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Biography of Benjamin Franklin Harris

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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 an own 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 grandfather 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 seasons 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, 22×24 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-grand-sons 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 22 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 consisted of a hundred cattle, the finest and heaviest hundred cattle ever raised and fattened in one lot by one man. These were weighed on his farm by Doctor Johns the president of the State Board of Agriculture on May 23, 1856, and the average weight of a hundred was 2,378 pounds. Hundreds of visitors came from neighboring states to see these cattle. In the following February he sent twelve of these cattle to Chicago and the bunch averaged 2,786 pounds. A firm of Chicago butchers paraded these stock about Chicago’s downtown streets. These were his conspicuous early achievements, but every few years he took cattle prizes or topped the market, and less than a year before his death his cattle received the highest prices for the season in the Chicago market.

Writing editorially in the Champaign Daily Gazette, May 8, 1905, J. R. Stewart said :”

“The death of a man devoted almost wholly to the private affairs of life will seldom attract the attention of so wide a circle of people as will that of B. F. Harris of this city. The reason is first that he lived to a remarkable age and second that he was a remarkable man. His long life journey was begun in 1811. He had few of the aids on which young men now so much rely. He had to rely on himself, a resource which seems never to have failed him, and one in which he had unlimited personal confidence. Life for him in its early age was not an easy battle. Nature, however, had furnished him with extraordinary physical and mental equipment.

“Everything to which Mr. Harris put his hand flourished. His judgment was so trustworthy that he made few business mistakes. He applied himself to real things and eschewed what men now call speculation. He did business on a cash basis and was never in debt. Operating on these, his chosen lines, he was a rich man long before his race was run, and he enjoyed a period of ease and entire freedom from anxiety much longer than falls to the lot of most men who are accounted fortunate in the world. An equally remarkable and gratifying thing was the retention of his wonderful faculties to the end of his life.

“Thus came to his last account a man of extraordinary qualities in whatever light we may view him. He knew this portion of the state from the period of its rude, frontier aspect and he had a large share in its development into what we can see today. Every man has a niche to fill. No man could fill his better than B. F. Harris did. Measured fairly, we may say that nature does not often produce such a man. It will be long before this region sees another in all respects his equal.”

Another tribute that deserves quotation was that of Andrew S. Draper, former president of the University of Illinois.

“Everyone recognized the fact that he had sterling qualities of heroic mold. He did things in days and circumstances when the doing of things required stalwart men and when the doing also made men still more stalwart. In this way the fine physical frame and splendid moral character with which nature endowed him were developed and seasoned to an extent which made him a notable man in the Mississippi Valley. It was a small number of such men as he who laid the foundation of the history of the Middle West, that great region of our country which is the richest in the resources and the most prolific in productivity. It is doubtless within the fact to say that no man within a hundred miles of you if, in ‘ deed, in the State of Illinois, has been so richly entitled to be permanently and gratefully remembered. I am sure that it will be so for the common feeling of the people will have it so.” The significance of his life as a farmer and its weighty contribution to the dignity of that calling, were happily expressed by the Breeders’ Gazette as follows:

“In literature, art, professional life, or politics a man with a record of achievement equal to that of the late Benjamin Franklin Harris would deservedly have numerous biographers. Many a man has been made the subject of bulky biography who might not measure up to him on any score. This is not because the most inviting and interesting personalities are found outside the farmer’s calling, but largely because until recent years agriculture as a vocation had not been adequately appreciated by the public. It had not been sufficiently dignified to become the source of life histories. Other professions have furnished the candidates for the Plutarchs, and contributed the heroes and heroines famous in fiction. Farming has been drawn on principally for Philistines. Its great men, its geniuses, its Harrises have been overlooked by almost all writers worthy of putting their useful lives into books.

“It is gratifying to all friends of agriculture that this vital and honorable occupation at last has begun to take its rightful place in the list of man’s employments. For the extremely gradual process which has wrought such a wholesome change in the popular estimate of farming, we are indebted to men of the Harris type farmers whose lives and work are a convincing reply to all the derogatory references ever made to agriculturists.and their business.”

And the grandson in his address chose to find in this the proper significance of the occasion. He said: “Out of the sentiment and spirit expressed by the Breeders’ Gazette has come the Hall of Fame this desire on the part of the men of Illinois to put agriculture and the farmer in the high place that is theirs to make him and all our citizenship realize that the farm is the greatest place that God ever made on which to live honest, helpful, wholesome lives to be reckoned with, and without which we would not be here or elsewhere.”

Benjamin Franklin Harris was married June 17, 1841, to Elizabeth Sage, daughter of Colonel Harley Sage of Circleville, Ohio. He brought his bride to Champaign County and they located in their log cabin on the western limits of the county. On April 27, 1844, in this cabin their only child Henry Hickman Harris was born. Some years later B. F. Harris married Mary Heath of this county, the only living child of that marriage being Mrs. D. A. Phillippi of this city.


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