MONMOUTH, Ill. — Much has been written about the life of Gen. Abner Clark Harding, who helped bring the railroad through Monmouth, was a founder of Monmouth College, was a hero at the battle of Fort Donelson, served western Illinois as a member of Congress and was the first president of the precursor to Midwest Bank. Little has been noted, however, about his remarkable wife, Susan Ickes Harding.
Born in Ickesburg, Pennsylvania, in 1815, she was the daughter of Dr. Jonas Ickes, a physician who was also a postmaster, ran a tavern and a pharmacy, and helped found an academy. Her mother’s father was a captain in the Revolutionary War.
Abner Harding had first married Rebecca Byers in 1829, who died in 1833 following the birth of their second child. He married 19-year-old Susan Ickes in 1835, who became the stepmother of his two children.
Three years after their marriage, Abner and Susan moved to Monmouth, where they immediately built a crude home on the west side of North Main Street between Archer and Boston avenues. After Abner established a law practice, they constructed a large frame residence just south of the C.B. & Q. tracks between First and Second streets.
Abner became active in Whig politics, serving in the Illinois Legislature between 1848 and 1850. Shortly after leaving the legislature, he became engaged in farming and the Hardings built a substantial brick house with two wings on farmland at the end of West Broadway, which still stands. In 1851, Abner’s eyesight began to fail and he gave up law to focus on the construction of what was then known as the Peoria & Oquawka Railroad. For the next eight years, the Hardings would spend part of their time traveling for his health.
Despite his failing eyesight and health problems, Abner enlisted as a private in the 83rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry in 1862 and was elected colonel. On Feb. 3, 1863, his troops defended Fort Donelson in Tennessee against a vastly superior Confederate force and for his leadership was promoted to brigadier general. In 1864, he was elected to Congress, serving two terms.
But Abner’s health began to fail in 1869 and in 1871, the Hardings sailed to Europe for several months. Returning to Monmouth in 1872, he lived as an invalid until July 1874, when he died at age 67. His estate was estimated at $2 million, which in today’s dollars would equate to more than $90 million.
In addition to her wealth, Susan also had family to support her. Her father, who would live to age 97, resided with her, and her sisters Isabella Matthews (married to a minister) and Maria Eby (the widow of a doctor) also lived in Monmouth. At some point prior to 1880, Susan also adopted a boy named Willie, born in 1873, who would later become an attorney in Chicago.
Susan built a new house on Harding farmland at what would later occupy the address of 514 North Sunny Lane. It was a “double” house, occupied on one side by her sister’s family and by Susan and Willie on the other side.
Susan, who was lovingly known throughout the community as “Aunt Susan,” remained active for the next few years, hosting club teas in her home and visiting family in Chicago. In 1884 at age 69, she and Willie went on a cruise to Alaska, after taking the train from Monmouth to Tacoma, Washington.
By the early 1890s, Susan’s health began to fail and she was generally confined to her room. She did, however, accompany her sister Isabella to the 1896 laying of the cornerstone of the new auditorium at Monmouth College, the institution her husband had generously supported during its early days.
In 1897, when Monmouth was canvassing for a hospital, Susan deeded the old Harding home near the railroad tracks to the building committee to be outfitted for that purpose. It was hoped that the 15-room mansion could be retrofitted for a hospital with the expenditure of a few thousand dollars, but ultimately it was determined to be unfit for that purpose and was sold for $3,000 in 1899, with the proceeds going to a building fund.
On the morning of April 10, 1901, Susan Harding died at her home. The funeral, which was called “one of the largest and most impressive ever held in the city,” took place April 14 at the Presbyterian Church, with music by a special quintet. Sunday school children of the congregation marched along with the pure white casket to Monmouth Cemetery, where they laid flowers on the grave. A graveside ceremony was conducted by the Daughters of the American Revolution, of which Susan was an active member.
The Monmouth Evening Gazette made note that “Well supplied with this world’s goods, she freely contributed to every worthy object, as many people in need will testify.” When the will was read a few days later, it validated that claim. Among the beneficiaries were the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions ($2,000), the YMCA ($3,000), the Industrial Missionary Association of Alabama ($2,000), the Mary Holmes Seminary for Colored Girls in West Point, Mississippi ($2,000), the Brainard Institute for Colored People at Chester, South Carolina ($2,000), the Cotton Plant (Arkansas) Academy ($2,000), Tuskeegee Institute ($3,000) and the Presbyterian School for Indians at Juneau, Alaska ($2,000).
In addition, she left money for her son William to build a house (provided he could stay sober and employed for two years after her death), as well as for her sisters, nieces and a caretaker.
The somewhat unusual name of Ickes was also held by a well-known member of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. Harold LeClair Ickes (1874–1952) was the longest serving U.S. Secretary of the Interior. He was a first cousin, once removed, of Susan Harding — the grandson of her father’s brother.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.