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In the words of his biographer, Preston B. Plumb was a pioneer in Kansas. He was one of the founders of Emporia. He was in the Union army, and both major and lieutenant-colonel of the Eleventh Kansas. He was long United States senator from Kansas. In the Senate he was one of the men who accomplished things. He was the father of the ides of the conservation of the natural resources of America. It was his law that created the National Forest Reserve and extended aid to irrigation and the reclamation of arid lands. Many of the laws on the national statute books were put there by Preston B. Plumb. He was a great man and a great Kansan.
No attempt can be made to cover fully the life of this great Kansan in a brief sketch. Here will be found only those details which are the frame work of biography and some reference to the larger work of which his life was an expression.
Preston B. Plumb was born at Berkshire, Delaware County, Ohio, October 12, 1837. His parents, David Plumb and Hannah Maria (Bierce) Plumb, were of old New England families, their respective parents having come as pioneers into Ohio. David Plumb was a wagonmaker. As a boy young Plumb put in part of his time in his father’s shop. At the age of twelve, having made all the progress possible in the schools of Marysville, where the family was living at that time, arrangements were made for him to attend Kenyon College at Gambier, Ohio, a fine old school established and long conducted under the auspices of the Episcopal Church. Kenyon College issued a small paper, and in the printing office of that paper young Plumb worked to support himself while attending Milnor Hall at Kenyon. He remained in college almost three years. Returning to Marysville, in Union County, he secured work as a compositor in the office of the Tribune, a local newspaper. A rival paper was soon established, but failed, and Mr. Plumb and another printer, J. W. Dumble, bought the office and plant, removing it to Xenia, Ohio, founding the Xenia News. Plumb was then about sixteen years of age. He was full of energy and enthusiasm, and had demonstrated business ability far in advance of his years.
All the Plumb family were pronounced anti-slavery people, and the community in which they lived were strongly of the same opinion. Preston Plumb never had any doubts regarding his duty, and when the Kansas conflict was inaugurated he became an ardent champion of the free state cause. His paper reflected his views in vigorous terms. On the evening of June 14. 1856, Marcus J. Parrott addressed the people of Xenia, making an appeal for the Kansas people who were struggling against the hordes of slavery and border ruffianism. The next morning Plumb went into his office and said to his partner, “Joe, I am going to Kansas and help fight this outrage down, or die with the free state men.” “I protested,” his partner afterwards wrote, “but go he would and go he did.” This incident is recalled because it reflects a dominant characteristic of Plumb. He was distinguished not less for the maturity than the quickness of his decision, and once a plan was formed in his mind he lost no time in translating it into action. His judgment was almost unerring, and when he decided to do a thing he did it at once and with all his strength.
Mr. Plumb arrived at Leavenworth on the steamer Cataract, July 4, 1856. He visited Lawrence, Le-Compton, Topeks and other towns. Delighted with the country, he determined to aid the free state cause and make Kansas his future home. He returned to Ohio, going down the Missouri River, a dangerous thing to do at that time. On the boat he fell under the suspicion of the border ruffians and might have lost his life but for the interference of Col. Philip D. Elkins, father of the late Stephen B. Elkins, of West Virginia. Colonel Elkins lived at Westport, Missouri, and was himself a leader in the border rufflan movement.
Soon after his return to Ohio Mr. Plumb again started for Kansas. He was enlisted in the Kansas cause heart and soul. The Missouri River was then closed to free state emigrants, and therefore he went to Chicago, offering his services to the National Kansas Committee, and was sent on to Iowa City with letters to Doctor Bowen, the forwarding agent there. At that point he purchased three wagons and three teams of horses. One wagon was loaded with supplies for the journey. Into the others were loaded a brass cannon, a twelve pounder, with carriage, 250 Sharpe’s rifles, 250 Colt’s navy pistols, 250 bowie knives and 20,000 rounds of ammunition for the rifles.
At Iowa City Mr. Plumb recruited a company of ten young men, among them the father of Senator Charles Curtis and Capt. A. C. Pierce, now of Junction City. He recruited these men to aid in taking his warlike cargo to Kansas. The company was known as the “Grizzlies” and Plumb was the captain. When the wagons were ready to take the road Doctor Bowen made the company a speech in which he said: “If the border ruffians succeed in taking your lives may the noble cause in which you die give you a passport to a better world.” Mr. Plumb replied to this, closing with these memorable words: “I have seen Kansas; I know the perils of her liberty-loving people; I have seen the border ruffians and the desolation of their work. I need no introduction to them. I accept the responsibility of this great trust you have today confided to me; and these munitions of defense, if we live, shall be delivered to those for whom they are intended.” It must be remembered that Plumb was then a boy of eighteen years.
The cargo was delivered at Topeka on September 25, after a thrilling journey through Iowa and Nebraska, in the course of which Captain Plumb had to quell a mutiny. This he did with cocked revolver in hand. At Topeka he bought axes, augers, saws and such other tools as were necessary in the founding of a pioneer post. He and most of his company then started up the Kansas River to find a location for their settlement. Near where Salina was afterwards built they laid out a town which they called Mariposa. A substantial log house was erected. Mr. Plumb then returned to Ohio, sold his interest in the Xenia News, and arrived again at Lawrence in December. There he secured a position as foreman in the office of the Herald of Freedom. It was soon discovered that Mariposa was too far from other settlements to succeed at that time, and the company had no money. Lawrence people were then forming the Emporia Town Company, in which Plumb secured an interest.
