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Champaign County, Illinois

Biography of Abel Harwood

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



Men of New England birth and ideas have exercised a patent influence in developing and building up the great West. They have exemplified in a marked degree the true Anglo-Saxon traits of aggressiveness, courage and tenacity. Immediately after the Revolution the pioneer New Englanders found their way to central and western New York, and founded the civilization of the great state of Ohio. The tide flowed steadily onward as state after state was carved out of the Northwestern Territory, carrying every where with it New England habits of industry and thrift, and New England ideas of liberal education and advanced thought on political and religious questions. Of such lineage was Abel Harwood, after whom Harwood township in the northern part of the county received its name. He is now a resident of the city of Champaign, was formerly a large land owner in this and neighboring counties, and was a member of the convention which gave us the present Constitution of Illinois.

The history of the Harwood family in America dates back to an early period in the history of New England, when three brothers of that name emigrated from England. From these three brothers the family has spread to different parts of the United States, and embraces many members. The grandfather of the subject of this sketch, Peter HARWOOD, was an officer with the rank of major in the army of the colonists during the Revolutionary war. He commanded a portion of the Massachusetts troops, and did good service in the struggle of the colonists for their independence; his oldest son, whose name was also Peter HARWOOD, served likewise in this war, though he was only a boy of eighteen when peace was declared. Jonas HARWOOD, the father of the subject of this biography, was a farmer at North Brookfield in Worcester county, Massachusetts, and married Lucretia WINSLOW, a direct descendant of the Winslows who were prominent in the early Puritan history of Massachusetts. His marriage was productive of eight children, four sons and four daughters. The fourth child was Abel Harwood.

He was born at North Brookfield, Worcester county, Massachusetts, on the 23d of November, 1814. His father's house was his home until he attained the estate of manhood. He acquired a thorough education with the assistance of his father, but partly by his own efforts. He attended school at Westminster and Leicester, Massachusetts; but principally obtained his preparatory education at Wilbraham Academy, then as now one of the best schools in New England. He taught school and thus obtained a considerable part of the means for his education. In the year 1836 he entered Amherst college, from which he graduated in 1841. Soon after his graduation, in August, 1841, he married Mary D. BATCHELLER of North Brookfield, the daughter of Tyler BATCHELLER, a prominent business man of Boston, senior member of the largest shoe manufacturing establishment then in existence.

Previous to his graduation from college Mr. Harwood had imbibed the idea of going west, and in the summer of 1841 secured an engagement to take charge of a school at Edwardsville in this state. His arrangements were all made to leave Massachusetts with his wife when he was informed that an alteration had been made in the plans of those in control of the school, and that it had been determined to employ two teachers instead of one. This arrangement was little to Mr. Harwood's satisfaction, but so thoroughly was his mind infused with the resolution of beginning life in the western country, that he decided to proceed to St. Louis and if possible obtain a position as teacher in that city. While on his way he stopped at Louisville, Kentucky, and from there visited some acquaintances in Shelby county, of that state. While in Shelby county he consented to take charge of a country academy for six months, but succeeding beyond his expectations, he remained for one year; but desiring to locate in some city, in 1842 he went to Lexington with the purpose of opening a school in that city. He was totally without friends and acquaintances, and started a school for boys under very disadvantageous circumstances, but subsequently established a female school which he taught with great success and popularity, his experience as a teacher among the select schools of New England, and his natural qualifications well fitting him for the position he occupied.

On coming west one of his plans had been to embark in the shoe business at a date as early as possible, and accordingly in the 1843 he opened a shoe store at Lexington. This business he carried on at Lexington for nine years with constantly increasing success, his sales the last year he had charge of the store amounting to six times what they had been the first year of its establishment. His straightforward method of doing business and his personal deportment won for him friends and acquaintances, while not the least among the elements which contributed to his success were the wise counsels and generous sympathy of a wife who had left a home of luxury in Massachusetts to share the fate of a man without fortune, but whose ultimate prosperity she never doubted.

In the year 1852 Mr. Harwood made a visit to Illinois. The Illinois Central railroad was then being surveyed, and great expectations were entertained in regard to the future value of the prairie lands which spread out through central Illinois, wild and uncultivated, but wanting only the hand of the husbandman to teem with abundant harvests. He became convinced that on the building of railroads the country would develop rapidly and that investments made in these lands would be largely remunerative in the future. He hesitated to leave Lexington, a delightful city as a place of residence, where his social and business relations were the most pleasant and agreeable. His views on the subject of slavery, favoring gradual emancipation, were not different from those then entertained by leading Kentucky Whigs, and prominent citizens of Lexington. These circumstances made him unwilling to leave Kentucky; but on his return to Lexington he found an old neighbor of his who was anxious to purchase his stock of goods, and on consultation with his wife the conclusion was reached that it would be better to have their children grow to maturity in a free state, even though it should be at the expense of their present social relations and agreeable home at Lexington.

