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What I share with China’s Supreme Leader

by William McGaughey


The answer is Muscatine, Iowa. Both of us have a connection to that place although in different ways. I have not set foot in Muscatine in more than fifty years. My connection to it is through my ancestors.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, spent two weeks in Muscatine in 1985 as part of an animal-feed delegation studying American agriculture. His business card identified him as the head of the Shijiazhuang Feed Association.

That was then. Now Xi Jinping is general secretary of the Chinese communist party, President of the People's Republic of China, and chairman of the Central Military Commission. He is 64 years of age.

Evidently, Xi’s stay in Muscatine made an impression upon the future Chinese leader. Upon returning to Muscatine as China’s vice president in 2012, he told the Dvorchak family with whom he had stayed three decades earlier: "You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with," he said. "To me, you are America." Xi returned to Muscatine again in 2016 when he was China’s supreme leader. He never forgot the city.

What is my connection to Muscatine? Again, it is ancestral rather than personal. My grandmother’s father, Frank P. Sawyer, was a business leader there. He was general manager of the Friends’ Oats milling plant which merged with several other mills in 1901 and which, in turn, was later acquired by Quaker Oats. As a young girl, my grand mother was the model of a Quaker girl whose image, ca 1890, appeared on the two-pound packages of breakfast cereal and on other items given as premiums.

Today, I own the house in Milford, Pennsylvania, to which Frank Sawyer and his wife, Johanna, moved after he retired from the oat-milling business. The address is 100 Sawkill Avenue. The Sawyers are buried in the Milford cemetery. My own parents, William and Joanna McGaughey, are buried in a grave plot next to them.

I recently came across information about Frank Sawyer’s father, Stephen P. Sawyer, in a “History of Muscatine County Iowa (Volume II, Biographical) 1911”, on page 612. I will quote this article in its entirety because it contains a wealth of information about my forbearers.


“STEPHEN P. SAWYER.... Among the elder business men of Muscatine who are honored by the community for what they have accomplished may be named Stephen P. Sawyer, now retired. He was born in West Amesbury, Massachusetts, January 13, 1832, and is a son of Stephen and Sallie B, ( McQuesten ) Sawyer. The father was a native of Massachusetts and the mother of New Hampshire. Stephen Sawyer Sr., was a farmer and lived near West Amesbury but died at Concord, New Hampshire. His wife departed this life in 1858. They were the parents of four children : Luther D.; Mary E., who married Horatio Laws ; Samuel P.; and Stephen P. The maternal grandfather was David McQuesten, who was born September 27, 1758, and was called away July 29, 1828. He married Margaret Fisher, of Londonderry, New Hampshire, who was born in 1760 and departed this life in 1833. Eight children were in their family : William, Samuel, Sallie B., David, Margaret N., Eliza, Calvin and Mary P. Margaret N. McQuesten was never married. She lived to the advanced age of ninety-three years and four months and died in the room where she was born.

The McQuesten family in this country dates back to William McQuesten, the immigrant ancestor, who came to America about 1735 and settled at Litchfield, New Hampshire. The ancestry originated in Argyllshire, Scotland, and removed to Coleraine in the north of Ireland near the close of the sixteenth century. Deacon Samuel McQuesten, one of the noted American members of the family, was a son of David and Margaret ( Fisher ) McQuesten and was born in Litchfield, New Hampshire, in 1789. He removed with his parents in 1795 to Bedford, now Manchester, where members of the family have ever since resided. The house in which the family lived until the autumn of 1895 was one of the historic buildings of the state and was erected in 1760, before the Revolutionary war. Deacon McQuesten was an uncle of William Wirt McQuesten, a cousin of our subject and a partner with him in the hardware business in Muscatine for a number of years.

Stephen P. Sawyer made his home in Massachusetts and New Hampshire until 1849 and was educated in the public schools of those states. At the age of seventeen he went to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where he continued for twenty-three years engaging in the manufacture of agricultural implements. He came to Muscatine, Iowa, in 1871, and has ever since resided in this city with the exception of two years, which he spent in California. Here he was for eighteen years junior member of the firm of McQuesten & Sawyer, the partners retiring in 1894 in the interests of their sons, who then took charge. The business which they developed grew to large proportions and the name of McQuesten & Sawyer became familiar over a wide region in the valley of the Mississippi.

On the 21st of June, 1853, Mr. Sawyer was united in marriage to Miss Frances P. Gillitt, a daughter of David Paul and Lucinda ( Hall ) Gillitt. She was a native of Newport, New Hampshire, born September 1, 1832. She was called from earthly scenes March 18, 1897, after a long life of usefulness and unselfishness. Seven children came to brighten the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer : Ida M., who married Colonel Fred Welker of Muscatine ; Frank P., who married Johanna Wells and has three children, Henry P., Aura M. and Maude W.; Aura A., at home ; Clara S., who married Dr. S. G. Stein, of Muscatine, a record of whom appears elsewhere in this work ; Samuel F., who married Nellie Stephens, at Springfield, Missouri, and died April 13, 1901, after some years devoted to the hardware business in Muscatine ; Jennie H., who married Lyle C. Day, October 18, 1905, and is the mother of one child, Donald Day ; and Armina Rosaline, who died at three years of age, December 19, 1861.

Mr. Sawyer holds membership in the Presbyterian church, as did also his wife. Politically he is in sympathy with the republican party. He is known as a good business man and a patriotic citizen, who has always assisted to the extent of his ability in advancing the public interests. Through years of earnest endeavor he won success and easily ranks as one of the substantial men of Muscatine, belonging to that class which leaves a permanent impress for all that is most desirable in American life.”


The second paragraph from the end points out that Stephen P. Sawyer and his wife Frances had seven children. One of them is identified as “Frank P.” who married Johanna Wells. (Milford, Pennsylvania, was once named “Wells Ferry.”) They in turn had three children - Henry P., Aura M. (May) and Maude W. Aura M. is my grandmother - my mother’s mother - who married Andrew Durham. Henry P. was “Uncle Henry”, a bachelor who lived in a smaller house in Milford next door. Maude W. is “Aunt Maude” who lived in Indiana. The “P” in Frank P. stands for “Payson”, which would have been my own child’s name had he continued to live. The paragraph also mentions Dr. S. G. Stein, a relative who incorporated the Friends Oats company in 1879 as the Muscatine Oat Meal Company. (Frank P. Sawyer became its general manager.) My grandmother’s cousin, Simon Stein, whom I met as a boy, must have been his son.

In conclusion, when President Xi of China declares how much Muscatine, Iowa, has meant to him, it strikes a strong responsive chord with me. The world is a small place indeed.


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