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LAKE, John

First Biography of John LAKE
Portrait & Biographical Record Winnebago & Boone Cos., IL. Chicago: Biographical Pub. Co., 1892, pp 205-208  (Portrait p 204)

John LAKE, President of the Rockford Fire and Insurance Company, is well known as one of the early settlers of Rockford [Winnebago County, IL]; and as one of its foremost business men, who has for many years thoroughly identified himself with its best interests, his far-reaching enterprise, aptitude for affairs, and broad public spirit being potent in extending its commerce and advancing its welfare; his name is inseparably linked with its rise and progress from a small, insignificant settlement to a beautiful and prosperous city.  During the busy and eventful years of the half century and more that he has lived here, he has acquired wealth that places him among the most substantial citizens of Winnebago County, and he has built up one of the most stately and elegant homes within its borders.

John LAKE was born 27 Mar 1821, on BLACKFORD Farm, Selworthy Parish, England, said farm then being in the possession of his paternal grandfather, who was a farmer, dairyman, miller, malster, and a dealer in all kinds of seeds.  In the latter part of his life he lost a large portion of his property, partly through reverses in business, and possibly a part of it by bad management.  His family consisted of four sons and one daughter, all of whom died soon after they arrived at age, with the exception of James, the eldest, and Thomas, the youngest, both of whom emigrated to America, the first with his family settling at St. Johns, New Brunswick, and the latter in the United States.  William LAKE, the father of our subject, was also born on the old BLACKFORD farm, his birth occurring in 1798.  He died there in the opening years of his manhood, at the age of 22.  He married when only 20 years old, the maiden name of his wife being GOULD.   She was a farmer's daughter, born at Cutcombe, in the parish of Cutcombe.  Her mother died leaving 11 children, and as her father soon married again, she sought a home as a servant girl at BLACKFORD farm.  She was subsequently married to the father of our subject, and they continued to make the farm their home until his untimely death.

He of whom we write was but six months old when his father died, and as his mother married again a year later, he was reared by his grandmother in the home of his birth, she and he being the only ones of the name of LAKE living in that part of England, up to the time he came to this country.  He was given excellent educational advantages in private school kept by Mr. Robert TAYLOR, which he attended until he was 14.  At that age he commenced to earn his own living by working on a farm, being thus employed the intervening two years before he came hither.  He was 11 years of age when his uncle Thomas became a citizen of this republic, and the boyish imagination of our subject followed him in his voyage across unknown seas to the far away, strange country whither he had gone, and he wished that he too might go there in search of fortune's favors.  He treasured up his determination to try life in this land of promise until he was of suitable age to put it into execution, and in May 1836, he disclosed his plans to his mother and foster parent (his grandmother), telling them that he would like to do as his uncle Thomas had done, seek a home in the U. S.  They strenuously opposed his purpose, but he told them, that although he did not wish to disobey them, he had firmly resolved to go a year from that time.  In May 1837 he again broached the subject of his emigration, and was met with the same opposition.  He informed his mother and foster mother that he wished very much to obtain their consent, but he should go in any case.  When they saw that further persuasion was useless, they reluctantly gave in, and sadly made preparations for his setting forth into the great world, giving him such necessary aid for his journey as was in their power.

The first week of May 1837, our subject started out on this travels from the pleasant English home that had given him shelter from his birth.  From Minehead he went on a schooner to Bristol, where he secured passage for Philadelphia on the "Severn," a sailing vessel loaded with iron, and carrying about 40 other [p 206] passengers besides himself.  In mid ocean a dreadful storm was encountered, which lasted for five days.   Often great seas would break on deck, and the bowsprit, foremast and bulwarks were broken and washed overboard.  When the fearful storm was at its height, young LAKE requested the officer to permit him to remain on deck, and he allowed him to do so on condition that he would secure himself to the main mast, which he did, and from six o'clock in the morning until late in he evening he remained in that position without a particle of food, watching with mingled feelings of awe the sublime spectacle of the conflict of the elements with Old Ocean.  As darkness enveloped what seemed to be a doomed ship, the storm abated, and at sunrise there was not wind sufficient to move the sails, and a dead calm of four days ensued.

