Thomas Emery Sr.
(1789 -1857 )

In the early 1830s, Thomas Emery Sr. left Bedford, England, with his wife, Kezia, and infant firstborn in tow, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to settle in a town that bordered the Ohio River. His second son would be born in America. Little did anyone know then, the arrival of this enterprising man and his progeny would be the good fortune of the boomtown that was Cincinnati.

Emery & Davenport was amongst the numerous businesses which foundered during the recession that lasted from 1837 until the mid-1840s, and Thomas found himself saddled with heavy debts. As the financial situation recovered, he picked himself up again and started his new business of manufacturing lamp oil from lard in 1840. His business would grow in strength and size, and the long journey towards becoming the Emery Oleochemicals we know today had begun. He would also become a leading figure in the Cincinnati real estate market. With his fortunes reestablished, Thomas hunted down his old creditors from twenty years earlier, and repaid them in full, with interest.

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Unfortunately, while a new manufacturing facility was being put into operation for the first time, Thomas fell through an open hatchway to his death on December 30, 1857. The next day, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette wrote :

“Mr. Emery was a quiet and unassuming man, strictly conscientious in all his dealings, and was much respected by his fellow citizens. In his charities, he was systematic and liberal. He made it a point never to refuse to give for a worthy object, or to permit himself to be asked the second time. He seemed to regard it a privilege to contribute towards relieving the wants of his fellow creatures, or to promote the general interests of the community.”

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Thomas J. Emery

John J. Emery

Thomas J. (1830-1906) &
John J. Emery (1835-1908)

Thomas J. and John J. Emery joined their father’s business in the mid-1850s and after his death, continued under the name Thomas Emery & Sons, and later, Thomas Emery’s Sons. Business continued to grow rapidly for the brothers who inherited their father’s business acumen. In 1887, the Emery Candle Company was incorporated, continuing in motion a legacy of growth and innovations in renewable-based chemicals.

With the management of the flourishing Emery Candle Company in good hands, the brothers turned their attention to the Cincinnati real estate market where their contributions mark the landscape of the city throughout history and even today; they include the Emery Hotel and Arcade (where Carew Tower now stands), and the Palace Hotel (known today as the Cincinnatian Hotel), which contained one of the country’s first isolated incandescent light generating plants as well as one of the first successful electric elevators. The Emery brothers frequently used the services of Cincinnati’s renowned architect, Samuel Hannaford, whose distinct style made masterpieces of the Emery buildings. They also built the city’s first skyscraper, the nine-story St. Paul Building, and theirs were among the first apartment buildings to showcase the value of light and air, becoming exemplars for competitors. When the electric streetcar was introduced to the city, their property holdings spread to the hilltop neighborhoods surrounding downtown.

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The apples didn’t fall far from the tree, for the Emery brothers shared their father’s commitment to the betterment of the Cincinnati community. They donated land and financed the construction of a new Children’s Hospital building, with the stipulation that there should be no discrimination in the admittance and treatment of patients, and they funded the construction of a new building for the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children. The Emery family’s long involvement with the Cincinnati Art Museum began with Thomas J. and John J, who both made significant contributions of money and art pieces in their lifetimes.

After their deaths, Wendell P. Dabney, editor and publisher of the Union, wrote: “They were of that English stock whose blood ever fired at oppression, whose heart ever warmed to charity. Their recognition of the brotherhood of man caused them to refuse donations to any cause that recognized the color line, and so their princely gifts to institutions carried with them the admission of colored people.”

Their positive impact on the Greater Cincinnati community has undoubtedly lived on until this day.

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Mary M. (Hopkins) Emery

Fate would bring Brooklyn-born Mary Hopkins and her family to Cincinnati where she would meet a man who shared her spirit of compassion and generosity. Mary and Thomas J. Emery wed in 1866, and the marital union bore two sons – Sheldon (1867-1890) and Albert (1868-1883). Great misfortune befell the family when Albert passed away in a sledding accident at the age of 15 and Sheldon succumbed to illness at the age of 23. After the loss of their children, Mary and her husband poured their hearts into philanthropy, especially in causes for children. They contributed to the Children’s Hospital, the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children, and the Fresh Air Farm and Society, which was a refuge for indigent women and children.

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Following her husband’s passing in1906 and with no heirs to her fortune, Mary’s charitable works increased greatly and she would come to be known as one of the most generous people in Cincinnati. Amongst her generous contributions are the creation of the “Thomas J. Emery Free Day Endowment” fund which provides free admission to the Cincinnati Art Museum on Saturdays; her large donation to the Ohio Mechanics Institute, one of the oldest technical schools in the country, funded the construction of a new building to house the Institute, as well as the Emery Auditorium, which boasted legendary acoustics comparable to Carnegie Hall. She was the largest benefactor of the “Babies Milk Fund” that provided milk to poor children. Mary’s generosity helped the University of Cincinnati’s Medical College establish the departments of pediatrics and pathology. In the Fall of 1920, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws, making her the first woman to receive an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Cincinnati.

Of all her great works, her most renowned contribution is likely the creation of Mariemont, a planned community just a few miles east of downtown Cincinnati. The development was an archetype of its time, embracing modern principles and illustrated how people of moderate means could still enjoy city living. According to a brochure, “The stadium, recreation field, and parks provide every sort of amusement and outdoor exercise, all free to the people as Mrs. Emery’s gift to her fellow-citizens.”

Even after her death in 1927, her last will and testament reflected her amazing generosity, as it bequeathed her entire art collection to the Cincinnati Art Museum, which was housed in a special building funded by her.

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John (Jack) Josiah Emery, Jr. (1898-1976)

Jack Emery was only ten when his father, John, passed away. His family had moved from Cincinnati to New York well before his birth, so he grew up in the East Coast quite detached from the family’s business in Cincinnati. After completing his studies at Harvard and Oxford, which was temporarily interrupted by WW1 in which he served as an ensign in Naval Aviation, he had planned to return to New York to start a career in publishing but first came to Cincinnati to settle some family business matters in 1924.

“I found that the Emery Candle Company was just a grease factory with obsolete equipment and a sort of Dickensian office. I decided the family was going to go bust if someone didn’t hang around and fix things up,” he later said. So began his more than 50-year involvement in managing the Emery business in Cincinnati. Under Jack’s guidance, the company grew in leaps and bounds, propelling it into the international corporation that Emery Oleochemicals was built upon.

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By the mid-1920s, Cincinnati’s government had grown infamous for being one of the most corrupt in the United States. Since early on, Jack took an active role in reforming the city’s politics, as a founding director of the Charter Party, a purely local independent political party devoted to reforming the corrupt governmental practices in Cincinnati.

During his lifetime, Jack was named a “Great Living Cincinnatian” by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. In 2000, he was inducted into the Greater Cincinnati Business Hall of Fame, recognizing his outstanding contributions to business and civic involvement in the Cincinnati area.

He once told his children, “It is important to work toward leaving the world a better place. Since we are fortunate, and are able to do something, it is our responsibility to do it.”

He passed away at his Peterloon Estate (http://peterloon.org/), which is still maintained by a foundation set up by the family, for the pleasure and enjoyment of the Cincinnati community.

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