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William Henry Wilson is one of the oldest of Topeka’s merchants. He is an honored veteran of the Civil war, and has been a resident of Topeka since December 17, 1877. Along with success in business he has given his time unselfishly and conscientiously to the betterment of his city, and he should be long remembered for his efficient service while on the city school board. He has also attained the highest honors in Masonry.
His parents, Orrin and Sarah T. (Wilson) Wilson, had six children named Helen Jane, William Henry, George W., Clarence E., Mary E. and Louise. William Henry was born at South Granville, New York, April 16, 1842. His great-grandfather in the maternal line, William Park, was a sergeant and later quartermaster in Col. Elias Wood’s Massachusetts Infantry during the Revolutionary war. His grandfather, William Wilson, who married Susan Bothwell, fought as an American soldier in the War of 1812, and participated in the campaign around Lake Champlain. After the war he returned to his farm in Washington County, New York, where he lived until death. Orrin Wilson was born July 4, 1803, was reared and educated in Western New York and spent all his life as a farmer.
It was in the district schools of New York State that William H. Wilson acquired his early training. However, at the age of fifteen he left school to begin an apprenticeship at the marble cutter’s trade at Scoharie, New York. He was working at his trade until August 5, 1862, when he answered the call of patriotism and enlisted in Company C of the One Hundred and Thirty-fourth New York Infantry. In a few days he was made sergeant of the company, and was mustered in with his comrades September 22, 1862. Going to Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, they were brigaded under Col. Orland Smith. They arrived two days after the first great battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, having been delayed by the heavy roads. They then fell back three miles north of Falmouth, where they remained in camp until the second battle of Fredericksburg in January, 1863. After that the One Hundred and Thirty-fourth Regiment did fatigue duty, drilled, and guarded supply trains and forage at Aquia Creek Landing. After a few weeks they were started to participate in the Chancellorsville campaign, where they engaged the enemy on May 1st and 2d. On the second day of the fighting owing to Major-General Hooker losing control of himself their regiment was forced to withdraw as far as Stratford Courthouse, where the regiment was in camp until June, 1863. It then took part in the Gettysburg campaign. From June 29th until the 1st of July they were in camp at Emmettsburgh, Maryland, and then left in the early morning for Gettysburg, arriving on the field at 1 o’clock in the afternoon of the first day of fighting. They went through the town and were soon in the midst of the heaviest part of the engagement. That morning the regiment had mustered in 430 strong and they came out with only 178 men. In that battle, perhaps the greatest of the war, Mr. Wilson sustained a wound in the leg which kept him in Saterlee Hospital in West Philadelphia for a year and a half. While convalescing he had charge of his ward in the hospital, and used his leisure time to study and acquire a knowledge of drugs. He also applied himself to the study of military tactics and technique for seven weeks, and passed an examination before a board and was qualified to fill the position of first lieutenant of the United States Colored Troops, though the appointment never came. On being dismissed from the hospital he rejoined his regiment in North Carolina near Raleigh on April 25, 1865. Shortly afterwards Gen. Joseph Johnston surrendered to Gen. William T. Sherman, and that closed the war. His army division arrived in Washington City May 19, 1865, and on the 24th of that month he was in the grand review of Sherman’s troops. He was mustered out at Bladensburg, Maryland, June 10, 1865, and received his honorable discharge at Albany, New York, June 22, 1865.
In the meantime his mother had died and after this loss Mr. Wilson had some real journeyman experience as a marble cutter, traveling about the country. He also lived in Monroeville, Ohio; then went to Fremont, Ohio, in 1866, and worked for a time as clerk in his cousin’s store. In January, 1871, he engaged in the marble business at Decatur, Illinois. He was soon overtaken by the mining fever, and had a brief experience of two months in the mines of Utah, but after a visit to California returned to Decatur, Illinois, where he remained until moving to Topeka.
