Harry G. Harding, 1861-1862

by Michael Fair

Born of Anglican descent in far off Otsego County, New York, Harry G. Harding became on of the wealthiest men in the city of Monmouth and one of the most beloved mayors and popular citizens.[1] Harding’s story is one of hard work and perseverance; one might even say it is an example of the American Dream: struggling from nothing and going on to amass a large and plentiful fortune and life.[2]

The story of Harry G. Harding begins with his family origins. The patriarch of the Harding family came to America from England in 1640 and settled in Cape Cod. Chancy Harding, Harry’s father, was born in Middle Haddam, Connecticut, on January 8, 1775. The family moved to Richfield, Otsego County, New York, where Chancy met and married Anne Gates. Otsego County is located north of New York City, near the center of the state.[3] Anne and Chancy had two children: Harry, the oldest, and Chancy.  Anne Gates Harding died on April 6, 1819, a young woman, leaving behind her two sons and their father.  Harry’s father was soon married a second time, to Miss Sally Martin of Richfield, New York. Later the family moved to Iowa Falls, where Sally Marin Gates died in 1885 and Chancy died in 1876.[4]

Harry G. Harding was born on August 25, 1811, in the family home in Otsego County, New York. Harry was brought up in a farming family in a farming community. Farming was a true passion of Mr. Harding’s and the occupation was continuously a part of his life. Harry was educated very well at the common schools of Otsego County, and later at the Academy at Hamilton. Education would play an extensive role in his life, as he would serve on several boards of education throughout his life. From the age of sixteen to twenty-six, Harry split his time between farming and teaching in the local schools.[5] 

    On May 17, 1838 at the age of twenty-six, Mr. Harding married Salinda Brainard. Together the couple had two sons: Delavan, who died in infancy, and De Lloyd. After only a little more than five years of matrimony, Salinda died on August 15, 1843. Harding, like his father before him, remarried.  The second marriage was to Miss Elvira Hubbard and took place on November 17, 1844. The family grew with the addition of four children, only two of which survived infancy. The surviving sons were Fred and Frank, both of whom would go on to attend Monmouth College.[6] 

In 1844, Harry Harding was elected to the New York state legislature. Here the author notes that Harding was wise enough to avoid such a fate and learned enough from his ordeal that he did not wish to serve in the same capacity after moving to Illinois.[7] After leaving the state legislature in New York, Harding returned to the family business of farming. The draw of public office was too strong, and Harding conceded and served on the board of Education for Otsego County for fifteen years. Harding was also elected to serve as Justice of the peace.[8] 

    In 1857, Harding moved his family to Warren County, Illinois, and bought a farm just outside of what is now part of, the city of Monmouth. At the time of his inclusion in the Biographical Album of Warren County, Harding was still alive and had accumulated a great wealth of finance and reputation and had come to own several hundred acres of farmland.[9] Harding would serve on the board of education in Monmouth for fifteen years, and as an alderman and for two consecutive terms as mayor of Monmouth.  It was said strongly of Harding that he was an ardent Republican[10], in that he embodied all that the party stood for, and that he was a strong supporter of the Union cause during the Civil War.[11] Harry G. Harding was elected and served as mayor of Monmouth for two consecutive terms from 1861-1862. This corresponded with the first two years of the War Between the States, a time when federal politics and news articles of battle and military matters fill newspapers all over the country. The two town newspapers, the Democratic leaning Review and the Republican supporting Atlas were no different from any other newspapers across the country. During the election years, specifically 1860 and 1861, the Monmouth Daily Review published the requirements and qualifications necessary to vote in the elections.[12] The newspapers during Harding’s term of mayor seemed to be more concerned with the presidential election and the rising political tensions and the actual war itself than with the mayor of Monmouth, Illinois. Upon leaving office at the end of his second term, Harding left all public service (except the board of education).[13]

 In 1870 Harding was one of the organizers and original board member of the Monmouth National Bank. Harding would serve on the board of directors until his share was bought out in 1874. Subsequently he and his younger brother Chancy went on to establish the Second National Bank of Monmouth. It was during that time of expansion that Harding was able to accumulate his wealth, but he did it in such a way that endeared himself to the people of Monmouth. By the 1860’s and 70’s Harding had acquired many hundreds of acres of land. What he did was to sell or rent out the land to citizens and newcomers to the area for a relatively low rate, and would even help them obtain the materials needed to build a home and start a farm.  He even sold lumber and other building materials to merchants and shopkeepers in town and helped contribute to the physical and economic growth of the city of Monmouth. Harding is noted to have been so benevolent that he would give allowance and extra time for his poorer renters to pay him what they owed and would charge rates so low that the citizens of the area saw him as a great attribute to the community as well as a wonderful and merciful human being.[14] These acts of benevolence added to Harding’s reputation as a caring citizen and a popular man throughout town and the surrounding area.

