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Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co., Historical Publishers
186 Dearborn Street

Page 709

WILLIAM G. GREENE, farmer and banker, Tallula; son of William and Elizabeth (Graham) Greene, who were of English descent. His grandfather, Jarvis Greene, was one of the pioneers of Kentucky, emigrating there from North Carolina while the country was yet a wilderness; he was killed by the Indians during the battle of Blue Lick, in August 1781. It was in a fort at Bryant Station, erected by Daniel Boone as a protection against Indians, that William Greene, father of the subject of this sketch, was born; his early life was spent in the Kentucky wilds; and at the age of 21, he married, remaining in Kentucky some ten years; then removed to Overton, Tenn., and engaged in farming, locating on the Cumberland, near the mouth of Obeys River. It was this place that William G. Greene was born, Jan. 27, 1812. His father remained about fifteen years in Tennessee. At that time, the tide of emigration was turned to the fertile and beautiful lands of Illinois, and Mr. Geene resolved to try his fortune in the new country; the farm was accordingly disposed of; a few household goods and other articles were packed together in a wagon and the family, the younger members in the rude conveyance and the older boys trudging along on foot, started on their northward journey. The region to which they were directing their steps was not yet known by the name of Illinois. The French settlers of St. Louis had bestowed upon it the name of St. Gamil, and Sagama, Sangaman and Sangamon were variations of this. The family reached a point in what is now Menard Co., near where Tallula now stands, and there settled and purchased from one Royal Potter a farm. This spot was afterward the residence of the elder Mr. and Mrs. Greene until their deaths. William was a boy of 9 when the family made Illinois their home; thenceforth his history was closely identified with that of the Prairie State. His early education was such as the rude advantages of a community destitute of any system of public instruction could furnish. The first school he attended was kept in a log schoolhouse, built by the combined efforts of the neighborhood; it stood on Rock Creek, and the school was taught by a man named Compton. He afterward was a pupil of T.M. Fletcher, one of the pioneer teachers in that section of the State, who taught under the old shed of a band-mill. But though the facilities for obtaining an education were necessarily very restricted, to the active mind of young Greene they were enough to form the basis of a sound and substantial education, studying as he did in the summer, under the shade of a wildwood, and in winter, by the flickering light of the back-log fire. The house of Greene's father was within a few miles of Salem, and when Abraham Lincoln made that his home in 1831, Greene became one of his acquaintances and a friendship was formed that lasted till the death of the latter. Lincoln was then 21 and Greene three years younger, but as far as education was concerned, the latter had the advantage, and from him Lincoln learned his first lesson in English grammar. In 1832, Greene laid aside his studies and enlisted in the Black Hawk war. Lincoln was chosen Captain of the company raised at Salem. They served their country for twenty days, but they were days characterized by hardship rather than glory. It was in 1832, when Mr. Greene was 20, that he entered into his first speculation, which deserves mention; not only on account of its success as a first business venture, but by reason of its historical association with Lincoln, the incident being mentioned in detail by Holland in his life of Abraham Lincoln and by other biographers of the distinguished President. A man named Reuben Radford kept a small store in New Salem; the "Clary's Grove Boys," an organized band of desperadoes and a terror to the community, often visited the village and kept Radford in constant alarm. He had kept the place two or three weeks, when one night he went over to his brother-in-law's, a few miles away, and left a younger brother, Jackson Radford in charge, instructing him if the "Clary's Grove Boys" came, not to let them have but two glasses of whisky apiece. That very night they came; they were refused the whisky and thereupon turned young Radford out and helped themselves. Before they dispersed, the store was pretty well torn out and the contents lay in a confused mess on the floor. It happened the next morning Greene had started before daylight, with a bag of corn before him on a horse, to the old mill, just below Salem, in order to be first with his turn. Just before reaching Salem, he was passed by a man riding rapidly on horseback; it was Radford, who had heard of the fate of his grocery and was galloping to the scene. Greene arrived on the spot a moment after Radford, just in time to hear him exclaim, "I'll sell this to the first man that makes me an offer." Greene rode up to the solitary window and sticking in his head, and taking a hasty glance at the state of affairs, said, "I'll give you $400 for