John C. Devereux — the seventh man to serve as mayor of Utica — stared at his fancy dancing shoes for a moment and then decided to put them away for good. Devereux, you see, was a dancing instructor who had earned a good living teaching in Europe and later in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Troy, New York.
Many years later, he said that before moving to Troy, he had "danced $1,000 out of those New England Yankees."
In the summer of 1802, he had moved to the village of Utica and it didn't take him long to see that Uticans working seven days a week to survive in this frontier community would not support a dancing school. Sure, they loved to dance but did not have money to spend on dancing lessons. So, the ambitious 28-year-old instead opened a dry goods and grocery store on Bagg's Square.
Apparently, it was a success, for it was later written that Devereux not only had "unusually handsome" goods for sale, he also "had energy, shrewdness and industry, a temper most generous, a tongue that was persuasive and fluent and manners benignant and polished."
Before long, he was one of the most successful merchants in Central New York and his sales amounted to about $100,000 a year.
FIRST MASS CELEBRATED
Devereux was a devout Roman Catholic and, since there was no Catholic church in the region, he was one of the few persons who could afford to travel to Albany every so often to attend Mass at St. Mary's Church. He later became a trustee of the church.
As a trustee, he was able to convince its pastor, the Rev. Paul McQuade, to visit Utica to celebrate Mass. He told the priest that most Catholics in the Utica area had never seen a priest, attended Mass or gone to confession.
The first Mass was celebrated in the Devereux home on Broad and Second streets. (The home was razed many years ago, but a boulder stands at the curb on the site with a plaque that says the first Mass west of the Albany-Schenectady area was celebrated there in 1813.)
Devereux also was instrumental in the establishment of the first Catholic Church in Utica — St. John's (a parish that still exists and is the Mother Church of all Catholic churches in Central, Western and Northern New York).
The ecumenical movement was alive and well in Utica at the time. Devereux had donated $300 to the erection of the first Presbyterian Church in Utica and Judge Morris Miller, an Episcopalian, donated land on the southwest corner of Bleecker and John streets so that Catholics could build the first St. John's on the site. The third St. John's stands on the site today.
Meanwhile, the Devereux dry goods and grocery store was flourishing. Devereux and his brothers, Nicholas and Michael, built a larger brick store on the west side of Bagg's Square. It was fireproof and had a strongbox that was comparatively theft proof.
Before long, many Uticans — including Irish laborers who were helping to build the Erie Canal through Utica beginning in 1817 — would ask Devereux for permission to place their surplus cash and savings in the strongbox for safekeeping. The Devereux brothers, with a strongbox filled with money, decided to invest the money and pay dividends to the depositors. Thus began the Savings Bank of Utica, one of the first savings banks in the country.
In March 1839, the Common Council appointed John Devereux mayor of Utica.
The city he headed had a population of about 13,000, and it definitely was on the move.
The Utica & Syracuse Railroad opened in June and a man named John Breed Wells came to town and opened a dry goods store that evolved into the J.B. Wells & Son, one of the city's largest department stores well into the 1960s.
It was a difficult time for the city, too. Railroads had just about put stagecoaches out of business. Pioneers from New England on stagecoaches once had stopped in Utica for a day or two, buying supplies and preparing for their long journey west.
Utica became a transportation center and hotels, grocery stores and taverns were built to accommodate the westbound pioneers. Now, many of those New Englanders were on trains that whizzed by Utica or stopped for only a few minutes.
Devereux was involved in an important event in the city's political history. The state decided that Utica's mayors should not be appointed by members of the Common Council but, instead, be elected by the people.
In March 1840, the people elected John C. Devereux. The records of the mayoral elections in 1840 and 1841 have been lost so we don't know who opposed Devereux or the vote count.
So, keeping tabs, Joseph Kirkland was appointed the first mayor of Utica in 1832 and Devereux was the first person elected mayor by the people in 1840.
Devereux was born on Aug. 5, 1774, in Enniscorthy in Ireland's Wexford County. His family was wealthy, but most of that wealth was lost when his father, Thomas, supported the unsuccessful rebellion by United Irishmen against British rule in 1798.
Utica's first elected mayor was married twice. His first wife, Ellen Barry of Albany, died in 1817. His second wife was Mary Colt of Rome. They had two adopted children — Ellen and John Jr.
Mayor Devereux was proud of his Irish heritage and was instrumental in beginning the first St. Patrick's Day banquet in the city in 1824. He also was grand marshal of the city's annual St. Patrick's Day parade from 1824 until his death in 1848.
He died on Dec. 11, 1848, at age 74.
Frank Tomaino is the Observer-Dispatch historian and he also serves on the board of the Oneida County History Center. Contact Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org.