John S. Trower
Imagine being born in Eastville, Northampton County, Virginia in 1849. Your family are farmers who don’t own their land. You have little formal education and leave home at 21 after paying off the farm by selling sumac to tanneries. Before you leave, with $52 to your name, you give your mother the deed to the farm. You end up in Baltimore, Maryland, and get a job opening oysters in a restaurant. Figuring you can make more money in a bigger city, you travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
You’ve learned a bit about the restaurant business in Baltimore, so you get a job as a private waiter for a well known Quaker family. You work in hotels in Atlantic City, New Jersey, over the summers when the family doesn’t need your services. You make some connections and decide to open your own restaurant. You are successful and you start your own catering business. You get lots of business – catering contracts for the majority of the Philadelphia elite as well as contracts in Harrisburg, Altoona, Scranton and Easton, PA. You also have contracts in New Jersey and Delaware. Even in Virginia! You have exclusive contracts with two major shipbuilding enterprises in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. You are doing so well that you are worth $1.5 million, which makes you the richest black man in Pennsylvania and maybe in the whole United States! So what are you going to do with all that money? And, more importantly, what will your legacy be?
Let’s discover the story of John S. Trower.
All of the above really happened to John S. Trower. He was born to Luke and Anna Trower on October 3, 1849, in Eastville, Northampton County, Virginia. His parents were farmers of African, Native American and European descent. They were freeborn, which was a matter of pride for them. After his father’s death, he was concerned about his mother, so he worked on the farm and sold sumac to local tanneries. In time he had enough money to buy the deed to the farm. He handed the deed to his mother and left for Baltimore in 1870, with $52 to his name, which is $988.94 in today’s money. He continued to provide for his mother and, if needed, his siblings until his mother’s death in 1889.
John S. Trower had little formal education, but that didn’t hinder his success in business. Once in Baltimore he obtained a job in a restaurant where he learned how to open oysters. He also learned all he needed to know about the restaurant and catering business where he eventually made his fortune.
Feeling like he could make more money in a bigger city, Mr. Trower made his way to Philadelphia. He rented a room and sublet his bed while he slept on the floor. To make money, he took a job in a taproom and sold pies there as well as to other taprooms and on the street. For a time he served as a private waiter for a wealthy Quaker family in the area of Rittenhouse Square. With summers off, he spent his time working at hotels in Atlantic City, N.J. Eventually he had saved enough money to purchase a building at 130 E. Chelten Ave. in Germantown, which became his first restaurant. His food was meticulously prepared, serving size was decent and the service was excellent. Business was good and he was soon able to purchase a horse and wagon to begin making deliveries. In time he started a catering business in the former Savings Fund building at 5706 Germantown Ave. where he also lived and began a family of eight children. A four story building, it was modified to include a large banquet hall with a capacity for 150 people, a large kitchen, an ice cream parlor and a bakery as well as laundry and storage space. Everything he served was made there, except candies.
Mr. Trower catered to the Philadelphia elite as stated above, and US Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland were among the guests at some of his functions. Cramps Shipbuilding Co. of Philadelphia, and Harlan & Hollingsworth Shipbuilding Co. in Wilmington, Delaware, were some of his clients. He truly was the richest black man in Philadelphia.
But catering wasn’t the only thing Mr. Trower was known for. He was raised by devout parents who instilled in him and his siblings the love of God and duty towards all mankind. Once in Philadelphia, he became active in Cherry Street Baptist Church, later known as First African Baptist Church. In 1900, the church had outgrown its building and a new one was built. He mortgaged all his properties for $75,000 ($1,475,937.02 in today’s money) to finance the new church building when the sale of the old building fell through. In addition to this, he also financed the building and renovations for several other churches in Philadelphia, among them Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Germantown. With Rev. William A. Creditt, he founded the Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School in 1905, which was established to provide academic and vocational training for neglected or under-achieving African American teenagers who were in danger of being declared delinquent. The school was built on 110 acres of land, for which he paid $30,000 ($878,853.41 in today’s money). The school had two dorms for 110 boys and girls per year and was in operation until 1993. He also founded the Cherry Building and Loan Association and was its president, as well as another building and loan for African Americans near Downingtown. A real estate investor, he built 20 rental houses near Cherry Street Baptist Church and was known as a good landlord. Additionally, he offered mortgages and loans to members of his church and to his employees.
Mr. Trower always sacrificed his success in the business world to the love of and duty to the church. He was a gifted speaker who spoke at several Baptist Sunday School conventions and was elected Sunday School Superintendent for life at Cherry Street Baptist Church, where he was also a deacon and trustee. In addition to those duties, he was the treasurer of both the Reliable Mutual Aid and Improvement Co. and the Reliable Business Men’s Building, where W.E.B. DuBois was a committee member. Additionally, he was a member of the Board of Trustees for the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People and for Eden Cemetery.
Summers were down time due to vacations of the elite customers he served through his catering business. His concern for the continued employment of his employees over the summer caused him to build an ice cream parlor and bakery in Ocean City, NJ in 1896. He owned a summer home in Ocean City and purchased a hall there for church services since there was nowhere for African Americans to worship.
Mr. Trower died of pneumonia on April 4, 1911, after he became ill on the maiden voyage of a battleship built by Cramp Shipbuilding Co. His funeral was held at Cherry Street Baptist Church and was possibly attended by Booker T. Washington, a personal friend. In his will he provided for his wife and children, the oldest of whom (a daughter) was 15, by putting his money in a trust.
So we see that John S. Trower made sure the churches had the buildings and renovations they needed. He provided housing and a means to obtain housing through the Cherry Building and Loan and the building and loan in Downingtown. He started a school and purchased the land on which to build it. He provided gifts to young people who excelled in their studies at his school. He provided employment year round for his employees and a place to worship for African Americans in Ocean City, NJ, as well as mortgages and loans for church members and employees. Lastly he provided for his family when he died. His legacy was that of a self-made man who “was interested in every movement uplifting his race”.
That’s what he did with the money he made. What would you do with $1.5 million ($40,704,789.47 in today’s money)? What will be your legacy?
The Negro Business by Booker T. Washington (pg.47-53): https://books.google.com/books?id=RVDJRbURtRMC&pg=PA47&lpg=PA47&dq=john+trower+booker+t+ washington&source=bl&ots=fpNWQQO5Ge&sig=ACfU3U1OgINuy9VPU4QgmYivNkkEOMcDNA&hl=en&s a=X&ved=2ahUKEwjBrtOI0rbpAhXTj3IEHZIKBQwQ6AEwBHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
Several interviews with Jim Lyons, great-grandson of John S. Trower
Vocabulary (underlined words in the text)
Caterer: a person or company providing food and drink at a social event or other gathering.
Contract – an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified.
Deed – a legal document that affirms the purchase on the ownership of a property.
Delinquent – failing in or neglectful of a duty or obligation; guilty of a misdeed or offense.
Elite – persons of the highest class.
Exclusive – shutting out all others from a part or share.
Legacy – the story of some ones life, the things they did, places they went, goals they accomplished, their failures, and more. Legacy is something that a person leaves behind to be remembered by. Legacies are pathways that guide people in decisions with what to do or what not to do.
Meticulously – taking or showing extreme care about minute details; precise; thorough.
Sumac – a preparation of the dried and powdered leaves, bark, etc., of certain species of Rhus, especially R. coriaria of southern Europe, used especially in tanning.
Tannery – the place where hides or skins are turned into leather.
Taproom – a barroom in an inn or hotel.