Andrew J. Lester of Springfield Illinois

Andrew J. Lester of Springfield Illinois

Andrew J. Lester is a distant cousin who was born shortly before the Civil War and died at the beginning of World War I. His family moved from Washington County Virginia in the 1840’s to settle in Sangamon County Illinois. I recently ran across numerous newspaper articles about Andrew and wrote a lengthy research paper about him. Here are a few excerpts.

Highlights in Andrew J. Lester’s Life

  • 1859 Born in Williamsville, Sangamon, Illinois
  • 1880/1881 Graduation and Teaching
  • 1885 Admitted to the Sangamon County Bar
  • 1886 Joined first Law Firm
  • 1884-1902 Republican Political Activities
  • 1888 Elected to Illinois House of Representatives, 36th General Assembly for 39th District
  • 1889/1890 U.S. Government Job, Special Immigrant Agent for the Treasury Department
  • 1890 Marriage in September
  • 1892 Birth of Daughter in November
  • 1901 Death of Father in May
  • 1905/1906 Jobs with brother in law in St. Louis 1905, NY in 1906
  • 1910 Back to business on his own, Attorney and Manufacturer of Storage Batteries
  • 1917 Marriage of Daughter
  • 1917 Death in Salt Lake City, Utah

Andrew Jackson Lester, also commonly known as A. J. Lester was the middle child of twelve, six boys and six girls. He was born on September 27, 1859 in Williamsville, Sangamon County, Illinois. Due to his political and society activities in Springfield Illinois there are quite a few mentions of him in newspapers and as a result quite a bit of information. 

In a book published in 1891 containing portraits and biographical information of renowned men in Sangamon County Illinois, there is an entry for Andrew as the Honorable Andrew J. Lester. At that time he was a representative in the state government and held a federal office. The biographical sketch gives us the birth date, September 27, 1860. He was 10 months old on the 1860 census so his birth year was actually 1859. It goes on to tell us that he attended the common schools during his youth and eventually attended Central Normal College in Danville Indiana, studying under Professor Adams and graduating in 1881. I have found the “Fourth Annual Catalogue of the Central Normal College and Commercial Institute, 1880-1881” and his name does not appear in any of the lists of graduates going back to 1878.

His occupation was school teacher on the June 1880 census where he was living with his parents and siblings in Williams Township, Sangamon County, Illinois and I do believe because he was teaching he would have at least gotten his teaching certificate. According to the book he continued teaching in county schools and also became the principle of Williamsville Schools. It appears he had a different calling because while he was doing this he was also studying law and clerking in the offices of Palmer, Robinson and Schutt while on his vacations. He was admitted to the bar in “1885” and by 1886 had become associated with Hon. James C. Conkling. In 1886 he was also nominated to be a Representative in the Illinois State Legislature but lost. He did subsequently win in 1888 and was still a member when the book was published. At around the same time he became a Special Agent in the U.S. Treasury Department while continuing to practice law with John C. Mathis in the firm named Lester & Mathis. The dates in the sketch must be questioned as by September 1884 he was known as Honorable A. J. Lester of Springfield in the first of many newspaper articles I have found about him. In this article he is noted to be an orator at a Republican Rally in Illiopolis Illinois.

He was well known in Springfield politics and state Republican politics. While a Representative he chaired the Committee on Judicial Department and Practice. During a special session of the legislature that was called to discuss matters related to the World’s Fair as he presided over a joint committee tasked with handling bills related to the Great Columbian Exposition. During the first organizing of the Republican League of the United States in New York in 1887 he was one of the three representatives from Illinois. Along with the man who would eventually become his brother in law, W. W. Tracy, they organized the state league in Illinois and were instrumental in organizing four hundred more across the state. His activities within this organization is the subject of the majority of the newspaper articles I found about him.

In addition to his political activities he was also an Elk and a member of the Knights of the Pythias and the Sangamo Club. His church was noted to be the First Congregational Church in Springfield, which is the church his in-laws were charter members of. As this biographical sketch was published in 1891 it ends with the details of his marriage to the society belle Louise “Lucy” Tracy whose father F. W. Tracy was a prominent banker and member of Springfield Society. Andrew’s brother James Newton Lester officiated the marriage rites.

In the next post I will include a sampling of the various news stories I found about him. It appears that Andrew was talented and ambitious and became quite involved with his in-laws and their business ventures. Not long before his death he seems to have retired from politics and gone back to working on his own as a lawyer and businessman. This was also after the legal and financial troubles of his brother in law. I imagine that politics during turn of the century Chicago and New York were quite difficult to navigate for very long.



