Tom Kacich: Century-old journals shed new light on C-U pioneer

Tom Kacich: Century-old journals shed new light on C-U pioneer

Almost 100 years after his death, the grand old historian of Champaign County is still passing on new stories.

A recently discovered journal kept by J.O. Cunningham, the author of 1905's "The History of Champaign County," includes passages about his decision to leave a teaching job in Eugene, Ind., about 50 miles southeast of here, to come to Urbana, and his first days in the county in the summer of 1853.

It offers a raw, unappealing view of life here for early settlers, prompting the question, how did 23-year-old Joseph Oscar Cunningham manage to stay here for another 64 years?

Cunningham's journal entry of his trip from Eugene to Urbana differs from the account he wrote in his definitive history book 52 years later. In the book he reports that the trip took two days, and he says little about the god-awful conditions he endured.

The journal, however, says the trip took three days — he left in a buggy at 4:30 a.m. on June 16 and didn't arrive in Urbana until 4 p.m. on June 18.

Here's his journal entry from Saturday, June 18, 1853: "I find myself this evening much fatigued by the somewhat lengthy journey through the hot sun, oppressive and dusty — my hands, face and neck burnt to a blister — smarting like torment — and added to all other things so disagreeable, very dirty. The latter of which I endeavored to remedy by changing my linen which done rendered me a little more comfortable."

He said he took a walk through town with his half-brother, Jairus Sheldon, and "made the acquaintance of several gentlemen, among them Mr. Coler," the editor of the Urbana Union, who in an earlier letter had offered Cunningham a job.

He wrote that he retired early that night, "but owing to the oppressive heat slept but little."

Last year, David Rogers was sorting through his late mother's collection of stuff — she was a certified appraiser, an antique dealer and ran estate sales in the Bartlesville, Okla., and Kerrville, Texas, areas — when he came upon the two nondescript books of handwritten journal entries.

"My guess is she came across those in one of her estate sales, more than likely," said Rogers, who lives in Little Rock, Ark. "I tried to figure out if there was some kind of connection between Champaign, Illinois, and the country where my mother worked, but I could never find anything. The only supposition I can make is that she saw these journals, saw the age of them, and so she held onto them because she thought they were something of value."

His mother had passed away last summer.

"In the process of closing out the house we were going through her garage and there were all kinds of old books, some of value and some not. These were just stacked on top of the books. I looked at the date on the first one and it was 1853 and like her I thought, well, we just can't throw that away," he said.

He brought the journals back to Little Rock, thumbed through them one weekend, and did some Internet research on Joseph Cunningham.

"One Sunday night I found a contact on a Facebook page at the Cunningham Children's Home and said that I had come across some of Joseph O. Cunningham's journals, and would they be interested in them?" he remembered. "In just like 10 minutes someone wrote back, 'You what?' She was excited and we exchanged some messages. Then I got a message from Cloydia (Larimore, the vice president of advancement at Cunningham). She was so excited."

It's almost miraculous, Rogers said, that the journals were in such good shape.

"They were just sitting on a shelf on top of a bunch of other books. Any number of things could have happened to them out there. That made it even more amazing to me," Rogers said.

It was a week into his employment at the Urbana Union — Champaign County's first newspaper, established nine months earlier — that Cunningham wrote that William Coler "wished me to take hold of the Union." Cunningham and a partner bought the Union on July 14, 1853. Cunningham remained with the fledgling enterprise until 1858.

He had greater ambitions, though, particularly the practice of law, and apparently did not lack confidence.

On July 4, 1853, he wrote in his journal that it was the 77th anniversary of America's independence "and the citizens of this place made arrangements for a celebration here having given me an invitation to join them."

The 23-year-old newcomer was asked to deliver an Independence Day speech and didn't hesitate to say yes.

"I made a short address after the procession had reached the grove, after which we took something to refresh the inner man and then had some more speaking," Cunningham wrote. "We have had a very fine day for the fourth indeed and I think quite agreeable to all who took part in the exercises."

One of the Cunningham journals was filled almost entirely with entries written in the first half of 1853. But it ended with a note written on June 18, 1903: "Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all these years," wrote the 73-year-old former newspaper editor, lawyer, judge, friend of Lincoln, philanthropist and member of the inaugural board of the Illinois Industrial University (later the University of Illinois). "Many friends have fallen but I have been spared with health and a good measure of success."

The second journal begins in 1891, with Cunningham's cursive worsening with age and his entries becoming shorter and less descriptive. A terse July 1893 piece on the great World's Columbian Exposition, the first Chicago world's fair, says only that Joseph and his wife Mary "found rooms and were soon seeing the sights. We remained until Saturday, each day tiring ourselves out and seeing the greatest Exposition."

The second journal concludes with three short, separate entries written on Dec. 12, 1912, Dec. 12, 1914 and Dec. 12, 1915.

Cunningham had been born Dec. 12, 1830, in Lancaster, N.Y.

"Another year has elapsed, which makes me 85 years of age and with a deep gratitude to the giver of all good, I enter upon another year in good health. With the exception of a little less strength and a greater tremor of the hand, I am quite as (illegible). For all this thanks be to God," he wrote.

J.O. Cunningham died April 30, 1917. Mary passed away in 1921. They had no children.

"No man has contributed more in the building up of all that was best and worth while in the life of his community, and no one will be more greatly missed now that we shall see his gentle face no more," wrote the Urbana Courier.

No one knows if there are more Cunningham journals than the two that David Rogers discovered.

"You know there are," said Cloydia Larimore. "I wouldn't be surprised if there were two or three more somewhere."

For Larimore, one particular passage of Cunningham's journal gives her chills. It was written Dec. 6, 1894, and it tells of his and Mary's decision "to give our very dear and beautiful home" (known as "the Cedars" along what is now Cunningham Avenue in north Urbana) to the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. They wanted it to be a "Deaconness and Children's home."

"This home we have sacrificed, improved and beautified for near 25 years, but it is more than we need for our comfort, and the great needs of our homeless and friendless children appeal strongly to sympathetic ones for such an institution as this," wrote Cunningham. "We also feel that these home wants are being overlooked by the church in its goal for extending the faith."

The gift, which included about 15 acres, is now the Cunningham Children's Home, whose mission continues to be service to children and families in need.

"When I read those words 'homeless and friendless children' it was so overwhelming, because as child welfare keeps changing and we talk about funding and all these decisions we have to make," Larimore said, "it's right there. We go right back to, are we serving homeless and friendless children?

"One day one of our boys was in my office. He had received a bicycle for Christmas and I asked him to write a thank you note to the donor. He wrote in the note that 'I hope you gave me the bike because you wanted me to be happy, not because you felt sorry for me. I am happy. I like the bike a lot.' And here Joseph Cunningham said that I don't feel sorry for these kids. They're my friends. They're homeless. We take care of our friends. We take care of our loved ones."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at

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pattsi wrote on July 27, 2014 at 11:07 am

Such a positive reinforcement for all of us to not just "pitch" items, but to think if there is historical significance and how to pass this along. As a community it may be useful to think about doing what many other communities do--establish free, dedicated space where people can drop off "recycle items that can be repurposed."