Accordingly he sold his store and in the fall of 1852 he made entries of between two and three thousand acres of land in McLean, Piatt and Champaign counties. In the early part of the year 1853 he moved with his family to Bloomington, Illinois, and the same year opened in that town in partnership with his former clerk a shoe store. In this store Mr. Harwood was interested till 1859, during which period it was as successful as had been the one Lexington. His principal business, however, was attending to his tracts of land which were improved under his personal supervision. He lent himself to this work with energy, and improved in all four thousand acres. In the year 1866 he moved on an improved farm in Newcomb township, Champaign county, for the purpose of setting out hedges and making other improvements, after which he intended to return to Bloomington. But in the spring of 1870, he removed instead to the city of Champaign, purchasing a large brick residence---one of the finest ornaments to the southern part of the city. He has since disposed of all his lands in this county; he still owns farm property in McLean and Douglas counties, but only a small amount in comparison with his former possessions.

The death of his first wife occurred in the year 1856. His second marriage took place in 1858 to Isabella D. BOYD. She was born in Flemingsburg, Fleming county, Kentucky. Her father, Col. W. P. BOYD, for a number of years was a member of the Kentucky senate, removed to Illinois in 1857, practiced law in Bloomington, removed to Arcola, in Douglas county, in 1866, and died at that place in the spring of 1867. Mr Harwood has had eleven children; six by his first marriage, of whom five are living, and five by his second marriage, of whom one is living. Their names are Mary M., the wife of George W. Harwood of Champaign; Lucretia; Emma L., who married W. O. CADY of Bloomington; Ellen A., the wife of J. C. STEVENSON of Bloomington; Ida E. residing at the same place, and Bella S. In looking back over his past life which, perhaps as much as to any man, has brought a high degree of domestic happiness, Mr. Harwood is sensible not only of the hearty sympathy and cooperation he has received from those closest to him in the family circle, but realizes the fact that his marriage while a young man without means, instead of resulting unfavorably to his success, has proved to be of material benefit in stimulating him to exertion and promoting his prosperity.

For two terms he was a member of the Board of Supervisors from Newcomb township, and the second year he served was chairman of the Board. He was chosen a member from the fortieth district, comprising the counties of Champaign, Piatt, Moultrie and Macon, of the convention of 1869 and 1870, which framed the present constitution of the state of Illinois. As a member of the convention he favored the plan of county representation, by which each county should elect its own representatives and any county not having a population equal to the ratio of representation should have at least one member. His views on this subject met with the hearty concurrence of a great number of members, and the measure was carried in the convention by a very large majority; but the committee who framed the ticket for the popular vote, favoring minority representation, so arranged the ticket as to make minority representation conspicuous and leave county representation out of sight. Hence on the vote being taken, the incorporation of this principle in the constitution failed, and minority representation was adopted.

He strongly supported incorporating in the constitution the "iron oath," to be administered to members of the General Assembly, in which they were required to swear that their election had not been influenced by any promise or bribe, and that they would not accept any valuable thing from any corporation, company or person for giving or withholding any vote or performing any act of legislative duty. In an able speech before the convention he claimed that this oath would purify legislation and put an end to the corruption which was then known as only too common in the halls of legislation.

On the question of the taxation of railroads he opposed with great earnestness the system by which the counties along the line of the Illinois Central railroad were robbed of their just proportion of income from taxation of railroad lands and stock within their limits, this or its equivalent being wrongfully paid from the gross income of the road into the state treasury. He ably advocated some equitable method by which the counties along the line of the road should be relieved from this great injustice. Toward the close of its sessions he addressed the convention on the subject of the Bible in the public schools. He claimed that the question was not whether the Bible should be forced into the schools but whether it should be forced out. Both as a book of history and a book of divine instruction it is the most important of all books, and that it should be forever free to the use of all whether in the family, public school or Christian church, was a matter of the highest consideration. He simply desired that it should be left free in the hands of all persons, and all institutions, for them to use it, or not to use it, as they might see proper; and that there should be no power in the state, on the part of legislatures or school officers, ever to deprive the people of this privilege. Its exclusion in foreign countries had resulted in keeping the masses of the people in ignorance, darkness, superstition and degradation. Some provision should be inserted in the constitution that should secure the free use of the Bible permanently to the people. He did not desire to interfere with the belief or disbelief of any person, but in view of the vast emigration to this country of those who are unfriendly to the general use of the Bible, and in consideration of the bold efforts which had been recently made to exclude it from the schools, he thought it wise that some express provision should be made in the organic law of the state by which its free use should be secured to all men and their children for all time to come.

In the early part of his life Mr. Harwood was a member of the old Whig organization, but on the rise of the slavery agitation promptly arrayed himself on the side of the party of freedom. Even while a resident of Kentucky he was an opponent of slavery, and favored its abolition by gradual emancipation or in any way consistent with the constitution and laws of the country; and he has supported the principles of the Republican party from its earliest formation to the present time. He became connected with the Congregational church while in Massachusetts, and in Lexington, Kentucky, united with the Presbyterian denomination of which he has since been a member. He began life without capital; he borrowed the money which brought himself and a wife, accustomed to affluence, from Massachusetts to Kentucky, and his subsequent prosperity has depended not on the financial aid he received from others, but on his own energy and business qualifications. His life teaches an important lesson of the success which may be gained by honest industry, prudent investments, careful business management and upright and honorable conduct.

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