William A. Sawyer, 1899-1903


by Matthew Stubbs 


           There comes a time, for every city, when it needs a helping hand to get where it wants or needs to be. This assistance can come in many forms. A few of the forms are Honesty, Leadership and Hard Work; that is what William A. Sawyer brought when he entered his two terms as Mayor of Monmouth. I

            In order to gain a greater understanding of W. A. Sawyer, one must understand the city at that time. Monmouth township is located in north central Illinois, bounded by Spring Grove township on the north, Cold brook township on the east, Lenox township on the south and Hale township on the west. Cedar and Talbot creeks and their branches water the communities, giving it an ample water supply and drainage. Along the watercourses, the land is broken, and there is considerable timber. The other portions are more level prairie land with fertile soil and admirably adapted for agricultural purposes. John B. Talbot, his mother and her nephew, Allen G. Andrews, were the first settlers of Monmouth township. They arrived here from Kentucky in 1828 and settled on section 2. John Talbot was a justice of the peace prior to the organization of the county, served it as one of the first county commissioner, and was otherwise prominent in the community.[1]

            In 1829 Abraham Swartz settled in the timber northeast of the present site of Monmouth, and the area was known as Swartz’s Grove for many years thereafter.  Another 1829 settler was Peter Butler and he located on section 36. The stockade was erected there, where the settlers went to refuge during the Black Hawk War. Having commanded a company of “Rangers,” subsequently Butler became a county commissioner, county surveyor, sheriff, and represented the county in both houses of the State Assembly.

            The organization of the county in 1830, and the selection of Monmouth as the county seat the following year, naturally attracted settlers to this township. In 1830 the population increased by the addition of the families of John and Robert Kendall, the former of who settled on a claim one and one-half miles north of Monmouth. The latter located on land now in the city of Monmouth, and on his property was erected another stockade during trouble with the Indians. Samuel Gibson, who came to Monmouth about the same time as the Kendalls, located west of Monmouth, and his home was used as one of the voting places at the first general county election.[2]

            According to the assessment rolls for 1901, Monmouth Township had 1,158 horses, 2,063 cattle, 30 mules, 169 sheep, and 2,052 hogs. Personal property was valued at 2,012,945 dollars, and assessed at 408,780 dollars. Lands were assessed at 370,000 dollars, and lots at 634.325 dollars. Twenty-six years later in 1927, Monmouth Township has 806 horses, 2,047 cattle, 63 mules, 157 sheep, and 2,818 hogs. The personal prosperity is valued at 2,397,670 dollars, and assessed at 1,193,835. Lands are assessed at 892,975 dollars and lots at 1,942,825 dollars. There are 1,050 automobiles in the township. According to the government census reports Monmouth Township had a population of 8,081 in 1890; of 8,682 in 1900; of 10,298 in 1910, and of 9,235 in 1920.[3]

            William Arthur Sawyer was born on September 23, 1857, to Admiral and Elizabeth Thompson,[4] in Noble County, Indiana, and was educated in the common schools of the area. His first major manner of employment was working for the C. B. & Q. as a telegraph operator for several years. In 1883, he left Noble County and settled in Monmouth were his climb to success started. 

            At the time of his arrival, W. A. Sawyer entered the hardware business in partnership with George and Henry Pillsbury. The store was thus named Pillsbury & Sawyer. At the time of the creation of the Illinois Bankers Life Association, he was named secretary, an office that he held until his death. In finding out about this, there is information on the Organization that needs to be shared.

            The Illinois Banker’s Life Association had been founded November 3, 1897, and its first office was in the Odd Fellows building, on the north side of the public square, above the current location of Stanton Insurance. It was reinsured by the Illinois Bankers Life Assurance Company on November 19, 1929. At the end of 1897, there were 536 charter policyholders and the insurance in force added up to 800,000 dollars. By 1941, however, it had grown to a firm with assets of 26,000 dollars and insurance force of 108,000,000 dollars. During the 44 benefits of more than 31,000,000 dollars had been paid to policyholders and beneficiaries. At the time there were 2,250 employees in the office here, and payroll of 400,000 dollars. W. A. Sawyer’s envision still lived on as his son Arthur T. Sawyer was acting secretary in 1941.[5]     

            During the first few years of the latter concern’s organization, W. A. Sawyer divided his time between the hardware store and the office of secretary.   Later, as the business of the latter company assumed larger proportions, he disposed of his store interests and spent his full time in work of the secretarial ship. From 1897 until his death, he conducted the secretarial duties of the company with attention and integrity that marked him as a real success.