it." The offer was at once accepted, with the understanding that the purchaser should have six months in which to make payment. Greene met Lincoln a short distance from the store and the latter proposed to go over and take an inventory of the contents; this was done when the value was found to amount to over $800. The same day, he sold the store to Lincoln and a man named Berry; they taking Greene's place on the note for $400 and giving him, in addition, $265 in money and a fine horse, saddle and bridle, belonging to Berry. Radford would not contest to the arrangement about the note unless Greene became their security, to which he at last agreed. The business soon went to pieces. Green assisted Lincoln to close up the store and then, as surety, was compelled to pay the note of $400 to Radford. Thus Lincoln became indebted to Greene for that amount. In their conversation, this was invariably humorously alluded to as the "National Debt." Six years later, when Mr. Greene had removed to Tennessee, and Lincoln had become a lawyer in Springfield, the latter wrote him, stating that he was ready to discharge the liabilities of himself and former partner to the utmost farthing. The friendship between Greene and Lincoln was never interrupted. Horse-racing was then one of the amusements common in the vicinity of Salem and Lincoln was frequently selected as judge in these races. The honesty of his decisions gained for him the soubriquet of "Honest Abe," in bestowing which upon him Mr. Greene bore his part. In 1833, Mr. Greene became a student of the Illinois College at Jacksonville. Leaving home with $20 in his pocket and a homespun suit of clothes on his back, he determined to have an education if energy and economy could carry him through. He entered the industrial department where students were paid 8 to 10 cents per hour for their labor. Here began a course of unflagging industry, which was increased rather than diminished through the three years' course at this institution, and in which was laid the solid foundation of a liberal education. He worked every hour of the day not occupied by recitations and pursued his studies far into the night; for Saturday's work he would receive seventy-five cents; he prepared his own food, which cost him thirty-five cents per week. He was not long in attracting the attention of Dr. Edward Beecher, then President of the school. His perfect lessons, his happy faculty of making clear the most puzzling problems, and his wonderful industry during working-hours, caused Dr. Beecher to interview him on several occasions for the purpose of having him enter the theological course, Beecher and Sturtevant promising to furnish him means to take him through to graduation; but he told them that the Lord had never called him to preach and, moreover, he believed that in his case a self-earned education was essential to after success. He aimed to clear a little more money every day than he spent, and so well had he employed his time that when he left school, at the end of three years, he had two good suits of store clothes, eighty acres of land that he had entered and $60 in money, $40 more than he had left home with. Richard Yates was a student in the institution at the same time, and a lasting friendship was formed between the two. On one occasion, while Yates was a guest of Greene's during a vacation, the later took him up to Salem to make him acquainted with Lincoln. They found him flat on his back on a cellar door, reading a newspaper. Greene introduced the two, and thus the great War Governor of Illinois and the great War President began their acquaintance. At the conclusion of his college course, Mr. Greene went to Kentucky, near Danville, where he first became a private tutor in the family of Mr. George Carpenter, a prominent man of the neighborhood. He also taught a Grammar School by lectures for a time with great success, and then went to Tennessee and took up his residence in White Co. in the central part of the State. He here became Principal of the Priestley Academy. It was during his residence here that he became acquainted with the lady who is now his estimable wife; her maiden name was Louisa H. White; she was the daughter of Woodson P. and Nancy White; her father was one of the fist citizens of the county, and for several terms was a Representative in the State Legislature. Their marriage was celebrated March 31, 1837; Mr. Greene was 25 and she was 17 years of age. He continued to teach school for a few months after his marriage and then returned to Illinois, remaining eighteen months; then again returned to Tennessee, and was appointed Deputy County Sheriff. In 1842, he removed to Mississippi and settled at Aberdeen, but, on account of the unhealthy climate, he resided there but six months and then removed to Memphis, where, on a capital of a little more than $100, he started a grocery and provision store. The two and a half years of his residence in Memphis were occupied with this and other business operations in which he met with favorable results and acquired a considerable amount of property. In the spring of 1845, he returned to Illinois with his family, now consisting