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Champaign County, Illinois

Biography - Benjamin F. Harris

SOURCE: "History of Champaign County, Illinois with Illustrations," 1878

SURNAMES: HARRIS, PAYNE, SAGE, PHILLIPS, HEATH


BENJAMIN F. HARRIS: Among the old residents and prominent business men of the county none better deserve mention in this work than B. F. HARRIS of Champaign. He has been identified with the interests of the county for forty years, to its development and prosperity he has contributed largely, and now is at the head of one of the most solid and popular banking institutions in this part of the state. His family history in this county runs back four generations. His great grandfather was one of three brothers who emigrated from England to America in the middle of the last century; one settled in Chester county, Pennsylvania, one on the eastern shore of Maryland, and one in Frederick county, Virginia. From the one who settled in Maryland, Benjamin HARRIS, the subject of this sketch is descended. His grandfather's name was also Benjamin HARRIS. He was an officer with the rank of colonel in the Revolutionary war, and did all in his power to assist the colonists in their struggle for independence. He was a man of considerable wealth and means, and owned a large plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, which he sold about the year 1800, and removed to Frederick county, Virginia, where he bought a farm of three or four hundred acres, four miles north of Winchester. William Hickman HARRIS, the father of the subject of this biography, was born on the eastern shore of Maryland about the year 1789; removed with his father to Virginia in 1800; grew up to manhood in Frederick county of that state; and in 1807 married Elizabeth PAYNE, whose grandfather was a wealthy Scotchman of marked traits of character who settled in Virginia, and whose mother belonged to one of the early German families of the Virginia valley. William Hickman HARRIS and Elizabeth Harris were the parents of ten children, of whom eight grew to maturity, married, and had families. Of these the second was Benjamin Franklin HARRIS, born on the 15th of December, 1811. His birth-place was a farm four miles north of Winchester, in the midst of one of the best cultivated and finest parts of Old Virginia. After the war of 1812 (in which his father had been a soldier), as after the late war of the rebellion, a fictitious prosperity existed throughout the country; real estate and other property attained a value it had never before known, and during this period his father purchased a farm of two hundred acres, paying for it the large sum of sixty-four dollars an acre. But the bubble soon burst, the United States Bank bill was vetoed by President Jackson, a financial crisis came, and the worth of the farm declined to twelve or fourteen dollars an acre, and other values in proportion. One thousand dollars had been paid, and the decline of farm products, and the cutting off of all resources by the stringency of the times made it almost a matter of impossibility to meet the remaining obligations. To raise means for this purpose his father engaged in hauling goods from Baltimore to various points in the Southern states. Railroads were not then in existence, and the only means by which communication was kept up between the great cities and interior towns was by wagon train. Mr. Harris was a boy of not large, but strong and vigorous frame, and when fifteen took charge of one of these six-horse teams, which he drove from Baltimore to various distant points in the south - to Abingdon, in the extreme southern part of Virginia, to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Huntsville, Alabama. he made one trip to Zanesville, Ohio, before the building of the National Railroad which afterwards became the great line of travel till supplanted by railroads and canals. For two years his father had a government contract to haul arms and munitions of war from the arsenal at Harper's Ferry over the Allegheny mountains to Pittsburg, where they were shipped by way of the Ohio river to frontier forts; and the subject of this sketch drove many a wagon loaded with muskets over the Allegheny mountains in carrying out this contract. Although these occupations deprived him of educational advantages, his naturally quick mind and habits of observation assisted him in acquiring a good English education. The unfortunate experience of his father also taught him a lesson which he has never forgotten. He learned to be careful in his investments, never to go beyond his means, or to place himself in a position to be pressed by creditors. He and his brother had the satisfaction of knowing that by their exertions their father was saved from bankruptcy and ruin, enabled to gain a victory over his creditors, and again establish himself on a sound financial basis. By great effort the farm at last was paid for, and subsequently sold for twenty-eight dollars