His first work in Topeka was as an under clerk for J. C. Wilson, clerk of the United States District Court at the time. He soon found more congenial employment as clerk in the Jones Brothers drug store. He was given this position because of the knowledge he had acquired at the hospital during the war. After two years with Jones Brothers he formed a partnership with Mr. Roe, and engaged in the drug business for himself at the corner of Fourth and Madison, under the firm name of Roe & Wilson. His store was there for four years, and he then sold his interest and set up a drug business of his own. He was the first and only tenant of the building he now occupies at 414 East Fourth Street, and has been there continuously for twenty-seven years.
Mr. Wilson’s service on the Topeka Board of Education if described in detail would prove an important chapter in the history of local education. He held his membership on the board for sixteen years, was its vice president four years, and president two years. He was a member of the building committee fifteen years, and chairman of that committee eight years. In that time he was instrumental in building the most modern schoolhouses of the city, and remodeled the older buildings so as to better serve the purposes and the comfort of both teachers and pupils. It is characteristic of Mr. Wilson that he does well whatever he undertakes, and he applied himself with characteristic energy to the tasks involved while he was on the school board. He was chairman of the building committee when the manual training high school was erected. His services on the board were greatly appreciated by his fellow members and consequently his recommendations were always received with due respect and with almost complete confidence in the value of his judgment. Some of the most prominent men of Topeka were associated with him on the board of education, including P. I. Bonebrake and Edward Wilder. It is noteworthy that while a stanch republican Mr. Wilson has never been a politician, and his public services have been rendered without any expectation of material reward.
His Masonic record is one of especial interest. On the 1st of January, 1916, he was given a life membership in the Scottish Rite body of the Masonic order at Topeka as a reward for his faithful associations and work of half a century. He took his first degree at Monroeville, Ohio, November 27, 1865, soon after leaving the army. The second degree came December 28, 1865, and the third degree on January 10, 1866. In 1867 he was made a Royal Arch Mason at Fremont, Ohio, and in October, 1873, took the Knight Templar order in Beaumanoir Commandery No. 9 at Decatur, Illinois. In February, 1890, he took the degrees in Cryptic Masonry in Yabud Council No. 4, Royal and Select Masters, at Topeka. In November, 1894, he was given the degrees of Scottish Rite from the fourth to the thirty-second inclusive in Topeka Consistory No. 1. In October, 1895, he received the degrees of the Royal Order of Scotland at Washington, D. C., and in October, 1899, was given the supreme and honorary thirty-third degree at Washington. In May, 1903, during the session of the Imperial Council in Topeka he was made a Knight of the Red Cross of Constantine.
For many years Mr. Wilson has likewise been prominent in Grand Army circles and is a member of Lincoln Post No. 1 of Topeka. His friends have long appreciated the fact that Mr. Wilson has accomplished a great deal in the world and much more than many men whose early advantages were greater. He had a meager education in school and it was by continued night study and his work in the hospital while in the army that brought him a practical education and a more than ordinary knowledge of current history and affairs. Although now seventy-four years of age, he is still active in business, and is thoroughly in love with his work in all its branches.
While he was living at Decatur, Illinois, he was married October 16, 1875, to Miss Jennie Newell. Mrs. Wilson died October 31, 1880. Of her three children one died in infancy, Kate is also deceased, and the only survivor is William H., Jr., of Topeka. On May 26, 1886, Mr. Wilson married Kate W. Rudolph, who was born in Kansas. Three children have also blessed this union: Arthur R., Florence R. and Ruth Jeannette. The son is a resident of Akron, Ohio, while the daughters are still at home. Mrs. Wilson was born near Vinewood Park, in Topeka, and for years has been prominent in social life, as a member of Lincoln Circle and of the Eastern Star, of which she was worthy matron. While devoted to her home and children, she gave of her time and enthusiasm to do good in the community. The daughter Florence has also taken a prominent part in church and charitable work, and is very active in the First Congregational Church of Topeka.