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Biography - RALPH PLUMB

A third of a century has passed since this gentleman arrived in Streator, and he is justly numbered among her leading citizens, his labors having contributed largely to her up-building and prosperity. His is an honorable record of a conscientious man, who by his upright life has won the confidence of all with whom he has come in contact. He has reached the age of more than four-score years, but though a long and busy life has whitened his hair he has the vigor of a much younger man, and in spirit and interests seems yet in his prime. Old age is not necessarily a synonym of weakness or inactivity. It need not suggest, as a matter of course, want of occupation or helplessness. There is an old age that is a benediction to all that comes in contact with it, that gives out of its rich stores of learning and experience, and grows stronger intellectually and spiritually as the years pass. Such is the life of Colonel Ralph Plumb, an encouragement to his associates and an example well worthy of emulation to the young.

It is always interesting in biographical research to note something of the ancestry from which one springs and to take cognizance of the characteristics of the family, watching the continuous display of certain traits of character through many generations. A most complete history of the Plumb ancestry is obtainable, the line being traced back in England to the year 1500, and in this country to 1635. Back of these records Plumbs are found – mostly through their wills - through all the centuries to 1180, A. D., in the great rolls of Normandy, thus showing Norman ancestry in the time of Henry II., the great-grandson of William the Conqueror. The first representative of the family in America was John Plumb, who crossed the Atlantic from England in 1635, locating in Wethersfield, Connecticut. He served in Captain Mason's command during the Pequod war, and received a grant of land for his services. Only one of his children was born in America, and no record of any exists except that his son Samuel lived with him in Branford when he died, in 1648. It was from this John Plumb and another who came in 1660 and left descendants that the American branch of the Plumb family sprang, and they have been prominent in the civil and military life of the country ever since. They have been a race of warriors and statesmen, and have been notable and forceful in all the emergencies of their several generations. There were forty representatives of the name in naval and military service during the war of the Revolution. This family was also worthily represented in the war of the Rebellion, and in times of peace has served its country in a most creditable manner. Ebenezer Plumb, the grandfather of the Colonel, was a native of Massachusetts, and fought for the liberty of the colonies. Taking a very prominent part in church work, he was familiarly known as Deacon Plumb, on account of holding the office of deacon for many years in the old church at Stockbridge, Berkshire county, Massachusetts. Theron Plumb, the father of our subject, was born in Berkshire county, Massachusetts, August 17, 1783, and having arrived at years of maturity he married Miss Harriet, daughter of Samuel Merry, of Herkimer county, New York.

Colonel Plumb of this review is a native of the Empire state, his birth having occurred in Busti, Chautauqua county, March 29, 1816. In 1820 he was taken by his parents to Hartford, Ohio, where he spent his boyhood days, attending the common schools until fourteen years of age, when necessity demanded that he earn his own livelihood, and he put aside his textbooks. He entered upon his business career, being employed as a gardener, receiving the small sum of eighteen and three-fourths cents per day in compensation for his services. However, he applied himself diligently to his work and won the good will and confidence of his employer, Seth Hayes, who gave him a position in his store, conducted under the firm name of Richard Hayes & Company. Mr. Plumb remained there until he had attained his majority, and in the meantime he improved his education as opportunity offered, devoting much of his leisure time to study.

When he had reached man's estate Mr. Plumb entered into partnership with his employer, under the firm name of Hayes & Plumb, and an extensive trade was enjoyed by them. They extended their business by establishing branch stores, and Mr. Plumb gave evidence of his superior business ability by personally superintending three stores in a successful manner. Thus with the passing years he grew in influence and in affluence, and his fellow townsmen, appreciating his worth, called him to public office. In 1854 he was elected to the Ohio legislature, where he served for three sessions. About that time he disposed of his business interests in Hartford and removed to Oberlin, in order to provide his children with better educational privileges.

In 1858 he was an active factor in an episode that has become historical and that clearly proved his position in regard to the slavery question. A fugitive slave, John Price by name, had gone to Oberlin and secured work.

His master, learning of his whereabouts, sent a slave-catcher to capture him and take him back to Wellington, a place nine miles away, where an officer with papers for his arrest awaited him. Fearing that Price might recognize the slave-catcher, two strange men were sent and told him that a gentleman wished to hire him. With the trusting disposition of the negro, fearing no treachery. Price accompanied the men. Oberlin then became the scene of wild excitement, the anti-slavery people being greatly roused by the injustice of the methods that had been pursued. Five hundred strong, they rescued the slave and sent him off to Canada. Mr. Plumb, with thirty-six others of the party, was arrested and thrown into jail. For eighty-four days they were incarcerated, during which time Mr. Plumb, with the assistance of two of his fellow prisoners, established and edited The Rescuer, an antislavery paper, even printing the same in the jail, where one of the party, owning a press and being a printer, did the work. This paper had a wide circulation and the arrest and imprisonment of those thirty-seven men caused the wildest excitement in the county and state. They were anxious for and demanded a trial. The town, county, state and even the federal government did not know what to do with them; they were a veritable white elephant on the hands of the authorities. During the legislative career of Mr. Plumb he helped to secure the passage of a bill defining the crime of kidnaping, and of this the citizens of Oberlin took advantage at this time and had the two men who inveigled the slave into the hands of the officers arrested for kidnaping him. This was like a thunder-clap out of a clear sky to the authorities and brought them to time; and they opened negotiations with the prisoners for their release, being secretly glad to get rid of them. They were released in consideration of the kidnapers' not being prosecuted. During these eighty-four days of incarceration the thirty-seven prisoners were the heroes of the hour. Their imprisonment was a continuous reception, people coming from all parts of the country by the thousands to visit them and encourage them in the stand they had taken against oppression and injustice. At last the prison doors were opened with eclat and the prisoners welcomed with a band of music and the salute of one hundred guns.

