100 Years of Family Farming
Andrew Dayton was William Dayton’s second son. After his father died, he sold his share of the family farm to his older brother Reuben and worked as a hired hand on neighboring farms for some years and then as a tenant farmer. In 1858, ten years after his father’s death, he married Marilla Lamport. She was five years younger and born in the same area of Upper Canada as Andrew. Her parents owned a farm south of the Kankakee, not far from William Dayton’s homestead. By 1860 Andrew and Marilla owned a 200 acre farm, all but 60 acres of it “improved,” meaning under cultivation. Their first of six children was born in 1859, William Benjamin Dayton, my great grandfather.
In an 1893 collection of brief biographies of Kankakee County pioneers, the essay on Andrew sounds like a eulogy: “No death in this community has been more deeply regretted than that of Andrew Dayton, Momence Township, for he was a prominent man, a valued citizen and a leading farmer.” It continues in the same vein for quite some length.
Mr. Dayton was truly a self-made man, and to his own untiring
efforts and well-directed energies was due his success in life. With
the capital he had earned as a farm hand he purchased a small farm.
He began its development with characteristic energy and from early
morning until darkness prevented his further work, he labored in the
interests of himself and family. Care and cultivation produced a
greater yield and ready return. He extended the boundaries of his
farm, until he became the owner of four hundred and fourteen acres of
He exercised his right of franchise in support of the man and
measures of the Republican party, being a warm advocate of its principals,
fair and honest in his business dealings, and straightforward
in all the relations of life, he won the respect and confidence of
all with whom he was brought in contact, and gained the high regard
of many who remained his warm friends until his death.
It concludes on a somber note: “While standing in the door at his son’s, Mr. Dayton was struck by lightning and killed instantly, at the age of fifty-seven years. His wife and children still reside upon the old homestead. Mrs. Dayton is a member of the Baptist Church. He left them in comfortable circumstances, their farm being considered one of the finest and best improved in the township.” The memoriam includes portraits of Andrew and Marilla as shown below.
I’ll refer to my great grandfather, William Benjamin Dayton, mostly as “Billy B.” to make it clear when I’m talking about him and not his grandfather or his fifth child, whom he named William. Was it Billy B.’s home that Andrew was visiting when he was killed by lightning? It seems likely. His youngest son Merritt was still living with his parents. Another son, Emory, was working for the railroad and probably living in town.
Eight years after Andrew’s death, the Kankakee County land map still showed him as owner of a 34-acre parcel on the southern shore of the Kankakee River a couple miles east of Momence. That may have been the second parcel his father William purchased the same year he died, 1848. On the same 1900 county land map, Merritt is shown as having a large parcel of land to the south of Momence. Reuben, Andrew’s older brother, is also shown as a landowner — and his parcel appears to be a remnant of the original William Dayton homestead well east of town. Reuben’s second wife inherited that land and passed it on to her three children by her first husband.
Billy B.’s farm is also marked on that 1900 county land map. Its proximity to his brother Merritt’s parcel suggests that the inheritance was settled in a way that gave them both a fair size chunk of the hundreds of acres Andrew had accrued. The 1900 Census indicated that all three Dayton farmers — Reuben, Billy B., and Merritt — owned their land outright: no mortgages. In three generations, then, my Dayton ancestors in Illinois had risen from subsistence frontier farming to substantial family farms profitable enough to support a prosperous middle class lifestyle. In August 1905, the local Momence newspaper ran a piece on the wedding of Billy B.’s daughter Flora Mae to Arthur Chipman. It took place in the parlor of her parents’ “beautiful country home” and was attended by 200 guests.
I inherited a sepia photograph from my mother, who may have gotten it from my father’s sister or his mother, or from one of his aunts. It is a portrait of the William Benjamin Dayton family in their Sunday best, staring confidently into the future. I know that the two oldest daughters, Flora Mae and Edna, had married and moved into separate households by the fall of 1905. The youngest son, Winfred, who later went by “Wayne,” was born in 1899 and looks to be five or six. Given these known knowns, I’m guessing the portrait shows the family as they were circa 1904–1905.