of wife and three children, each of whom were born in different States. He purchased a farm in Mason Co., on Qaiver Creek, and began operations as a general land-dealer and farmer, in both of which he was very successful. He sold his property in Mason Co., in 1853, and purchased the farm near Tallula, on which he has ever since resided. Here he engaged largely in farming and stock-dealing, meeting with a success similar to that which has characterized almost every enterprise in which he has engaged. He has always farmed on the principle that there are two ways of doing a thing. As he says himself "Everything has two ends - a right end and a wrong end. If you begin at the wrong end, everything will go wrong; if you begin at the right end, the seasons, the elements, all Nature become your helpers. Every farmer should become rich if he works in harmony with Nature. I court her with all the devotion a young husband brings to his bride. Nature is not a slave; she is a friend and an ally." In addition to agriculture, his attention of late years has been directed to other channels. He has largely assisted in the development of the railroad system of the State. He was one of the original Directors of the Tonica & Petersburg Railroad, which has since become incorporated with the Jacksonville Division of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. He was interested in building up several towns along the line; Mason City is one of these; Greenview has its name from him, and he was one of the original founders of Tallula. His keen business foresight brought him in possession of several town sites along the route of the Chicago & Alton Railroad, and afterward, when the towns became built up, he was enabled to realize a handsome return from his investments. The Jacksonville Division was in a very precarious condition at the conclusion of Yates' administration as President; the whole enterprise, indeed, was in serious danger of a collapse. Mr. Greene was at the time one of the Directors, and at the earnest solicitation of his colleagues, particularly Yates himself, consented to assume for a time the Presidency. The energy and business sagacity which he brought to his duties, were effectual in placing the road on a firmer basis than ever before known. The company was saved from bankruptcy, and the judgment of the other directors thoroughly justified in assigning him the task. He was active in obtaining the charter of the Springfield & North -Western Railroad, was one of the original Board of Directors and its first president. It was largely through his energy that subscriptions for the building of the road were obtained and a part of the road constructed. Upon the road passing into the possession of the present lessee, Mr. Greene retired from the management. Mr. Greene has never divided his forces but has given his energies supremely to business. When Mr. Greene had decided on his life course, he threw overboard the solicitations of Lincoln and Yates and set himself to work at his chosen calling. He, however, played an important part privately in one political campaign; that part was not as a politician but as a friend. In 1859, Richard Yates was an aspirant for the Governorship of Illinois, but Leonard Swett seemingly stood an equal chance for the nomination. The canvass prior to the Convention was carried on with great warmth and Yates was fearful of the result. Lincoln had established himself at Springfield and, in his recent debates with Douglas, had earned a national reputation. As the Convention day drew near, Yates felt that he must make a friend of Lincoln and decided that their old companion Greene was able to manipulate the matter to the satisfaction of both; accordingly, Yates came to see Greene and told him he was certain of the nomination, provided Lincoln could be induced to "lean" to his side; moreover, that Lincoln stood a favorable chance for the Republican nomination for President and he asked Greene to interest Lincoln in his favor in the race for Governor; in return, Yates would use his influence to bring Lincoln into prominence as a candidate for the Presidency in 1860. Mr. Greene assented to the arrangement; they rode over to Springfield and once more the three, who had made acquaintance at Salem a quarter of a century before, stood together. Their circumstances had greatly changed since their first meeting; one had become an active member of Congress and now with high hopes, energy and shrewdness, had hewn his way through obstacles, before which others would have retreated, and raised himself to wealth and prominence; the third was rapidly growing into fame as a statesman. Little did any of them think that tremendous issues were gathering around the path of one of that trio. Greene and Lincoln retired to the consultation room of the office; there Greene unfolded to Lincoln the desire of Yates for his support. There had been a coolness between the two for some years, and Lincoln was glad of an opportunity to the Christian's coal of fire on the head of Yates. Greene next broached the Presidential matter; he showed Lincoln the feasibility of his aspirations, and revealed the plan