Hon. William Harper, full of years and honors, having passed the eighty-fifth milestone on life's journey, has lived and labored to goodly ends, his life work becoming an integral chapter in the history of Des Moines county and the State of Iowa. He has contributed to its pioneer growth, its business development, to its political and educational progress. The contemporary and friend of many of the most distinguished men of the State, he has been accorded a place in their ranks by reason of his ability to handle questions of great importance affecting the weal or woe of the commonwealth, and by reason of a character that, viewed in the light of the past eighty-five years, seems without a blemish. No historian would claim to write of a faultless man, and yet the mistakes that Mr. Harper may have made have been those of judgment rather than intention: for a kindly spirit, a sense of justice, unfaltering integrity, and an indomitable adherence to upright principles have ever been salient features in his career, and in all Des Moines county there is no man held in greater love and respect than this venerable citizen of Mediapolis.
His life history began Nov. 3, 1819, in Ross county, Ohio. His ancestral history through many generations, both lineal and collateral, has been distinctively American, although farther back the line can be traced to Germany. His paternal great-grandfather, Adam Harper, a resident of Pendleton county, West Virginia, settled on the headwaters of the south branch of the Potomac River, and became a land owner in 1765. This place is twelve miles north of the town of Monterey, the county-seat of Highland county, old Virginia. He was among the first settlers of this point, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and went through the hardships and dangers incident to pioneer life in that country at that time: for in 1767 those settlers were exposed to the attacks of the Indians, who waged a murderous warfare all along the line of that settlement.
His farm was located across the south branch of the Potomac valley, in a most beautiful, picturesque country, and in 1900 the old original log cabin in which he dwelt as a pioneer was still standing. There were abundant portholes in it, through which he could fire his flint-lock rifle in defense of his home against the lit of the incursions of the Indians. A large orchard was on the place, located just northwest of the house, which stood on a bench overlooking the lower bottom; and in one corner of this orchard the old people (Adam Harper and wife) were buried. There was a cold spring on the place, and a log milk-house was built near it, which also was still standing in the year of 1900.
Adam Harper, Jr., married a Miss Flescher, whose parents came from Germany about 1735, and established their home in the Old Dominion, then a part of the colonial possessions of Great Britain. Adam Harper, Sr., came to America soon after the arrival of the Flescher family, and also established his home in Virginia. On Jan. 2, 1821, the last will and testament of Adam Harper, deceased, was presented in court, proved by oath of Jonas Harmon and Solomon Harper, two of the witnesses thereto, and ordered to be recorded. Henry Flescher became a major in the War of the Revolution, when the colonies entered upon the struggle that brought independence to the nation. He was a brother to the wife of Adam Harper, Jr.
Adam Harper, Jr., grandfather of William Harper, was born in Pendleton county, Virginia, and became a farmer by occupation. He removed from the Old Dominion to Ohio in 1805, settling in Ross county. Joab Harper, son of Adam Harper, Jr., was a native of Pendleton county, Virginia, now West Virginia. In 1805 he was brought by his parents to Ross county, Ohio, where for many years they carried on agricultural pursuits. Having arrived at years of maturity, he was married to Lydia Jones, a native of Augusta county, Virginia.
In 1849 Joab Harper came with his family to Iowa. He lived a quiet life, and possessed a conservative nature; yet no man was more stanch in support of the principles in which he believed. He was a devoted and loyal member of the Presbyterian church, having united with that body after middle age, adhering to that faith until his death, which occurred Sept. 17, 1882, when he was eighty-seven years of age. He had for several years survived his wife, who passed away at the age of seventy-four years. They reared a family of six children, of whom we have the following record: William, of Mediapolis; John, also residing in Mediapolis; Robert J., of Manhattan, Kans., who was formerly judge of the probate court of Riley county; Joab, Jr., who was engaged in the furniture business in Great Bend, Kans., and later moved to Hutchinson, Kans., where he died in June, 1901; Anna, the deceased wife of Edward Heizer, of Mediapolis; and Adam, who died at the age of seventeen years. The mother, Mrs. Lydia Jones Harper, died Aug. 26, 1867, at the age of seventy-five years, and, as before stated, the father passed away Sept. 17, 1882, at the home of his son, Joab, with whom he had spent the evening of life.
