Joseph Gerald Armitage (1836-1900), Merchant and Missionary

Born on October 28, 1836 in Three Rivers, Michigan, Joseph Gerald Armitage grew up on the family farm in Lockport Township, St. Joseph County, Michigan.  His parents, William and Lydia Armitage, were natives of England.  Joseph grew up working on the farm and married Mary Elizabeth Clark in Nottawa, Michigan on February 5, 1861.  The young couple’s only child, Jennie, was born on March 1, 1862 in Three Rivers.

The family moved to Abilene in 1879 and Joseph worked on a farm before entering the furniture and home furnishings business.  The Armitage’s were strong in their Methodist faith and were prohibitionists.  When a petition was presented to the Abilene City Commission in April 1880 to prohibit the sale of intoxicating liquors, J. G. Armitage was a signatory.  He was also a steward of the local Methodist church.

AWC 9-8-1882

Abilene Weekly Chronicle – September 8, 1882

The Armitage’s moved into the vacant house at the southwest corner of Mulberry and 7th Street.  In 1881, Joseph and William Henry Irion formed a furniture retail company.  Irion & Armitage carried furniture, stoves, glassware, cutlery, and sewing machines.  In 1882, the business was considered an “everything” store and located in the newly constructed commercial block on the eastside of Broadway (207 N. Broadway).  This space is now the south third of the USD 435 administrative offices and include the School Board Meeting Room.

Irion & Armitage constructed an elevator in their store for raising and lowering heavy articles between cellar and second floor and would later remove walls in the 2nd floor to open up a large furniture department.  In November 1882, the business purchased the stock of Clyde James McDivitt, who suffered and eye injury and could no longer conduct business.  They would also add an organ and piano department.  Despite these investments in stock and their building, the stock of Irion & Armitage was sold during a close out sale in April 1884.  William Irion decided to remain in Abilene and specialize in pianos and organs.  Joseph would form a short-lived partnership with P. J. Bunker, which was dissolved in January 1885.

A. J. Armitage home at 614 N. Spruce- prior to remodeling

Armitage House at 612 N. Spruce Street prior to an exterior remodel

In April 1883, Joseph purchased two lots at the southwest corner of Spruce and 7th Streets, where he built the house addressed 612 N. Spruce Street, which still stands today and is currently addressed 614 N. Spruce Street.  He served as the assistant superintendent of the Methodist Church.  Joseph was involved in the Republican Party.  He was a convention delegate for the 3rd Ward of Abilene.  Joseph ran for the city council in 1885, but was defeated.  However, in 1890 he was elected to the Abilene City Council.  He was sworn in as a City Councilman on April 10, 1890 and was appointed by Mayor A. W. Rice to serve on the Police, Finance, and Ordinance committees.  He served one term.  He was a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W.).

During December 1885, Joseph traveled to Chicago and other eastern cities purchasing stock for the Armitage Novelty Bazaar, which he opened in the McCurdy Block, which was a newly completed two-story brick building at the northwest corner of 3rd and Buckeye (where Benjamin F. Edwards and American Family Insurance is now).  The McCurdy block had three store fronts with the Armitage Novelty Bazaar occupying the middle room (102 NW. 3rd Street).  Joseph would carry a variety of items and seasonally would introduce something new to the store.  For instance, in the spring of 1889, he stocked an entire floor of just baby carriages, doll carriage, and express wagons.  A few months later he had a special on coal oil, baking powder, and carpet tacks.

DCN 4-24-1890

Dickinson County News – April 24, 1890

Armitage’s son in-law, was Albert Edward Bishop, who was a partner of J. B. Case.  Case & Bishop’s department store occupied 3 store fronts on Broadway Street (208-210-212 N. Broadway).  This space is currently occupied by the Rivendell Bookstore, Picture This Plus, and Abilene Chiropractic.  In October 1889, the Armitage Novelty Bazaar was moved to the basement of the Case & Bishop store.  This arrangement only lasted three months, with the bazaar going back to the 102 NW. 3rd Street location.  The rumor at the time was that Case & Bishop had decided to start carrying their own stock of novelties.  That following April, the bazaar moved to the McInerney block (300 N. Broadway) and occupied the entire basement and half of the main store.  The other half of the main floor was occupied by the McInerney Boot and Shoe store.  This is the space that Treasurer by Tracine has occupied for the past several years.

Armitage Novelty Bazaar - 1890

The Armitage Novelty Bazaar – 1890

Disaster struck on the morning of February 10, 1893, when Mr. Taylor, who had an art gallery on the 2nd floor, was moving some shelving that fell and broke a lamp.  The oil from the lamp burst into flame and caught the room on fire.  A large crowd gathered as firemen arrived and deluged the room despite having a hose burst.  The art gallery was nearly an entire loss and the bazaar and shoe store were flooded.  Much of the Armitage stock was damaged.  The loss amounted to $500, which was insured for $2,000.  In September 1893, the Armitage Novelty Bazaar moved to its final location.  This time they traded places with Martin Shearer’s boot and shoe store, which was located just one door north (302 N. Broadway).  This space is currently occupied by Amanda’s Bakery and Bistro.  They promptly painted and made other improvements to the building.  Over the years, among the bazaar’s employees were George Waters, Sam Waters, and Henry Haston.