of introducing him the East; Yates would write Congressman George Briggs a letter and have him work up a call from the New York Central Committee for Lincoln to deliver an address on the political condition of the country at the Cooper Union. "In fact, Abe," continued Greene, "Dick considers your destiny and his linked together, and that letter is now on its way to New York." Yates was nominated and elected; Lincoln was invited to New York, and in the following May received the Presidential nomination. Mr. Greene voted for Yates for Governor in 1859 and Lincoln for President in 1860. When the rebellion broke out, his sympathies were warmly enlisted in support of the Administration and Central Illinois knew no stronger Union man than William G. Greene. Three of his sons enlisted in the army and fought during the war. When, at the darkest hour of the struggle, the Governor called for money, with a firm confidence in the result which never forsook him, he did not hesitate to do what he could to furnish the Government with the means to carry on its work. Upon the passage of the internal revenue law, considerable trouble was apprehended from its working in the Ninth Illinois District, in which Menard Co. was embraced. President Lincoln selected his old friend Greene as the man above all others to put the law in successful operation the district. With some reluctance he accepted the appointment, but, after the work of collecting the revenue was thoroughly organized and the danger of conflict between the authorities and the people had passed, the office was resigned. His friendship with President Lincoln was still maintained and he was frequently his guest at Washington, where he always met with a cordial greeting. The President relied much on his judgment in giving correct statements of the condition of popular sentiment throughout the country in regard to the war. In his own section, his assistance was important in preventing threatened collisions between agents of the Government and parties disaffected with war measures. His influence was always sought by aspirants throughout the state for political appointments at the hands of the President. He continued an earnest supporter of the Administration while Lincoln remained in office, and, when at last the hand of the assassin finished the work of the people's President, just as he had brought the country safely through the horrors of a civil war, none mourned more sincerely over his untimely grave or lavished richer honors on his memory than his old-time friend, William G. Greene. Mr. Greene has been closely identified with business enterprises near his home, and his energy and capacity have done much toward the development of the manufacturing and commercial interests of the county. In connection with Mr. J.A. Brahm, in September 1866, he established at Petersburg the first bank in Menard Co., known as the Banking House of Braham & Greene; he also owns South Valley Coal Shaft, of Petersburg, and is one of the principal parties who have brought to their present successful operation the woolen-mills of the same place. In the town of Petersburg he has ever taken a deep interest, maintaining that it should be made the manufacturing center for which its natural advantages adapt it. The growth of the town has afforded him peculiar gratification. Mr. and Mrs. Greene have had nine children, six of whom are now living, who bid fair to become worthy citizens of this or any other community in which they may ultimately locate. The only daughter, Miss Katie, has just completed a classical education at Stuttgart, Germany, where she has been for the last three years. Well may Mr. and Mrs. Greene be proud of their only daughter, for beyond a doubt she is the most accomplished lady of Central Illinois We see in the life of William G. Greene, a boy in the early times of Illinois, with very little aid from parents or any other source, pursing a life of honest industry, using his time to the best advantage, dutifully aiding his parents in making their settlements in the new country, and educating himself and making and saving money and property at the same time. We find him going to mill mounted upon the back of one of his father's sturdy farm horses, buying for a mere nominal sum, of a man in despair, his store rifled by roughs, and selling it the same day at an advantage of several hundred dollars to Abraham Lincoln, the future President, then a young man; we next see him at Illinois College, working his way, keeping up with his classes and saving money; and now, a man honored and still in the vigor of his old age, a very wealthy farmer and banker, in his quiet and beautiful home, surrounded by his noble family. He is public spirited and liberal, and a devoted Christian. Few men there are who can look back over their past life with more satisfaction than Mr. Greene, who now in his ripe old age lives to see the usefulness and prosperity of his children, who look t their parents with honor and pride, as they have lived a noble life an climbed up from poverty, until now possessed of property valued at $600,000.

1879 Index

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