The first year that Robert J. Harper, son of Joab Harper, was located in Des Moines county, he taught school in the old Jefferson Academy; he later taught for two years at Marion, Iowa, and still later, for one term in a cabin east of Northfield. The last year that he taught in Marion he had over a hundred pupils and an assistant teacher. On Aug. 27, 1862, he enlisted as a private in Company G, Eleventh Kansas Volunteer Infantry, and on organization of the regiment, he was appointed regimental quartermaster sergeant, which rank he held until Sept. 4, 1863. This appointment was made by Col. Thomas Ewing, who was a son of Thomas Ewing, of Ohio, and the first chief justice Kansas ever had.
In 1863 Mr. Harper was commissioned first lieutenant and regimental commissary of subsistence for his regiment by the governor of Kansas. Immediately after he was mustered into service he was detailed to relieve Capt. R. Graham, acting quartermaster at Independence, Mo., where he remained until the spring of l864. He was then detailed by General McKean as commissary of subsistence on his staff, and post commissary at Paola, Kans. He was also on the staff of General McKean's successors. General Sykes and General Blunt, and remained at Paola until 1864. In the latter year his regiment was ordered to Fort Laramie, and west of here he acted as regimental quartermaster and regimental commissary of subsistence. He also acted as adjutant of the regiment, but at his request was relieved of the duties of adjutant. He served as regimental quartermaster and regimental commissary from the time he left Fort Riley until he was mustered out of service, Aug. 19, 1865.
Thomas Ewing, the first colonel of the regiment, was promoted to be a brigadier-general, and was succeeded by Col. Thomas Moonlight. The regiment was in command of Lieut. Col. P. B. Plumb the most of the time, he afterward becoming United States Senator from the State of Kansas. Mr. Harper's military service, being in the business part of the army, was very pleasant. He had the confidence and respect of his superior officers, as well as the confidence and respect of the non-commissioned officers to whom he issued supplies. His civic life since he came out of the army has been mainly official, he having served as probate judge for eight years, and as clerk of the district court for twenty-two years. He has also been police judge and justice of the peace of Manhattan City, and, in fact, from 1859 until he laid down the duties, burdens, and responsibilities of business life, four years ago, has acted in some responsible official position.
There was nothing in the boyhood days of William Harper to indicate the successes and honors to which he was to attain in later years. He had the advantage, however, of Christian training in his home, while lessons of industry and integrity were also instilled into his mind, and have borne rich fruit in later years. He knew what earnest toil meant in his early youth, and when not engaged in duties of the schoolroom was busy with the work of the fields. His educational advantages were afforded by the schools of the home district, and when nineteen years of age he began teaching, from which time forward he has been an unfaltering champion and advocate of the system of public instruction. He followed the profession in the winter months, while in the summer seasons his labors were given to the farm, being thus engaged until his removal from Ohio to the West. At that date, October, 1842, Iowa seemed far distant, owing to the lack of transportation facilities; for the journey had to be made across the country or by water.
Visiting Des Moines county, Mr. Harper made his way to North Prairie, and was so pleased with the district comprised in Yellow Springs township that he determined to locate there permanently. The following winter he was employed to teach a school, which convened in a log church, and in February, 1843, he made his first purchase of land, becoming owner of ninety-five acres on Section 17, Yellow Springs township. A short time before a small cabin had been built thereon, while five acres of the land had been broken; and Mr. Harper continued the further work of cultivation and development, undertaking the task with resolute will, and recognizing fully the arduous work that was before him.
Returning to Ohio in 1843, Mr. Harper won a companion and helpmate for the journey of life, being married Aug. 7, 1844, to Miss Harriet Heizer, who was born Oct. 8, 1819, in Ross county, Ohio, a daughter of Samuel and Polly Heizer, who were natives of Virginia, and of German descent. The wedding journey of the young couple consisted of a trip across the prairies by team, to the home which he had prepared in Des Moines county. They reached their destination Oct. 3, 1844, took up their abode in the little cabin, and for four years lived in true pioneer style. But the untiring energy of Mr. Harper during that period was crowned with success, so that at the end of that time he was enabled to erect a large and substantial residence upon his farm. It continued to be the family home until 1877, when they removed to the village of Mediapolis.