Mr. Plumb continued a firm advocate of anti-slavery principles; and, being a strong advocate of the Union cause at the breaking out of the war of the Rebellion, he received the appointment of assistant quartermaster of a division, with the rank of captain. He was quartermaster on the staff of James A. Garfield, and was one of the General's closest friends and warmest admirers and served with him until the General became chief of staff for General Rosecrans. During the latter part of the great struggle he was quartermaster of Camp Dennison, and was brevetted colonel for meritorious service. During his service as quartermaster he handled immense sums of money without the loss of a dollar to the government, and at the close of the war he returned to Oberlin with a most honorable record.

Since the year 1866 Colonel Plumb has been identified with the interests of Streator, and to no man does the city owe its up-building, improvement and progress in a greater degree. He was chosen by a large syndicate of capitalists to become their resident manager at Streator, and he purchased for them four thousand acres of coal lands. Under his supervision the development of the mines was commenced, and four hundred miles of railroad was built in order to provide shipping facilities for the output. The marked business and executive ability of Mr. Plumb was manifest in the success which attended the new enterprise from the beginning. It yielded handsome financial returns to the members of the company and brought to Mr. Plumb a deserved prosperity. He founded and laid out what is now the city of Streator, personally giving every street its title, and naming the place in honor of Dr. Streator, who was president of the syndicate of which Colonel Plumb was manager. From the beginning our subject has been most closely identified with the progress and improvement of the place and has aided materially in its development. The leading hotel of the city bears his name, as does the opera house, and at his own expense he built one of the finest high-school buildings, furnished with all modern conveniences for educational purposes, and presented it to the city. It was erected and equipped at a cost of more than forty thousand dollars, and is one of the finest in the state. No public enterprise of Streator has solicited his aid in vain. His co-operation with movements tending to promote the general welfare has been hearty, generous and prompt, and often he has been the leading spirit in measures that have advanced the material, social, intellectual and moral interests of the community.

In his political views Colonel Plumb has always been a stanch Republican, unfaltering in support of his party, and in addition to serving in the state legislature of Ohio he was Streator's first mayor, holding the office for two terms. His administration was of great value, and he ever exercises his official prerogatives for the benefit of the city. In his elections to the mayoralty he was the unanimous choice of the citizens, having no opposition. In 1884 he was elected to represent his district in congress, was re-elected in 1886, and after four years' service retired to private life

While prominently connected with public affairs and occupied by extensive business interests. Colonel Plumb is a man of domestic tastes, and his interest has ever centered in his home, his family relations being ideal in character. In 1838 he married Miss Marrilla E. Borden, one of the friends of his early youth. She resided in Hartford, Trumbull county, Ohio, a daughter of Philo Borden, who was a native of New England and was of Puritan descent. He was a farmer, a captain of the state militia, and at one time the postmaster of Hartford. Mrs. Plumb was born September 16, 181 8, and by her marriage she became the mother of three daughters, who grew to years of maturity, but are now deceased. The eldest, Geraldine, passed away July 1, 1875; Harriet Eliza died January 24, 1861; and Francenia M. was called to the home beyond February 11, 1872. On the 15th of October, 1898, Mr. and Mrs. Plumb celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of their marriage, having throughout that long period traveled life's journey together, sharing with each other its joys and sorrows, its adversity and prosperity.

A contemporary biographer has said: "Mrs. Plumb is as popular in Streator as is her honored husband. She is a lady of beautiful character, in which the twin virtues of charity and benevolence shine with a light which has made life easier and happier for numbers of people. She is a patron of the Ladies' Library at Streator, and for eighteen years has furnished it a home, rent free, in the Plumb opera-house block. She was in sympathy with her husband's anti-slavery principles and has done much for the colored race, donating liberally to southern colleges, among which is the Freedmen's College and the Fisk University at Nashville, Tennessee, and various other institutions of learning. So broad is the charity of this noble woman that she seeks to help the deserving poor, even to the extent of giving pleasure as well as assistance. She and her husband have donated liberally to the college at Oberlin, Ohio, where her daughters were educated, and is a stanch supporter of the Good Will Church of Streator, as its treasury will show. She is a member of no one church, but a firm believer in all religions, regardless of creeds. She is a womanly woman and much beloved by her own sex, and has hosts of friends, among whom there are many who owe her a boundless debt of gratitude for help and sympathy, as well as financial aid given in times of trouble and distress."

Colonel Plumb has for some years practically lived a retired life, yet in a measure superintends his investments. His has been a very active career, and the rest which he is enjoying in his palatial home in Streator is well merited. He has left the deep impress of his individuality upon almost every department of the city life wherein honorable men find an interest, and the beautiful and enterprising city may be said to be a monument to the diligence and ability of the founder.

Extracted by Norma Hass from Biographical and Genealogical Record of LaSalle County, Illinois published in 1900, volume 1, pages 9-13.

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