an acre previous to the removal of the family to Ohio. In the year 1833 the family removed from Virginia to Clarke county, Ohio. Mr. Harris there began life for himself without any money or means save a good constitution and a mind full of energy and ambition. He saw men around him who had succeeded in gaining both wealth and reputation, and he resolved that he could imitate their example. He first endeavored to win confidence for himself and credit, which to a strong, willing young man is at once a fortune. In August, 1834, he was hired by Mr. James Foley to assist in driving three hundred cattle from Clark county, Ohio, to Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. These cattle were sold in Lancaster county to Messrs. Foredice and Olery who employed him to help retail the drove through Lancaster and Chester counties. So much to the satisfaction of his employers did he perform this work, that they employed him some two months longer to assist in disposing of other cattle. This gave him a thorough knowledge of the business, and meantime he had made and saved some money which, in addition to what he had previously, swelled his fortune to one hundred and fifty dollars. He next came to Illinois to buy cattle for other parties, to be driven to Ohio and there fattened through the winter for the eastern market. After buying the cattle he concluded to invest some money in land. He rode fifty miles to Danville, and on the 22nd of June, 1835, entered at $1.25 an acre, eighty acres of land now included in Piatt county. What is now Champaign county was then a vast plain covered with wild prairie grass, and the settlers comprised a few families settled in the groves of timber. No roads or paths marked the way, and the solitary and lonely traveler journeyed by faith and sight. On his first visit to the county Mr. Harris remembers that he left a settlement a short distance east of the present town of Sidney on his way to Sadorus Grove. Wandering out of his way he came across a small pole cabin, which was the only sign of civilization to mark the site of Urbana, where he obtained directions which enabled him to get at Sadorus' house at three o'clock in the afternoon. He had started in the morning without breakfast, had traveled forty miles without seeing only one family, and was in a condition to appreciate the substantial meal which the hospitality of Mr. Sadorus permitted him to enjoy. After entering the eighty acres of land, Mr. Harris drove the cattle which he had purchased to Ohio. By this time he had gained the confidence of the business men in Ohio, especially of his first employer, Mr. Foley. He readily obtained a credit of three or four thousand dollars in the spring of 1836, and coming to Illinois, bought three hundred head of cattle. This was his first considerable business venture. The cattle were grazed on the prairies through May and June, and early in July he started with them East, driving them by way of Columbus, Ohio; Wheeling, Virginia; Cumberland and Hagerstown, Maryland, and York, Pennsylvania, to Lancaster, where they were sold to farmers for feeding purposes, at a good profit to their owner. Mr. Harris repeated this operation for five successive years, each year driving a drove of cattle of three hundred head, and upwards, from this county over the mountains to Pennsylvania. These ventures brought him a fair profit, and he had the means to purchase, in 1841, some five hundred acres of land, of which forty acres were improved, and on which a suitable cabin had been built in the western part of this county. June 22d, 1841, he was married to Miss Elizabeth SAGE, daughter of Col. Henry SAGE, of Circle Ohio. Mr. Harris settled on this farm and went vigorously to work improving the lands, and dealing in cattle and hogs. Although at this time he had been a citizen of the county and State five or six years, he now more fully realized the hardships and deprivations of the county. Now he was the head of a family, and obliged to look after the comfort of a wife - one not accustomed to these hardships, but who had been reared at her home in Circleville, Ohio, in the midst of luxury, and who had left a good home, parents and friends, to come to this new country and take up her abode in a double log cabin, surrounded with but few neighbors, and with few facilities for enjoying the comforts of life. They were almost deprived of society, church, or any thing of that character. The comforts, and even the necessaries of life were scarce and hard to obtain. When the family was short of groceries, an ox team was loaded with wheat and corn, and driven to St. Louis or Chicago, where the wheat was sold for thirty cents a bushel, and corn in proportion. It required twenty days to make this trip, and on returning home some thirty or forty settlers - some of them living at a distance of fifteen miles - would be waiting for their share of the goods, which were all quickly divided and given out, except what the family