The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Ficke, Charles August
(April 21, 1850–December 10, 1931)

–lawyer, politician, and art collector—was born in Boitzenburg, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the youngest child of Christoph Heinrick Ficke and Elizabeth (Praesent) Ficke. Joining other German émigrés who fled the political, economic, and social instability brought on by the German Revolution of 1848, the Fickes and their eight children emigrated to Scott County, Iowa, in 1852. Charles's father, who had been a successful merchant in Germany, purchased a farm near Long Grove, Iowa, and pursued farming in his adopted country. Charles helped on the farm and completed his grammar school education in Long Grove and Davenport. Instead of continuing with high school, in 1865 Charles became a dry-goods salesman. Three years later he resumed his education, enrolling in Bryant & Statton's Commercial College. Later that year he became a clerk for the Hartwell & Smith insurance firm in Davenport. In late 1868 he began reading law, but in 1870 he turned to banking, taking a job as a clerk for the Davenport National Bank, where he was employed until 1876. Upon leaving the bank, he resumed his study of the law, entering law school in Albany, New York, in 1876. After graduation, Ficke returned to Davenport, opened his law practice, and established a farm mortgage company.

    While he worked to establish himself professionally, Ficke also became politically active in the Scott County Republican Party. Reportedly, Ficke's fluency in German made him a popular and effective speaker who could communicate with the increasingly large population of German immigrants in Scott County. Ficke gradually became disillusioned with the Republican Party, however, over a disagreement about constitutional prohibition (he believed that the state prohibition amendment would be ineffective and divisive), and he later switched his affiliation to the Democratic Party. In 1886 he was elected as county attorney, a position he held for two years. In 1890 he was elected mayor of Davenport and served two one-year terms. Among his accomplishments as mayor was the creation of the city's first public works department. Ficke was also president of the Davenport Turner Society, a German American organization that promoted physical fitness and German culture.

    While Ficke became a successful lawyer and businessman who enjoyed a prominent standing in Davenport, his true passion was art, the area in which he made the most lasting contributions to Iowa and the city of Davenport. He recalled in his autobiography published just before his death that his collection began modestly; his first purchase was a chromolithograph. As an art connoisseur, Ficke was self-taught, availing himself of the art library and copies of Old Masters belong ing to a prominent Davenport resident and art collector named William Penn Clarke. About the time he entered law school, Ficke traveled to Philadelphia to see the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, then went on to New York and New England, where he visited some of the best museum collections in the nation. At the end of his first year in law school, he made his first trip to Europe, visiting London, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Germany. In the 1890s Ficke began collecting in earnest. On one trip to Europe, he purchased four Old Masters– the beginning of what would become a collection of more than 300 paintings.

    Ficke was the benefactor of several cultural institutions in Davenport. Beginning in 1906, he served three years as president of the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences (which later would become the Putnam Museum). To the Academy of Natural Sciences, Ficke donated an important archaeological collection that included objects acquired through excavations that he financed as well as objects collected during his own travels in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and South America. Ficke's collection also included Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Asian artifacts. To the Davenport Public Library, Ficke donated a small but important collection of rare books, including handwritten works on the Koran, illustrated manuscripts, and works from the 15th and 16th centuries. The largest portion of Ficke's collection, however, was his collection of paintings, which he donated in 1925 to the newly established Davenport Municipal Art Gallery (now the Figge Art Museum). Among the donations was Ficke's collection of 17th- and 18th-century Mexican colonial art, which is considered to be among the finest in the country.

    Ficke married Fannie Davison in March 1882. They had a son, Arthur Davison Ficke – a lawyer and important American poet–and two daughters, Alice Ficke Simonson and Helene Ficke Watzek. Charles Ficke's later years were spent traveling around the world, often in the company of his family. He died at his home in Davenport in 1931 at the age of 81.
Sources Ficke published an autobiography, Memories of Fourscore Years (1930). His obituary appeared in the Davenport Democrat and Leader, 12/10/1931.
Contributor: Paula A. Mohr