Early Times in Kosciusko

Incidents and Anecdotes of Pioneer Days and the Early Settlement of this Region

by Reub Williams

And now the fire burns low and we must sleep
Not long, while other eyes than ours the vigil keep,
And after we are gone, to other eyes
That watch below, shall come in starry skies,
A fairer dawn whereon fiery light
The Eternal Captain shall his signals write;
And shaken from sleep and gazing at that sign,
On shall the Mighty Nation move, led by a hand Divine!

After the age of fifty is reached, the years as they come and go seem to glide more rapidly past than they did in the heyday period of youth, and especially so before they reached that much-longed for period in the life of the young man when he shall have reached and crossed over that mythical line to him known as twenty-one years of age, when in the eyes of the law he becomes his own master in a legal sense; but when the half-way mile-stone of a century is reached and passed the River of Time seems to have an accelerated flow; the end of another year comes before we are aware of it; and very often, too, when we are not so well prepared for it as we were when the last birthday was observed and in the experience of the writer, the years now seem to be growing more and more numerous because them come and go so swiftly.

Since I began penning these sketches, I have been reminded of a saying said to have emanated from Senator Platt, who represents the great State of New York in the upper house at Washington. He said that when a man reached the reminiscent period of his life, he was rapidly approaching his "second childhood!" There may be something in it; but I have met many men who had reached eighty years and beyond, whose conduct and conversation was just as bright as ever, with not a sign of "second childhood," but whom it was a great pleasure for others to sit down and listen to the story of their past. Such men were Elijah Horton, Metcalfe Beck, Old Benny Johnson, Milo Barbour, and many others whom I have known and listened to in the years when I was quite young, and all of them at the time gray-haired sires, and each of them have since passed over the "great divide." Besides there is just the touch of a jeer in the remark, whether meant so or not, that rather grates on the ear with a sort of sniping unpleasant sound. It may be that Platt never said it! Let us hope so!

Several months ago, in these "recollections" I had considerable to say about politics in the early days of the county and to a brief extent alluded to the division of parties and the coming of the Republican party that sprung into existence a full-grown giant, even though very youthful--organized immediately after the death of the old Whig party, that went down in the disastrous Presidential struggle of 1852. The Republican party was only six years old when it won its first victory with Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Right at the start there was a bitterness between the new party and the old-time Democracy, that had not assumed such deep animosity in the old Whig days, and of course, this was terribly accentuated by the war of 1861-65, so that the hostility and bitterness that had been inculcated between Democracy and Republicanism was most intense for a good many years following the war; and having referred to several big political meetings and speakers of national renown, it would almost be unfair not to mention the race for Lieutenant-Governor made between the late Billy Williams, of this place, and the late Ashbel P. Willard, of New Albany, in the old Whig and Democratic days; and the "joint discussion" of Judge Robert Lowry, of Fort Wayne and Billy Williams in 1866 as candidates for Congress in what was then the "Old Tenth Indiana District," embracing in its boundaries the seven counties that form the northeastern corner of Indiana.

The nomination of Billy Williams, of this city, as the Whig candidate for Lieutenant-Governor was brought about by the late Hon. Schuyler Colfax, then quite a young man just beginning to take a lead in the politics of the country. He was at the time editor of the old St. Joe Valley Register published at South Bend, and although quite young at the time, I remember that Billy's nomination came as a surprise even to this own people here at his home. There were no railroads in the entire State at that time, unless it may have been the Jeffersonville and Indianapolis--the first one over which cars ran to be built in Indiana--but I am not certain that it was doing business so early as 1852. As a consequence, political State conventions were not as largely attended as they are in these days of railroads, both steam and electric, and hence delegates had to go to Indianapolis either by stage routes or private conveyances. The number present, therefore, was generally united to the nearest counties. However, even at that early day, there was a stage between South Bend and Indianapolis, although I feel certain that at that time it did not run more than twice--thrice at the most--a week. I also very much doubt whether there was a single delegate present from Kosciusko county; nor had our people heard of Billy's name being mentioned as a candidate for Lieutenant-Governor.

