Charles A. Ficke

"Each generation must pay to succeeding generations the debt it owes to preceding ones" --Charles Ficke

Charles August Ficke was born on April 21, 1850, to Christoph and Elizabeth Ficke of Beitzenburg, part of the Duchy of Mecklenburg in Germany. Charles's father was a well-to-do businessman who often loaned money to assist people in conflict-torn Germany. His generosity extended to Wilhelm Fischer, who borrowed money to immigrate to America. Fischer's glowing description of a place called Iowa, combined with growing fears for his family's safety, convinced Christoph Ficke to take his family to America. In 1852, the Fickes settled on a farm in Scott County, Iowa.

The early years were difficult for the family. Christoph, a good businessman, had much to learn about running a farm. He purchased poor livestock, and when the horses and oxen foundered or died, he replaced them with more of the same, heedless of the cost. The crops failed the first year, leaving the family no income and little food. When the farm did begin to produce, Christoph optimistically loaned money to help neighbors, as was his custom. Unfortunately, the Ficke crops failed again just as most of the farmers in Scott County also fell on hard times, so no one was able to repay him. According to Charles' autobiography, it was only through grim determination that the farm was not lost. The hard times did not last long, but the memory of them fueled Charles's ambitions for financial success.

When Charles was twelve, his sister married Julius Petersen of Lowden, Iowa (in Cedar County). The Petersen family owned a general store, and it was arranged for Charles to work as an apprentice clerk while living with his sister and her new husband. Charles enjoyed his work, and learned enough about business principles to realize that if he wanted to achieve his ambitions, he would need more than the basic education he had been given at the district school.

One year later, at the age of thirteen, Charles moved alone to Davenport, Iowa, and enrolled in the public school system. His father sent him enough money to live at the Keystone House, a boarding hotel run by Jacob Hoering. Mr. Hoering took a liking to the boy and suggested that Charles pay for his room and board by helping out around the hotel, and put the money his father sent into a college fund. Charles did so, until he realized that the money really belonged to his father. He returned the funds and apologized to Christoph, who, according to a relieved Charles, was proud of his honest son.

Charles worked very hard at both his job and his schooling, and completed his grammar school education in 1865. His goal was to attend Griswold College, and he therefore prepared to enter the Davenport High School. However, his father believed that experience would be a better preparation for the world of business. Charles, on his father's recommendation, went to work for a dry goods store, which was eager to have a clerk who spoke fluent German in order to attract the constant flow of German immigrants into Davenport. Charles began on a salary of eighteen dollars a month.

Charles continued to work at various dry goods stores in Davenport, including W. H. Carter's Dry Goods and William Bell & Sons, until he was making fifty dollars a month.

Unfortunately, the bottom soon fell out of the 1867 post-Civil War economy, and Charles soon found himself threatened with unemployment and no closer to fulfilling his ambitions. He had been too busy to advance his grammar-school education through independent study, it was now years too late for him to enter high school, and he had not saved enough money to attend Griswold College. Charles was furious at himself for 'wasting' two years of his life, and was determined to waste no more time. The day after he finally lost his job, he enrolled in the Bryant and Stratton Business College of Davenport. As he stated in his autobiography, "From the day I entered college, life once more was worth living."

Charles applied himself, and soon won first place for improved penmanship, which he later claimed had been an easy accomplishment because his handwriting had been so 'amazingly poor' at the beginning of the course. Before he graduated, he was offered a position as bookkeeper at Hartwell & Smith, an insurance company, which he accepted.

Charles was 18 years old in 1868, and very self-conscious of being over six feet tall and very slender. He stooped to disguise his height, but it didn't really work: one day, as he was walking down the street, a young girl shouted to her mother to "look at the immense giant!" In his own words, Charles "nearly collapsed from mortification." Eventually, however, as he stated in his autobiography, his growing confidence, plus the strong suspenders that were part of his office attire, gave him the erect, dignified posture that he carried into his eighties.

Ever mindful of furthering his education, Charles took lessons in German and English Grammar and English literature from the wife of a Griswold professor. His father suggested that he might study law, and the idea appealed to Charles. The law offices across the street agreed to allow Charles to use their library, and he read legal volumes before and after work. He and a few like-minded friends organized a legal debate society, called the "Moot Court." Charles later wrote that he often rowed out to one of the small river islands to practice his arguments without an audience.