In the early period of his residence in this county, however, Mr. Harper spent three years in the city of Burlington, acting a part of that time as teacher, and latter portion as deputy clerk of the courts. He lived in the city from September, 1846 until 1849, and he and his brother taught the first large select school in Burlington, leasing the old territorial hall, it being in the basement of old Zion M. E. church, for the purpose. The undertaking proved a success, for in a short time the building was completely filled. Among the pupils were many who have since become famous. During that time Mr. Harper and his brother were members of the Congregational church of Burlington, of which Dr. Wm. Salter was pastor.
As an agriculturist Mr. Harper was ever foremost, quick to adopt new methods that promised practical results, and equally quick to use the improved machinery which invention placed upon the market. Moreover he realized that labor is the basis of all success, and worked untiringly and perseveringly to acquire a competence that would enable him to surround his family with the comforts that make life worth living. As he prospered he added to his original holdings, until he owned a valuable farm of two hundred and ten acres. In early days he followed the plow himself, turned the furrows, harrowed the fields, and planted and harvested his crops; but in later years prosperity released him from this arduous toil, and other interests have long since claimed his attention.
Following his removal to Mediapolis he was engaged in the real estate, loan, and insurance business, in which he continued until 1801, when he was chosen president of the State Bank of Mediapolis. In the meantime, while living upon the farm, he received his first commission as notary public from Governor Hemstead, in 1850, and has since acted in that capacity. Following the close of the war his work in this connection grew to extensive proportions, demanding the greater part of his time. He soon became an expert in probate business also, and there is perhaps no man in Des Moines county who has been called upon to settle up more estates; for his trustworthiness in such connections was well known, his business honor and integrity standing as an unquestioned fact in his history.
After being chosen to the presidency of the State Bank of Mediapolis, he gradually disposed of all of his business interests save an occasional transaction in real estate, his attention being given to the bank, which under his careful guidance prospered, becoming one of the strong financial concerns of the county. He is now living retired, but it is safe to say that there are few men in this section of the State who have transacted more business, both for public and for private individuals, than has William Harper. Through many years he was the only man whose name appeared on the list of pioneers who remained in active connection with business pursuits.
Wielding a wide influence in public affairs, Mr. Harper has left the impress of his individuality for good upon public thought and action through many years. He has ever been fearless in defense of his honest convictions, and nothing could swerve him from a course which he believed to be right; yet he has never been hasty in forming his conclusions, and has always held himself amenable to reason and to argument. In early life and until he reached middle age he was a stanch Democrat, and upon that party ticket was elected to represent his district in the third general assembly of Iowa, which convened at Iowa City, in 1830.
A board of commissioners had been appointed by the second assembly to codify the laws of the State. This committee comprised the following named: Charles Mason, Stephen Hemstead, and W. G. Woodward. This was known as "Mason's Code." His course therein was one which reflected credit upon himself and proved highly satisfactory to his constituents, and he relates many interesting incidents in connection with the proceedings of that early session of the Legislature. He was chairman of the committee on enrolled bills, and on agriculture; was a member of the committee on schools, and chairman of the special committee to draft rules for the government of the House. He was also a member of the select committee to inquire into the expediency of the government of the United States making donations of land to actual settlers. He gave to each question which came up for settlement his earnest study and consideration and was connected with much of the important constructive legislation of that early period.
Twenty years later he was again elected to the House, served as chairman of the committee on common schools, and was a member of the committees on State university and judicial districts. He was also chairman of the special committee to examine the report of Charles A. White, State geologist, with a view to publishing the same. While in the House he formed warm personal friendships with many of the distinguished men of Iowa, who recognized the worth of the man, and his superior capabilities.
