Charles Preston Wickham was born in Norwalk, Huron County, Ohio, on September 15, 1836, the eldest of thirteen children of Frederick Wickham and Lucy Bancroft Preston. He was born into a family with a colorful and proud heritage that was established by Puritan settler Thomas Wickham, who resided in Wethersfield, Connecticut in 1648. From there, Thomas' son Samuel moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where his branch of the Wickham Family lived for nearly 100 years as prominent citizens, becoming involved in local politics, with one family member being Speaker of the House of Deputies. They also co-founded the Redwood Library (see picture), the oldest lending library in America. Samuel's grandson Thomas was married to Elizabeth Wanton, daughter of Rhode Island's colonial governor, Joseph Wanton, whose wife Mary Winthrop was a great great granddaughter of Massachusetts colonial Governor and Boston founder John Winthrop.
In 1780, Thomas was sentenced to 6 months in prison and fined 5,000 silver dollars for being a Loyalist, so his family decided to move to more Loyalist-friendly New York City. He was one of many Wickhams who were Loyalists during the American Revolution, with Parker Wickham and his nephew John Wickham being the two most famous examples. Another relative serving in the Royal Navy, Samuel Wickham, moved after the war to Britain, where his son John Clements Wickham became an associate of Charles Darwin. In New York, Thomas ran a shipping business with his son William specializing in West Indies trade, enabling them to become rather wealthy, but business fizzled after the Embargo Act of 1807 was enacted, so William and his wife Catherine Christian moved to Sodus Point, New York on the shore of Lake Ontario, an important port until the Erie Canal was built. They were hoping to improve their fortunes there, only to have the British burn their home and boats during the War of 1812. It was one of many ups-and-downs in William's long career that included serving in the U.S. Navy during the Tripoli expedition, being taken prisoner by pirates, and working as Sodus Point Postmaster for 42 years. William and Catherine raised four sons, including Charles' father Frederick, who moved to Norwalk, a town about 12 miles south of the Ohio shore of Lake Erie.
Frederick (see picture), born in New York City in 1812, was one of many Wickham cousins who headed West to Ohio for new opportunities. He began his career sailing the Great Lakes, where his brothers were ship chandlers operating a store called Wickham, Ailing & Christian. They also operated a fleet of technologically advanced boats that helped to revolutionize transportation and fishing on the Great Lakes and displace the 15,000 year old Native American culture. At about age 20 while skipper of the schooner DeWitt Clinton, Frederick visited Norwalk and spotted eighteen-year-old Lucy Preston, who he decided to marry the first moment he laid eyes on her. In that moment of spontaneous affection, she gave him a lily and a partnership was born. They were married in January 1835 and as a wedding present, her father gave them a house on 38 West Main Street, which was used by the family until 1953, then later became the museum of the Firelands Historical Society (see picture). Relocated to 4 Case Avenue, the two-story house is now filled with an extensive collection of antique weapons, pioneer tools, period clothing and other locally important artifacts. Frederick later owned and operated a local newspaper called the Norwalk Reflector, which he took over from his father-in-law, Samuel Preston. The paper, established in February of 1830, is still published, although it was sold out of the family to newspaper publisher R.C. Snyder in 1913. Frederick impressed family members by his ability to compose news articles in his head as he set the type. He also served as a judge, deputy sheriff, member of the Ohio senate and mayor of Norwalk.
Charles attended the public schools and the Norwalk Academy. He worked as a delivery boy for the Norwalk Reflector and learned the printerís trade. He later studied law at the legal firm of Worcester and Pennewell. He graduated from the Cincinnati Law School in 1858, was admitted to the bar that same year, and began practicing law in Norwalk. In August of 1860, he married Emily Jane Wildman, a daughter of Frederic A. and Mariette (Patch) Wildman, natives of Danbury, Connecticut. Together they had nine children, six of whom were raised to maturity: Charles Jr., life insurance agent; Louis, attorney-at-law and prosecuting attorney of Huron county; Winthrop, mining engineer and merchandise broker in Denver; Romeyn, practicing attorney in partnership with his father; Mary, who lived at home and went by the nickname Mayno; and Grace, who married noted American Impressionist painter Charles Courtney Curran, whose works can be found in many major museums including the Smithsonian Institution, (see his painting "On the Heights").
With the onset of the Civil War, Charles' father, who as publisher of the Norwalk Reflector was very influential in the local community, ferociously denounced Southern sympathizers living in the North. Charles shared these sentiments, writing that if Congress compromised with the Confederates then "where blood has heretofore trickled, it will run rivers. The Government must be sustained in its dignity and integrity, and without any compromise whatever with rebels! Let the traitors of the North understand this!"
