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Ambrose W. Strong, who is spending the quiet years of his retirement in a beautiful home at 706 Main Street in Urbana, is one of the few men now living whose recollections go back in Champaign County for nearly eighty years. Though not a native of the county Mr. Strong came here in early infancy and as a boy he knew many of the first settlers and his own life has been closely identified with those changing developments which have transformed this part of the state into a garden spot of the world.
Mr. Strong was born in Hancock County, Ohio, October 4, 1834, a son of John and Mary (Moore) Strong. His parents were also natives of Ohio. When Ambrose was one year old the family came to Illinois. There were six children, three sons and three daughters, Ambrose being the oldest. The family located in St. Joseph Township, where they improved a tract of raw land and where the parents spent the rest of their lives.
Grandfather Cyrus Strong had preceded his son John to St. Joseph and was a prominent character among the pioneers. It was his distinction to erect the notable old tavern known as the Kelley Tavern. It was a popular and notable hostelry and a famous landmark of early days. Much of the fame that is associated with this tavern is due to the fact that Abraham Lincoln frequently was entertained there during his career as a circuit riding lawyer attending court at Danville and Champaign. Lincoln made these trips on horseback, and a personal friendship existed between him and Cyrus Strong.
Ambrose W. Strong acquired his early education in a district school kept in a log building. This was one of the most primitive types of log school houses in Champaign County. One log was left out from the side of the building and the opening’ was covered over with greased paper instead of glass window lights. The equipment was equally primitive, and the instruction was confined rigidly to the three E’s.
Attending school and working in the fields and meadows made up the sum and substance of Mr. Strong’s early career until 1853, when he established a home of his own by his marriage to Martha Ann Peters. She was born in St. Joseph Township, a daughter of William and Sarah (McNutt) Peters. Her people were also prominent pioneers of the county. Her father, Squire Peters, was a familiar character in the country and a very popular man. There were twelve children in the Peters family. After their marriage Mr. and Mrs. Strong rented a farm the first year and the second year they bought eighty acres of land, for which the purchase price was $6 an acre. With little capital except their native industry they entered upon their undertaking with enthusiasm and in the course of time had the raw prairies changed into cultivated fields and improved their home by gradual additions until it sufficed for all their needs. Fruit trees were planted, shade trees also, and the raw prairie became a center of good and comfortable living.
Mr. Strong was an active farmer and continued to be identified with the rural districts of Champaign County until twenty-eight years ago, when he removed to a residence in Urbana. He built his home on Main Street, which he occupies today. At that home in 1894 death came and Mrs. Strong entered into rest. She was a woman of many estimable qualities and had a large circle of admiring friends.
For his second wife Mr. Strong married Mrs. Mary E. Smith, widow of Elijah T. Smith. Her maiden name was Mary Etta Camerer. She was born in Indiana, a daughter of Marcus and Suzanna (Jones) Camerer, her father a native of Ohio and her mother of Pennsylvania. Mrs. Strong obtained her early education in the district schools. She was married at Broadlands, Illinois, to Elijah T. Smith, and of their three children two died in infancy, the other being Ray H., who lives with Mr. and Mrs. Strong in Urbana.
Mr. and Mrs. Strong are active members of the University Place Christian Church at Urbana. Politically he is a Democrat, and has twice supported President Wilson and believes that he is a man of wisdom capable of guiding the country through the present world turmoil.
Mr. Strong as a young man did his duty as a loyal patriot and preserver of the Union. He enlisted in Company C of the Seventy-first Illinois Infantry, marched away to the South to Cairo, Illinois, and his regiment was chiefly engaged in guard duty around Columbus, Kentucky. He was finally mustered out at Chicago and returned home. Mr. Strong has many interesting recollections of early times in Champaign County. Where his house now stands in Urbana was within his memory a cornfield. He used his team and was employed as a contractor during the construction of the Illinois Central Railway through Champaign County. Even further back, as a small boy, he and his pet dogs were assigned the duty of keeping the wolves away from the geese and sheep which the family had brought with them from the East. Mr. Strong has counted twenty-four deer in one drove feeding near his father’s home, and there was much other wild game in abundance.
Mr. and Mrs. Strong have a hospitable and most attractive home at Urbana. One member of the family should not be omitted. That is a splendid parrot with beautiful plumage, known as Polly. This parrot affectionately calls Mr. Strong “Uncle” and in calling for its bill of fare it frequently mentions its fondness for pie. It also whistles and sings “Glory, Glory for Polly.”