Mr. Harper's position in the Legislature gave him excellent opportunity to further the interests of the public schools, which have always been dear to his heart, and he was instrumental in laying the foundation of the public-school system of Des Moines county. His experience as a teacher in earlier years gave him an insight into the needs of the school system, and this caused him to be placed in nomination for the office of county superintendent of public schools of Des Moines county, to which he was elected and reelected, serving in all for six years. His work in behalf of public education alone would entitle him to rank with the distinguished men of the State. He was an early promoter of Jefferson Academy, afterward called Yellow Springs College, and was president of the board of trustees during the existence of that institution. He informed himself thoroughly concerning the status of the schools, their possibilities and opportunities, and gave his knowledge to the public through the columns of the local press in a manner so concise and favorable that the reports made a deep impression upon the minds of Des Moines county's citizens. He made a strong and forcible plea for better schools and broader opportunities, for more efficient teachers and a higher standard of education, and he had the greatest appreciation for all who became his helpers in this work. While in the Legislature he put forth strong effort to secure the passage of measures beneficial to the schools, and though some of these were lost, he yet sowed the seeds that have in time produced the harvest.
When elected to the House in 1870, Dr. Beardsley was elected to the Senate; and later, at the convention of the Pioneer Law-maker's Association, of Iowa, in its biennial session held in 1894, Dr. Beardsley spoke of the work in connection with the common schools in the following manner: "In the important matter of public education some things were undertaken in both of those assemblies which could not be carried to success, and which still remain in abeyance. For example, in the thirteenth, William Harper, of Des Moines county, chairman of the committee on schools, introduced an elaborate bill, codifying the school laws and adapting them to the township district system, which could have been adopted then with much less difficulty than now. But the House killed the bill. The change is still advocated by our most intelligent and experienced educators. Thus the present superintendent of public instruction, in his report for 1888-89, speaking of the township system, says: This subject has been so ably discussed by each of my predecessors in office that it does not seem necessary to spend much time upon it in this report. If the people of the State could be made to understand how much time, and money, and strength, is wasted in carrying our present complex system into effect, and how much the efficiency of the school could be increased by the adoption of the civil township as the unit, they would demand that the Legislature take immediate steps toward accomplishing that result. He follows this with facts, figures, and arguments to show its correctness. In the fourteenth, the chairman of the committee on schools in the Senate introduced and secured the passage of a bill, both at the regular and adjourned sessions, for compulsory education. In both instances it was defeated in the House, and it still remains to be adopted, though succeeding superintendents have advocated it, and showed its necessity by carefully gathered statistics."
Mr. Harper was instrumental in securing a change in the management of the State University, which passed from the charge of trustees to a board of regents: for through the influence of Mr. Harper and others the bill whereby this change was effected was introduced. As chairman of the committee on schools he also promoted other effective legislation, whereby the "graft" through the squandering of the school lands was done away with. Mr. Harper took an active interest in the passage of the railroad tax bill, and pending the passage of that bill (the Russell bill) offered an amendment retaining four-fifths of the railroad tax collected, in the counties through which the roads passed, and one-fifth to go to the State. After a long and very interesting discussion, his amendment passed; and on his motion the rules were suspended, and the bill passed by a vote of eighty-two for and eleven against.
During the momentous period of the Civil War, Mr. Harper, who up to that time had been a stanch Democrat, became a stalwart advocate of the Union cause. In the bitterness of feelings that then existed he made public refutation of an insinuation made by some of his party opponents that he was influencing Democratic voters against enlisting as volunteers in order to secure their support for Democratic nominees at the approaching election. In a letter which breathed the true spirit of patriotism, he said: "I have ever, so far as relates to party, endeavored to live the life of a consistent Democrat; but the time has arrived when every true patriot should be willing to forego all party differences, and rally to the support of the administration in its efforts to suppress a rebellion which has already assumed such proportions as to threaten the destruction of our government. In a few weeks we will be called upon to cast our votes for a candidate to fill the highest office in the gift of the State. The question should not be, Is he a Republican? Is he a Democrat? but Is he a patriot? Does he love his country more than his party?" Such was the attitude of Mr. Harper, who gave stalwart support to the Union cause, and to the administration of President Lincoln.
