Pictures and Illustrations.
The family of Alca and Lewis Ferdinand Thomas, ca. 1887. Seated on the floor are Eugenia and Edward; at left, Alca and Lewis; at right, Mabel; and at the piano, in background, Lulu.
Exchange National Bank Building. Polo, Ogle Co. Ills.This drawing is from Combination Atlas Map of Ogle County, Illinois… (Chicago: Everts, Baskin, and Stewart, 1872), page 77.
Thomas family picnic: 1963. Pictured at the annual Thomas family picnic in 1963 are Grace Price, Eugenia Thomas Clinton, Mary Thompson and Edward Smith Thomas.
Illinois Commentary: An Illinois Family of the 1870s.
Katherine Clinton is a great-granddaughter of Lewis F. Thomas and received the letters upon which this article is based from her paternal grandmother, Eugenia Thomas Clinton of Polo, Illinois. A native of Evanston, Illinois, Katherine Clinton attended the University of Wisconsin and the University of Missouri — Kansas City and was awarded the Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 1972. Other articles by Dr. Clinton have appeared in Kansas Quarterly and Journal of the West. She presently resides in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
What was life like in a small Illinois town almost one hundred years ago? A bundle of letters written between March, 1878, and June, 1879, by a man named Lewis F. Thomas offers several answers. Thomas, a resident of Polo, Illinois, was born September 25, 1846.
According to the Thomas genealogy, Lewis's forebears arrived in this country more than a century before his birth. The families of his great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-uncle, Michael and Christian Thomas, arrived in Philadelphia on board the Thistle, from Rotterdam, on August 29, 1730. The brothers were Germans from Klein-Schifferstadt in the Palatinate on the west side of the Rhine River.
Shortly after the end of the Black Hawk War in 1832 the descendants of Michael Thomas migrated to northwestern Illinois and settled in Carroll County, where Lewis Thomas was born to Salina and Joshua Thomas. In 1878 Thomas and his wife, Alca, were living in Polo. They were the parents of two
199small girls, Lulu, born April 19, 1872, and Mabel, born April 6, 1874. Along with his brother-in-law Edward H. Smith, Thomas operated a reasonably prosperous store in which, according to their stationery, they sold "paints, oil, glass, wall and window paper, lamps, picture frames, toys and fancy goods."
The Thomas letters were written between 1878 and 1879 to Thomas's father-in-law, Edward Gustavus Smith, who moved from Polo to Council Grove, Kansas, in March 1878. The letters describe the weather, the condition of Thomas's garden, his attempts to collect rents and interest on the various pieces of property around town owned by "Grandpa" Smith, and the activities and amusements of the Thomas girls. On the surface, this information may seem trivial; but it provides insight into the social history of the time — the
200activities of a small town, the types of popular entertainment available, and the ever-present anxiety over illness and financial reverses.
Perhaps as a result of his farming background, Thomas was always concerned about the weather. It could be a source of anxiety, dismay, or joy to him. On April 12, 1878, for example, he reported, "Thursday the wind blew in a perfect hurrycane from the Southwest." Eleven days later he rejoiced that the weather had become so warm that the stove had been taken out of the store:
"The whole town is a perfect mass of flowers . . . the grass in our yard is almost knee high." On April 30 he reported that it was as warm as summer, and "the prospect of fruit was never better." On May 12, however, the weather turned cold, and a frost "killed some of the corn that is up. It killed my beans and tomatoes and some of the tops of my potatoes. . . . Everybody is talking about the frost today." Some of the nearby farmers, he reported, had to plant corn again.
As June approached, the weather became seasonably warm, and the family took up the usual summer activities. Thomas rose each morning at 4:00 A.M. and worked in his garden or among his beehives. He opened the store at 9:00 A.M. and sometimes took the afternoon off for work around the house. On June 18 he reported that he picked about twenty quarts of "beautifully large" strawberries from his garden. Later he spent several afternoons building "the most beautiful fence in town."
Toward the end of June the whole town prepared for the yearly Old Settlers' picnic and Masonic meeting. The Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before the celebration were spent decorating. Thomas described the results:
"There was a row of pine trees set on both sides of the [main] street from the Depot to the Baptist Church. The trees were from ten to twenty feet high and so close that they touched one another. There was a framework of four arches over the comer by the town pump thirty feet high with a flag on top trimmed with evergreens and flowers, and then a rope wound with evergreens was looped from that to each building on the corner. There were two more arches, one at the Depot and another at the top of the hill" farther up the street. Hanging across the street was the word "Welcome" made of evergreens, roses, and peonies. "There was five large flags stretched across the street and every building was trifmed with evergreens and flags. Some had large trees on top. Polo never looked so well before and perhaps never will again."
The festivities included an impressive parade. "There was by actual count 493 Masons in the procession, six bands, [and] a great many carriages. There was about 125 Knight Templers from Freeport mostly covered with gold and silver braid and tinsel, large plumed hats and swords etc. Headed by that large Freeport band, they made a splendid show. Everyone seemed well pleased.
201There was plenty provided for everybody to eat and drink and most all the strangers went home well pleased with the show and our town. They all said they did not expect so good a time." The Thomases had eighteen people to dinner that day. Lewis Thomas ended his description by saying that the family was quite tired and probably would not do much celebrating on the Fourth of July.
