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  • Marilynn Johnson

The Webber Family of 527 James St.

In 1870, Lorenzo Webber, of New York, purchased the Inman Conklin Bank in Portland, Michigan. Lorenzo renamed the bank, L. Webber & Son, Bankers and sent his son, John Almer Webber to Portland to manage the bank.

Just shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, John had been employed by his father as a trans-shipping clerk at Bloss Coal in Watkins Glen, New York. John, accompanied by his wife, Mary Ellen Mason Webber and their 10 month old son, Lorenzo (named after John's father), arrived in Portland on May 9, 1870. One day later, John's father purchased a home for them at 527 James Street. The elegant two story wooden structure with a widows walk and a view of the Looking Glass River had been built by Joseph W. Bailey, the editor of the Portland Review.

In 1872, Mary and John were blessed with the birth of their second child, a son, whom they named George Mason Webber, after her father, George Mason. In June of 1875, their third son, Charles was born, sadly, he passed in 1876 at the age of nine months.

In 1878, Mary Ellen and John welcomed their only daughter Christine, her birth, completed the Webber family.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1877, the L. Webber & Son Bank building, located on the northwest corner of Kent and Bridge streets was destroyed in a fire. The bank was rebuilt and opened for business three months later.

In 1884, John’s father, Lorenzo Webber, died in Elmira, New York. The name of the bank was changed to John A. Webber Bank.

On February 11, 1891, George Mason Webber, the eighteen year old son of Mary and John died unexpectedly. He was heir apparent to become a partner in the bank. After George's death, John summoned their eldest son, Lorenzo, age 21, home from Harvard and requested his assistance in the bank. On June 13, 1891 the name of the bank was changed to John A. Webber & Son Bank.

John's beloved wife, Mary Ellen Mason Webber, had been in frail health since the death of their two children. In 1892, she was diagnosed with a benign tumor in her abdomen, her doctors recommended surgery. John convinced her that an operation was too dangerous and that if she would forego the surgery he promised he would build her the grandest home in village of Portland, she agreed.

The original home was moved to the corner of Lincoln and Academy Streets and construction of the mansion began in the spring of 1893. The fieldstone was hauled from the Webber's Ox Bow Stock Farm, located on the Grand River, north of Portland. The home had 9000 square feet of living space, 18 rooms, including 6 bedrooms, 6 fireplaces, a ballroom, an elevator, skylights, 75 doors and 136 windows. There was no electricity in Portland when the mansion was being constructed, however, John was an investor in the proposed new power plant in Portland and he had the vision to have their home wired for electricity as well as gaslight.

Christmas Day in 1893, Mary, John and their children, Christine and Lorenzo were all seated in grand dining hall of their new home to celebrate. The family enjoyed entertaining and their mansion was the scene of many elaborate parties. The family were all accomplished musician and many concerts and recitals were held in the home. The wedding of Christine Webber and James A. Latta in January of 1902 was the most elaborate wedding to have ever taken place in Portland at that time costing several thousand dollars. The nuptials took place at the Congregational Church and the reception was held at the palatial Webber home. Upwards of 150 guests arrived at the Portland train depot by special drawing car and were transported to the church by carriages.

John passed in 1904, at the age of 60. Mary remained in the big house and was an active member of the First Congregational Church and the Ladies Guild. Her kindness, grace and generosity were legendary. In 1908, the name of the bank was changed to the Webber State Bank. Following the death of her beloved husband, she was appointed President of the Webber State Bank, although her son, Lorenzo, ran the bank on a daily basis. Mary Ellen Mason Webber passed in 1921 at her daughters home in Minnesota at the age of 74.

Her eldest son, Lorenzo and his family were the last family members to reside in the Webber mansion. The Webber State Bank was remodeled in 1919, it was equipped with a modern burglar alarm system, with buttons located in each room, to activate the alarm. The bank is still standing and is still in place. The Webber State Savings Bank merged with Maynard Allen State Bank during the depression. Lorenzo Webber was appointed as a member of the Board of Directors of the Maynard Allen State Bank. The Webber name continues to proudly adorns the top of the bank to this day and their quintessential home at 527 James Street in Portland remains the grandest home in Portland.

This piece was written by Marilynn Johnson for the Portland Area Historical Society. Republished with permission.


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