Mr. LAKE landed in Philadelphia in the latter part of Jun [1837], seven weeks from the day he left England.  He was at the time 16 years and three months of age.  His destination was IL, where he intended to join his uncle Thomas.  From the Quaker City he crossed PA, and went over the Alleghenies by rail and canal, passing through Johnstown [Cambria County, PA], which was so nearly erased from the face of the earth by the awful flood of recent years, and through many another place, whose very name he has forgotten, and on to Pittsburg, where he embarked on a river steamer for the West.  Arriving at Rockport [Spencer County, IN], a small river town on the Ohio [River] below Louisville [Jefferson County, KY], he was taken sick with a fever, and had to remain until Nov.   In the meantime he received a letter from his uncle, who was then living in Rockford, and as soon as he was able he resumed his interrupted journey down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to Fulton [Whiteside County], IL.  Thence he traveled on foot through marsh and swamp, and over what seemed to him endless prairies, to Sterling [Whiteside County, IL], and from there proceeded on the west side of the [Rock] river to Rockford [Winnebago County, IL], where he arrived about 01 Dec 1837, "completely worn out, physically, mentally, and financially," as he himself expresses it.

In the spring he had recuperated sufficiently to work on a farm, a which he was employed for three years.  At the end of that time he apprenticed himself to Mr. Thomas THATCHER, a joiner, carpenter, and architect.  A year with that gentleman, with wages of $5 a month and board, and he had acquired all his instructor could impart, and was prepared to set up for himself in the same line.  He not only worked out by day as a carpenter, but engaged as a contractor, doing business by himself until the winter of 1852-53, when he formed a partnership with Mr. P. HOWES, to engage in the lumber trade.   The yard was where the East Rockford passenger station of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway now stands, which was at that time called the Chicago & Galena Railway, and which had been completed to the east side of Rock River, on 20 Aug 1852.   On 20 Aug 1853 the railway bridge was completed across that river, and our subject and his partner removed their lumber to a yard on the west side, near the present station of the Northwestern Railway, continuing together until the summer of 1856, when they sold their business to Mr. FREEMAN.

In Nov 1856 the prosperous young Westerner, whose course we have thus far followed, revisited his old home at BLACKFORD Farm, nearly 20 years having passed by with their many chances and changes since he had last crossed its threshold, a penniless lad on his way to the New World.  Returning again to the U. S. in the early spring of Feb 1857, he once more went into the lumber business, having his stand on the corner of Third and State Streets, on the same ground now occupied by the Rockford Coal & Lumber Company.   Mr. HOWES, his old partner, had an interest with him for a year, and then their connection was dissolved, in the fall of 1859, by the sale of the stock to COOK & Brother, lumber dealers on the west side of the [Rock] River.  In the spring of 1853 Mr. LAKE made arrangements to take charge of the late Mr. Henry FISHER's yard, on [p 207] the west side of the river, and in the summer of 1853 formed a partnership with that gentleman, which was continued until Mar 1867.  In May of that year, after closing out his interest with Mr. FISHER, he again visited England, and extended his tour while abroad to Ireland, Scotland, France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and portions of Germany, returning home in the fall.  In the spring of 1868, he formed a five-year partnership with the Hon. Seely PERRY, who was doing a lumber business on the ground formerly occupied by our subject, and where Mr. PERRY is still carrying on the same business.  In the spring of 1874 they terminated their partnership, and in June Mr. LAKE again indulged his fondness for travel, and revisited England, Scotland, and France, and three times since he has made the journey, in the summers of 1877, 1889, and 1891, his eldest daughter accompanying him across the ocean on his last trip.  He has not altogether confined his travels to European countries, but has spent a winter on the Pacific Coast, going to CA in May 1885, with his wife and niece, and staying there until the following April.

Our subject is a man of fine physique and good presence, is possessed of business acumen and executive ability in a rare degree, and has made his influence felt in various directions.  He has filled various positions of trust, and his official record is without blemish, as he has always acted for the best interests of those concerned, without regard to himself, and has discharged his duties faithfully, fearlessly and with a clear conscience.  He has been connected with the Rockford Fire and Insurance Company since its inception.  This company procured its charter in 1866, and Mr. LAKE was elected its first vice president, and acted in that capacity until Jan 1886, when he became the choice of the Board of Directors for president of the company, vice Dr. R. P. LANE, who had resigned at the close of 1885.  This is one of the leading insurance companies of the West, and as its presiding officer, our subject's safe and wise policy in the management of its affairs strengthens the reputation it has acquired for stability.   For 10 years, ending in 1883, Mr. LAKE served the 2nd Ward of the city as Alderman, and the same ward as Supervisor a part of that time.  From 1877-78, he was Chairman of the Board of Education.  He is prominent in social circles as one of the leading members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge and Representative to the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the U. S. for six consecutive years.