The Monmouth Daily Review, the town newspaper considered Democratic in its political leanings, reported that "The Honorable former mayor and beloved citizen of the city of Monmouth, and Warren County, passed on the morning of January 1, 1891."[15] In the obituary it says that the former mayor had been lingering under severe illness for some months that had reduced him to the status of an invalid and unable to leave his home. The funeral services were to be held at his residence, at two o’clock in the afternoon of the following Sunday, surely to be attended by many more than simply family and close friends.[16] 

 Considering that the Review was a Democratic supporting newspaper, Harding was written of with a kind and almost memoriam tone even though he was a staunch supporter of the Republican cause, showing that he was a much beloved figure in general, not just by one group or political party. The obituary reads very similar to the article of the Honorable Mr. Harding found in the Portrait and Biological Album of Warren County, Illinois, which was printed in 1886. Within the article there is one mistake on fact: it says that Harding departed this world at the advanced age of eighty years.[17] This would have been true, if Harding had surpassed his birthday on August 25 later that year.[18] Considering that this was still over eight months away, Harding was only seventy-nine at the time of his death.

When Harding passed on at the age of seventy-nine on January 1, 1891, the community felt that had lost an important member of its citizenship.  It was popularly believed that Mr. Harding was one of their most popular and beloved citizens.  He was eulogized as being a man of uncommon character that lent him towards hard work and benevolence.  Harding had amassed enough wealth of finance in his life to provide exceedingly well for his children, but not at the expense of kindness toward his fellow man.  Although he had been born in New York, the people of Monmouth proudly counted him amongst them as claiming that they were as much a part of Monmouth as anyone else, that this was the Harding’s hometown.[19] 

Harding’s story has many elements of the Horatio Alger myth: a rise from obscurity to a position of wealth and posterity, while helping others to achieve a level of success in their own lives.[20] Harding grew up in a simple home and spent much of his life as a farmer and businessman. He gained the trust, and more importantly the respect and admiration of his neighbors for his honesty and candor and served in politics in two different states at different levels. Harding was able to amass such a fortune that he was able to provide extremely well for his family and became one of, if not the wealthiest man of Warren County of the time.  hrough his business ventures and sheer compassion, Monmouth and its citizens were able to grow and develop their community and their personal lives by building homes and swelling the town’s economy. [21] The late Honorable Harry G. Harding was a man and benefactor that any town would love to call “citizen.”

Michael Fair wrote this biography for his historiography class at Monmouth College in the fall of 2005 under the direction of William Urban.

[1]  Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1886), 491.

[2] A term popularized by author Horatio Alger, Jr.,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Dream

[4] Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois, 491.

[5] Ibid.

[6]  Ibid.

[7] Ibid.: “…profit from his first lessons and to steer clear of such fate in Illinois.”

[8] Hugh Moffet and Thomas Rogers, History of Warren County (Chicago: Munsell Pub. Co., 1903), II, 834.

[9] Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois, 491.

[10] Ibid.

[12] The Monmouth Daily Review, November 2, 1860.

[13]History of Warren County, II, 835; in the census of (August) 1870 Harry G. Harding, 59, was listed as a real estate agent, Elvira as a homemaker, Fred E, 23, as a jeweler, Frank W, 21, as an insurance agent.

[14] Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois, 492; the census of (June) 1880 lists him as a banker, age 65, his wife Elvira c, 49, keeping house, with children Fred, 32, cashier at the bank, Fred's wife, Lucy, 31; also Frank W, 31, bookkeeper at the bank, his wife, Nannie L, 26, and their three month old daughter "Murrie" (listed twice, on successive pages), and two female servants.

[15] The Monmouth Daily Review, January 2, 1891.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] History of Warren County, II, 834.

[19] Ibid., 835.

[21] Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois, 492.