In early 1870, Charles went to work for the Davenport National Bank as a discount and correspondence clerk. One of his coworkers, Frank C. Alden, was the foster son of William Penn Clark, who had a fine collection of reproductions of classic paintings and a library full of art books. Charles read through the library and developed a deep appreciation for fine art. Charles soon attended an art auction and bought himself a small, inexpensive painting. At the same auction, he witnessed William Renwick, a board member of the Bank, buy a very large painting for forty dollars. Charles was convinced that Mr. Renwick must be one of the richest men in the world, because "who else would pay so enormous a price for a single picture?" (p.163)

By 1875, at the age of twenty-five, Charles had saved enough money to attend law school, and made tentative places to resign from the Bank. However, Charles was again tempted to give up his idea of becoming a lawyer by the president of the Bank, who told him that if he stayed, he might get promoted to Bank Cashier, an exalted position. Charles weighed the chance of promotion, which would guarantee him profitable employment for years to come, with the risks of opening his own law offices. After careful thought, Charles gave up his law books and devoted himself to the study of banking.

However, the next year, during which Charles had taken over many of the duties of Cashier, the poor economy caused many local merchants to fail, draining assets from the Bank. By the December of 1875, the president of the Bank regretfully informed Charles that the position of Cashier would have to be filled by someone with more experience. Charles bore the disappointment well, and immediately resumed his legal studies. Some months later, he resigned from the Bank, intent on attending law school

The management of the Davenport National Bank and several friends urged Charles to run for Davenport city treasurer, and the First National Bank, which had not been hit as hard as the Davenport National Bank, offered Charles the position of Cashier. However, Charles would not let anything distract him from his rediscovered goals. He had learned that E. E. Cook, an eminent Davenport lawyer whom he admired, had graduated from the Albany Law School in New York, and so decided to finish his education there.

While attending, he visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There, Charles spent hours in the enormous art gallery, seeing original oil paintings for the first time. He later credited the Exposition with sharpening his vague interest in art into something approaching devotion.

Charles had always wanted to travel, and found by the end of his college years in 1877, that he had enough money left over to do so. Two days after he graduated, he departed for Europe. Charles spent six months traveling through as many major cities as he could, with side trips to places of interest. And everywhere he went, he visited art galleries and museums, wishing that he had enough money to bring home even one of the paintings done by the Old Masters.

He saved Germany for last, and spent a month or two visiting relatives. His uncle, August Ficke, was relieved to find that his nephew, who had been raised in the wilds of America, was more civilized than he had feared, and did not carry a tomahawk. Charles enjoyed his visit, but was eager, as his uncle fondly encouraged, to "go and make [his] career." On September 6, 1877, twenty-five years and six months after the first time, Charles left Germany for Davenport, Iowa.

Charles rented office space on Main Street, on the site of the future Putnam Building. There were 24 lawyers within two blocks of Main Street, and 18 of these were on the first floor of Charles's building. For a long time, Charles had only one client, and was tempted to accept offers to enter partnerships with established lawyers in Muscatine, Iowa, or Portland, Oregon. However, as Charles did not wish to leave or uproot his father and mother, who were now elderly, he decided to stay in Davenport.

This was a time of great development for Iowa, as people rushed to buy the vast amounts of available land. While the land itself was relatively inexpensive, many did not have the money to make improvements. Charles saw a way to help people, in the tradition of his father, while making a personal profit, and so added a farm mortgage business to his law practice. At first, he personally inspected each acre, to make sure his investment would be secure, but his business grew at a phenomenal rate, and he soon was sending office employees to investigate land throughout Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Montana, and even Canada. Later, he heavily invested in land in and around the city limits of Davenport for the purpose of residential and business development.

Charles was chosen as the secretary of the Republican County Republican Committee, and was very much in demand as a speaker, which he modestly claimed was because he could give his speeches in German. At that time, there were many recent German immigrants in Scott County who refused to attend political meetings or assemblies unless they would be addressed in a language they completely understood. By 1879, Charles accepted the chairmanship of the Committee, which automatically made him chairman of the Republican County and Congressional Committee. However, Charles found himself at odds with his party, which favored a state prohibition amendment. Charles opposed this measure, feeling that outlawing alcohol in Iowa would not solve its 'evils', and fearing that it would widen the perceived barriers, both cultural and political, between German-Americans and the rest of the community. This issue, and the eventual passing of the act, eventually led Charles to reluctantly leave the Republican Party for the Democrats.

