MONMOUTH, Ill. — Although Monmouth recently lost its one remaining lumber company, lumberyards played an important role in the city’s colorful history.
In October 1858, Henry’s Lumber Yard was the site of a hastily-erected platform where Abraham Lincoln delivered a three-hour speech in the rain during his celebrated campaign for Senate against Stephen A. Douglas.
In October 1963, fires blamed on a “mad arsonist” were set at Warfield-McCullough Lumber Co., Monmouth Lumber Co. and Fullerton Lumber Co., leveling the latter two establishments. The perpetrator was never caught.
The proprietors of Monmouth lumber companies, with names such as Lord, McCullough, Diffenbaugh and Warfield, were among the most influential community leaders who helped develop and bring the Maple City to prominence. But one lumber executive left a legacy on the town that perhaps earns him the title of Monmouth’s Lumber Baron.
John Wesley Sipher not only was a pioneer Monmouth lumber dealer, but was also highly respected in the industry. Among his intimate friends were American lumber kings Frederick Weyerhaeuser and Edward Hines, both of whom often visited him in Monmouth.
Before retiring in 1911, Sipher opened satellite yards in Berwick, Cameron and Kirkwood.
Sipher’s impact on the local community went far beyond selling lumber, coal and ice. He developed much of the northwest section of town, creating Sipher’s Addition to the City of Monmouth in 1892. He served as an alderman, as chief fire marshal, as president of the Warren County Agricultural Fair, as president of the Monmouth Brick Co. and as vice president of the Monmouth Business Men’s Association.
Remarkably, although he sat at the same desk for 42 years, he also enjoyed nearly two decades of active retirement, allowing him to contribute significantly to the civic and social life of the community. He was founder and president of the Monmouth Country Club, president of the Glendale Cemetery Association, president of the Monmouth Hospital board and, for more than two decades, president of the Warren County Library board. He also served on the Monmouth school board.
Born the son of a carpenter at West Winfield, New York, in 1844, Sipher became a clerk and bookkeeper for a Utica dry goods store. In 1867, he married Cynthia Caroline Wood of New York City and they briefly made their home in Utica before heading west to Monmouth with their six-month-old baby, Eva.
In 1869, in partnership with Nathan Harding, Sipher founded a lumber and coal company just south of the CB&Q tracks on South Second Street, and shortly thereafter became the sole owner. In 1875, he built an ice house north of the tracks and added that commodity to his inventory. For many years, the Sipher home stood at 502 South First St.
The marriage of Sipher’s daughter Eva in 1888 would link two prominent Monmouth families, creating a business dynasty that would continue well into the 20th century. Eva’s new husband, John Doner Diffenbaugh, had become Monmouth city treasurer at age 21, after attending Monmouth College. He spent four years as city editor of the Monmouth Evening Gazette before partnering with H.R. Moffet to create Monmouth’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Review, in 1888.
The following year, Diffenbaugh divested of his newspaper interest and became a partner with his father-in-law in Sipher Lumber. When Sipher retired in 1911, the lumber side of the business was purchased by George C. Warfield of Waterloo, Iowa. Diffenbaugh retained the coal and ice concessions, partnering with his son, John Sipher Diffenbaugh, grandson of the founder.
Always generous in civic affairs, the elder Diffenbaugh presented Diffenbaugh-Harmon Park (located in the Sipher Addition) to the city of Monmouth in 1928. In 1941, his son John S. would present another park to the city, named in memory of John W. Sipher (his grandfather). Located on West Eleventh Avenue, Sipher Park is today known as South Park.
After Sipher’s wife died in 1915, he spent his winters in Florida, but continued to maintain the large family home at 310 North Second St., where he had lived since 1906. In 1928, declining health caused him to relocate to Marshalltown, Iowa, where his younger daughter, Carrie, resided. He was admitted as a permanent patient to Marshalltown’s Deaconess Hospital, where he lived four more years before succumbing to pneumonia at age 88.
Sipher is interred along with several family members at the mausoleum in the Glendale section of Monmouth Cemetery — a structure that he and his son-in-law had seen to completion in 1914 as officers of the Glendale Cemetery Association.
Today, Sipher’s name is but a footnote in Monmouth history — appearing primarily in the deed records for Sipher’s Addition in the county clerk’s office. Given his remarkable role in the development of Monmouth, I’d like to make a personal appeal to the Monmouth Park District to revive South Park’s original name and perhaps erect a new sign there that reads Sipher Park.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about local history for more than 35 years.