In back (left to right): Edna, Claude (my grandfather), Flora Mae; front: Elizabeth, Billy B., Winfred (“Wayne”), Malinda Belle, and William McKinley
Within five years, give or take, the family, minus the three daughters, resided in the village of Grant Park, about six miles north of Momence but in a different township. According to the 1910 Census, they lived in a rented house not on a farm. Billy B. was working as a laborer in a brickyard. His oldest son Claude, 21, worked as a clerk in a grocery store. The two youngest sons, William McKinley and Winfred, were still in school. The youngest daughter, Elizabeth, then 20, was not yet married but she wasn’t included among the household members. She may be the Elizabeth Dayton that the 1910 Census shows as living in the town of Fowler, Indiana, about 60 miles from Grant Park. That young woman worked as a trimmer in a millinery business run by the matron of the household in which Elizabeth was living.
The 1910 Census, then, suggests that Billy B. no longer owned a farm. However, he might have been renting out his farm, thereby receiving a steady income from a tenant while the farm’s value continued to increase. According to that same Census, his brother Merritt had taken out a mortgage on his farm. Initially, I suspected that both farmers might have fallen on hard times, but the historical record suggests the opposite is more likely. The first decade of the 20th century brought steadily growing prosperity to most Illinois farmers. From 1900 to 1910, the estimated value of farm land in Kankakee County doubled.
This calls for guesswork. Sometime after his two oldest daughters married and moved away in 1905, Billy B. may have decided it was a good time to take a break from farming. His mother Marilla had died in January of that year. He celebrated his 45th birthday that August, exceeding his life expectancy at birth by six years. If he had already sold his farm by 1910, it would have provided a tidy sum to sock away in a bank. Maybe he was inspired by the example of daughter Flora Mae’s father-in-law, Henry Chipman, who had sold his wheat and hay farm and took up fruit farming in the Spokane Valley of Washington state. Maybe, too, Billy B. hoped to strike it rich in the stock market. In any case, Americans with the do-re-mi in the second decade of the 20th century had plenty of options for spending and investing. Rural areas near big cities, like Kankakee County, were eager to receive the benefits of inventions continually making city life more convenient and generally more fun. The automobile, for example, probably excited farm families even more than city folks. The first Ford Model T was introduced in 1908, and by 1920 over half the cars sold in the United States were Model T’s. I bet Billy B. bought one.
Whatever dream of an easier life may have induced him to sell his farm in Kankakee County, it did not “pan out” as my Gramma Dayton, famed as a pie maker, used to say. In the fall of 1911, the house he rented in Grant Park unexpectedly got smaller. Flora Mae, recently widowed and pregnant, moved in with her son Harry, who was not yet two. In November, her daughter Maxine was born. In April 1912, a tornado ripped through Kankakee County, and the only populated area it affected was Grant Park. It devastated the brickyard where Billy B. worked: no fatalities, but three workers were injured. The Momence Republican reported: “Between 30 and 40 houses are wrecked, some being carried a distance of several hundred yards and demolished as they struck the ground in distant fields.”
By 1913, Flora Mae was working as a milliner in Momence. In 1914, she and her children moved to Detroit to live with her sister Edna, but by June 1915 she was again living with her parents and brothers, only now they were all on a farm in the township of Cortlandville, New York.
Why in the world did Billy B. move his family east instead of west when he decided to get back into farming? It may have been the pull of family connections in that part of New York, possibly a specific distant relative. During the first decades of the 20th century, several Dayton families lived in Cortland, Cayuga, and Tompkins Counties. I haven’t found Billy B.’s connection to any of them, but it seems likely there may have been one.
In any case, early in 1915 my great grandfather purchased a farm in a small valley among low glacial ridges marking the southeastern edge of the Finger Lakes Region. The next time you find yourself driving north on Interstate 83 as it approaches Cortland, when you pass over New York highway 41, take a gander off to the right at that ridge rising from the smaller highway below. Just beyond is Carhill Road, where Billy B. bought the farm. He and his wife Belle Winfrey and their three sons, along with Flora Mae and little Harry and Maxine had settled in there by June when the New York state census taker visited. William B. Dayton was duly enumerated as a farmer working on his own account; Claude, 27, and William McKinley, 18, were identified as farm hands working for him. Winfred, 16, was in school. Belle’s and Flora Mae’s occupational identity was the same: housework. Harry was 5 and Maxine was 3, neither of them yet in school.
