Early Evansville Portraits And Biographies
From History of Vanderburgh County, Indiana
by Brant & Fuller
1889

Willard Carpenter

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carpenter

WILLARD CARPENTER, an enterprising pioneer, citizen and benefactor of Evansville, was born in Strafford, Orange County, Vt., on the 15th of March, 1803. His father, Willard Carpenter, Sr., was born April 3, 1767, and died at Strafford, November 14, 1854. He was married at Woodstock, Conn., February 23, 1791, to Polly Bacon, who was born March 15, 1769, and died March 4, 1860. also at Strafford. All the children, twelve in number, were born and reared on the same farm. Mrs. Carpenter lived to see twelve children, fifty-two grand-children, fifty-three great-grand-children, and one great-great-grand-child; in all, 118 lineal descendants.

There was much of the remarkable in the life of Willard Carpenter the younger, whose name, even at this time in southern Indiana, is a synonym for skill and sagacity. When a young man, he received the sobriquet of "Old Willard." The leading feature of his career was his zeal for public interests, and it is readily conceded that the general prosperity of the district in which he lived was largely due to his individual efforts. As a typical Yankee, he possessed sturdy independence and tenacity of purpose to an unusual degree. Always thrifty and energetic, with great powers of physical endurance, pluck and perseverance, a strong and comprehensive mind, and great business ability, it is not strange that he rose from the hardest poverty to great wealth.

When a boy he spent his days on a farm, in the manner common to pioneer lads, for his father was one of the first settlers of Orange County, building his cabin in the forests, and with the help of his boys making a clearing and conducting his farm. School privileges were meager. To read, write and cipher was regarded as the ultirna thule of a school education; and three months a year for four or five winter in the primitive log school-house, was considered sufficient time for him to spend upon his early mental training.

He remained at home with his father until he was eighteen years old. Now and then, doing odd jobs, he turned a penny. His first twenty-five cents was made by digging snake-root and selling it to his uncle. This money was immediately put out at six per cent interest, and in process of time, through additions made to it, he found himself in possession of seven dollars. He then determined to go west. With a pack on his back he made his way to the Mohawk, and passed through Troy about the time of the great fire in 1822. Upon reaching Albany he turned his capital of seven dollars into a stock of Yankee notions, and from there sturdily tramped up the valley of the Mohawk, on his way to Buffalo. He then went down the lake shore, and into Ohio as far as Salem, where, having disposed of his wares, he rested, while visiting an uncle, who had moved to this place some years previous.

Not content with being idle, he went to work in the woods with two other men, and in the summer and autumn of that year, 1822, they cleared eighty acres of forest land, for which they received five dollars an acre. Owing to the scarcity of money he was paid in notes of hand, payable in grain. These he disposed of and went to teaching a district school. His salary in the spring amounted to $140, which was also paid in grain notes. He then concluded to learn tanning and shoemaking, but became dissatisfied after a six months' trial and gave it up.

He was now about twenty years old and ready to begin life in earnest. Disposing of all his effects, he bought a horse and a watch, and with about sixteen dollars in his pocket turned his face eastward to find a wider field in New York state. On his way to Buffalo he was taken in by some sharpers on the "little joker," who won his watch and all his money but one dollar. They returned him four dollars, and with this he was glad to mount and get away. Before reaching Buffalo he was attacked with a severe illness, but continued his journey, passing through Buffalo to Manlius, town lying some miles east, where he found an old schoolmate with whom, on account of his illness and the depleted condition of his purse, he was glad to remain for a week or so.

In a short time he engaged to assist in floating a raft down the Mohawk to Schenectady. He was to receive sixteen dollars a month for his services, but upon reaching his destination the raft was attached for debt, and he received nothing. He walked back to Manlius for his horse which had been left with his friend, when to his dismay, he found that the animal had died in his absence. He next engaged to work with pick and shovel on the Erie Canal with a company of about 1,000 Irishmen and Ben Wade, of Ohio. Here the work and wages were fair, but the accommodations were so unendurable that after; short time he sought other employment.

While at Glenfield Corners he was offered the position of teacher in the school at that place. The school had been a troublesome one, the last teacher had been unceremoniously ejected by the larger boys, and in a few days a conspiracy was formed against the new pedagogue; but being determined to rule, he managed to subdue the ringleader, older and larger than himself, by the union of stratagem and force, and had no further trouble.

In 1824, his father, to induce his return home, presented him with a farm, and later offered him $600, but these he refused, determining to make his way through life unaided. Two years' after, he visited his father and returned with his brother John to Troy, where they engaged in merchandising. Mr. Carpenter prosecuted his business interests with vigor and at one time with such boldness as to dismay his brother, and a dissolution followed. Ephriam, another brother similar in character to Willard, succeeded John, and they continued in Troy ten years.

In 1837 Willard came to Evansville at the solicitation of A. B. Carpenter, whom he joined in the wholesale dry goods and notion business. They began under favorable auspices, but suffered in the widespread financial crash of 1837. Upon his arrival here, after a trip to Troy, where he had gone to settle his business there, he found the business of the firm in a deplorable state. Owing to the crash, their county correspondents were in a precarious condition and sharp work was necessary to realize anything out of their accounts.

