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Wayne County is the birthplace of three men who received the Medal of Honor (MOH), the highest military decoration. U.S. Army Private George F. Berg (1868-1945), born in Mt. Erie, was honored for his valor at El Caney, Cuba, July 1, 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Private Harold A. Garman (1918-1992 was born in Wayne County and later moved to Albion, Illinois. He received the MOH for bravery during events on August 25, 1944 in France during WWII. Private First Class Kenneth M. Kays (1949-1991) was honored for bravery shown on May 7, 1970 in Vietnam. Complete descriptions of their extraordinary courage under extreme conditions are available on www.CHOH.org .
A charismatic preacher, Battenfield served in several churches in the area. His complex end-of-the-world theology included a vision of an imminent religious war. About 1920 he began espousing the “Incoming Kingdom” at the Cisne Christian Church. He believed that his followers should remove to a safe location, Gilbert, Arkansas. Some 250 people from the area sold their property, moved to Arkansas, and created a community to wait out the chaos Battenfield foretold. The events did not materialize and Battenfield’s mental state suffered. He failed a public attempt to raise a community member from the dead. Later he spent time proselytizing Jews in New York and was confined to an asylum for a period. Eventually some of the Arkansas transplants returned to re-start their Illinois lives. Battenfield’s story is complex and easily sensationalized. Yet his conviction and eloquence convinced reasonable people to leave everything behind and follow his lead.
This Fairfield native was born in 1843 and was the son of Richard L. Boggs, a pioneer doctor and friend of Abraham Lincoln. Boggs was educated locally then at McKendree College and the University of Michigan. He served locally as District Attorney, County Judge, Judge of the Circuit Court, and then as Associate Judge of the Illinois Appellate Court. In 1897 he was chosen for the Illinois Supreme Court, serving as Chief Justice in 1900. Throughout his career, he kept his local office and was involved in community progress.
Senator William E. Borah: Born on a homestead in Jasper Township in 1865, Borah attended the Enfield Academy but credited his eloquence to youthful hours practicing speeches behind a horse-drawn plow. Later he moved to Idaho and was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served for 33 years (1907-1940). His oratorical skills were legendary and extended his influence. He successfully led the campaign to defeat the entrance of the U.S. into the League of Nations. He also targeted business monopolies. Though a Republican, he was a “maverick” who voted his conscience. When “the Lion of Idaho” addressed the Senate, the chambers were packed to standing room only because of his eloquence and stamina. A full-size statue near the entrance to the Senate was dedicated after his death. Numerous online sources are available. “The Lion of Idaho…William E. Borah, More than a ‘Little American’” by Dr. Keith Miller (http://hnn.us/articles/636.html) is recommended for its scholarship and Miller’s own connections to the Borah family.
H.G. Ferguson: After initial success in St. Louis, this businessman moved to Fairfield about 1907 to reorganize the bankrupt Sexton Industries, Fairfield’s textile factory, previously operated by his brother-in-law. After some false starts, Ferguson switched the lines to newer styled athletic underwear for men and the business flourished. WWI War Department contracts were also a boost. Ferguson was a driven man, who turned Fairfield into a “company town” complete with employee housing. Somewhat controversially, he absorbed local businesses or set up new ones so that his businesses directly competed with established merchants—many of whom had contributed funds to help Ferguson restart the factory. Ferguson’s hard-driven success made him a dominant figure for about 25 years.
This Pond Creek native was involved in gangster-era activities in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Then his bitter and deadly feud with his former cronies, the local Shelton brothers, extended into the 1960s. Colorful, divisive, shrewd, and considered by many to be “cold-blooded,” Harris managed to evade a guilty verdict in early trials. He was eventually found guilty of murder and imprisoned. His local tales of his life continue to fuel conversations and publications. Taylor Pensoneau’s book Dapper & Deadly: The True Story of Black Charlie Harris is a useful overview.
James V. Heidinger:
Born in Mt. Erie in 1882, and educated in rural schools and Northern Illinois University, Heidinger taught school before becoming a lawyer. Partnering with Judge Carroll C. Boggs and his son, Heidinger was a member of the Boggs, Boggs, & Heidinger firm in Fairfield. He was elected county judge from 1914-1933. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served during the critical WWII era from 1941 to his death in 1945.
This family was among the early settlers in Leech Township. They cleared timber to open land for farming and diverted into lumber and stave businesses. Their increasing holdings in the flood-prone bottom ground sparked their mechanical inventiveness. Trial-and-error process ended up with their invention of the track replacing the wheel on dredge machines. They contracted to dig drainage ditches throughout the county and region. Their progressive ideas transformed local farming. However, their patent was incomplete and they lost the rights and monetary windfall. Their design went on to be used on military tanks, bulldozers, and farming machinery. In the 1930s they developed a drilling rig but it was less successful. The land for Golden Gate was from Leach properties.
