One of the people who shaped Davenport was a Hungarian nobleman. What were the odds?
Count Nicholas Fejervary (Miklós Fejérváry) came to Davenport when he was 41 years old. He left his native Hungary to escape the imposed martial law that followed the failed revolutions that swept Europe in 1847 and 1848. Friends had been exiled, imprisoned, even executed. He chose to settle in Davenport because it reminded him of his home on the Danube.
It is rumored that he carried a “gripsack full of gold” with him when he arrived. Whether or not this is true, his wealth would increase substantially from the investments he made in land and in downtown Davenport real estate.
Octave Thanet, the renowned Davenport author, wrote, “Fejervary was of tall stature, with heavy hair, beard and eyebrows; handsome, amiable and of particularly obliging manners. Few men enjoy such popularity, respect and affection as fell to the share of Fejervary who even in his youth was one of the most distinguished men of Hont [a historic county of the Kingdom of Hungary]. This was due to his firm and stainless character, his mature judgment, his kindness of heart and the ripe culture of his mind.”
During the Civil War, Fejervary was an ardent supporter of the Union. When efforts to erect a monument to Lincoln after his assassination flagged, Fejervary offered to donate twice the amount raised if the monument would be erected to the Scott County’s Civil War dead instead. After his offer, donations for a monument fund increased. Thanet also wrote, “To him more than to any other citizen do we owe the stately column that tells the world the gratitude of Scott County to its citizen soldiery. He not only gave largely in money, he gave his time and his influence.”
The monument stands in the center of the 1100 block of Main Street near Central High School more than 140 years after its dedication on July 4, 1881. Atop the monument column, a Union infantry soldier – a common man – stands in readiness with a rifle.
Among his other acts of charity, he established a Home for Old Farmers of Scott County. The home became a nursing home in the 1960s. The home, at 800 East Rusholme Street, is now the Fejervary Healthcare Center. The trust he established was recently transferred to Iowa State University to create perpetual funding for students pursuing degrees in agriculture. It is estimated that the trust will provide twenty $3,000 scholarships annually.
Fejervary Park is probably his most widely known legacy. Here, he had personally supervised the building of a spacious home, built shortly after his arrival. The brick used to build the house came from clay from the site. In 1902, his surviving child Celestine (1847-1937) gave the 75-acre estate to the city. Three years later, on September 17, 1905, Fejervary Park opened to the public.
Nicholas Fejervary died in 1895 at the age of 84. He is buried with his wife Karoline (1810-1880) and son Nicholas (1847-1863) in Oakdale Memorial Gardens, section seven, lot 13. His and his wife's gravestone stands, but the smaller stone that marks the grave of their son was crushed in the 2020 derecho. Nicholas never relinquished his lands in Hungary, and Celestine returned to live there.
In her memoriam to Fejervary, Octave Thanet concluded with, “He was so quiet in his benefactions that no one, even his daughter probably knows their extent; but the long train of the poor that stood on the streets to watch his last earthly journey, the plainly dressed men and women that came to his home and begged for a last look of their friend -these bore witness.”
Bruce Walters is a Professor Emeritus in Art conferred by Western Illinois University.
This is part of an occasional series on famous (or infamous) people buried in cemeteries in the Quad Cities, and their history that is not so well-known today. If there’s a piece of history buried here that you’d like to learn more about, e-mail the location and a brief description to BD-Walters@wiu.edu.