When a call for three hundred thousand troops came it seemed as if there would have to be a draft in Des Moines county, and Capt. R. B. Rutledge, provost marshal for this district, began looking for a recruiting agent for Burlington. Someone suggested Mr. Harper to him, and Mr. Harper's reply to the marshal was that if he would give him the whole county, so that he could devote his entire time to the work, he would accept. This was granted, and Burlington was made one district. His plan was to divide this district into wards, so that he could get local bounty from every township and ward. On the closing day as much as two hundred and fifty dollars was paid recruits as bounty, and the draft was avoided. While figuring prominently in connection with civil, religious, and educational affairs, and with extensive business concerns, thus leading a most busy life, Mr. Harper always found time for his family, for the promotion of the interests of the household, and the welfare and happiness of his wife and daughter. Most congenial in their tastes, married life to Mr. and Mrs. Harper was an ideal one, and they traveled life's journey together through many decades.
Fifty years passed, and the young couple, who, standing before the Rev. William Gage, were pronounced man and wife, celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary: on which occasion a large number of friends were present, including three who witnessed the original nuptials. On the anniversary day the commodious lawn around the beautiful home of Mr. and Mrs. Harper was decorated with lanterns and supplied with seats. Mrs. Harper, because of her invalid condition, was unable to appear in the open air; so the friends assembled in the home, where, after the singing of, the hymn, "Blest Be the Tie," and appropriate words from Rev. J. H. Marshall, Mr. and Mrs. Harper were presented with an elegant gold-lined silver tea-set and other gifts, among them a fine gold-headed cane, as mementos of the happy occasion. An original poem was also read, written by Mrs. Jessie Harper-Heizer, of Sioux City. For a number of years Mrs. Harper was in ill health, but she bore her sufferings uncomplainingly, with true Christian fortitude. She had from early womanhood been a devoted and loyal member of the Presbyterian church, and the able assistant and co-operator of her husband in all of his church work. Of natural culture and refinement, her life, permeated by her Christian belief, was full of kindly spirit, of generous deeds, of ready sympathy, and of marked devotion to principle. In her church, even after she had become unable to leave her home, her fellow-workers regarded her as still in their midst, and consulted her upon questions concerning the various church activities.
She pondered deeply the questions concerning this life and its purpose, and its relation to the life to come, and her faith was sincere and unshaken at all times. The resolutions of respect passed by the Presbyterian Missionary Society, of Mediapolis, included the following: “In this bereavement the common words of sympathy seem meaningless. To us she was the loved sister, the trusted friend, one with whom we took sweet counsel. Others may take up her work, but who can fill her place in our hearts. She has left us a legacy of loving and helpful deeds, an example of patient, sweet submission in suffering, and of joy in His will.”
Mr. and Mrs. Harper were always closely associated in their church work. At the age of nineteen he became a member of the Presbyterian church, and placed his membership with the First Presbyterian church organized in his locality, called the old Round Prairie church, with which he was associated for several years. He later became a member of the Yellow Springs Presbyterian church, at the time when a large number of the two bodies united in the new organization on account of the slavery question. When the church at Mediapolis was organized he entered into relationship with it, in fact assisted in its organization, and became one of its first ruling elders, serving since that time. His wise counsel, Christian spirit, and calm judgment were helpful factors in the management of affairs relating to the membership and to the upbuilding of the congregation.
Twice he has been sent by the presbytery of Iowa as a delegate to the general assembly of the United States, the first time in 1856, at New York city; and twenty years later, in 1876, at Brooklyn, N. Y. He was chosen from among many who would have been pleased to attend, and who were well qualified to discharge the duties of a delegate; but his peculiar qualifications caused his selection, and he might well be proud of the honor that was conferred upon him. He took a pronounced stand in support of humanitarianism when the question of slavery was before the people, and has ever been deeply interested in all questions of reform, of improvement, and progress. His aid has always been counted upon to further these, and he has often done so at the sacrifice of his personal interests.