kept for their own use. Although a long way distant from parents and friends, with no telegraph or railroads to keep up quick communication, it requiring two weeks to hear from Ohio, yet in the midst of these circumstances Mr. and Mrs. Harris were prosperous and happy. In 1842 an itinerant Methodist minister, by name of Mozier, held a two-days' meeting at the house of one of the neighbors, four miles distant, and there organized a society of seven members, himself and his wife being included in this small band. Some three or four years afterward a Sabbath-school was organized, and held in his cabin, as was also the preaching, this arrangement being continued until a small house was built for church and school purposes. These facts are sufficient to indicate the discomforts which the first settlers were obliged to undergo. His sound judgment and careful method of transacting business enabled him to prosper, and every year an additional quantity was added to his landed estate, until his farm comprised five thousand acres. He raised from five hundred to a thousand acres of corn annually, which, with more than double that amount which he purchased, he fed to cattle and hogs, which he sold during the spring months - March and April. In 1859 he sold from his farm one hundred head of fat cattle, whose average weight each was 2,373 pounds, supposed to be the best and heaviest lot of one hundred cattle ever raised in the United States by any one man in one lot. This farm of five thousand acres is situated ten miles west of Champaign, along the Sangamon timber, is all improved and well set in blue grass, clover and timothy, and will annually furnish grass for eight hundred or a thousand head of cattle. He continued to carry on the farm personally till 1863, when he moved to the city of Champaign. Desiring some reliable place to keep deposits and do business, some eight or ten leading business men of the county organized a national bank, with six hundred and fifty shares of one hundred dollars each. This bank began business in 1863, with John H. Thomas as president, and J. S. Wright as cashier. At the end of the year, on the resignation of Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris was elected president, and has held that responsible position to the present time. Henry Spears and T. B. Sweet were successive cashiers till 1873, when H. H. HARRIS, son of the subject of this biography, was elected cashier - an office which he still fills with great ability, and to the complete satisfaction of the business community. The careful and successful manner in which the bank has been conducted has made it a popular institution. It is now, and has been, the only bank of issue in this county. Its annual dividends have been ten per cent, and it has accumulated beside a surplus greater than the amount of capital. During the panic of 1873, when bank after bank suspended payment, and strong commercial firms, one after another, tottered and fell, the First National Bank of Champaign met all demands which were made upon it, and came through victorious, without a jar to its credit, which is still good through the length and breadth of the land. The death of his first wife occurred in October, 1845. His second marriage was in 1846, to Mary J. HEATH, the daughter of David HEATH, formerly of Ross county, Ohio, who moved to Piatt county, Illinois, about 1845. Mr. Harris has only three children living. The oldest child, Henry Hickman HARRIS, has made an excellent reputation as a business man, as cashier of the First National Bank. His oldest daughter, Rachel J., is the wife of David Andrew PHILLIPS, one of the largest farmers in the county. His youngest daughter, Mary Ida, is still at home. Mr. Harris, in his politics, was formerly a member of the old Whig party, and cast his first vote for President for Henry Clay. He became a Republican on the formation of that party. For one term he held the office of justice of the peace in Mahomet township, and for a number of years was one of the three judges who formerly administered the county affairs. On the adoption of township organization, he was chosen supervisor of Mahomet township - a position he held till his removal to the city of Champaign in 1863. Since 1842 he has been a member of the Methodist church. He is a man whose life has been eminently successful, but whose success has been achieved by energy, perseverance, and shrewd business qualities. In his youth he was disciplined in a hard school, but it taught him habits of self-reliance which have been of service to him in every subsequent step in life. He is known for his sound and careful judgment as a business man; for an enterprise which has made him willing to undertake any venture which promised a successful termination, while his business transactions have been conducted with such a regard for fairness, honesty and integrity, that not a stain rests on his reputation.


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