Whether he was drawn to the region by kith or kin, Billy B. likely viewed farming in Cortland County, New York, as an attractive proposition compared with what he had experienced in Illinois. For one thing, the price of farmland was much less than what he’d sold his land for in Illinois. I have a copy of the public document recording his purchase of a farm in Cortland County in 1915. The mortgage — which may have represented only part of the selling price — obligated him to pay at least a small amount each year for five years, after which the entire amount remaining of the $6,000 principal fell due. I thought the terms of the mortgage seemed risky, but maybe they weren’t: He might have had a nest egg in the bank from selling his Illinois farm. Although family-run dairy farms back then were small by today’s standards, they predominated in Cortland County, and were less affected by the vicissitudes of the weather and the market for their products. The New York Dairymen’s League Co-Operative Association had done much to improve milk distribution and processing in the state while bargaining with major distributors for more stable and sustainable prices. And at Cornell University in Ithaca, a short drive from Cortland, agronomists were continually engaged in sharing research findings with farmers in the state, promoting innovation.
Still, be all that as it may, after the Great War blew up Europe in August 1914, you would think Billy B. might have hesitated to get back into farming. But no. He financed the purchase of his farm in late 1914 or early 1915 and moved his family there in time for planting corn and cover crops for silage. Did the war in Europe seem too distant to worry about? Or did he figure maybe it presented an even better opportunity for New York dairy farming: If the war dragged on, shortages over there would drive up the prices farmers could get for exports, even dairy farmers, whose biggest buyer in New York state was Borden. Its primary product, condensed milk, was a vital military ration.
The Momence Cemetery website shows 1916 etched into William B. Dayton’s gravestone. However, the New York state death index lists July 18, 1917, as the day he died, and that date is corroborated by a Kankakee, Illinois, newspaper. The brief funeral notice states that his wife Belle and oldest son Claude accompanied Billy B.’s body from Cortland, New York. His daughter Edna and her husband, who lived nearby in Chicago, made the funeral arrangements. Billy B’s brothers Emory and Merritt are mentioned as still living in the Momence area.
And there is still more evidence that the year etched on his gravestone is a mistake. When Claude Dayton filled out his World War I draft registration in June 1917, he affirmed that no one depended solely on him for support and that he did not claim exemption from the draft for any reason. When his father died the very next month, Claude’s draft eligibility would have changed because he then became his mother’s sole support. He assumed responsibility for operating the dairy farm and for paying off that $6,000 mortgage. His brothers were little help. Winfred, the youngest, changed his name to Wayne Dayton — no middle name — and joined the Navy in May 1917 when he was 18, probably with his parents’ permission. The middle brother, William McKinley, didn’t have to register for the draft until June 1918 when he was 21. At that time, he stated that he was self-employed and married to a woman from Binghamton. The 1920 Census lists him as a streetcar operator in that city, and living with his wife’s parents.
William McKinley’s first marriage did not last long. Divorced, he moved to Detroit about 1921 and lived with his sister Edna and her husband George Francis (“Frank”) Wheeler. Frank was a railroad freight agent. He and Edna owned a large house about seven miles from downtown Detroit. Frank probably helped William land his job as a brakeman for the Midwest Central Railroad. William McKinley Dayton died in 1929. On his death certificate, a doctor channeled his inner Hemingway: “General crushing injuries to whole body. Run over by locomotive.”
I haven’t been able to document Wayne’s whereabouts from when he left the Navy as an engineman second class in September 1919 until 1929 when he signed his brother William’s death certificate as the “informant.” I think he probably moved to Detroit around 1921 along with William. On the death certificate, he gave the same address for them both, which was the home of Edna and Frank. Both William and Wayne got married in 1928, and in 1929 both couples were living with Edna and Frank — or so I assume, based on the information Wayne provided on William’s death certificate dated February 16, 1929. Granted, Edna and Frank had the room for all three couples. Their house’s estimated value in the 1930 Census was $10,000, which was about twice the average value of single family houses in the U.S. that year. The address was 13401 Robson, Detroit, Michigan. It’s now an empty lot, which you can examine for yourself on Google Map’s street view.
Wayne noted on the death certificate that William’s death occurred where the railroad tracks crossed 12th Avenue (now Rosa Parks Avenue). I have to think the tragedy, and perhaps the circumstances leading up to it, contributed to the dissolution of Wayne’s marriage. The 1930 Census has him still living with his sister Edna and her husband, and still married but not living with his wife, Amy Fitzgerald. In September of that year, Amy sued him for divorce on the grounds of desertion. She didn’t seek alimony, and he didn’t contest her petition for divorce, which was finalized on the last day of 1930.
