A Narrative History
The People of Iowa
SPECIAL TREATMENT OF THEIR CHIEF ENTERPRISES IN
EDUCATION, RELIGION, VALOR, INDUSTRY,
EDGAR RUBEY HARLAN, LL. B., A. M.
Curator of the
Historical, Memorial and Art Department of Iowa
THE AMERICAN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, Inc.
Chicago and New York
WILLIAM McNETT, whose death occurred January 23, 1928, initiated the
practice of law in Iowa in the year 1868, and here his professional activities
continued until a short time prior to his death - a period of virtually sixty
years. In intrinsic nobility of character, in ripe scholarship and in high
professional attainments he stood forth as a man well qualified for
leadership in popular sentiment and action, and he long held precedence as one
foremost members of the Iowa bar. His professional activities were centered
in the city of Ottumwa, judicial center of Wapello County, from 1871 until
the close of his long and worthy life, and no citizen commanded a fuller
measure of popular confidence and esteem than did this veteran lawyer, whose
influence was ever cast in the advocacy and support of those things that
the higher ideals in communal life.
William McNett was born at Mount Morris, Ogle County, Illinois, March 10,
1845, and died in Ottumwa, Iowa, on January 23, 1928, and thus he was nearly
eighty-three years of age at the time of his death. He was a son of Walter and
Susan (Knodle) McNett, who were sterling pioneers of Ogle County, where the
father was an early wagonmaker at Mount Morris and likewise became a
substantial farmer of that locality. The subject of this memoir was reared to
sturdy discipline of the farm, and he supplemented the discipline of the common
schools of his native county by attending, in 1862-64, the old Rock River
Seminary, an institution that is now known as Mount Morris Seminary. As a
youth he diversified his activities by continuing farm work during summer months
and teaching school during the fall and winter terms until he was able to
follow the course of his ambition and take up the study of law. He received
early legal training under the effective preceptorship of Judge Turner of
Freeport, Illinois, and early in 1868 he was admitted to the bar of his native
state. In June of the same year he opened a law office at Marshaltown,
Iowa, and since his financial resources were very limited, he borrowed money to
tide him over during the trying novitiate that was the portion of the average
young lawyer of the period. In this connection, with characteristic loyalty,
he took out his first insurance policy as a means of protecting his
creditor. In April, 1869, in company with Eugene Fawcett, another young
Mr. McNett transferred his residence to Ottumwa, but he soon removed to
Eddyville, a town that gave at that time promise of becoming the metropolis of
Wapelo County. He remained at Eddyville until September, 1871, when he
to Ottumwa and formed a law partnership with his friend Eugene Fawcett, and
firm of Fawcett & McNett having here developed a prosperous general law
practice and the partnership alliance continued until the impaired health of
Fawcett led him to remove to California, where he attained to prominence and
wealth. This firm's first case before the Iowa Supreme Court was presented at
the December term in 1871. In continuing his law practice at Ottumwa Mr.
McNett was associated professionally with Judge William D. Tisdale, John W.
Lewis, and finally with his son Walter, under the successive firm names of
McNett & Tisdale, NcNett & Lewis and McNett & McNett, and here his son Walter
still controls the large and important law business in which the tow were
associated at the time of the death of the honored subject of this memoir.
Tisdale, who is still engaged in practice at Ottumwa and who is represented in
a personal sketch in this publication, has stated that in Southern Iowa Mr.
NcNett has no superior as a lawyer. The broad and fine intellectual ken of
Mr. McNett came to him through his close and appreciative study and reading
throughout the entire course of his life. He was familiar with the best in
classical and contemporary literature, was a deep Bible student, and was well
fortified in his religious faith and practice, which showed no trace of bigotry
or intolerance. He was for many year an earnest member of the Congregational
Church in his home city, and his wife likewise was a devoted member. Mr.
McNett loved good books and their thought-promotive area, and his private
library was one of the largest and most select in this part of Iowa. As a man
broad views and mature judgment he was frequently called upon to make
addresses of public order, especially in connection with matters touching civic
interests and the communal welfare. He was an earnest supporter of the work of
the local Y. M. C. A., and his unbounded civic loyalty found divers avenues for
The intrinsic independence of Mr. McNett touched all phases of life, and
thus he was not constrained by strict partisanship, though a staunch advocate
the principles and policies of the Republican party. He often held men and
measures above mere partisan dictates. He was eminently qualified for public
office, and could undoubtedly have had a seat on the bench of the Iowa
Supreme Court, but he preferred the work of his profession in a direct way to
service in any public office. He had to the fullest extent that which is so
frequently expressed as "the courage of his convictions." He loved his home,
friends and his books, and they filled a large part in his gallant and
earnest life. He was the friend of all classes and conditions of men, and was
ready to respond to the call of suffering and distress.
As a lawyer Mr. McNett was retained as attorney for large and important
corporate interests. In 1886 he became legal representative for John Morrell &
Company, controlling the largest industrial enterprise at Ottumwa, and he
served as attorney also for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific and the Chicago,
Burlington & Quincy Railroads, as well as teh Wabash Railroad. He served as
attorney for J. C. Osgood, one of the leading coal mine owners and operators of
Iowa, and while much of his time was given to the affairs of the important
corporations of which he was legal representative, Mr. Mcnett appeared also in
other than corporate cases, including a number of will cases. His final
court appearance was in August, 1927, when he participated in a fourteen day
trial in the Wapello District Court. He gave a long period of service as
president of the Wapello County Bar Association, and was president of the Iowa
State Bar Association in 1917.
After the death of Mr. McNett an appreciative estimate of his life and
service was prepared by Judge M. A. Robers, of Ottumwa, and from the same the
following paragraph is taken with but slight paraphrase: "William McNett was a
most congenial man, personally known by practically all of the people of his
home community and loved by all who knew him. He met everybody with a smile
and sought in his daily contact to scatter sunshine and dispel gloom. he was
considerate of the wants and needs and misfortunes of others and ready to
extend relief at all times, so far as lay within his power. his encouragement
and friendly assistance to young lawyers entering the local bar and his
courteous demeanor to both bench and bar were a matter of general comment among
On July 24, 1872, occurred the marriage of Mr. McNett to Miss Mary B.
Stoddard, of Eddyville, Wapello County, to whom were born five children. Three
living: Walter, who continues in the practice of law in ottumwa, as the
virtual successor, even as he was the professional associate, of his father;
James W., who is a resident of Seattle, Washington; and Miss Mary S., who
remains at the old family homestead in Ottumwa.
Walter McNett, who is well upholding the civic and professional prestige of
the family name in his native state, was born at Ottumwa on the 12th of
November, 1877, and here his public-school discipline terminated when he was
graduated in the high school. Thereafter he continued his studies at Grinnell
College, this state, and later he was a student in the law department of the
University of Iowa, graduating with the degree of LL. B. in 1905. His earlier
study of law was under the able preceptorship of his father, with whom he was
actively associated in practice from 1905 until the death of the latter, since
which time the father's name has been retained in the title of the law firm
of McNett, McNett & Kuhns, of which the son is now senior principal.
June 15, 1909, marked the marriage of Walter McNett to Miss Blanche V.
Garner, and they have two children, William and Wesley Garner.
Debbie Clough Gerischer
Iowa History Project
posted at this site with Debbie's permission
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