John W. Kelley

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John Wesley Kelley was the founder of not only a self-operated business, but also of a new social reform to Marion during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Kelley, primarily considered to be Republican in his earlier days, took Socialism and its activity in Marion to a new level. Along with William J. Croke, a glassworker in Marion, the duo became the first Social-Democratic nominees in Marion (A Bab. Of Soc. p.5). From that point on, Socialism in Marion continued to add to and influence the structure of society.

Early Years

Born September 14, 1857, John W. Kelley was one of ten children of the French immigrant, Lewis Kelley, who came to the United States in 1832 during a cholera epidemic in France. After a sixty-eight day trip to the U.S., the family, Lewis and Elizabeth, John’s mother, arrived in New York. From New York they moved to the nearby Meadville, Pennsylvania. In 1840 they moved onceto Highland County Ohio. Eleven years later in 1851, they concluded their moving by settling in Grant County, having only a mere five-hundred dollars on which to live. With these five-hundred dollars, Lewis purchased eighty acres six miles north of Marion (Bio. Mem. 272).

Early Business Ventures

Kelley's Furniture Store
In 1857, the soon to be governor candidate, John Wesley Kelley was born in Washington township, Grant County (See Appendix A). At the age of twenty-one John married Miss Ella McCoy, of Huntington County, on May 12, 1878 (Bio. Mem. 272). One year after their marriage, John opened a furniture store in LaFontaine, remaining there for the following three years. Coming to Marion in 1882, he purchased the established Whistler & Cox, also bringing good business for three years until he sold it to a good advantage. After struggling for two years, Kelley decided to work for Lawrenceburg Furniture Company, requiring him to travel the territory east of the Mississippi river. After acquiring about seven years of experience through his travels, he purchased his own store in 1895, which would eventually become a very prosperous business (Leader Tribune Jul. 22, 1915).

Civic Involvement

While operating his expanding furniture company, one of the largest in the state, John Kelley remained very active in the community (See appendix B). He was an active member of the First Methodist Episcopal Church. He also served on the board of directors of the Grant County Hospital Association, and as a member of the city planning committee (A Bab. Of Soc. p.10). Also at this time, he was a dad to two children, Mabel and Roy Fordham. Although Kelley was all of the above, he was most famous for his Socialist views and impact. He spent the majority of his public life attempting to destroy the immoral and unjust system that had ironically made him wealthy: capitalism. He was a frequent candidate on the Socialist ticket for municipal office in Marion and in 1900 was elected one of the city’s first Socialist representatives (A Bab. of Soc. p.2). This election gained him state and national attention that was enough for him to earn a chance to become governor for the state of Indiana.

Kelley and Socialism

As early as 1894, Kelley had come to the conclusion that Socialism was the solution to eliminating the “evils” of capitalism. It was later that year that John W. Kelley gave the first public address on Socialism ever delivered in Marion (A Bab. Of Soc. p.2). Kelley’s views were primarily focused on the status of the working class, fearing a violent revolution if steps were not taken to relieve the sufferings that the working class was enduring, such as long work days and irregular payment dates. The night before the election, Kelley issued what was called a “Manifesto”. In this, Kelley outlined the Social-Democratic party and its intentions and guidelines. In his “Manifesto”, Kelley stated six main items: “1) the Socialists called for ownership of street railways, telephones, heating and electric plants, and all other city services. 2) Municipal work was to be done directly by the city, thus avoiding the expense of contracting it out. City employees were to receive a minimum wage of $1.50 for an eight-hour day. 3) All milk sold in Marion was to be inspected. 4) The city was to construct a municipal opera house and library. 5) All taxes on improvements and the products of labor were to be abolished and taxes on land values were to be increased. 6) The platform called for the creation of a municipal employment agency” (A Bab. Of Soc. p.5).

City Council Campaign

Also before the election, the Marion Chronicle published an editorial on Kelley’s program that sarcastically commented his ideas. In this editorial the Chronicle described the Socialist’s plans as “pleasant to contemplate in dreamland,” but were considered unrealistic in the real world. The Chronicle considered Kelley’s views to be naïve when he claimed that public ownership would always be the best solution for the city’s problem. In despite of these public criticisms both Kelley and Croke were elected, Kelley only winning by nine votes (A Bab. Of Soc. p.6). While serving, the Socialist duo was able to persuade the council to pass a number of corrections, including an eight-hour day for all city employees, a correction that Kelley viewed as being crucial to the advancement of better working conditions and prevention of a violent revolution from the working class.

Later Life

Kelley remained very active in the city of Marion until two years prior his death on Wednesday July 3, 1935. Previous his death, John W. Kelley had been suffering from an illness that had been the cause of his early retirement. Nearly sixteen years before his death, his wife Ella had died. After she died, he remarried to Mary Van Devanter Lawrence on August 29, 1923, who also later suffered from a long-term illness. Due to Kelley’s kind attitude to everyone around him he earned the name of “Honest John” (Marion Leader-Tribune p.1 & p. 5).


John Wesley Kelley was of great influence to Marion during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s due to the fact that he started Socialism in Grant County. Socialism during this period was of minor importance to democracy yet Kelley found it possible to broaden the spectrum and force it into the thoughts and interests of many people in Marion. In conclusion, John Kelley can be considered a great pioneer and risk taker that has greatly affected the “Marion” in which I live. Kelley, along with William Croke, made it their intent to change the society that they were living in, and they were very successful with their intentions. John W. Kelley was Socialist, furniture company owner, church member, city councilman, and a “Marion hero”.