Be that as it may, I have since learned that it was Schuyler Colfax who instigated the nomination. He was fully aware of Billy Williams' power on the stump as an orator, and it was with the idea of helping the Whig party in the canvass that he secured his nomination, feeling assured that he would enter the contest with a vigor that the Whig party had not known for some years, and that his reasoning was good was shown by the result at the election in the autumn; although pitted against as well-known a leader as Ashbel P. Willard as the opposing candidate, Billy's vote was nearly 6,000 greater then the head of his own ticket, Mr. Matson, the Whig candidate for Governor, running behind Williams to that extent. Willard was considered one of the most powerful and popular orators on the Democratic side in the State and the two arranged for a joint canvass, going from place to place in private vehicles and sometimes riding in the same carriage on their way to the next appointment.

I have often heard Williams speak of that tour through the State, and he told many anecdotes and related many incidents that occurred. For instance, they were billed to speak at Logansport, I think, sometime after the joint canvas had been in progress, so that each speaker had almost learned the speech of the other "by heart" as a school-boy would say, and it was at this place that Billy played a joke on Willard that none but an orator could so well appreciate. Besides being a fine orator Willard was an inimitable story-teller, and every day illustrated points in his speech by telling a story of an anecdote of some kind applicable to the argument he was making. It is necessary to say that by previous arrangement each speaker made the opening speech every other day, and, of course, this meant that the other had the closing remarks in the same way. At Logansport it was Billy's day to open the meeting, and all who have heard Billy Williams on the stump are aware of the fact, that if anywhere, he was most at home in "joint-canvass."

Billy as usual began his speech using much the same argument that he had from the beginning of the discussion between the two. He, too, could tell a story equal to the very best of orators; in fact, few speakers that I have ever heard could excel him in his imitating an Irishman or German; a Yankee, or whoever may have been the principal in the story he was telling. On this occasion, however, he stole every one of Willard's stories from first to last; told them in his own peculiar manner, and making the application in each case very different from the way Willard had been doing up to that time, and of course carrying with him the great swaying, enthusiastic multitude that always came out to hear them, rain or shine; for the fame of this joint-discussion was by this time heralded far ahead of them, so that their appointments were sure of a vast multitude to hear them. Of course the theft of these stories left Willard in a rather sad condition. In fact, he was entirely out of tune with his speech, with himself and his audience, for during his entire speech he was not only at sea, but floundered and plunged like a drowning man as well. After the theft of Willard's stories became known, I have heard others who were present at this particular joint discussion, the gist of which I have given so briefly, repeat the fact that Willard's speech at that place fell remarkably flat, indeed, and at any rate it is certain that Willard keenly felt the loss of his stories, and in fact, Williams had really ruined his speech for that occasion, at least. They came to terms afterwards and the latter promised to desist from any more of such larceny!

On reaching Warsaw in this "joint discussion" trip, the home of Billy Williams resolved to make his reception here a grand occasion, and his Whig friends all over the county began to make preparations for the great event, one of the features of which was to be a huge demonstration, the biggest feature of which was to be a great wagon hauled by oxen--that being the day when the ox, instead of the horse, was a factor of overpowering force in a new country. The efforts of the Whigs to give their own candidate a grand reception in point of numbers, as well as display, had precisely the effect that such things usually do; and that was that it led the Democracy to do equally as well for their own candidate, even if he was not "to the manor born," but was personally a stranger. The two parties of that day in this county were much closer than was the case after the formation of the Republican party, and it was not at all uncommon for the Democrats to elect at least some of the county officers--a thing that has seldom occurred since the new party was organized a few years later than the time of which I am writing.

