A[nother] Letter from Ira Sayles

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.

Home.

There is no place like home.

Ira wandered like a stray puppy looking for his home, to the end.

Source:

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.  

Letter. Sayles, Ira to EB Hall. 1884.transcription. images 1,2,3.

Newspapers.com – Kiowa County Signal – 11 Mar 1892 – Page Page 1

 Newspapers.com – The Olean Democrat – 5 Jun 1883 – Page Page 6

On Court Avenue

The cabinet card is not quite as sturdy as one would expect from an established photographer like Benjamin E. Goldsberry, and his studio logo was stamped in haste across the bottom, leaving the green-inked words crookedly confirming the man’s location–Court Avenue in Bedford, the county seat of Taylor County, Iowa. Ben Goldsberry operated cameras like an artist and had a strong reputation in the region, training other aspiring photographers like Matthew G. Maxwell.

page 13 blogThe young couple wear clothes that are simple and traditional, probably made of worsted wool.  The woman’s bodice is plain with no inlays, embroidery or ruffles, and the buttons appear to be made of bone.  She dresses the outfit up with a starched undercollar and a beautiful oval broach at the throat.  Her hair is divided in three pieces; the bottom strands are pulled to the back and twisted into a bun, which is then wound with the two upper pieces for an 1880s finishing touch.  The man wears a jacket and vest made of matching plaid fabric, and a long flowing beard with trimmed sideburns and mustache–a style considered old-fashioned back east.  Mr. Goldsberry operated his Bedford studio from 1880-1890, and these internal clues suggest that the couple posed on Court Avenue between 1884-1889.

I have uncovered six Minor family members living in Iowa’s southcentral counties during the latter decades of the 19th century so far, and only one would fit the description above.

140627-164834John Pierson and Minnie B. Norton Keenan

John P. Keenan was born on a farm near Carmichaels, Pennsylvania, son of Hugh and Isabella Minor Keenan. An adventurous person, John left Greene County in 1875, and as an eighteen year old made his way to Taylor County, Iowa, where he herded other people’s cattle for a living.  He was an enterprising man known as a progressive farmer.  By 1881 John was acting as the legal agent for his Uncle Marion Minor, collecting “judgements” from other Greene County residents who had borrowed money to establish their Iowa roots.  During this same time period, John had made enough money to purchase his own farm in the neighboring Ringgold County. There he met, courted and married Minnie Norton in 1884.

By 1887 John and Minnie had the opportunity to purchase 300 acres of fine farming land south of Mormontown (Blockton), Jefferson Township, Taylor County.  Their lives were turned topsy-turvy when son Hugh was born the summer of 1887.  Unfortunately the following year was filled with grief, as they lost first Minnie’s father, Martin, and then their little boy.

Perhaps later that fall the young farmers headed to town, purchasing winter supplies, tying up financial matters, posting letters before the winter storms set in,  and stopping by Court Avenue to document their resilience for posterity.

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