            Possessed of a tireless energy, he was also prominent in other lines of endeavor. In 1905, when the Monmouth Trust and Savings Bank was organized, he was elected a director of that institution and continued as such until the close of his life. Sawyer also served as a capable member of the board of Monmouth education from 1909 forward. This was a result of holding the position of mayor of Monmouth from 1899 to 1903. He also was an interested member of the Knights of Pythias and Monmouth lodge B. P. O. Elks No. 397, where he was greatly popular with all the members.

            W. A. Sawyer had an influential family.  On June 24, 1884, in Monmouth, W. A. Sawyer was untied in marriage with Miss Louise A. Pillsbury (1861-1932), the accomplished daughter of George Pillsbury, and resided at No.115 South B Street, Monmouth. They lived at that address by the census of 1900, which shows that he and his family were living at that location.[6] To this union were born six children: Edith, George P., Henry G., Arthur T., Louise A., and Willie A.  Edith (1861-1932) resided at home with her mother and may have been attending Monmouth College for the city directory says that she is a student.[7] Their eldest son, George P., worked at the Cerro de Pasco Mining Company of New York City.  Henry G. who was employed by the Western Electric Company in Chicago. Arthur T. (1897-1942) worked at Illinois Bankers Life Association just like his father and stayed in Monmouth, Illinois.  Louise A. (1900-1972) moved to Georgia to be a teacher at the Georgia State Women’s College, in Valdosta.[8] Their youngest child, Willie A. Sawyer, born in 1894, died at the tender age of three, from illness and cerebral spinal meningitis.[9]

            On political matters, Sawyer was a supporter of the Democratic (Union) party and always been a leading figure in the affairs of the city, county, and state. During the last sixteen years of his life, he was a member of the Warren County Democratic committee, and served as county chairman for five of those years.

            Being a Knight of Pythias meant much to Sawyer and this brotherhood might have reflected his mind set future events. The Order of Knights of Pythias is a great international fraternity, which was founded on February 19, 1864, by Justin H. Rathbone, and embraces more than two thousand subordinate lodges in the United States and Canada. The primary object of fraternal organizations is to promote friendship among men and to relieve the suffering of the surroundings. The distinguishing principles of the Order of Knights of Pythias are “ Friendship, Charity and Benevolence.”

            The organization bases its lessons and rituals largely on the familiar story of the friendship of Damon and Pythias, who were historical figures living about four hundred or more years before the beginning of the Christian era. The figures were members of the school, founded by Pythagoras, who was known as the father of Greek philosophy. To become a member of the Knights of Pythias, one must complete certain vigorous tests. The object of the brotherhood was the uplifting and purification of society. Strict morality, absolute truthfulness, honor, and integrity were thoroughly inculcated in the minds of the membership. Because Sawyer was a part of one chapter of this order, he was to attend meetings that were held bimonthly or whenever one was needed.

            W. A. Sawyer was elected Mayor  in 1899 and 1901. The actual dates and times could not be deciphered due to the lack of information or the inability to read the sources from copies of microfilm. But there is an article on the election of his retirement from mayor.  The Union party went on to defeat the Progressives, whose candidate R.R. Murdock, was elected mayor by 45-majority vote. Murdock defeated Mr. French on April 24, 1903, for mayor of Monmouth. This was dreadful for W. A. Sawyer because it was not his party member that was elected.[11]

        There is also an article on the last meeting that W. A. Sawyer attended as mayor. This article was especially influential because it had Sawyer’s farewell speech to council. In this speech, he gives the issues that he had to deal with during his four years as Mayor.  City council met and organized to discuss the changing of the guard.  Monmouth city government stepped down and the new took charge of the municipal affairs.  Mayor Sawyer, after four years of service, as the chief executive, laid down the burden and Murdock of taking up the reins of the city government as mayor.  The old council gave place to the new and the appointees entered in on their duties.  The will of the people expressed at the polls had gone into effect and the new regime commenced.  The old mayor and minutes of the last regular meeting called the old council to order and two special meetings minutes were read.  Alderman Herdman introduced the following resolution, which was adapted:

Resolved that W. A. Sawyer retires from the office of mayor of the city and thereby has his relation with the council ceases. We, as members of the body, desire hereby to tender to him our sincere thanks for the kind and courteous treatment, which he has characterized his relations with us and for the impartial and gentlemanly manner, which he has resided over the council. We congratulate him on the excellent condition of the city’s finances over which he has had direct supervision and for the manner in which the many public improvement which have been carried forward. Our best wishes for his future success go with him as he leaves us and we will ever bear in min the pleasant relations that have existed between us. 