One of the most interesting features in the home life of Mr. and Mrs. Harper was their relation to their only daughter, Lurissa Jane, who was always known as Louie. She was born in Des Moines county, Nov. 18, 1845, and after attending school in Kossuth, Iowa, continued her studies in the State University. When about twelve years of age she became a member of the Presbyterian church, with which her parents were affiliated, and retained her membership therein until after her marriage, when with her husband she joined the Methodist Episcopal church, in West Union, Iowa, where they made their home. Hers was spoken of as "one of the gentlest natures that ever lived in West Union," and again we find the secret of this beautiful life in the Christian spirit of Him who came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. She was always earnest, active, and helpful in church work; and she brought her Christianity into her home, into her every-day life, and into her social relations with friends and neighbors.
It was on Jan. 1, 1868, that she gave her hand in marriage to William E. Fuller, of West Union, Iowa, a man who has won national reputation in connection with public life. An attorney by profession, he twice represented the fourth congressional district of Iowa in Congress, and was also a member of the House in the State Legislature at one time. For a number of years has been United States assistant attorney-general in connection with the Spanish Claims Commission, at Washington. He is a man of superior ability and intellectual force, and has made for himself a reputation as one of the distinguished men of this State.
Unto Mr. and Mrs. Fuller were born nine children, of whom two died in infancy, while four sons and three daughters survived to enjoy the companionship of a most devoted mother. The eldest, Levi, married Miss Elizabeth B. Brown, a daughter of Alexander C. Brown, for many years a merchant of Mediapolis, Iowa, but now deceased. Mr. and Mrs. Levi Fuller became residents of Chicago, and their children now represent the fourth generation of the Harper family. Harriet is the wife of Carl W. Holbrook, who is secretary of the chamber of commerce in Chattanooga, Tenn. Stella is the wife of Rev. Marcus P. McClure, of Stevens' Point, Wis. Augusta is with her father, in Washington, D. C. William Wirt, a banker of Le Sueur Center, Minn., married Ethel Smith, a graduate of Upper Iowa University. Howard is a student in the Iowa Methodist Episcopal College, and Robert is a student in the military institute at Bordentown, N. J.
Mrs. Fuller was a most devoted wife and mother, and a faithful friend. Her influence was like the perfume of the violet, permeating the home atmosphere and the social life in which she moved with a force as sweet and penetrating as it was delicate and helpful. She passed away after an illness of several months, at her home in West Union, Nov. 2, 1901, and her funeral was one of the most largely attended in that city. Mr. Fuller has continued his work in Washington as assistant attorney-general of the United States. He has been for many years prominent in public life, and was a member of Congress during the forty-ninth and fiftieth sessions. In March, 1901, he was appointed by President McKinley as assistant attorney-general, which position he still fills, his special duty being to defend the government before the Spanish Treaty Claims Commission, in the suits brought by American citizens for damages growing out of the Cuban insurrection. General Fuller was again married, Dec. 2, 1903, to Mrs. Clara H. Manning, of New York City, a very distant relative, both being descendants of Edward Fuller, who came to America in 1620, in the “Mayflower.” Mrs. Manning is very prominent in societies for historical research and preservation, and her name is also associated with various benevolent works.
One of the later events worthy of note in the life of Mr. Harper, was the celebration of his eightieth birthday anniversary, when he entertained a large number at dinner, and on which occasion he was presented with a fine easy chair. Such occasions are memorable in the history of the individual, and of all who attend. Five more years have passed since that time, and Mr. Harper is yet a factor in the life of Des Moines county. He is now living retired, and yet there is perhaps no man in the county whose advice and counsel are more frequently sought, or more freely and helpfully given. There is an old age which grows brighter and better, mentally and spiritually, as the years go by, giving out of its rich stores of wisdom and experience; and such has been the history of William Harper. There are none who have come in contact with him who have not entertained genuine respect for his honest opinions and loyalty to his beliefs; for his integrity in business, his public-spirited citizenship, and his devotion to all that promotes material, intellectual, and moral progress of the race. Although he has never sought to figure in public life, his native talents and his honorable conduct have made him a factor in much that has had its influence upon the welfare of the State, and he has left the impress of his individuality for good on the commonwealth. Long after he shall have passed away his words and work will remain as a monument to his memory, their fruition being shown in the lives of those with whom he has been associated.