Mr. Carpenter, however, was equal to the emergency. He reached here on Sunday and at once took in the situation. Learning that a company of merchants was to leave for the upper country, by the way of Vincennes and Terre Haute, he saw that his only chance was to outstrip them. He left here at nine o'clock that night; at Vincennes employed Judge Law to take charge of his business there; pushed on to Terre Haute; employed Judge Farrington there, and by Tuesday morning, at daybreak, was closeted in Danville, Ill., with an attorney of that place. He then started home, and by Wednesday noon met the other merchants on their outward journey, between Vincennes and Terre Haute. The result was that the Carpenters received their claims in full, while the others hardly realized ten cents on the dollar. This feat practically introduced Mr. Carpenter to Evansville, and the energetic spirit shown in it characterized his subsequent conduct.

In February following, he was married to Miss Lucina Burcalow, of Saratoga County, N.Y.

When the state of Indiana found herself almost hopelessly in debt, after the failing of the internal improvement system, Mr. Carpenter violently opposed every suggestion of repudiation, and took a prominent part in providing means of an honorable satisfaction of all obligations. At a public meeting held in this city in 1842, it was resolved to ask an appropriation of lands to aid in the completion of the Wabash and Erie Canal. Mr. Carpenter circulated the petitions for this purpose in seventeen different states and through five different legislatures, defraying his expenses out of his own pocket. The bill, after much opposition, passed both houses of congress, to be ratified, however, by the legislature of Indiana. Here there was great opposition, and again Mr. Carpenter made himself useful in advancing the public good.

In 1849 he was one of the principal movers in the Evansville and Terre Haute Railroad enterprise subscribing largely, and taking more stock than any other two men in the County. I was intended that this road should run the White River valley to Indianapolis; but in 1853 Mr. Carpenter resigned as a director, and with ex-Senator O. H. Smith entered into an agreement to build a railroad from Evansville to Indianapolis, later known as the "Straight Line." Mr. Carpenter threw his whole intellectual vigor into this work. Over $900,000 were procured on the line Mr. Carpenter himself having subscribed $65,000 the work of grading progressed rapidly, the road-bed was completed for fifty-five miles, and Mr. Carpenter went to Europe to purchase the rails.

At this juncture opposition sprang up, a pamphlet containing many misrepresentations was published and distributed among the banks and rail-makers in London, Paris and Wales, and when the negotiations were completed excepting the details, he was thwarted in the great undertaking. He then called upon Vorse, Perkins & Co., who had a house in London and also one in New York, doing a commission business for railroad companies in America, and after much negotiation, made a contract with that firm, agreeing to pay them $12,000 of mortgage bonds per mile upon the road-bed, $100,000 worth of real estate bonds, and $100,000 of Evansville city bonds, which the city had subscribed, but not then delivered. All excepting the Evansville bonds he had with him; and these latter were to be handed over, in July of the same year, to the commission-house of Vorse, Perkins & Co. in New York city. Mr. Carpenter now wrote in full to the vice-president, Mr. H. D. Allis, urging him to call the city council together immediately and ask them to deliver the $100,000 bonds to Vorse, Perkins & Co. in New York.

The enemies of the road were now at work in his own city, and the council refused. Mr. Carpenter then offered, if they would consent, to secure them by mortgaging all the real estate he held in the city and County, which was extensive, indemnifying the city, so that the road should be built and cars should be running over the first fifty-five miles to the Ohio and Mississippi crossing by the next December, 1859. This the council very unwisely refused to do, owing to the selfishness of the opposition party. This caused the failure of the Straight Line railroad a great detriment to Evansville and a great mortification to Mr. Carpenter, who had spent five years of his time, had been once to Europe and fourteen times to New York, all at his own expense. This was thirty years ago. Since that time the business citizens of Evansville have had time to reflect on the mistake they made, and have rectified the same, so far as possible, by at last building the road.

In 1865 through Mr. Carpenter's donations, the Christian Home was founded. It consisted of grounds and a large new house of twelve rooms. This act of charity was for the reform of homeless girls who had gone astray. His donations in this behalf amounted to about $10,000. To the various churches of Evansville he gave over $14,000.00. In 1840 he erected a building upon his own land and established the poor house system, whereby the paupers were kept at a great saving to the County. This was accomplished during his five years' service as County Commissioner.

He also advanced liberally of his own means for repairing and corduroying roads, and as an evidence of the appreciation of his worth in this particular, he was elected the second term to his office over his own protest. In 1851 he was elected a member of the legislature, and served during the long term of the session of 1851-2. While here he was active in getting through several important measures, among them bills for the equalization of taxation; for lowering the salaries of county officers. and for raising those of state officers. The Willard library is an example of munificence seldom witnessed. The history of this benefaction is elsewhere recorded in these pages. The endowment of this institution was the crowning success of the noble life-work of this unpretending and unassuming man.

Foremost in all enterprises intended for the general good, taking an active part in all questions of state and County policy, he invariably threw his influence in favor of what was right and advantageous for all the community. The latter years of his life were devoted almost entirely to philanthropic purposes. He died November 6, 1883, full of years and full of honor. His wife, who was to him a helpmeet in all that the word implies, died June 30, 1884. Five children were born to them, of whom only two survive, Louisa and Albert W.