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Champaign County, Illinois

Biography - William D. Roberts

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


WILLIAM D. ROBERTS. Mr. Roberts was born in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, February 12th, 1809. He was raised in a Quaker settlement and attended most of the time a Quaker school. When sixteen he went as an apprentice to the milling business near Hartsville, in Bucks county. At the time of Lafayette's visit to America, a rifle company to which his father belonged went to the Delaware river, opposite Trenton, New Jersey, to attend the French general as he passed from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. His father could not go, and Mr. Roberts, wearing his father's uniform, went in his place, and took part in the great demonstration lining the road for five miles which greeted Lafayette as he passed from the soil of the Keystone state to New Jersey.

He followed milling until he was twenty years old, and then became connected with a menagerie which traveled over different parts of the United States. In 1831 he was in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and afterwards traveled over the south. In 1832 he was connected with Ogden, Ware, Raymond & Co. In 1833 he was employed by Teed & Co., who owned a menagerie afterward attached to Butler's circus, and traveled through South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. In the winter of 1833-4 he was in New Orleans and Mobile, and the following summer came through Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee to Louisville, where the proprietors sent him in charge of a pony, two monkeys, an elephant and a royal tiger, together with a lot of paintings and wax figures, to exhibit in Arkansas. This was the first show that ever traveled through that state. Mr. Roberts had charge of the animals and acted as ring master. From Arkansas the show found its way to Monroe, Louisiana. He and the proprietor had previously had a disagreement, Mr. Roberts claiming that the animals were not sufficiently fed. One night the elephant got hungry, pulled up an apple tree to which he was tied, broke in a store, and made way with a barrel of sugar. Mr. Roberts then concluded he had better sever his connection with the institution, and returned to Cincinnati.

He went into the milling business in Hamilton county, Ohio, on Whitewater river, twenty-one miles from Cincinnati. He married Sarah Ann JOHNSON, who bore exactly the same name as his mother but was no relative. He afterward bought a farm in Hamilton county and went to farming. In 1856 he came to Illinois, settling at Shelbyville, and April, 1857, moved on his present farm in Somer township. There were then only three schoolhouses in the township, and further north, away from the timber, there were no settlements. He has eight children all living in the county. He was an old time Democrat, and cast his first vote for president for Andrew Jackson, though now he is a Greenback man. About two-thirds of the time since the organization of the township he has been township clerk. His early life was full of adventures, and now he is one of the most respected citizens of the township

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