Most of the amusements in Polo that summer were much less hectic than the Old Settlers' and Masonic celebrations. There were picnics and dances, and periodically Thomas took an afternoon off to go fishing at a nearby lake with Alca and the girls. Some evenings they walked to the grove, and he picked mushrooms while the girls gathered flowers. In early August, about four hundred people went on an excursion to Rockford. The annual camp meeting started there on August 14, and by the twenty-first almost everyone in town
202had attended "although the dust was knee deep." But while residents of the town were praying at the camp meeting, some tramps came into town and stole dresses, coins, and silverware from the empty homes.
Polo had a very good baseball team and frequently played teams of neighboring towns. An animal show came to Polo in early September, and Thomas took his daughters to see the monkeys, elephants, lions, and leopards. Mabel was disappointed that there were no bears.
If summer brought outdoor diversions and fun, it also brought disease — in this year, diphtheria. On July 31, Thomas reported that there was a great deal of sickness in the town. By mid-September there had been forty cases of diphtheria, and in one week alone, there were four deaths. Three fourths of the children were out of school. Thomas observed that all the children in the low-lying parts of town had been ill and that the disease was spreading to the old people. The Thomases kept their children home for fear they would come down with the disease. Then on October 2, a case of yellow fever was reported, but it proved to be an isolated instance. Diphtheria still threatened in mid-November, but Thomas was confident that "the sulpher and borax remedy" prepared by Alca would "prevent the disease." Throughout that summer and fall the frequent tolling of the bell at the Lutheran Church was a reminder of the precariousness of life.
On October 8, Thomas announced the arrival of a baby boy born the previous day at 2:00 P.M. Alca Thomas delivered her ten-pound son at home with the aid of a midwife. The doctor did not come until the following day. Lulu and Mabel, who had been sent out of the house to visit friends while Alca was in labor, were quite surprised when they returned. At first Lulu did not like the baby, about whom Thomas wrote, "He sucks his fists and hollers. That is about all I can tell you of him." Eight days later the baby had added considerably to his repertory: "He sucks his thumb and grunts, gasps, hiccups and stretches." Perhaps because society was less thoroughly documented then than today, the Thomases did not select a name for their son until December 3. On October 30, Alca wrote her father that Lulu called her new brother Gil and Mabel called him Lawrence. On December 3, Alca wrote that they had decided on Edward Gilbert. In all subsequent letters, however, Lewis refers to his son as simply "baby."
Mrs. Thomas and the girls enjoyed Edward during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but Thomas's mind was on business. Although farmers in that year said the corn was never better, prices for farm produce were down considerably, and business was bad. Thomas declared that the holiday trade was poorer than ever before. There was little on the Christmas
203trees at most of the churches. The holiday was enjoyed by the children, nevertheless, and Lulu and Mabel hung up their stockings. The girls received a baby jackrabbit for a pet, and each also received "a set of dishes, a ring, a sled, a broom, a peck of hazel nuts and candy." Edward got a rattle.
The next week the temperature varied from 4 degrees below zero to 20 degrees above, and the sleighing was wonderful. Lewis, Alca, and the girls rode on a cutter to dinner at a friend's house. Although Lulu and Mabel suffered from the cold, the grownups enjoyed it tremendously. In January there was a great deal of activity because Grandpa Smith was coming to visit. The girls dressed their dolls in their best clothes. Alca baked extra cakes and pies and "made up the bed with many blankets and comforters." There was also excitement in town — dances and "a big revival at the Methodist Church with a dozen new converts every night." But in February the weather fell to 20 degrees below zero, and life settled into a humdrum routine. Business was bad, and all the tenants, except one, were behind on their rent. The singular exception was a Jewish man named Metz, who was frequently the object of Thomas's anti-Semitic remarks. Thomas allowed other tenants to pay their rent when they had money, and some were in arrears from six months to a year. But from Metz, Thomas demanded two months rent in advance. Furthermore, Metz had to pay immediately or get out. Metz tolerated the situation and renewed
204his lease for another year on March 5, 1879. That month he was the only tenant who paid his rent.
Along with business troubles, the Thomases were plagued with illnesses during February and March. The girls caught cold, and then Alca and the baby became ill. By March 19 they feared the baby's cold would develop into "lung fever" (pneumonia?). For treatment they soaked Edward in "grease and snuff and polticed him with corn meal and fed him onion syrup."
Spring finally came. Edward recovered enough to go "riding in his carriage everyday." Business also picked up. Several houses were under construction, and many older homes were being repaired. The store sold a great deal of wallpaper and paint. In one letter, Thomas relayed Lulu's request for some calico patches: "She is making doll quilts and cannot get as many patches as she wants. And then you know that any that Grandma sends she will think nicer than she can get anywhere else."
During the year in which Thomas wrote to his father-in-law, the Bland-Allison Silver Act was passed, the Greenback Labor party reached the peak of its popularity, James B. Weaver (of Populist fame) was elected to Congress, Reconstruction was grinding to a halt, and there was a major political scandal in New York involving the Republican party machine under the leadership of Roscoe Conkling and the officials of the New York Custom House. If these events touched Lewis Thomas in any way, he did not comment on them.
Thomas died June 17, 1934, at the age of eighty-eight. During his lifetime the world had been transformed. The American continent had been settled. There had been three major wars, and a fourth was beginning. The automobile, airplane, electric light, telephone, telegraph, and countless other devices had been invented, and life had become more convenient, faster, and cheaper. The externals of life for the ordinary man changed a great deal. But after reading Lewis Thomas's letters, one wonders if the important things change at all. On June 4, 1879, Lewis wrote, "A good rain is a splendid thing." It is, indeed Mr. Thomas.