Mr. LAKE was married 11 Oct 1849 to Miss Almeda M. DANLEY, whose parents, Cornelius and Sarah DANLEY, were farmers and pioneers of the town of Harlem, Winnebago County [IL].   Mrs. LAKE has cooperated with her husband in the making of a true home in their handsome residence at No. 1211 East State Street, and its hospitalities are well known to their many friends.  Of the seven children born to our subject and his wife, three died in infancy.  Those that survive are:  (1)  Sarah E., born 26 Sep 1850, maried William H. CROCKER, of Evanston [County], IL, 21 Aug 1884; (2)  Jennie E., born 02 Feb 1854, married Charles M. CLARK, of Rockford, 21 Oct 1874; (3)  Alice M., born 23 Mar 1861, married William M. PRENTICE, of Rockford, 18 Dec 1878; and (4)   Frank L., born 05 Apr 1865, married Jessie E. SHIRLEY, of Rockford, 05 May 1886.

Mr. LAKE is a man of wide experience, a keen observer of men and affairs, with a mind broadened by travel and contact with the world, and he is an interesting conversationalist, possessing a varied fund of information.  Though retaining a strong affection for his native land, he is loyal to the country of his adoption, and a thorough American in his habits and views of life.  He has not only watched with pleasure the development of this city, his chosen home, with which his personal interests are so closely bound, but he has witnessed with pride and delight the wonderful growth of these United States in the course of half a century.  In a chat with the biographer concerning his past life, he spoke eloquently of the great changes that had taken place, of the discoveries and inventions that have revolutionized the world since he became a citizen of this republic.  Speaking of the grand progress made in human affairs, he said:

"In June 1892, it will be 55 years since I landed in Philadelphia.  What changes in all the varied affairs of human life since that time!  When [p 208] we sailed down the River Severn from Bristol, on our voyage to the U. S.,  I remember seeing on the docks in process of construction, the 'Great Western,' the first steamship of any importance that crossed the Atlantic to NY.  Compare that slow and unwieldy craft with the floating palaces that are now nearly every day in the year crossing and recrossing from one country to another!"

"Instead of seven weeks, the journey of over 3,000 miles is now accomplished in less than six days, and the passengers are provided with all the luxuries afforded by the best hotels in NY or Chicago.  Postage to Europe was then 25 cents, and now a letter is carried across the ocean for five cents.  Telegraph, telephone, electric railways and machinery of various kinds, propelled by steam or electricity, have come into general use only within a comparatively short period of time."

"In 1837 the U. S. had a population of about 16 millions; soon its inhabitants will be numbered by seventy millions.  Then Chicago could boast of but 4,170 souls; now the latest census gives it nearly 1,300,000 inhabitants.  When I came here, the country west of the Mississippi River was inhabited mainly by Indians and wild beasts to the shores of the Pacific; now six railroads cross the then supposed impassable Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and what was once called the 'Great American Desert" has been made to blossom like the rose, and is the home of contented and prosperous people.   Then the genius of an Edison had not been thought or dreamed of.  What will be the experience of the human race during the next 55 years?  Many who now live will see it, but for us of the olden time, it is not for us to know."

Second Biography of John LAKE
Past and Present of the City of Rockford and Winnebago Co., IL, C. A. Church.   Chicago: Clarke, 1905, p 826

John LAKE, a resident of Rockford, who for 68 years has been connected with the business interests of Winnebago County [IL], keeping pace with the rapid commercial and industrial development, is of English birth and lineage.  He was born 27 Mar 1821 on the BLACKFORD farm in Selworthy parish, Somerset County, England, the farm at that time being the property of his paternal grandfather, who was a farmer, dairyman, miller, malster, and dealer in all kinds of seeds.  His son, William LAKE, was born on the same farm in 1798, and he died when John was but six months old.  The mother afterward married again, and John LAKE was reared by his grandmother on the old home farm where his birth occurred.  He received a good practical education, and his advantages in that direction were perhaps above the average, but otherwise he had no assistance for the journey of life, and since the age of 14 years has been dependent upon his own resources for a livelihood.  He was first employed as a farm hand, and being ambitious to make the best use of his powers, he resolved to try his fortune in America, of whose advantages and opportunities he had heard much.  He was opposed by his family when he suggested the idea to them in May 1836, but he did not abandon the plan, and the following year secured the consent of his grandparents.

