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  • Dale C. Maley

Farmer owned plenty of land

Thomas Neal Smith was a very successful farmer who came to Avoca Township with just $100 of money.

During his lifetime, he bought farmland in four different states. At his death, Mr. Smith had accumulated a net worth of over $28 million in today's dollars.

The story of Thomas N. Smith started in Smithfield, Ohio. Thomas was born in 1831 and was the son of Robert S. Smith and Eliza Arnold. He grew up in Ohio and worked as a farm laborer.

In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Scrip Warrant Act. This law awarded land grants to veterans of the War of 1812. Most veterans had no interest in moving to the swamplands of Central Illinois. In the 1850s, anyone could purchase land from the U.S. Government for $2.50 per acre. Many veterans who did not want to move to Illinois sold their land rights for about 30 cents per acre to farmers who wanted to farm the land. The new law set off a boom of new pioneer settlers to the Fairbury area.

In 1853, Thomas N. Smith was 22 years old. He decided to emigrate from Ohio to Avoca Township, north of Fairbury. When Mr. Smith arrived in Avoca, he had just $100 in cash. Mr. Smith bought land rights to 160 acres from War of 1812 veteran Asahel Gridley. Mr. Gridley had served in Captain Gidney's Company in the 3rd Regiment of the United States Volunteers. Mr. Smith likely paid Mr. Gridley about $48 for his land claim instead of the official U.S. Government price of $400.

Two years after arriving in AvocaTownship, Mr. Smith married Rebecca Alice Gilpin. She was born in Ohio and came to Livingston County with her parents, Samuel Gilpin and Rachel Geringer. Thomas and Rebecca were both 24 years of age when they married. They eventually had nine children.

In 1855, Mr. Smith bought 80 acres of land two miles south of Saunemin from the federal government for $2.50 an acre. The Smith family lived on this farm, and Thomas was the first school treasurer in that township. In 1864, Thomas moved his family from the Saunemin farm to his AvocaTownship farm. In 1873, daughter Clara C. Smith died at 14 years of age.

By 1878, Thomas had expanded his farmland holdings to 900 acres valued at $30,000. This value would be equivalent to $805,413 in today's dollars.

In September 1892, eighteen different Fairbury families traveled west on a "harvest excursion" trip to Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Colorado. Some intended to buy land and look over the country; some went on a pleasure trip, while others visited relatives. Some visited relatives living in Fairbury, Nebraska. On this trip, Thomas N. Smith visited Kearney, Nebraska, and purchased farmland there. He was 61 years of age.

By 1893, Mr. Smith had extensive farmland holdings in Avoca Township. Most of his farmland was north of the Vermilion River and east of First Street. In the 1970s, there was an old steel bridge across the Vermilion called "Smith's Iron Bridge." This bridge was next to land owned by T. N. Smith. An old Blade photograph shows the bridge was full of spectators at the canoe races in 1975. The bridge was torn down in the 1980s and was not replaced.

Around 1900, Isaac Walton and his brother J.W. Walton owned the Walton Bros. department store in Fairbury. This store was very profitable, and Isaac Walton needed somewhere to invest his profits. Isaac chose to invest in rice-growing farmland in the Stuttgart, Arkansas, area. Isaac Walton became the single largest owner of rice-growing farmland in Arkansas. Thomas N. Smith also invested in rice-growing farmland in the Stuttgart region.

In 1902, Thomas N. Smith was 71 years of age and was experiencing some health issues. He started spending the winters in Santa Cruz, California. Mr. Smith eventually bought California farmland and relocated to California.

Back in the 1905 era, Merkle & Sons of Peoria provided many beautiful monuments to the Fairbury Graceland Cemetery. Some Fairbury residents with ornate monuments made by this company included William Gosline, Jacob Oppy, Thomas Bodley, Bert Carter, and Mr. and Mrs. Abt.

In 1908, Mr. Smith died at his home in Santa Cruz at the age of 76 years. Mr. Smith owned farmland in Fairbury, Arkansas, Nebraska, and California. The probate courts valued his estate at over $1 million. This estate value would equal $28.8 million in today's dollars. Mr. Smith's body was transported from California to Fairbury, and he was buried with a fancy tombstone by Merkle & Sons in Graceland Cemetery along Seventh Street. The monument had a 27-inch diameter stone ball on top with a weight of 1,000 pounds. This monument can be seen from South Seventh Street across from the East Chestnut Street intersection.

In 1909, Mrs. Smith died at the age of 78 in Santa Cruz. Her body was returned to Fairbury for burial with her husband at Graceland. Her visitation was held at John P. Cook's Undertaking Parlor in Fairbury.

In 1910, the Smith family noted the heavy stone ball on the Smith's monument had rotated two inches since it was erected less than two years earlier. Charles Merkle of Merkle & Sons in Peoria visited Graceland to figure out why it rotated, but he gave up. A reader of the Cornell Journal speculated it spun because of different freezing and thawing rates on the north versus the south side of the ball. In 2023, the granite ball still sits correctly on top of the large gravestone.

Mr. Smith started his adult life as an Ohio farm laborer. When he emigrated from Ohio to the Fairbury area, he had less than $100 in cash. Thomas N. Smith became a very successful farmer who owned farmland in Illinois, Arkansas, Nebraska, and California. He died with a net worth of $28.8 million in today's dollars. His unique tombstone with a large 1,000-pound granite ball that mysteriously rotated in 1910 is still intact today in Fairbury's Graceland Cemetery.

(Dale Maley's local history article is sponsored each week by Dr. Charlene & Doug Aaron)

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