During the mid-to-late 19th centuries, Horatio Alger wrote approximately 100 novels. The target audience was teenage boys and his purpose was clearly didactic, intended to teach a lesson. The plot is the same in Alger’s books. A young man born into poverty works hard and rises to middle class status and security. Sometimes luck plays a role in the young man’s rise; he comes to the attention of a wealthy man who encourages him because of his honesty or bravery.
The rags to riches story inspired numbers of young men to work hard in hopes of improving their status. It also inspired biographers to include the story as a part of their comments about their subjects. Such was the case of the writer of the Portrait and Biographical Gallery of Johnson and Pettis Counties, written in 1898.
One of the men described in such a way was George O. Talpey, whose life was described as an “inspiring and ennobling study.” Talpey, the son of Ebenezer and Persis Steadman Talpey, was born in 1850 in Athens, Ohio. His father died when Talpey was twelve, leaving a wife and four children.
Talpey was a sickly child and unable to attend the public schools. He was largely self educated; his being a “thoughtful reader” and a person of “close observation” enabled him to become “well informed upon general topics.”
Talpey’s work history was varied. When he was sixteen, he moved from Ohio to Knob Noster. He took a job on a farm working for $12 per month. Two years later he moved West, first to Laramie, Wyoming, where he was deputy postmaster. When Wyoming was formally organized as a territory and elected a legislature, Talpey was appointed Enrolling Clerk for the House of Representatives. In 1870, he and an older brother went to Texas, where they were hired to drive a herd of cattle to Colorado. Talpey stayed there a year.
In 1871, Talpey returned to Knob Noster, then a town of 914 people. He opened a drug store and invested in the local milling company. In 1873, he married Annie Nichols, daughter of Addison and Emma Snell Nichols. The couple had three sons, two of whom died in childhood. The remaining son, James, attended the Missouri Dental College at S. Louis.
In 1884, Talpey became president of the Bank of Knob Noster, a “flourishing financial institution.” Under Talpey’s leadership, the bank survived the depression of the early 1890s and remained “one of the solid concerns of the county.” The bank’s success, the biographer suggests, was the result of Talpey’s “tact, business ability, and energy.”
Like many other successful men of his time, Talpey was active in community affairs. He and his wife were members of the Presbyterian Church. Talpey served as the first Chancellor of the Twin Mound Lodge, No. 27, Knights of Pythias. He was an ardent Democrat; like other members of the party he opposed business monopolies. Despite his strong political opinions, however, he did not seek political office.
His biographer praised his “sound and careful judgment” and his “regard for fairness, honesty, and integrity,” certainly attributes essential for a successful banker. Talpey’s hard work enabled him to hand down “the noblest legacy a man can bequeath to posterity — a successful life.”
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.