Charles had become a very busy man, but not so busy as to ignore his friends, especially the family of Abner Davison, an attorney for the Davenport National Bank, whom he had met again by chance coincidence in New York, while Mr. Davison's son was visiting Charles' college roommate. By the time the Davisons left New York, Charles had struck up a firm friendship with the family, and visited them often upon his return to Iowa. In October of 1880, a mere nine years after their first meeting, Charles proposed to Fannie, Abner's second oldest daughter. In 1881, Charles bought a house on Main Street for himself and his bride--a move that puzzled his friends, as they were not aware that he had become engaged. The wedding was held on March 23, 1882. The Fickes had three children, Arthur Davidson (who became a well-known author and poet) Alice (later Mrs. Devore Simonson), and Helene (later Mrs. Charles Watzek).

As Charles was taking a break from politics, he was able to accept the presidency of the Davenport Turner Society, an Americanized version of the German Turngemeinde organization, which had its historic roots in the Napoleonic Era. The Davenport Turners were dedicated to the development of a "free mind in a healthy body," and became known for excellent gymnastics courses and nationally ranked teams. Charles also assisted in the incorporation of the Scott County Savings Bank in 1883 and was appointed as a director.

In 1886, Charles was surprised to read in the newspaper that he was considered a strong candidate for Scott County's first county attorney. His past experiences made him reluctant to run for any political office, but he accepted the official nomination, and was elected by 500 votes. This nearly doubled Charles's workload and put him in the unenviable position of locating and prosecuting violations of the state prohibition act. He considered this a complete waste of time and funds, as there were over a hundred places in Scott County where beer was still being sold illegally and public opinion was such that no jury would convict anyone of doing so. Charles finally passed the word that while he would prosecute any case in which a witness came forth and filed charges against someone selling alcohol, he was not going to go out and search for violators himself. In his two years as county attorney, no one ever filed charges for this offense.

Charles had always been involved in civic issues, and in 1890, against his wishes, he was given the Democratic nomination for mayor of Davenport, which he claimed he accepted because he didn't want to offend anyone. To his surprise, he received both Democratic and Republic support and was elected by 1,549 votes. The following year, he was voted to a second term by 1,876 votes, which was at that time the highest majority vote in a Davenport mayoral election.

His leadership has been credited with improvements in the sewers and pavements of Davenport, the formation of the city's Department of Public Works and the establishment of LeClaire Park. Charles was also the first Davenport mayor to veto an ordinance that had been passed by the City Council. The ordinance would have given the Davenport Water Company exclusive rights to supply the City with water from any source for fifty years, and Charles felt that unless the company could guarantee a quality water supply, the ordinance would be hazardous to the health of the public. The council, upon reflection, supported this decision, and the city and media did as well. The company immediately established a state-of-the-art filtering plant and resubmitted the ordinance request, which Charles promptly signed.

Having refused to run for mayor again, and having turned down possible nominations for state senator and state representative, Charles took the opportunity for the next several years to indulge in his love of travel. The family took extensive tours of Mexico, Germany, Asia, and Japan, circling the globe twice. On those trips, Charles acquired many artistic and cultural items, sometimes buying up to 50 pieces at a time. During on trip to Japan, he sent home 34 cases full of antiquities and artwork, the combined weight of which was 7, 200 pounds.

Most of the cultural items from these trips were donated to the Davenport Academy of Science (which later became the Putnam Museum). However, Charles kept all the artwork he acquired, beginning with just four paintings purchased in Germany in 1894, establishing the foundation of what would become an extensive art collection. It may be that the sheer amount of these 'souvenirs' is what prompted Charles to move his family into a much larger house at 1208 North Main Street, which would become known as the Ficke Mansion.

A far cry from the young student who nervously practiced his speeches alone in a rowboat, Charles often gave talks on the cultures, politics, and economics of countries he had visited, and his lectures proved quite popular. He helped found the Contemporary Club of Davenport, the members of which were required to present papers on contemporary problems, such as insurance for the common worker, immigration, and foreign relations.

