Edward Stillings. Measured not in the abnormal achievement, but in the steady glow of a powerful mind, in an unceasing devotion to his profession, and in a degree of public spirit that allied him as a leader with all the big movements of his time and place, the late Edward Stillings of Leavenworth was one of the big men claimed by Kansas.
Nearly thirty years of his life were spent in Leavenworth, where he died February 20, 1890. His reputation was not merely local; professionally it extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He was a big man, big in stature, in intellect and in heart.
His birth occurred in Maryland, at Havre de Grace, where his father was a planter and slave holder. The institution of slavery never appealed to the elder Stillings, nor did the environment where slavery flourished. When Edward was a small boy the family moved to Ohio, freed their slaves and settled down to make a home near Milford Center in Union County.
Edward Stillings was given educational opportunities far superior to that of the average youth, and he was wise enough to take advantage of such opportunities. He attended college in Kentucky at a period when the classics were considered essential to a finished education, and in this branch he excelled, particularly in the Greek language. Having decided upon the practice of law as his vocation, he rode horseback to Massachusetts and there enrolled himself as a student in the law department of Harvard University. After receiving his degree he returned to Ohio and for a time was associated with Judge Cole at Marysville, later establishing himself in practice at Kenton.
This was in the years preceding the Civil war, when great political questions and problems pressed upon the minds of the people for solution. Bluff Ben Wade, Allan G. Thurman, Joshua Giddings, Tom Corwin and many others who attained lasting places in our national history then held the attention of their respective parties in Ohio. That was the middle period of American history, when law and politics were synonymous. It is not strange that Mr. Stillings was drawn into the political arena. He had all the talents and qualifications to make a career there. He was a whig until the birth of the republican party and thereafter was an indefatigable worker in the latter organization. He was elected a member of the Ohio State Legislature, where he became recognized as a constructive law maker and also a leader in those deliberations by which the State of Ohio contributed to the solution of the vexing problems engaging the nation. Mr. Stillings was author of probably the first turnpike law ever enacted in the Buckeye state. That law proved the forerunner of the splendid public highway system enjoyed by the people of that commonwealth.
He believed in the natural rights of men, in the principles of human liberty, and it may be said that he had inherited those characteristics from his ancestry. His antecedents were English people who came to America during colonial days. Some of them fought in the struggle for American independence and others were in the second war with England. Edward Stillings became actively identified with the underground railway and the general abolution movement. He aided many a slave to escape from the bondage of the South and find a refuge on Canadian soil.
While living at Kenton, practicing law and playing the game of politics, Mr. Stillings married on December 29, 1851, Miss Mary J. Smith, whom he had first met at Havre de Grace, Maryland. His bride was a native of Zanesville, Ohio, and a granddaughter of Lieut. Cyrus Smith, who served under General Hull in the War of 1812, and after Hull’s surrender was confined at Mackinac Island.
Largely through the influence of Governor Carney, who had come to Kansas from Kenton, Mr. Stillings was induced to come to this state in 1863. He located in Leavenworth and at once embarked upon the active practice of his profession. His keen intellect, incisive reasoning power and general force of character soon caused him to be known as one of the ablest lawyers in Kansas. His legal services were especially in demand by the large corporations. One of his most famous individual clients was Brigham Young of Salt Lake City. He was legal adviser to railroad presidents and other corporate heads and much of his practice was before the United States Supreme Court at Washington.
His activities, however, were not wholly confined to legal practice. In the early days he became actively interested in operating wagon trains across the plains, forwarding goods even to California. He helped build the Kansas Central Railway, which is now a part of the Union Pacific system. He was first and foremost in advocating the early building of a bridge across the Missouri River at Leavenworth but never lived to see one completed. His son Vinton Stillings in 1888 caused the building of a pontoon bridge which was the beginning of the present structure. On a bronze tablet in one of the beams on the Kansas side of the present bridge the following grateful tribute is paid:
“To the courage and liberality of Judge Edward Stillings the people of Leavenworth are indebted for the erection of this bridge. It will remain a monument to his memory.”
As a resident of Kansas Judge Stillings served several times in the State Legislature. His life was one of ceaseless activity. He could not remain idle. His fertile mind teemed with thoughts of public weal. He did things, and the things he did sustained a vital relationship to the permanent welfare of Kansas and of his home city. Few men stood higher in the hearts of his fellow men than did Judge Edward Stillings.
His wife died in July, 1894, and the only survivor of their family is their son Hon. Vinton Stillings of Leavenworth.