Updated 23 February 2019
IN 1884 Ira Sayles, 1817-1894, wrote a letter to his friend Edwin B. Hall of Wellsville, New York. My great-great-grandfather could have been writing from Ithaca, New York or from Washington, D.C., in between field trips for the United States Geological Survey. He could have been writing on site in Tennessee or Virginia or Vermont, after a day’s work collecting paleontological specimens. Though Hall was also a renowned amateur paleontologist, in this note Ira dwells on his aspirations rather than fossils.
While the first page is missing, it is possible to discern that Hall and Sayles were in dialogue about life’s value and one’s hopes. Ira says, ” The whole scope of our natural activities must be met, grasped, and guided by a master-hand.”
Ira proceeds to lay out his plan for a home, to be established on public land out West, where he could retire and live with others who practice the principles that he teaches. “My home shall be the home of such and of such only as wish to live the life that I teach…[I]t will be to me as the beginning of my life anew–a life with a purpose humble, but deep as the Eternal Fountain whence it draws its inspiration.”
Ira Sayles aspired to build a utopian community, or so it appears. As Ira was a prolific letter-writer, I am certain to flesh out Ira’s “principles” as I take a new look at old files.
This letter contains clues worthy of pursuit. And after a fresh take I can answer a few questions.
Why did Ira claim that he had never had a home of his own?
Ira lived in his parents’ home, with siblings, in Alfred College dorms and in residences that his wife’s money purchased. He rented hotel rooms and apartments, stayed in boarding houses, and visited his estranged wife on the farm that she owned. A recurring theme for Ira, “home” as something he purchased and constructed in accordance with his values and principles eluded the man throughout his life. His search for status and belonging makes for a poignant story.
What happened in 1880 that led Ira to feel healthier, more fit?
This question requires more research. And luck.
What happened in 1883 that contributed to Ira’s financial security?
While serving as Secretary of the Interior (1882-1885), Henry M. Teller appointed his former Rushford (NY) Academy principal and teacher Ira Sayles to the newly formed United States Geological Survey. Ira was then able to have a steady income from work that centered his scientific interest in geology. Ira’s field work yielded rock and fossil specimens from the Appalachian strata from Tennessee to Vermont before illness forced the elderly paleontologist to resign in 1892.
Did Ira ever go West? If so, where did he travel, how long did he stay, with whom did he live?
Ira finally went west…in 1892, after suffering a stroke the previous fall and some sort of “attack” that forced him into a Washington, D.C. hospital for a few days in February 1892.
By March 11, Ira had crossed the country to Greensburg, Kansas where he intended to make a home with his brother, Loren Sayles. No description of his four month visit has surfaced, but it is clear that health played a part in Ira’s return to Washington, D.C. where he made application for a military pension on August 2 based on general debility. The story of what followed his return to the East deserves a post of its own.
There is no place like home.
Ira wandered like a stray puppy looking for his home, to the end.
Letter from Ira Sayles to EB Hall, 1884. From the Edwin B Hall Family Collection, privately held by Jay Woelfel, [address for private use.] Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland December 2018.
Newspapers.com – Kiowa County Signal – 11 Mar 1892 – Page Page 1
Newspapers.com – The Olean Democrat – 5 Jun 1883 – Page Page 6