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Champaign County, Illinois

Biography of Benjamin Franklin Harris

SOURCE: "A Standard History of Champaign County, Illinois," J. R. Stewart, Supervising Editor, The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago and New York, Vols. I & II, 1918


BENJAMIN FRANKLIN HARRIS. Love of land, of peace and industry, cardinal virtues in the lives of men and nations, were ever present influences in the long life of the late B. F. Harris of Champaign County. To say that he left "a good name" as a legacy to his family, is to state only part of the truth. It was a strong name, one that is vital today, and the memory of it has an inspiration to all those who have the resolution and the will to labor in order to secure worthy places in their respective spheres.

Without disparaging the remarkable material achievements associated with the name in Champaign County, there is need to emphasize the wonderful virility of the family stock and its permanence. America, and this is particularly true of the Middle West, can show comparatively few families who can take root and grow and flourish generation after generation in one spot. In fact mobility in population has been exalted in some quarters almost to a virtue. Of the Harris family five generations have lived in Champaign County, beginning with the father of B. F. Harris, Sr., and coming down to his great-grandchildren. More important still, each generation has amplified and expanded the interests of the preceding. The word virility is as applicable to the family today as it was when Champaign County was on the frontier.

In 1916 there was held a simple ceremony at the University of Illinois which attracted wide newspaper publicity even at a time when politics and a world war were the absorbing topics of conversation. This was the hanging of the portrait and the name of B. F. Harris in the University Hall of Fame. It was a signal and worthy honor paid to this greatest of Illinois farmers and stockmen. During this ceremony an address was read by Mr. B. F. Harris, the grandson, which contains as fully as any brief article could, the experiences and achievements of this Champaign County pioneer. In the preface to his address the grandson said: "No Intimate acquaintance of his active years is either living or physically able to speak of him here—wherefore I trust you will not feel that there is a lack of modesty in a grandson attempting a brief sketch and those personal allusions that must go into the permanent record." From this address it is possible to compile a brief biography and a more or less imperfect estimate of the real character of the man. While his life contained some events of the dramatic quality, it was continuously and exceedingly rich in those elements of manhood which constitute noblemen in all ages.

Benjamin Franklin Harris was born December 15, 1811, on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester and Harper's Ferry, Frederick County, Virginia. At the age of fifty-three he had retired from an extremely active business life, but was keenly interested in business and public affairs for forty-two years more and was still strong in mental and physical vigor when he passed to the Great Beyond in his ninety-fourth year on May 7, 1905.

He was the second of ten children of William Hickman and Elizabeth (PAYNE) HARRIS. His mother was a cousin of Dolly (Payne) Madison.

The family was of Scotch English extraction and Quakers and in this country became fighting Quakers, then Methodists. His great-grandfather William HARRIS with two brothers from England settled on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1726. His frandfather Benjamin HARRIS died and his will is recorded at Winchester, Virginia.

B. F. Harris grew to manhood on his father's Virginia farm, attending the country schools until sixteen years of age. At that time President Jackson's attitude towards the United States banks so seriously affected values that wheat declined from a dollar and a half to fifty cents and Virginia farm lands to less than one-third its former price. These declines so affected the father's obligations that he and his brothers each with a six horse team went into the "wagoning" or freighting business and for three years "wagoned" freight over that section and out through Pennsylvania and as far west as Zanesville, Ohio. This work they did in order to recoup their father's losses. On March 20, 1833, the Virginia farm was sold at forty per cent of its original cost. In a one-horse gig and a two-horse carry-all the Harris family set out for Ohio, arriving at Springfield, April 8th and nearby purchased and settled upon their new farm.

Within the same year B. F. Harris commenced business for himself, buying and driving cattle overland to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and there disposing of them to cattle feeders.

In 1834 more than seventy years before his death, B. F. Harris started for Illinois by way of Danville, then through the present site of Sidney and Urbana (where was but one cabin) and on to what is now Monticello in Piatt County. During the ensuing year he began to accumulate farming lands in Piatt and Champaign counties and to buy cattle through all this section and as far south and west as Mount Vernon, Vandalia and Springfield. For several reasons he bought for feeding purposes all the corn for sale in macon, Sangamon and Champaign counties. Each year for nine years he drove these cattle overland by way of Muncie, Indiana, and Springfield and Columbus, Ohio, into Pennsylvania and then to New York and Boston, where they were sold. Subsequently St. Louis and Chicago furnished a market, requiring a thirty day trip, and still later the railroads broadened the outlet.

When B. F. Harris came to this section of Illinois no stream was bridged, and only eleven families were on the Sangamon from its source to the limits of Piatt County. Fifteen years later not a half dozen men had erected their cabins a mile from the timber limits—the deer and Indians were still at home there. It was the frontier, with all freight by river or team. In 1840 B. F. Harris visited Chicago, a town of two thousand people, on stilts in a swamp. Nineteen days were required for the round trip and the corn and wheat he teamed there sold for twenty and thirty cents a bushel respectively. Fifteen years after he came, not twenty-five per cent of the land in this county had passed from government ownership and the first railroad came twenty years later. The first public religious services in the western section of this county were held in his cabin. Promptly he had hewed and built the first church, 22x24 feet, and later converted into a permanent school. When it was necessary he built the larger church, Bethel, dedicated by his brother-in-law, general Granville Moody. For many years his home was the shelter of all itinerant preachers through this section. He writes that "the church business was looked after as well as any other business; I never lost anything by looking after the church and school."

In those years it was customary to furnish farm laborers with whiskey daily, but he always refused to do this and instead added twelve and a half cents to each man's daily pay.

B. F. Harris brought the first sawmill, mower, reaper, carriage, organ, brick, cook stove, to Champaign County. He never sought public office nor did he fill such office except in pioneer days as justice of the peace and supervisor, and as such helped hew the first courthouse. As justice of the peace he performed the few early marriages, dispensing simple justice on the one hand and calomel on the other. He came in the day of ox teams and lived to ride over his farm with his son, grandsons and great-grandsons in an automobile. He voted for nineteen presidential candidates, beginning with Henry Clay.

For nearly three quarters of a century he bought, fed and sold five hundred to two thousand head of cattle annually. He established the First National Bank in Champaign in 1865, but of that institution and his connection therewith a separate article must tell. B. F. Harris was one of the chief movers in the plans to raise Union troops in Champaign County, to locate railroads, to oppose bond repudiation, and to induce the location of the great State University.

Personally he was a sociable man, fond of his friends and companions, and was full of anecdote and reminiscence, growing out of a remarkable experience. Peter Cartwright, Abraham Lincoln, David Davis, Isaac Funk, John Gillet and many other well known men were his friends and guests. He and Lincoln were long time friends and at the outset of the war he went on to Washington to encourage him in his stand. He was the guest of the President and at Lincoln's request attended a cabinet meeting and discussed the war situation with them.

For all these things the true import of his career and its lesson was that life may be what we have the courage to make it—that the "will to labor" with true zeal will bring results, and that the chiefest of these results are "the character" and "simplicities." Distinguished as he was in Champaign County, Illinois, and the nation, B. F. Harris acquired the true distinction of breadth, nobility and simplicity of character.

As a livestock man B. F. Harris was preeminent. The Pittsburg Livestock Journal speaking of his death referred to him as the "grand old man of the livestock trade—the oldest and most successful cattle feeder in the world." This praise was well deserved. The New York Tribune in October, 1853, referred to his prize-winning drove of cattle averaging 1,965 pounds, displayed at the New York World's Fair, then in session. His most famous herd

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