W. Dallam Gilbert, for forty years one of the most prominent business men of Burlington, was born in Cassville, Crawford county, Wis., in February, 1829, while his parents were temporarily residing there on their way from Kentucky to Prairie du Chien, Wis. The grandfather, Samuel Gilbert, was a native of Virginia, whence he removed to Kentucky. His business was that of a tobacco-planter, and he owned a number of slaves in Kentucky; but becoming convinced that the system of slavery was wrong, he freed all of his bondsmen.
Samuel Gilbert, Jr., father of W. Dallam Gilbert, was a native of Kentucky, and married Philotheta Parker, who was born in Oneida county, New York, in 1798. She was a representative of one of the old families of this country, and England, being a lineal descendant of the Parker earls of Macclesfield, the original ancestor in America having come from England to Massachusetts about 1645. There he established his family, and later the Indians massacred the parents; but the children escaped, hiding in the grass. The youngest one, Samuel, reached adult age, afterward removed to Coventry, Conn., and lived to the very advanced age of one hundred and six years. He built the first house and barn in Conventry, and was the first deacon in the first Congregational church there. His descendant, the father of Mrs. Philotheta Gilbert, was a soldier in the War of 1812. He removed with his family from New York to Louisville, Ky., in a covered wagon when his daughter was fifteen years of age, and there she afterward formed the acquaintance of Mr. Gilbert and gave to him her hand in marriage. In 1827 they removed to Galena, Ill., which was then enjoying a period of rapid growth and prosperity. Later they went to what was then the territory of Michigan, settling in Cassville, and two years afterward started for Prairie du Chien, then an extreme outpost, where Fort Crawford was built. The pioneer settlers freely mingled with the Sacs, Fox, Winnebago, and Menominee Indians. Mr. Gilbert was one of the earliest lumbermen in the upper country, taking an active part in reclaiming the natural resources of the State for the uses of the white man and in promoting its material prosperity. About 1845 he removed from Prairie du Chien, Wis., to Albany, Ill.
W. Dallam Gilbert spent the first sixteen years of his life at Prairie du Chien, where he pursued his education under private tutors, and later he accompanied his parents on their removal to Albany, Ill. At that age the spirit of commercialism had so developed itself that he determined to take a raft of logs down the river to Fort Madison, which task he successfully accomplished, selling the logs for his father. Subsequently he accepted a position as clerk for the Nelson & Gilbert Company at Wilson's Landing, Wis., and at the age of nineteen years, in connection with a brother, he purchased a lumber mill at Eau Clair, Wis., the plant being located on the present site of the town. Thus he became actively associated with the lumber industries of the State. In 1851 he came to Burlington, Iowa, where, in connection with John W. Gilbert, he established a lumber business that grew to extensive proportions, becoming known far and wide. Their patronage increased with the growth of the State and its wonderful development. They had the keen foresight to anticipate what would be the needs of the commonwealth in their direction, made judicious investment in forest lands, and utilized their timber interests in the manufacture of lumber that found a ready sale on the market and brought to them a splendid financial return. Mr. Gilbert dealt largely in pine lands, and operated mills in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He also owned extensive pineries in Washington. He likewise became a large owner of Burlington real estate, and laid out two additions to the city which bear his name. He and his business associates probably did more toward the upbuilding and development of Burlington than any other individual or corporation. Mr. Gilbert erected many houses, which he sold on easy terms, thus adding to the material improvement of Burlington, and making possible the ownership of homes to many men in moderate financial circumstances. He also became prominent in banking circles, and was a director of The Merchants National Bank and an officer of the German American Savings Bank.
Mr. Gilbert married Miss Hetta Wells Merrill, who was born in Plymouth, N. H., in 1835, and when seven years of age removed with her parents to Boston. In 1859 she gave her hand in marriage to Mr. Gilbert in Burlington, having in the meantime accompanied the family on their removal to this city. She is a daughter of Stevens Merrill, formerly a resident of Warren and Plymouth, N. H., and Boston, Mass., coming from the latter place to Burlington, where he purchased the home now occupied by his daughter, Mrs. Gilbert, at 910 Jefferson Street. It was then situated in the midst of a hickory grove, but now stands thirty feet above the street level. Part of the house — known as "Hickory Grove" — is more than sixty years old. Late in life he sold this property to Mr. Gilbert, whose widow now resides there with her only remaining daughter, Mrs. Cate Wells, and the latter's son Gilbert. Mr. Merrill was of an old Quaker family descended from Nathaniel Merrill, who located in Ipswich, Mass., in 1633, and two years later became a pioneer settler and founder of Newburyport. The Merrill family was originally, however, of Huguenot origin, living at Auvergne in the south of France, and the name there was spelled Du Merle. Representatives of the name tied to England at the time of the St. Bartholomew massacre. They were connected with the French nobility, and at the time of the removal to England the fleur de lis on the shield was displaced by a peacock's head, the crest remaining the same.
W. D. Gilbert died April 16, 1894, leaving to his widow and daughter a large estate. Not only had he controlled extensive business interests, being for forty years an active representative of trade relations in Burlington and in the West, but was also prominent in the community affairs of the city. He belonged to the Masonic fraternity, was a member and liberal contributor to the Congregational church. He served in the city council, and was once defeated for the office of mayor when a candidate on the Democratic ticket. He possessed a social, genial nature that won him warm friendships, while his business successes awakened for him the admiration and respect of all who knew aught of his history. His name is inseparably associated with the progress and upbuilding of Burlington along many lines, and no history of the city would be complete without a detailed account of his career. Mrs. Gilbert, prominent in social and church circles in Burlington, is now the president of the Norman Circle of Kings Daughters. Mrs. Wells is president of the Burlington Musical Club and regent of the Burlington Chapter of the Daughters of American Revolution, and a member of the Society of the Colonial Dames of America.