During the years of World War I, growing anti-German sentiments caused no few problems between the citizens of Davenport, some of who, like the Ficke family, remembered their former homeland fondly. Despite his heartbreak over "the threatened war between the country of which [he] was a citizen, which [he] loved, and to which [he] owed loyalty, and Germany, a county [he] also loved," Charles offered his support to the Davenport Patriotic Society, and urged others to support the American war effort. Charles joined the local finance committee, and Fanny was appointed chairman for the Scott County Home Service Division of the Red Cross War Council. Their son, Arthur, enlisted in the Ordnance Corps, and was sent immediately to France.

Charles continued to try to keep a torn, community together. Upon hearing a proposal that there be several patriotic groups established in Davenport, one for German-Americans, one for Irish-Americans, and so on, Charles gave a speech to the large audience of a patriotic gathering sponsored by the local branch of the National Council of Defense: "I came to this meeting . . . because I knew it was to be an all-American and an All-Come-Together meeting, and that every loyal American citizen, regardless of the county where he was born, would be welcome. At this critical hour of our country's life, when, above all, we should be a united people, I feel that it would be the part of wisdom to cease calling foreign born citizens, German, Irish, Scandinavian, or other foreign Americans. These adopted citizen are doing their utmost to help win this war, and they deserve to be honored by being simply called Americans . . . we need patriotic clubs of which all American citizens, regardless of birth, can become members, and from which no native born American would be excluded. Of such clubs, we can have none too many."

Some citizens, however, took exception to any kind of statement perceived as pro-German. The diary of Ruth Irish Preston, is an example of the changes in attitude towards some of the city's most respected citizens:

"She [Mrs. C. A. Ficke] told the minister this morning that his sermon was the bravest one yet preached—so much for the influence of her white livered cold hearted stern Hohenzollern sympathizer of a husband C.A. Ficke." She also reports rumors that Secret Service men warned and actually arrested Charles and other prominent German-American businessmen for 'traitorous remarks', and that Charles had to pay $80,000 bail. However, there is no record or newspaper account of this ever happening, and Charles certainly does not mention this in his autobiography.

He does mention that, as the war progressed, the 'sanity of people days continued to give way to unreason." At one point, the Council of Defense asked him to speak to several Scott County farmers who had been reported as being pro-German. Charles discovered, to his embarrassment, that all of the men were American born, and most of them did not even speak German. Even members of the Davenport Symphony Orchestra, he complained, were accused of speaking German amongst themselves during rehearsals, behavior that was no longer acceptable. The German language was no longer taught in the public schools, and there was even a group who wished for the public library to burn all of the German books in its collections. Luckily, the Library Board refused compliance.

On November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed, signaling the official end of World War I. Davenport, according to Charles's autobiography, went berserk in celebration: "Such a cheering and waving of flags and such unearthly noise I have never before witnessed." (p.458). The Ficke family had another reason to celebrate when Arthur returned safely home in July of the following year.

With peace restored, Charles and his family resumed their travels, and their visits to international auctions and sales. Charles's art collections had by this time grown at a phenomenal rate, owing to his practice of buying several--sometimes more than fifty—paintings on each of his trips out of the country. In May of 1919, Charles donated his collection of rare books its ten display cases to the Davenport Public Library, possibly to make more room for his art. He donated the rest of his antiquities collections to the Davenport Academy of Sciences to make room for his new acquisitions, eventually converting the entire third floor of his house into an art gallery. He felt that he had enough paintings to consider establishing a municipal art museum, something he had been considering for years.

By 1924, he had, at the age of 74, outlived all of the other original board members of the Scott County Bank. He voluntarily resigned and was presented with a gold cane, which he told the board he would save until he "was old enough to use it." In December of that same year, proving that he had no intention of slowing down, Charles inspected the Battery "B" Armory building on 5th Street as a possible site for a public art gallery. Charles agreed that it was suitable, and told the city council that if the building was renovated to his requirements, he would donate his art collections to the city.

