Wealth and the Ideal Man: An Epistle from Ira Sayles to EB Hall, 1885

Ira Sayles, assistant geologist with United States Geological Survey. 
Photograph taken about 1885 at age 68.

Ira Sayles.

Had I nothing but historical documents, I would have but a simplistic notion of who my great-great-grandfather was.  A self-taught student who rose to be a college student, teacher and founding school administrator of Alfred Academy; Principal of Rushford Academy; Captain of Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers in the Union Army; assistant geologist to Charles D. Walcott with the United States Geological Survey. 

A son, brother, husband, father.

But I have letters. And poems. And journal articles. And more letters. 

Clearly, Ira Sayles was a complicated man, with a rich interior life.  His core identity was constructed from his intellectual activities, not his familial relationships.  He harbored ambitions for his poetry, teaching methods, and scientific observations, and nursed grudges with a world that failed to recognize his brilliance. 

In an undated letter to his friend, EB Hall, a druggest and amateur paleontologist in Wellsville, New York, Ira Sayles declares:

People may not be willing to accredit me with being their
Ideal Man. I have never striven to be their Ideal Man; but I do strive to be my own Ideal Man. I am no social puppet. The Ideal Man of Society is but a puppet. He must attitude, and bob, and bow, according to the notions of a silly mob, for whose good opinion I will not turn on my heel. 

Apparently Ira and EB Hall had been discussing the notion of wealth, how the great entrepreneurs of the age–Vanderbilt, Cornell, Rothschild–had used their money to endow public institutions.  Ira took issue with the social standing that these men accrued because of their riches and legacies.

  I know the power of wealth. I acknowledge its good, and I deplore its evils. I can say, too, I have felt its evils. I do not care to rehearse my experiences; nor will I enter into any explanations why I have been so long a homeless wanderer over this beautiful Earth. The story shall remain untold. 

No man can win through the ordinary course of business, a large fortune, but that every dollar is cursed with the tears of the hungry, the naked, the shelterless! 

Ira’s disdain for capitalistic success was connected to his concern about the changing aspirations of women.  In fact, in this letter, Ira predicted a total breakdown of the social order.  Because of financial expectations men, the natural providers for women, would not be able to afford the trappings of success needed to be married.  Wealth among the few would contribute to women not getting married and having children, and men frequenting houses of ill repute because they could not afford wives.  

Ira’s legacy, however, would not be appraised in terms of the dollar.

Instead of making Wealth an object of Life—the object of Life—I will make, as I have long been making, complete fullness of manhood and womanhood, in all its richness, not the chief
but the only end of Life. 

Perhaps you, like others, will call me a dreamer, indulging in an illusive (sic) fancy that will forever mock my hope. Be it so. I have the satisfaction and the joy of living that life myself; I will build myself a home where whoever will, may come and partake with me freely, on the same conditions as I impose on myself, viz. Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature. That and that only. 

Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature. 

Where the ideal man provided for the ideal woman who remained at home and became mothers.  Where everyone had enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, and honorable work to complete.  

Ira’s utopia. Did he ever discover the wealth inside his own ideal? 

Source

Letter from Ira Sayles to EB Hall of Wellsville, New York, ca. 1885; Hall Family Documents, privately held by Jay Woelfle [address for private use,] 2018. Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland, 2018. 

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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