings, etc., but after a few years he turned his attention to the manufacture of saw-mill machinery, and finally to the marine trade, of which they now make a specialty. Marine machinery of all kinds was turned out, and in 1876 he constructed the Sheriffs propeller wheel for steam vessels of every class, which has now become widely known, being used very extensively on the lakes, in New Orleans and on the Pacific coast; they make shipments to almost every part of the world. Vessels equipped with this wheel are conceded to be superior to all others for speed and other desirable attainments, and their popularity has been acquired by the universal success which has attended their use.
When Mr. Sheriffs commenced life on his own account he felt that his character and abilities, if he had any, would now make themselves manifest, and if he was to make his way in the world it would have to be by his own exertions. Perseverance and strong will power were among his marked characteristics, for although he had a successful business career of thirty-three years, all was not smooth sailing, and three times he suffered the complete loss of his shop and tools; with never-failing energy he set to work each time, however, and re-established himself, losing no time in getting his works in operation after each disaster. Mr. Sheriffs possessed great firmness and decision of character. He was careful and deliberate in all his judgments, but at the same time had advanced and progressive ideas, and was thoroughly wide-awake in all his affairs, sincere in every act, and one who gained and retained the confidence of all with whom he came into contact. Generous and public-spririted, he contributed liberally of his time, influence and means to whatever was conducive to the welfare of his adopted city and the good of his fellow men. He was an able and forcible public speaker, and was for many years prominently identified with the Republican party; but he was not a politician, and though tendered office several times invariable declined. He served on several occasions as chairman of the Republican central committee. Socially he was well known in the Odd Fellows fraternity, being a member of the Cream City Lodge No. 139, and he was also an honorary member and one of the founders of the Hanover Street Congregational Church, established in the 'fifties, and his wife is also one of the charter members of that society.
On December 6, 1849, Mr. Sheriffs was married, at Jericho, Waukesha Co., Wis., to Miss Christina Duncan, and their union was blessed with six children - four sons and two daughters, viz.: Thomas W., whose name introduces this sketch; John Henry, who is in the employ of the Hoffman Billings Manufacturing Co.; Jeanette Elizabeth (now Mrs. Fred E. Carlton); Mary Agnes (now Mrs. John T. Llewellyn); James Alexander; and George Duncan, who is secretary of the Western Malleable Iron Foundry Company, of Milwaukee, Wis. The sons are all married.
Thomas W. Sheriffs was born March 26, 1852, in the Fifth ward, Milwaukee, and until April 1866, attended the public schools of his ward. During the term of 1866-67 he was a pupil in Markham's Academy, Milwaukee, and in 1868 he attended the high school for three months, which completed his school education. He has been connected with the business since April 1866, when he went to work for his father as office boy, and continued to do odd jobs in and around the place during his vacations until he left school, making collections, acting as bookkeeper, etc. In 1868 he commenced an apprenticeship to the machinist's trade, and continued to follow it until his father's death; in 1879 he became foreman of the shop, in which he acquired a one-third interest when the property was divided. He managed the works until they were incorporated into the company known as the Sheriffs Manufacturing Company, located on the original site of the foundry, when he was made secretary and treasurer, as well as general manager of the concern. This establishment has enjoyed more than an average degree of success under his management, and the capacity of the plant has been greatly increased, employment being given to about thirty-five men, and the yearly output amounts to about $135,000 worth of manufactured product. Their particular specialty is the Sheriffs propeller wheel, but they continue to manufacture marine machinery exclusively, and have furnished a large number of steamers, barges and tugs with their engines, steam steerers and other devices. The property has a frontage of 235 feet on Barclay street, and 120 feet on South Water street.
In August 1874, Mr. Sheriffs was united in marriage to Miss Kate Storm Nelson, who is the daughter of Joseph Nelson, one of the early settlers of Racine county, and who now lives at No. 807 Scott street, Milwaukee. They have three daughters: Flora May, Grace and Cornelia Mandaville. Mr. Sheriffs is not a church member, but he considers the Hanover Street Congregational Church as his abiding place, his father and mother, as above stated, having been among its founders. Politically, Mr. Sheriffs follows the foorsteps of his father, and is a loyal member of the Republican party, with which he has been closely identified for the past twelve years, having attended most of their conventions in the capacity of delegate, and as such a member of the county committee. Socially he is a member of the Calumet Club since 1889, and since 1897 has held membership with the Iroquois Club.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.