Settlement at Emporia began early in 1857. Mr. Plumb established there the Kanzos News, the first number of which was issued June 6, 1857. In 1858 he was a delegate to the convention which formed the Leavenworth constitution. In this convention he took an active part and there he formed the acquaintance of Thomas Ewing and many other men who became famous in Kansas. The winters of 1858-59 and 1860-61 were spent by Mr. Plumb attending law school at Cleveland, Ohio. He was admitted to the bar in 1861, in which year he was made reporter of the Kansas Supreme Court. He practiced law until he entered the army.
In November, 1861, he was elected a member of the lower house of the Legislature, which convened in January, 1862. He became chairman of the house judiciary committee, and was also a member of the committee to manage the impeachment cases against the state officers. In the summer of 1862 he aided in raising the Eleventh Kansas Infantry, being mustered in as captain of Company C on September 10. and on the 25th of the same month was promoted major, and May 17, 1864, he became lieutenant-eolonel. He was in the battle of Prairle Grove and in all the other engagements in the campaigns of General Blount in the Ozark Mountains region during 1862-63. He was chief of staff for General Ewing in 1863 at Kansas City. After Quantrill and his gang had been driven from Missouri, Stan Watle and about 1,500 half-blood Creek Indians from the Indian Territory began moving up the Grand River with the evident intention of making a raid into Southern Kansas. Plumb was then sent with a part of the Ninth and Eleventh Kansas to protect that part of the state and prevent Stan Watie from overrunning it. Headquarters were established at Humboldt, and Major-General Pleasanton, who was in command of the district, ordered Plumb to build a block house there. Winter coming on cold, with deep snow, prevented Stan Watie coming further north than the mouth of Spring River, where he turned back. Pfumb was in the battles of Lexington, Little Blue, Big Blue, Westport and in the pursuit of Price in. 1864. His regiment’ also saw much service against the Indians in the far West, and in 1865 he was in the Platte campaign in Wyoming, during the spring and summer. He was mustered out at Fort Leavenworth, September 15, 1865.
After the war he resumed his law practice at Emporia, and in 1867 the firm of Ruggles & Plumb was formed. Mr. Plumb was speaker of the house in the Legislature which convened in 1867 and was a member of the Legislature of 1868. In 1873 he engaged in the banking business at Emporia, and was an active banker until his election to the United States Senate. He was also identified with railroad building, and was one of the company which promoted the railroad from Junction City to Parsons, now part of the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway.
In 1877 Preston B. Plumb was elected to the United States Senate. He was twice reelected, and his third election was without a dissenting vote, an honor nover given to any other Kansan. For fourteen years Senator Plumb was one of the notable figures in American national affairs. No adequate account of his influence and activities can be given here. During that time he served as chairman of the committee on public lands, and was a member of various other committees, including that on appropriations and finance. Because of his close acquaintance with the actual conditions, Senator Plumb exerted a great influence in shaping the legislation which finally brought about the opening of the lands of Oklahoma to settlement. He led the fight within the Republican party against the McKinley tariff bill, and was one of the few Republicans who voted against that bill in its final passage. He was the first to propose a tariff commission for the purpose of arranging tariff schedules and duties on an impartial and well-considered basis, without interference from politics and the special interests involved. This idea that now seems in a fair way to bear fruit was originally with the late Preston B. Plumb. Another item of his record which should be recalled is that he vigorously opposed the “force bill” which was designed to autherize the use of the power of the Government to enable the negroes of the South to vote in all Federal elections.
Early in his third term as senator there occurred the great Populist upheaval in Kansas, as a result of which Senator. Ingalls and six Kansas congressmen were retired from office. The removal of these experienced men from the Kansas delegation more than donbled Senator Plumb’s labors, and his death was the direct result of overwork. In the summer he was warned to take a long rest, and had arranged a trip to Europe, but did not go, since loyalty to his friends prompted him to return to Kansas and take an active part in the campaign of 1891. As a result, when he returned to Washington he was worn out. On December 20, 1891, he died of apoplexy at his rooms on Fonrteenth Street, Washington. The news of his death came as a shock to all Kansas, and his passing brought genuine sorrow to the people of the entire commonwealth, since his life was devoted to and in the end sacriflced for them. His eapacity for work has never been equaled by any member of the United States Senate. He often went without meals and not infrequently worked through the night. And this, in spite of the fact that he put double the emount of work of most men into an hour, for he usually did two things and often three at one time. But even with all this driving energy he never turned a deaf ear to the individual and his needs. And perhaps his strongeet characteristie was his democratic spirit.
On March 8, 1867, Senator Plumb was married to Miss Caroline A. Southwick, of Ashtabuls, Ohio. Her father, Abijah Southwick, was a strong anti-slavery man and his home was one of the principal stations on the underground railway in Northern Ohio, where as many as forty fugitives from slavery were cared for at one time. Emporia was a small town when Mrs. Plumb went there to live. She has ever been active in all charitable work, was closely associated with her husband during his life, and has been one of the distinguished women of Kansas. She is a member of the Congregational Church. Senator and Mrs. Plumb had six children, all now living except one.