Mr. Sawyer then delivered his farewell address to the council:

The financial department is one of the most important of any in the city to the honest accountant conservative judgment depends on the success of both public and private interest. Although given a large floating indebtedness and a loose system of accounting, with a most objectionable mode of paying out the city’s money, much improvement has been brought into this department. Mr. E. J. Clarke has held the reasonable position of the city collector and comptroller for the past four years and at the close of each year, his books have been found in such good shape that the auditing committees were able to at once learn and okay the true condition of the city’s finances. The year past is the first for a number of years that the total expenditures have not exceed the total resources of the city. We find the Water Works plant in a condition that was declared by all, at the time, as a menace to the safety of the city. The machinery had been run constantly for years. There was no reserve force at the station for an emergency at a serious and critical moment.  After laborious study and investigation, a plan of improvement was devised and adopted.  This improvement was made while the expense has been considerable. I believe time will show that the plan adopted was the most feasible and practicable that could have been found. While the system is not working to the satisfaction of everyone at this time, I believe that those familiar with the subject who are to remain will buy their advice and experience be able to complete the work to the entire of the satisfaction of all. The city has not been without an abundance of good, pure water in the past four years. In the matter of the street improvements, the good work of paving has been continued in a number of through affairs are added to the list of these approved streets. The ordinance requiring pavement sidewalks to be constructed in the place of the antique wooden walks had been achieved. The sewage system of the city has no little consideration by the council during the past four years. The one system integrated by predecessors has been extended so that now but a small portion of the city is in need of sewage.  The addiction of the central sewer needs to be adjusted and probably will be within the next year as the need for this improves. Legal obstacles have been the barrier or else this would have been done in the last year. A proper acquaintance on the part of those directly interested will throw down those barriers and the work can be done for the want of a few days time, we leave the disposal plan unfinished.  his disposal of the sewage had been the deep study and the experience of Professor McMillan and I am sure it will be the successful achievement he thinks it will be. Its construction is receiving his most careful, personal attention and there is not one little detail that is being neglected. 

The old council adjourned, following his speech.[12]

           He was elected to a position on the Board of Education. All told, Sawyer was valued highly for his  Honesty, Leadership and Hard Work. His obituary read:

W. A. Sawyer, secretary of the Illinois Bankers’ Life Association, died at 2:10 P.M. on December 28, 1916, at the age of 59, in the offices of the insurance company in Hullam building while participating in the annual homecoming of the association’s agents. His death was entirely unexpected. Although he had been ill, his condition was not considered serious. For the week previous to his death, Sawyer had been afflicted with indigestion and it is believed that his heart was affected.  He had been required to remain at his home for a day or so during that week. The afternoon of his death, he ate a hearty meal at the Colonial Hotel, where the agents were guests of the association and went to his office at the usual time. He was standing and talking with some of the agents who were there for the homecoming when he was stricken. He fell to the floor and after he breathed three times, life was extinguished. His death was a great shock the officers of the Banker’s Life Association and all of whom were assembled for the meeting. His two sons George P. Sawyer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Henry G. Sawyer, of Hillsboro, Illinois, arrived in Monmouth the day after he passed away. The Reverend Floyd W. Bar at the First Presbyterian Church conducted the funeral on January 2, 1917. Internment was made in Monmouth Cemetery.[13]



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

[1]  Luther Emerson Robinson, ed., Historical and Biographical Record of Monmouth and Warren County Illinois (Chicago: Munshell Publishing Company, 1927), II, p.305.

[2] Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4] County Clerk’s Record, Death Certificate

[5] Ralph B. Eckley, “Illinois Bankers Life founded in 1897”.

[6] http://trials.proquest.com/proquest/servlet/TrialsController?userid=296387&intAsExt=Y; the census of 1910 lists him as age 57, Louisa as 44, born in Illinois, Edith 25, George 21, Henry 14, Arthur 13, Louisa 10, Elizabeth Pillsbury, 84, mother-in-law, and a female boarder, 19.

[7] Monmouth City Directory file in Warren County Genealogical Society.

[8] Historical and Biographical Record of Monmouth and Warren County Illinois, II, 498.

[9] File D in the Warren County Genealogical Collection 

[11] “ Union Party Goes Down to Defeat” The Monmouth Review, No.191 (Spring 1903), p.1.

[12] “ City Affairs in New Hands” The Monmouth Review, No.191 (Spring 1903) p.1.

[13] Obituaries Warren County, Genealogical Society.