The city of Davenport lost no time in asking the Iowa Legislature to pass a bill allowing cities operating under special charter (as Davenport does) to establish and maintain public art galleries. The bill passed unanimously, and Davenport soon passed an ordinance creating the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery. Charles sent a formal letter to the council stating that he would deliver two hundred and seventy paintings to the city as soon as the building was ready, and that the balance of the collection would be left to the city when he and his wife passed away.

Two hundred and seventy paintings was quite a start for the new gallery. However, Charles had made a mistake: he had forgotten to count the paintings in a single room of his house, and had overlooked seventy-three. He sent a second letter, saying that he would be sending three hundred and forty-three paintings to the Municipal Art Gallery. Robert E. Harsche, who was then Director of the Chicago Art Institute, examined each painting to evaluate its merit and place in the new collection. He reported that all were of high quality, and that Charles' gift was equal to the long-established public galleries of St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. He admitted that the collection of landscapes in particular was better than that of his own Institute or the Metropolitan Museum. Charles was delighted with this evaluation, and quoted Mr. Harsche in his autobiography as saying that "No public gallery in America, that he knew of . . .had started out with so large a number of important paintings as a nucleus." (p.482).

The official presentation of the gift was made in October of 1925, after the renovations of the armory were completed. During the first three months, nearly fourteen thousand visitors flocked to the Gallery. One of the more interesting paintings on display was a fragment of a work by Flinck called "Christ being shown to the people", which had at one time, Charles believed, been stolen and cut into pieces. Charles had searched for the missing half for years, and finally found it in the Hackely Art Gallery in Muskegon, Michigan. However, Charles was not successful in his attempt to reunite the two pieces.

The citizens of Davenport were most appreciative of the Gallery, and several of the civic organizations commissioned Loredo Taft to sculpt a bust of Charles that would be kept in the Art Gallery. Charles was reluctant to accept such a lavish token of gratitude, and the Women's Club had to bully him into agreeing to sit for the sculptor. Later, though, he agreed with his friends that it was 'a good likeness."

Charles, having given the fruits of what he called his 'hobbies' to various Davenport organizations, retired almost completely from the public life, declining several invitations to speak at various events and meetings of the organizations to which he had devoted so many years. Instead, he spent his twilight years indulging in his love of travel. The Fickes were hardly in Davenport during the next few years, but visited their children and grandchildren, inspected the museums of America, and also went on another European tour.

Unable to stay away from art auctions while in Europe, Charles did manage to restrict himself to buying only 28 paintings, which he blamed on the new rage for Impressionism, which he claimed turned his stomach. Later, when the Davenport Municipal Gallery held a highly popular exhibition of American artists that brought in twenty-five thousand visitors, Charles pointed out that there were 'no monstrosities' of modern art in the entire exhibit.

In 1930, not long after his 80th birthday, the robust health Charles had always enjoyed began to fail. He died on December 10, 1931, at the age of 81. As the Davenport Democrat stated, "Mr. Ficke died peacefully in his sleep, thus ending a long life of activities and usefulness in the community where he had made his home for 79 years." Charles left behind his wife, children, and six grandchildren, and a legacy of generosity and civic support that is not easily equaled in the history of Davenport.

Seventy years later, the Davenport Museum of Art was thriving, and the collections, which included over 3,500 pieces from many different cultures and historic periods, had once again grown too large for their space. In 2003, the Museum moved from it current location on 'Museum Hill,' on West 12th Street, into a new, centrally located building in the heart of downtown Davenport. This $48.6 million gallery, designed by London architect David Chipperfield, was constructed so that more of the beautiful works of art that have been acquired since Charles Ficke's passing might be put on display to the public.


  • "Ficke, Art Gallery Founder, Dead." Davenport Democrat and Leader, December 1, 1931, pp 1 and 3.
  • Davenport City Council. Council Proceedings. (Davenport, Iowa: City of Davenport), 1924.
  • Davenport City Council. Council Proceedings. (Davenport, Iowa: City of Davenport), 1925.
  • Ficke, Charles. Memories of Fourscore Years. (Davenport, Iowa: Graphic Services, Inc.), 1930.
  • Svendsen, Marlys A. Davenport, a pictorial history 1836-1986. ([S.L.]: G. Bradley Publishing Inc.), 1985.
  • Written by Sarah J. Wesson, librarian, Richardson-Slone Special Collections Center