On his World War II draft registration card in 1942, Wayne indicated he was unemployed and living in an apartment not far from Edna and Frank’s house. For at least some years during the war, Wayne worked as a fireman on a freighter plying the St. Lawrence Seaway. He died in November 1956 and is buried in a Veterans Administration cemetery, the National Memorial Garden in Detroit. Edna arranged for the burial and military headstone. She was the one family member Wayne, the baby of the family, remained close to after his brother William died. Edna made the burial arrangements from her home in Florida, where she and Frank Wheeler retired in 1953. They lived in the Winter Park area, near her sister Elizabeth, who was widowed in 1947 and moved to Winter Park in 1952. Elizabeth died in 1979 at age 87. Edna died in January 1986, two months shy of reaching 100.
My grandfather Claude Dayton and his wife Bernice Atwater started out on the farm that Billy B. had purchased on Carr Hill Road in Cortlandville, New York. When the mortgage came due, they obtained an extension of one year. When that year was up, they rented a farm in the next county over, Cayuga County, near the town of Summer Hill. Around 1927, they found someone to lend them money to buy a farm in the village of Venice Center, near an area in Cayuga County called Stewart’s Corners. They may have benefited from the federal government’s expansion of farm credit programs in 1916 (land banks) and 1923 (intermediate credit banks). They worked the Venice Center farm for about 20 years, and it’s where my Dad grew up.
Claude’s 1965 obituary in the Ithaca Journal says he retired from farming in 1948; that was the year his mother Belle died. Records show that Malinda Belle Winfrey lived mainly in Ithaca after Billy B. died in 1917. At times, Belle lived with Flora Mae and her children. She worked as a cook in a Cornell frat house for a number of years, so it seems unlikely that Claude inherited anything of substance when she died in 1948. In any case, that’s the year he and Bernice bought the house in Moravia that I remember visiting as a child. According to Claude’s obit, he continued to work in farm-implement sales after he retired from farming, and Bernice worked at Slim’s Restaurant, making pies.
Flora Mae was ever the entrepreneur — milliner, hairdresser, beauty shop owner — was the first of Billy B.’s children to die, in 1945. As a young widow transplanted to Ithaca in 1915, she did well for herself and her two kids, Harry and Maxine, even before she married the handsome, younger war vet Frank Quick early in the 1920s. She and her children were occasionally mentioned in the social tidbits published in the Ithaca Journal of 1919. A gossipy news note in November of that year suggests Flora may have survived the Spanish flu. Harry, her handsome, smart, and athletic son, died in a car crash on May 16, 1926, shortly before he was slated to graduate from high school. Several news stories highlight Harry’s athletic and academic promise. His tragic death was covered in a couple fairly long pieces in the Ithaca Journal.
Flora and Frank Quick purchased several parcels of land on South Hill and built a house in 1928. The 1929 Ithaca directory lists her as proprietor of the Ithaca Hotel Beauty Shop. However, the 1930 Census lists Flora as head of family, although married, with only daughter Maxine, 18, living with her. She and Frank were separated, but not yet divorced. She owned the house they built on Spencer Road, worth about $150K in 2021 dollars. Frank’s application to get a license for his second marriage indicates that he and Flora were divorced as of June 1932. At some point, Flora moved to 109 N. Aurora Street, an apartment building with ground floor commercial space. She lived there until her death. You can read her obituary here: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/152351940/flora-may-chipman.
In 1975, I researched graduate school programs in soil chemistry for my wife Nancy. We narrowed the choices to the University of California at Davis, the University of Arizona at Tucson, Washington State University in Pullman, and Cornell University. She ranked Washington State and Cornell as her top choices. We couldn’t see moving to Pullman: too small, rural, isolated. I was drawn to Ithaca because of my family connections and memories of the area. Nancy was drawn to it because her advisor was a young researcher with few grad students and because of Cornell’s reputation. I was drawn to it for reasons that should be obvious by now.
When I got a job early that fall of 1976 with The Cornell Daily Sun, the building I worked in was the Atwater Building — owned at one time by someone I was probably related to, through my dad’s mom Bernice Atwater. I suspected as much back then but never looked into it. And I must have passed 109 N. Aurora Street a couple hundred times down the street from where I worked. It may have been the same building that Flora Mae lived in for the last 10 years of her life. Town records show a building at that address was torn down and replaced with a more modern structure in the 1980s.