Inspired by a Wright brothers’ demonstration flight in Florida in 1909, Fairfield native Fred Morlan sold his automobile to pay for tuition in a rudimentary airplane construction school in Chicago. The novice instructor depended on a set of blueprints which Morlan memorized. He then went to a friend’s place in St. Louis and built a bi-plane, making all the parts himself including the propeller. He had to share an engine with another man, switching it back and forth between frames. In WWI Morlan earned a Purple Heart as a pilot in the new Air Corps. After the war he was active in civic affairs, spearheading the extensive remodeling of the old Methodist Church into a Masonic Lodge.
Tennessee-born Newby enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 at age 35. He was severely injured on April 6, 1862 at Shiloh. Many believed him dead; battlefield records were unreliable. Instead, he may have been imprisoned at the infamous Andersonville prison. Afterwards, he apparently wandered under a different name until he was recognized in Illinois in 1890. His true identity—survivor or imposter after pension payments—was intensely debated by locals and lawyers. Even soldiers who served with Newby found themselves on opposite sides. His trial in Springfield in 1893, where he was represented by Fairfield lawyers, failed to prove his identity and he was imprisoned for a period. This unusual case dominated local newspaper coverage for months.
Born in the Barnhill/Burnt Prairie are in 1897, B. Earl Puckett taught school and then joined a local banking staff. His ambitions led him to a correspondence course in accounting and a move to Indiana. He took hold in the merchandising business and moved up the corporate ladder in New York City. His expertise blossomed after the 1929 stock market crash. Puckett guided his company through the Depression using a mix of salesmanship techniques to turn the company into a chain store. He ended up in charge of the Allied Corporation and was widely considered a “mastermind of retail merchandising. Many modern sales techniques harken to his practices. Puckett invested in the Wayne County oil boom in 1937 with the Robinson & Puckett production company. The company had 87 producing wells within ten years. By 1944 he was among the highest paid 25 executives in the United States. Generous to his home community, the Puckett Foundation has funded well over a million dollars for local scholarships and civic projects.
Personal tragedy resulted in Jacquilinah Rapp becoming the first woman in Southern Illinois to operate her own dry goods store independently. Widowed before the birth of her only child in 1865, she continued to run the family general store in Jeffersonville. Shortly, she bought her partners’ shares and ran the business herself with solid success for 25 years. Her inventory included flour, meal, rice, tea, coffee, crackers, candy, clothing, shoes, boots, quilt batting, dishes, pots, tools, hardware, and cloth. Rapp was a leader in the Methodist Church and a moral force in the town. After her retirement in the 1890s she moved to Fairfield where she helped establish the Ellen Moore Methodist Church. She died in 1929.
These brothers from the Pond Creek area of Wayne County gained fame from their bootlegging activities. Their feud with the Birger gang from Williamson County and their activities in East St. Louis and Peoria made them well-known. At one time they reputedly operated on a big enough scale to draw the attention of Al Capone’s Chicago syndicate. After some deaths, the brothers shifted much of their time to their farming and oil interests in Wayne County while maintaining some bootlegging and gambling activities on the side. A violent feud between the Sheltons and one-time ally Charles “Blackie” Harris ended in a bloody vendetta of murders and arson. The Sheltons moved to Florida in the 1950s. However, the saga of their escapades—some violent, some generous—remains a defining part of local history. Taylor Pensoneau’s book, Brothers Notorious, is a useful introduction to the family members, events, and the bootlegging era.
Born in Austria in 1850, Steiner arrived in the St. Louis area at about age 12. He noticed Fairfield’s opportunity when he passed through on his family’s peddler wagon circuit. With his partner’s financial help, he opened Bach & Steiner clothing in 1874. He was a decided success as a merchant and civic-minded resident. In 1924 he celebrated fifty years in the business with a “Steiner Day” to show his appreciation to the community. He backed a huge parade, a free barbeque in the city park, and a film crew to record the festivities. Thousands attended the event which was the largest parade in the town’s history. A movie of the day was shown in the local theatres. The Steiner clothing business continued for three generations in Fairfield
Julia Maria Hart Russell White: When the Illinois Historical Library honored 120 pioneering women in Illinois in the 1940s, this life-long teacher from Wayne County was included. Her story began in the difficulty of a bad marriage and an early divorce. Her bravery was evident as she organized citizens against violent pro-Southern sympathizers in Wayne County. Her second marriage was to a man severely injured in the Civil War. Knowing of his condition, she hid on Union troop trains in order to reach his bedside in a battlefield hospital in the South. He survived as an invalid. As the family breadwinner and with a son to raise, she spent the remainder of her life in the Wayne County rural school. Eventually her poor eyesight required retirement. A lifelong Methodist, even with hearing and sight impairments, she insisted on weekly attendance at church, choosing a prominent front pew.
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