The greatest day came, and I remember that the speaking took place south of where the East Ward school house is now located, the underbrush having been cleared away and seats of some sort provided for a portion of the great crowd--great in numbers for a comparatively new county at least. both parties had staked their all in having the largest number of oxen to the same wagon. On the Whig side the late John Elder, who lived a short distance east of town, had full charge, and the late Amariah Holbrook and his elder boys acted in the same capacity for the Democrats, and the least that can be said about it is from that day to this, the rising generations have been regaled by both fathers and mothers of early days with stories of the great debate between Williams and Willard, the time when every yoke of cattle in the county was assembled in the procession. To this day there is a difference existing in the number of yoke of cattle, but it is safe to say that over fifty pair of cattle were hitched to wagons carrying young men and young ladies with a hickory or ash pole for a flag-staff over 75 feet in height on each wagon, and even at this late day there are old men now--who were in their youthful vigor in 1852--who still claim they never got back the log-chains used on that day, and this is a fact, too.

The other joint debate took place in 1866, the year following the close of the war, and was between the same Billy Williams, this time a candidate for Congress in the "Old Tenth District" with Judge Robert Lowry as his competitor. both men had been nominated for Congress by their respective parties, and after some preliminary speeches of their own at various points in the district, a series of joint discussions between the two rival candidates for congressional honors--one at each of the county seats of the seven counties then composing the congressional district--were arranged. I cannot remember where the debate began, but the seventh and last discussion terminated here in Warsaw, with a determination on the part of the Democratic candidate that he would meet his antagonist no more in that way! He was wise in this decision, for perhaps never in all the political discussions ever held in all the country was a man flayed to such an utter extent than Judge Lowry. It must be understood too that he was no tyro in the art of public speaking. On the contrary he was educated and well informed and an acknowledged leader of his party at that time; but it can be truthfully said, that while Billy Williams was more in his element in a joint discussion than anywhere else--ready as he always was anywhere and on every subject--he literally made it so hot for Lowry that after the seventh and last discussion he could in no way be induced to continue it any further, although bantered and dared to arrange a new series of joint meetings. Another thing that made it quite unpleasant for the Judge was that it was the first congressional race following the civil war. The returning soldiers had all gotten home; many of them had become voters during their absence, and they had no love for anything or anybody carrying a Democratic label; consequently, and although the district was Democratic--Allen county so strongly given to that party being in it--yet Williams' majority in this Democratic stronghold, was about 1,200.

Never in all his public life was Billy Williams more at home, or his opponent in harder luck than in their joint discussions, and it is a fact that when men meet and talk over "old times" when they come to political questions, they invariably refer to the "Williams-Lowry Joint Debate," as a feature in their remembrances of political victories that they would not forego! I remember an incident myself of the joint discussion. It, too, was held in East Warsaw, every convenience possible having been arranged for what everybody knew before hand would be an immense gathering, and the crowd truly was immense. Most of the early settlers of Tippecanoe township and the northeast part of the county will remember the rotund, the always jolly John Hess--a very early pioneer of that section of the county, but at the time of the discussion a man fairly up in years. No man anywhere more thoroughly enjoyed a joke or fun of any kind than John Hess. In weight he would tip the beam at about 250 pounds, and, like many ponderous men, carried a natural, good-natured smile on his face at all times. He was listening to Billy Williams in his reply to some of Lowry's sarcasms and was leaning against a big oak tree. Billy had just got off a keen-cutting jest at some point of Lowry's that received thunderous applause from all his friends, but among them all, none enjoyed his hit more than my old friend Hess. He rolled backwards and forwards around the tree; tickled to the extent that tears were running down his cheeks, and as he rolled back into his position he exclaimed: "Gad, I've know'd him ever since he was a boy!" and hilariously fell to the ground--an incident that cannot be described and must have been seen and heard to fully enjoy, as I certainly did at the time. Having spoken so laudatory of Billy Williams--whom I have always regarded as the brightest natural orator that the West had produced--I want to once more repeat that there was not a shadow of relationship between us, and I do this fearing that some reader might peruse these comments upon him, who might think we were relatives--an idea held by many people of the State at large and has been entertained here at home to some extent, even in later days.

Warsaw Daily Times April 19, 1902

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