William Norton Ayers

Although we generally think of 19th century Americans as generally being a more settled people, many individuals from that time were just as peripatetic as anyone in the 21st century. Ayers is an excellent example of this wanderlust. Born in 1825 and settled for the first 20 years of his life in the village of Bristol near his birthplace, Warren, Ohio, his schooling was scant but he was an eager autodidact.

At 20, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to learn the tinner’s trade. Ayers next moved to Waupun, Wis., where he opened a tin shopand sold a small stock of stoves and hardware. On March 19, 1851, he married Sarah Ann Sanborn at Chester, Wis.

Driving a team of oxen, Ayers and Sarah traveled by wagon train to a new home in Olympia, Wash., in 1854. There he homesteaded a plot of land that is now inside the city limits of Olympia and still bears the name Ayers Hill. Three of his sons, John, Walter and Howard, were born there and his family made their home in Olympia for the next seven years. Over the next few years, they would live in San Jose, Calif., wander over southern California; return to Bristol, stop in Lawrence, Kan., shortly after Quantrell raided the town; live in Des Moines, Iowa, where daughter Carrie was born; and finally buy a home in Webster Groves near St. Louis with the intention of finally settling down. That “final” plan was not the last one however. In May 1866, the Ayers family journeyed by wagon to Fort Smith where they would make a permanent home.

After once again going into the hardware business, Ayers sold out and went into banking. The bank he started with his partner, Mr. Haymaker, was short lived. Haymaker absconded with the funds. Ayers tracked him down and persuaded him to return. However, Haymaker ended up shooting himself in a St. Louis hotel room before they made it back to Fort Smith. The tangled affairs of the bank kept Ayers from beginning again in business on his own for six years.

Ayers’ father died in 1870, leaving W.N. Ayers a small inheritance, which he used to buy some land on Mazzard prairie. He had enough money also to purchase three lots within the city limits on what is today North 12th Street. Perhaps this action was also taken to make room for another son, William N. Ayers Jr., who was born in December 1871. The family was able to move out of a rental house and into a small house on the newly acquired land. In the 1880s, a friend of Ayers back in Olympia sold some land he still owned back in Washington and he was able to use the money to pay for the construction of the Ayers House at 820 N. 12th St. Building was completed in 1888, on one of the three lots he had purchased years earlier.

In 1876, he opened another hardware business in Fort Smith, selling his interest to his sons, John and Walter. Ayers bought an interest in the Ketcham Iron Co., a foundry and machine shop. Although he may have intended to be only a passive investor, the Ketcham brothers were poor business men and he was forced to take a more active role in its management in 1902. Ayers also was instrumental in organizing the Fort Smith chair factory. He was a member of First Baptist Church, an Odd Fellow and a Mason

His wife, Sarah, died in 1900, but Ayers lived on to the age of 89, dying Sept. 2, 1914. Both Sarah and William passed away in their home. Sarah’s funeral was held there.