Monday, September 21, 2015

Irving Augustus Potwin: Outdoorsman (52 Ancestors #22)

Irving Augustus Potwin. Man of adventure. Born March 9, 1878 in Corning IA to Monroe Augustus Potwin and Ella Augusta Burt. Irv was the fourth of five children born to Monroe and Ella, and by all accounts had a mostly carefree middle-America-type childhood. His parents were well educated, well liked and successful in the community. His family lived in a large comfortable home with plenty of food on the table and clothing to wear.

It was not without a dark time or two, however. When Irv was 7 his older brother drowned while swimming one hot August day. This was the family's second loss of a child, their first child having died the summer of 1869 on their journey to Iowa.

When Irv's younger brother came along in 1892 his mother had started to become weak, and tired easily. She was weary and was unable to keep up with the daily household duties. His sister was summoned from New York City, where she was living, to care for their mother and baby brother.

 In 1893 Irv was sent to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota to study on recommendation of his sister, who had taught there for a time. He stayed for two years, returning home on school breaks and holidays. He studied the classics as well as mathematics and business courses. Irv would tell stories of the severe winters he endured while in MN. From a recollection by his daughter "Before the winter months many structures were erected, which appeared to be scaffolds over all the walkways; one who lives through a winter in snow country is familiar with snow fences, but these strange looking skeletons were a puzzle until the snow storms arrived. The students and all residents walked on top of the snow by way of the high stilts"

When Irv was home on holiday he would be found in the company of Miss Carrie Elizabeth "Bess" Twining. The two were childhood friends, having attended church and Sunday School together as well as two years of Academy prior to Irv going to Minnesota. The courtship began in earnest when the two would walk home together at the end of the school day. Bess recalled "I used to see him in Sunday School and Irv would rest himself on the roof of the woodshed. I'd often see him for he would ride his huge bicycle and that was the way he'd get off it."

The couple was married on January 3, 1899 in the home of the bride.

Their first child, a daughter named Dorothy Irene "Dot" was born in 1900, and shortly after that Irv got the idea into his head to go to Oklahoma, a new territory, not yet a state. The plan was hatched between Irv and his long time friend Gus Nelson that they would venture to Oklahoma to establish a home, and return for Bess and baby Dot.

While in Oklahoma Irv contracted smallpox and was gravely ill for some time, delaying his return home to Iowa. When he did return, Oklahoma had made enough of an impression on him that he packed up his family and moved to Guthrie OK in 1901.

Irv and Gus
During this time Irv's mother had been getting progressively weaker and was finally given the diagnosis of cancer. In 1901 while Irv was in Oklahoma, his mother traveled to Chicago for an operation that would, hopefully, save her. It did not and she died in March, 1902.

In April of 1902, in Oklahoma Territory, Bess gave birth to their second child, a son named Kenneth. Irv had established himself as a house painter and teamed up with his friend Gus who was a carpenter. The two helped build the new community of Guthrie, OK. Later Irv started a water service, hauling barreled water and delivering it to the homes.

Sometime around 1903 Irv and Bess moved back to Iowa, settling in Des Moines. Irv's friend Gus had heard of a position for bank cashier at the Des Moines National Bank. Irv applied and was hired. His education in mathematics was what won him the position.

In 1904 the couple welcomed their third child, Elizabeth into their family. They had a fine, large home on College Ave, Irv was doing well at the bank, life was good.

In 1907 their son contracted measles and died. Irv left the bank to pursue accounting positions at various Des Moines businesses. Among them the Des Moines Brewing Company and Jaeger Manufacturing.

In 1910 Irv broke ground on a new two story house on 33rd St, at the western edge of Des Moines. There was much open country and the feeling of freedom and being close to nature. Irv was an outdoor man and enjoyed sports, so he had on his new property a fine clay court constructed for tennis. The streets were being paved at the time so Irv had the steam roller, being used for the road construction, driven on the new court to make it firm and even.

Irv fishing in Minnesota
Every fall Irv and Bess would head north on an annual hunting trip. His daughter recalls their home being filled with many trophies.

By 1916 the stirrings of war overseas was leaving Americans uneasy. In 1917 Irv and his family, like all the families in America at the time were talking about the Selective Service Act. Waiting and watching, Irv observed young men from Des Moines being called to fight. By September 1918 Irv was called to register for the draft. He was 40. He was never called to serve. However the family participated in the war effort in other ways, they dug up their fine clay tennis court to plant a potato field to supply food for themselves and the community.  Irv was now the president of Smith Silo Hardware Co.

After the war and the Armistice was signed, life returned to normal. Irv constructed a brand new house on the site of the former tennis court turned potato field and the family moved into it in 1920. That same year  Irv opened his own accounting office.  He worked for himself for the next 18 years.

The years of the "roaring twenties" were good for the family. Irv and Bess saw their daughters married and starting families of their own. In 1923, when their youngest wed, she remained in the home for a time with her new husband, giving birth to her first two children there. Irv and Bess would eventually becoming grandparents to nine grandchildren.

The story gets a little foggy around 1929. According to a memoir written by his daughter, Irv was said to have purchased a home for his in-laws upon his father in law's retirement. The census records and city directories show Irv and Bess residing in a 6 unit apartment building, in the same apartment as Bess's parents. The home on 33rd was occupied by another family. However, a year after his in law's pass away, Irv and Bess are once again in their home on 33rd. Did Irv, in fact, purchase the apartment building? Why didn't the in-law's come to stay at the big home?

On the morning of August 16, 1938 as Irv was preparing to enter his automobile for the usual day at the office, he died. He was just 60 years old. His daughter writes of "no more pain or suffering", but it is unclear if he was ill prior to his passing.

Irv is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Polk Co, IA


  1. What a lovely write-up for Irving, Anne. I enjoyed reading it. So many moves surprised me, however, and I can't help wondering how his wife managed all those changes! Adventurous, strong people... Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment Celia. I imagine his wife took it in stride - as women do ....