While commerce was a big part of Mr. Armitage’s life, his faith was equally as important and his success as a merchant allowed the Armitage family to pursue good works.  His business travels allowed him to see much of the U.S..  He would soon travel for other reasons.  Prior to the spring of 1893, Joseph had traveled to Colorado and Galveston, Texas looking for prospective business opportunities.  After the spring of 1893, his travels began to take on spiritual meaning, which led the Armitage and Bishop families in a different direction.  Mr. Bishop’s family moved in with his in-laws in April 1893.  Bishop had taken a leadership role with the Methodist church and together the extended family prepared to serve others.  That August, Joseph, Mary, and daughter Jennie Bishop, traveled to northern Michigan and participated in a Methodist summer resort for several weeks.  On his way back from Michigan, Joseph spent a few days at the World’s Fair in Chicago.  The following January (1894), Joseph and Mary, took the Rock Island railroad from Abilene to California and would stay there for over 3 months.  In October, the gospel tabernacle moved to the second floor rooms at 302 N. Broadway and operated a church and school.  In addition to their home, Joseph purchased a full section (S3, T13E, R1, 4th PM) in Lincoln Township (4 miles west of Abilene) from Lewis A. Benedict in 1894.  He would rent out this pasture out for several years.

DCN 4-2-1896

Dickinson County News – April 2, 1896

All of the preparations in 1894 and 1895 culminated in the Armitage’s and Bishop’s announcing in April 1896 that they were liquidating their businesses, real estate, and possessions to devote themselves to missionary work in Honduras.  They were scheduled to take a voyage to Honduras from New Orleans on May 7, 1896.  The Amritage’s would maintain their home on Spruce Street.  After making their announcement the families traveled to Concordia, Kansas to visit Mrs. Armitage’s brother, James W. Clark.  Herman E. Brumm, the grocer, purchased the Armitage Novelty Bazaar stock and consolidated it with his grocery store.  Brumm moved into the bazaar location at 302 N. Broadway Street.

The Kansas Gospel Union held a 3-day convention at the First Baptist church in Abilene beginning on April 24, 1896.  Albert Edward Bishop addressed the convention in what became his farewell speech to the community.  After the convention, the Abilene Gospel Union left for Honduras in groups.  Mrs. Armitage traveled with Miss Belle Purvis and Mr. L. H. Jamison from Abilene.  On May 25, 1896 in San Pedro, Honduras, Joseph wrote a letter that was published in the Abilene Weekly Reflector.  In this first letter, Joseph states that the missionaries arrived in San Pedro to a Methodist church and mission house, which had not been used for sermons in three years.  They held meeting and sermons in Spanish and English.  He described the local society, homes, markets, and prevalent diseases.  Another letter was received in August, in which the missionaries moved to Santa Rosa in the mountainous interior of Honduras where constant rainfall and dampness.  He describes the climate, local agriculture, and food imports.  Joseph and Albert were taken ill and weak, which he attributed to the climate.  Six weeks later the gentleman were recovered.  Mrs. Armitage had a bout of dysentery and was slow to recover.  This put a strain on Mrs. Bishop, who became solely responsible for cooking and maintaining the household.

The Armitage’s returned to Kansas in November 1896 to regain their health and visit relatives in Concordia.  They recovered at their home in Abilene and returned to Honduras in February 1897.  It was reported that in addition to operating the mission Albert Bishop started farming and speculating in coffee.  Bishop and Reverend W. L. Upshaw were maintaining 40 acres of corn near Santa Rosa.  The mission work prospered and church attendance was growing rapidly.

In April 1899, Joseph returned to Abilene to manage some personal business.  He reported that the mission in Santa Rosa was thriving and are moving from rural Honduras to the large city of Guatemala City, Guatemala.  Two months later, he left for Guatemala City traveling through Port Barrias.  In November 1899, the Armitage’s sold the home on Spruce to William E. and Eva I. Howard.

The morning of April 26, 1900 in Guatemala City started for the missionaries as it usually did.  Joseph woke up early and was soon struck by neuralgia of the lungs.  He did not seemed distressed about his condition until a few minutes before he died around 6 am.  After Joseph’s death, the Bishop’s would make Los Angeles, California their home when they were not in South America.  Mrs. Armitage lived in Concordia, Kansas when she was not doing mission work.    They would visit Abilene when their travels brought them close to their old home.  The A.O.U.W. provided a financial gift to Mrs. Armitage and she gifted an illustration of Mary Queen of Scots before Queen Elizabeth to the Abilene A.O.U.W.  Their return trips to Guatemala would take them through ports on both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

Mary Elizabeth Armitage would continue her mission work in Guatemala City until her death in that city on March 19, 1923.  Joseph and Mary are buried in Guatemala City.



About James D. Holland

I'm a former local government planner turned real estate agent turned safety manager turned Chamber of Commerce Director, turned marketing sales representative... phew. I enjoy writing about Abilene's history, businesses, events, politics, and anything else that interests me.
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3 Responses to Joseph Gerald Armitage (1836-1900), Merchant and Missionary

  1. Ronald Britt says:

    Another great story about Abilene Pioneers. Keep it up James.

  2. Loraine Bishop says:

    I just stumbled upon this today, as I was googling information on my great-grandfather, Albert Edward Bishop. Through the years, I’ve found information on him from his work with World Gospel Mission and his missionary years in Guatemala, Central America, but very little, on his father-in-law, Joseph Gerald Armitage. My father was named after him. This was quite informative. Loved it!

    • James D. Holland says:

      Thank you, Loraine. If you have any information that would help round out the story, I would love to add it. I have some information on the Bishop side of the family, but haven’t gotten around to putting it together.

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