Patriarch of ag family dynasty attended seminary in Monmouth
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Many farmers from this area are familiar with the monthly agricultural publication Wallaces Farmer, which began in 1895 as Wallaces’ Farm and Dairy, but few are aware of its founder’s Monmouth roots.
The original editor, who founded the Iowa-based weekly paper with his sons Henry C. and John, was popularly known as “Uncle” Henry Wallace. Born into a United Presbyterian family near West Newton, Pennsylvania, in 1836, he initially pursued a career in the ministry, and that course took him through Monmouth.
Wallace lived on his family’s Pennsylvania farm until age 20, when he entered a preparatory school in Ohio. The following year he enrolled in Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1859. After teaching for a year at Columbia College in Kentucky, he began studies at Allegheny Theological Seminary, but found the rigidness of its Presbyterian leaders overwhelming, so against his father’s wishes he decided to go west in 1861 to the newly established United Presbyterian seminary at Monmouth.
Letters Wallace wrote to his great-grandchildren that were published in his magazine between 1916–1919 offer some fascinating insight into frontier life in Monmouth during the Civil War era.
Wallace took a train to Chicago on the Fort Wayne Railroad — pulled by an antiquated engine with a peculiar wide smokestack over tracks with ties set into mud ballast that caused a loud clicking noise. The trip from Chicago to Monmouth took a full day, and Wallace was amazed by the scenery, which seemed to him to be one vast cornfield.
Arriving at Monmouth, he was actually met by a man in the grain business — a Mr. Campbell who was an old friend of his father’s. “I was much surprised at that time,” he wrote, “to find old corn was 10 cents a bushel and new corn was 8 cents. It seemed as if the state was literally full of corn. It was piled up in rail pens, without covering, around the houses and other buildings, and sometimes in the fields. It had evidently been there for a year or more, until the top part was decayed; and it was frequently covered with prairie chickens.”
The next winter, Wallace would spend a Sunday in the country, where he sat by a stove burning corn for fuel.
Wallace commented that the town of Monmouth — then with a population of less than 1,000 — was also full of corn, and as a result full of rats. The plank sidewalks, he wrote, were one-inch boards four feet wide and as you walked along them, the rats would chase along ahead. “From my window on a moonlight night,” he recalled, “I could count anywhere from 25 to 50 rats gathering up the corn which had fallen from farmers’ wagons as they brought it to market,” adding, “If there had been bubonic plague then, Illinois would certainly have lost most of its population.”
There were only about 20 students at Monmouth’s Theological Seminary of the Northwest, which was housed in the First Presbyterian Church on the northwest corner of West Broadway and B Street. Only two faculty members were employed and one of them made a strong impression on the young seminarian.
Dr. Alexander Young, whom Wallace called “one of the most remarkable men I have ever known,” was a native of Scotland. Thin and sickly, Young tried to stay active in the summer by working in his garden and orchard. Wallace told the story of an eastern man who was put up in a hotel at Monmouth and went for a walk to see where the new college was being built. Young’s house stood on the current site of the Monmouth admission building, and after seeing him working in the garden, the visitor never made it to the college campus. Instead he spent the afternoon asking Young questions about horticulture. Returning to his hotel, he told a citizen that the college should elect the old gardener as its president, “as he had more nearly universal knowledge than any man he had ever met, east or west.”
Wallace agreed with that sentiment, saying he was thrown for a loop when discussing the geology of his native Pennsylvania with the professor. Young told him the number of coal veins, their distance apart, the different layers of limestone and other rocks, the places where outcroppings were located, and everything about the coke regions.
In the classroom, Young encouraged discussion on difficult points of theology and didn’t dodge them as had a professor at Allegheny. He had a keen sense of humor, but he also could not countenance laziness or stupidity, and had a temper when it came to situations he considered unfair.
Wallace was also strongly influenced by Monmouth College’s first president, David Wallace (not a direct family relation) whom he described as “one of the few fat men I have known who had unbounded energy and wonderful activity.” But he was saddened that the president’s energy was by necessity funneled to fundraising for the young college.
“He was too much of a ‘brick-and-mortar’ man to be the great preacher for which nature intended him,” Henry Wallace said. “He had too much executive ability to get down to the hard problems which were as meat and drink to Dr. Young.”
The Rev. Henry Wallace was licensed to preach by the Presbytery at Monmouth in 1862 and was sent to work in the mission at Rock Island and Davenport, where he would preach until 1870, but for the first month he took charge of services in Monroe County, Iowa. The Mississippi River was flooded that spring, so he took a train from Monmouth to Biggsville, then a stage to Oquawka, and from there a steamboat to Burlington, where he caught another train to his destination.
Wallace next preached for five years at Morning Sun, Iowa, but suffering from tuberculosis, he was eventually obliged to give up the profession, and took up farming at Winterset, Iowa. There, he began writing a farm column for a Winterset newspaper and in 1870 bought an interest in another Winterset paper. In 1883, he became editor of the Iowa Homestead and moved to Des Moines. Twelve years later, he would found Wallace’s Farmer with his sons, and remain editor until his death in 1916.
Another interesting Monmouth connection involved Wallace’s grandson, Henry Agard Wallace, who was not only editor of the family farm journal but also founder of the Hi-Bred seed corn company before entering government service. He served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (1921–24), vice president of the United States (1941–45) and U.S. Secretary of Commerce (1945–46). Breaking with the Democratic Party after World War II, he ran for president in 1948 as the candidate of the Progressive Party.
A 1910 graduate of Iowa State Agricultural College, young Henry Wallace attended a picnic in Des Moines in 1913, where he met a young woman named Ilo Elsie Browne, who had recently inherited a large sum of money from her father. Henry didn’t care much about money and started taking her riding in his dilapidated old car. She fell in love with his eccentricity and they were married in 1914.
Ilo Browne Wallace, who would one day become Second Lady of the United States, grew up in Indianola, Iowa, where her father was a successful real estate and insurance broker. In 1907, she entered Monmouth College, where she planned to be a history major. After her freshman year, possibly because of her father’s failing health, she transferred to Simpson College in her hometown. After her father’s death in 1911, she studied voice at Drake University, where she became a close friend of Henry Wallace’s sister, thus leading to her attending the fateful 1913 picnic.
Henry Wallace died in 1965, but Ilo outlived him, dying at age 92 in 1981.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.