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McCooey family amassed wealth; left a lasting educational legacy

This photo, reprinted from Steve Chou’s book, “Bluff City Memories,” shows the 100 block of North Fifth St., Hannibal, Mo., from the vantage point of Central Park. The photo dates to the spring of 1872. Circa 1890, Mrs. Ann McCooey and her adult children called the house at the right their home.


In the year 1859, two Irishmen operated stores in the 100 block of East Hill Street, Hannibal, Mo.: Tilden R. Selmes and Thomas McCooey.

As tensions were mounting which would ultimately lead to the Civil War, Tilden R. Selmes was a leading banker and merchant in Hannibal. Doing business in Hannibal since pre-1850, the “Selmes Block” was located at the northeast corner of what is now Main and Hill streets.

The ensuing pre-Civil war tensions would be devastating to the business climate for Selmes, who was an avowed northern sympathizer. But the same business climate ultimately proved fruitful to the other Irish merchant – Thomas McCooey - who operated a grocery store just a few doors to the east on Hill Street.

Mr. Selmes closed his store during the war, and resettled his family in his wife’s home state of Vermont, while he participated in the fight for his country’s future. At war’s end, they set up housekeeping across the river from Hannibal, in Quincy, Ill.

Following the war, the McCooey presence on Hill Street increased, and ultimately, the former “Selmes Block” would become the “McCooey Block,” when the McCooey descendants moved their store into the former Selmes building.

Ironically, both Tilden Selmes and Thomas McCooey died in 1869. Mrs. Selmes moved her family back east. But Mr. Cooey’s widow picked up where her husband left off, building upon her late husband’s property holdings and expanding the family’s merchandising and philanthropic legacy.

The grocer

Thomas McCooey, born circa 1830 in Ireland, married Ann Henry, born two years later, who was also from Ireland. Together they had four children, three of whom survived into adulthood: Mary Elizabeth McCooey, James H. McCooey, and Anna Teresa McCooey. All three were born in Missouri; the younger two in Hannibal.

Following her husband’s death in 1869, and coincidentally, her father’s death (James Henry, 82) the same year, Ann McCooey forged ahead. Rather than remarriage, she set out on her own to have a successful business association with her adopted town. She facilitated her son’s education at Oxford in England. Son James McCooey would return to Hannibal to further grow the family’s holdings not only locally, but in St. Louis as well.

Flourishing business

It was noted in the Oct. 28, 1874 Hannibal Clipper that Mrs. McCooey was doing a flourishing grocery business at 106 Hill Street.

The following June, the newspaper put Mrs. McCooey in the spotlight:

“The most energetic lady for progress on East Hill Street, is the widow McCooey. She is bright and sparkling from early dawn till set of sun and seems determined to fix up her property in that neighborhood accordingly. Just look at the way she has renovated her sidewalks, and compare her share of the street with the remainder and you will bless the widow McCooey - and moreover, several will say tis a mighty big pity that such an energetic lady perseveres in remaining a widow so long. Anyhow that is a matter of taste, but nevertheless, she gives a go-ahead tune to that neighborhood.”

All the while, Mrs. McCooey and her grown children lived upstairs over their store. That was good fortune in August 1875, when an attempt was made to burglarize and rob Mrs. McCooey’s business. “The burglars succeeded in gaining entrance through the back door, but hearing a noise made by the family who were sleeping upstairs, they fled without obtaining any booty.”

Just prior to this burglary attempt, Mrs. McCooey had bid a final farewell to her mother, Mrs. Ann Henry, 90, who had immigrated to the United States circa 1852. The Hannibal Clipper reported: “She was the mother of Father James Henry, of St. Louis, Peter Henry, Margaret Henry and Mrs. Ann McCooey, of Hannibal.”

Property acquisition

During the ensuing decades, the McCooey family acquired property all over town.

Two of Mrs. McCooey’s buildings – located at 111 and 113 Hill Street – were sold to Mr. R.H. Stillwell in 1890, where he planned a new ice plant.

In addition, in 1893 The Quincy Daily Journal reported on a pending real estate transaction: “A member of the Masonic fraternity of this city asked James H. McCooey yesterday to set a price on the lot a the corner of Fifth and (Center), as he with nine other members of the order had in contemplation the erection of a Masonic temple in the near future. Mr. McCooey will accede to the request as the lot is for sale. If the deal is made a magnificent building will no doubt be erected on that corner, as the order has long contemplated the erection of a building that would be a credit to the order.”

In 1898, Ann McCooey deeded to A.R. Levering 45 feet on the east end of lot 1, block 29, Hannibal, consideration $4,000. (In 2017, the lot is owned by MAO LLC, 500 Broadway.)

By 1900, the McCooey family was living at 115 N. Fifth. Mrs. McCooey’s son conducted the grocery business, while Mrs. McCooey operated a millinery shop.

In 1901, Dr L.H. Tutt was planning to open a hospital at 504 Broadway, leasing the building from the McCooey family.

In 1903, the McCooey ice house was located opposite Bridge Street on North River Road. Four years later, this ice house was destroyed by fire.

Ann Henry McCooey died March 16, 1907. She was buried with her husband at St. Mary’s Cemetery, later renamed Holy Family Cemetery. (She is also listed among the burials at Riverside Cemetery.)

Her son, James Henry McCooey, died in 1917, after having amassed a considerable fortune in his own right. In 1925, his sisters, Anna Theresa and Mary McCooey, gave $125,000 for the construction of a high school in his memory. Constructed on the site of the old St. Joseph’s School, at Broadway and Maple Avenue, it was dedicated as McCooey School on Oct. 20, 1926.

McCooey School, located at Maple Avenue and Broadway, was dedicated in 1926, and the building is still serving students of the Catholic faith. It has been renamed Holy Family School. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

The McCooey family marker is located in the old section (to the east) of Holy Family Cemetery in Hannibal. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

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