After saying farewell to his young wife of thirteen months and his infant child, the latter who he never saw again, Charles and his brother William enlisted at Norwalk in the Union Army, as privates in Company D, 55th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, on September 13, 1861. His brother Frederick enlisted at Norwalk the following year on August 15, 1862 in Company B, 123rd Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Charles served with distinction in a number of important battles, including Chancellorsville, Missionary Ridge, and Gettysburg, where he faced off against his distant cousin, Brigadier-General Williams Carter Wickham. In a letter published in the Norwalk Reflector, Charles wrote, "I see in the future a glorious consummation of our strife in behalf of the freedom of man, in which we are so awfully, so grandly engaged." Towards the end of the war, Charles' regiment was taken by train to Tennessee, where they soon joined General Sherman's famous March to the Sea through Georgia. Charles was promoted to lieutenant October 20, 1861, commissioned captain January 1, 1863, major July 4, 1864, and lieutenant colonel by brevet "for gallant and meritorious services in Georgia and the Carolinas" in the spring of 1865. With the victory of the Union Army in the Civil War, he was mustered out of the service July 11, 1865 at Louisville, Kentucky and resumed the practice of law in Norwalk.
Charles emerged from the war unscathed, but his brother William, who was promoted to captain of the 55th Regiment, suffered serious hearing loss from being exposed to artillery fire, derailing a promising legal career. His brother Frederick was held prisoner at the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, where he nearly starved to death. Years later, when a neighbor told him that a tramp was stealing vegetables from his garden, Frederick grabbed a basket and filled it full for the man because he knew what it was like to go hungry. Also serving in the war was their first cousin John Wanton Wickham (see picture) of nearby Huron, who enlisted as a private in Company E of the Seventh Ohio Regiment. John was severely wounded in the leg at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. He never fully recovered, but after a stint at the Mansion Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, he returned home and was married in 1866 to Lucy L. Sprague, daughter of General John W. Sprague. He later served as president of the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway and vice-president of the Dormer Fish Company, the largest fishing enterprise on the Great Lakes.
Charles was elected as prosecuting attorney from 1866-1870 for Huron County and was elected judge of the Court of Common Pleas of the fourth judicial district in 1880 and 1885. In one of his most prominent cases, where a man had murdered his wife with an ax, Charles declared it "one of the most cruel and relentless crimes in criminal annals." Resigning in 1886, he was elected as a Republican from the fourteenth district to the Fiftieth and Fifty-first Congresses (March 4, 1887-March 3, 1891), serving as chairman of the Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures (Fifty-first Congress), after being appointed to the post by Speaker Reed. The Norwalk Reflector noted that his campaign speeches were "applauded to the echo," and among his closet associates at the time was future U.S. President William McKinley, the representative for Ohio's nineteenth district. After serving out his second term, he resumed the practice of law.
Despite his busy career, Charles took an extended vacation in 1874 when he visited Oregon, California, Mexico, and Central America. He also took the time in August, 1891 to give the Centennial Address at the Wickham Family Reunion (see program) in Hector, New York that celebrated the first settlement of Hector one hundred years earlier in 1791 by William Wickham, Charles' second cousin three times removed. William is celebrated as the first permanent settler of European descent to reside in Schuyler County, New York, meaning that the earlier white settlers were all massacred by Native Americans. The reunion, which featured a live band and singing, was also attended by William Hull Wickham (1832-1893), a former New York City mayor and fifth cousin of Charles.
Charles also served as president and director of A.B. Chase Company, a piano manufacturer located in Norwalk on Newton Street (see plant) that he helped incorporate. Established in 1875 by Civil War veteran Captain Alvin B. Chase, the firm began by making organs, then added pianos (see a baby grand). It enjoyed a fantastic reputation and employed over 200 men under the leadership of its second president, Calvin Whitney, a founding stockholder. A white A.B. Chase piano was installed in the parlor of the White House by President McKinley, and the firm won a grand prize for their products at the 1893 World's Fair (see ad). After Whitney's death in 1909, Charles became president. By then, the organs were no longer being produced, but the company sold 23 piano styles worldwide, including upright, grand, and player models. Until 1922, all pianos were handmade and took up to two years to build. The firm was sold to the United Piano Corp. in 1922 and the Norwalk plant ceased operations in the 1930s, but the brand name is still used by the Dongbei Piano Co. in China.
On March 18, 1925, Charles died in his eighty-ninth year in Norwalk from complications resulting from being struck by a car while crossing the street to return home after worshipping at the First Presbyterian Church, where he had served as elder since 1866. During a funeral ceremony attended by hundreds, including many members of the bar and Civil War veterans, he was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery. His contemporaries viewed him as a high type of Christian gentleman motivated by lofty purposes and principles. In his obituary, it was noted that "he was as brave as a lion and as tender as a woman." He was proud of the fact that he lived in the same house his entire life and slept in the bed where he was born. A larger-than-life painting of Charles done by his noted son-in-law Charles Courtney Curran still hangs in the Huron County Court of Common Pleas.