In May 1837 John LAKE, then but 16 years of age, sailed for America, possessing little [p 827] save a strength of character and firm determination.  He boarded the sailing vessel "Severn," carrying a cargo of iron to Philadelphia, and after seven weeks, during which time severe storms and heavy seas were encountered, he reached the American port.  He then started at once for Rockford, IL, with the intention of joining his uncle, Thomas, but illness detained him at Rockport [Spencer County, IN], a small town on the Ohio River, and it was not until 01 Dec 1837 that he reached his destination.

Here he began the struggle first for a livelihood and later for success, and from farm hand to commercial business he has made his way, occupying for many years a prominent position in commercial and financial circles in his adopted city.  During three years he worked at farm labor and then entered upon an apprenticeship to Thomas THATCHER, a carpenter, joiner, and architect, who paid him $5 per month and board.  He resolutely set to work to master the business, and within a year had become competent enough to accept a position as journeyman, and soon afterward began taking contracts.  He was thus connected with building operations until 1853, when he turned his attention to the lumber trade in partnership with P. HOWES [see also the Winnebago County, IL, biography of Phineas HOWES], conducting a yard where the East Rockford, Chicago & Northwestern passenger station is now located, that at the time being the terminus of the Chicago & Galena Railroad.  When the railroad was extended across the river in 1853, their yard was removed to the west side, where they conducted their business until 1856, when they sold out to Mr. FREEMAN.

Mr. LAKE then enjoyed a well earned vacation, making a trip in Nov 1856 to the old home which he had left 19 years before.  Returning to America in Feb 1857, he resumed business as a lumber merchant at the corner of Third and State Streets, in Rockford, and in 1859 he sold out to the firm of COOK & Brother.  In partnership with Henry FISHER [see also his Winnebago County, IL, biography] he engaged in the lumber business on the west side from 1861 until 1867, when he once more disposed of his interest and again went abroad, visiting France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as his native England.  In the fall of 1867 he returned to Rockford, and in 1868 he entered into partnership with Seely PERRY [see also the Winnebago County, IL, biography of Seely PERRY], which relation was terminated after five years, and through the succeeding year he traveled in Europe and twice again thereafter, gaining a comprehensive knowledge of the countries upon the continent.  Since 1872 he has visited CA seven different times, and has spent six winters in that state, gaining the experience and culture which only travel brings.

Other business and public interests aside from those mentioned have claimed his attention and have profited by his cooperation and business sagacity.  He was vice president of the Rockford Fire Insurance Company from 1866 until 1886, and in the latter year was chosen president.  In 1873 he was elected alderman of Rockford from the 2nd ward, and during a service of 10 years in the city council exercised his official prerogatives in support of many progressive measures, his public spirit finding tangible evidence in the support which he gave to all movements that he deemed would prove beneficial to the city.   During a part of that decade he was also supervisor, and in 1877 he was chairman of the board of education.

Mr. LAKE married Miss Almeda A. DANLEY, a daughter of Cornelius and Sarah DANLEY, of Harlem [Winnebago County], IL, 11 Oct 1849, and of their seven children, three died in infancy.  His first wife died 05 May 1893, and on 25 May 1895 he was united in marriage to Mrs. Phoebe E. BENJAMIN, widow of Willis BENJAMIN, and a sister of his first wife.  The family home is at No. 1313 East State Street, and the social position of the family has ever been one of prominence in cultured society circles.  Fraternally prominent in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Mr. LAKE has been grand master of the grand lodge of the state, and for six consecutive years was representative to the sovereign grand lodge of the United States.  A life of activity, crowned with honors and successes, has been the history of John LAKE, and now at the advanced age of nearly 85 years he is living retired from active business, and quietly spending his last days in the city which witnessed his early business struggles, and which rejoices in his advancement and prosperity, because of the methods which he has ever followed in all commercial transactions.  [See also the Winnebago County, IL, biography of Henry COX, who married Miss Ann REW, half sister of John LAKE.]

Submitted by Cathy Kubly.