TVA Case Files – Dr. Sage

I have recently been enthralled reading the records of the TVA that were recently made available on Ancestry. Genealogical research can be so dry sometimes. Names, dates, places and no color. The case files of the TVA are anything but dry and colorless.

If you had family in the areas affected by the programs of the TVA, these files provide a glimpse into their lives at that time. It’s useful even if your family is not among those reported on or directly impacted. The case workers documented information about an area of our country that would have been ignored and forgotten if not for their efforts. They took photos of buildings that would soon be gone and told of the homes and situations of the poor and not so poor farmers and sharecroppers in those areas. If you had family in the mountains and valleys of southwest Virginia you know how secretive they were and what little they left behind.

A fascinating example was the case file on a country doctor, John W. Sage, who practiced in the Harr Community of Sullivan County Tennessee. He was visited in May of 1942. The file describes his office on the second floor of a  two-story building, “..dilapidated, two-story, boxed structure, very unattractive, poorly arranged and crowded”. The photo in the file makes you wonder how any patient dared climb the steps to get there.  The case worker goes on to describe the office, “..inadequate furnishings, consisting mainly of : a squeaky cot or operating table, scattered obstetrical instruments of the oldest type, an old typewriter sitting on a table long enough for a desk in front of which is a swivel chair and several shelves full of dirty bottles containing chemicals used in general practice. An abundance of prophylactic medicines and the old type of syphilitic treatment are included.”

The case worker tells us that on each occasion he was visited he was wearing the same dark suit and tie and had the odor of alcohol on his breath. It was noted that he liked to talk about the families he treated in a profane manner. The details he leaves to our imagination. He goes on to say that for several months the doctor wore a piece of adhesive tape from his lower eyelid down to his cheek, explaining how it was allowing circulation to relieve inflammation. Obstetrics was his prized topic of conversation, “Some of the happenings he describes and the ancient manner he practices in caring for the confinement cases of the prolific mothers of the community makes one wonder how he keeps from losing a large percentage of his cases.”

It is then reported that the doctor is well-known in the community for answering every call no matter what time of day or the patient’s ability to pay. In looking at his books it showed only a third of his charges were collectible. The doctor was revisited in July 1942 and we learn, “In his typical profane manner, Dr. Sage reported that he was cooperating with the citizens of the community in criticizing the OPA (Office of Price Administration) in regard to the rationing of gasoline and food products.”  In December 1943 it is reported that Dr. Sage moved his practice to Ruthton, a community southeast of Bristol. Later records tell us that the Doctor died in 1948 and his wife went to live with her children.

All of this made me highly suspicious of the country doctor so I checked census records. In 1940 he was 61 years old and reported to be a medical doctor. However, in 1930 he was a mechanic on a railroad and in 1920 a travelling salesman of tobacco. Previous to that he was a farm laborer. I am curious as to where and when he obtained his medical degree. I would bet that he never did which would explain his archaic practices. My heart goes out to the poor women who trusted him at such a vulnerable time.


The Report Card

My aunt and I share a love of history and the stories hidden there. She has shared a lot of her knowledge with me over the years. Working in an antique mall she comes across a lot of interesting artifacts. Like me she hates to see the personal mementos of people there and if possible wants to reunite them with family. One day she brought me a simple child’s report card and asked if I could find a family member to return it to.

Jacob Funk Report Card-Buchanan Elementary School, Franklin County PA

Jacob Funk Report Card-Buchanan Elementary School, Franklin County PA

The report card belonged to a little boy named Jacob Funk and in 1933-34 he was a fourth grader at Buchanan Elementary in Chambersburg and appeared to be a good student. Along with it was a small slip from a dentist announcing perfect teeth and a reading list that included of all things “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman.


Franklin County PA Pupil Reading Circle Report Card

Franklin County PA Pupil Reading Circle Report Card

Census and other records revealed Jacob was the son of Paul M. and Hazel Funk and they lived on East Queen Street in Chambersburg. He had an older brother named David and they both eventually attended Chambersburg Senior High School. Jacob was in the class of 1943 and school yearbooks show him in the Visual Education Club, the Science Club, and Senior Hi-Y (a religious club). He was also in the chorus of the Operetta – “Love Goes South”. The 1942 yearbook I found on Ancestry actually has a note written by him on the Visual Ed Club page next to where he was listed as the Chief Technician. “To a friend and good student that has as many headaches as I. Jake 43′”. 

Navy Construction Battalion Recruiting Poster

Navy Construction Battalion Recruiting Poster

Jacob joined the Navy right after high school in June 1943 and remained in the service until April 1946. As a member of the 107th Naval Construction Battalion or Seabees he had the rank of EM3 (an electrician). He served overseas with the 107th from March 1944 to November 1945. Jake would have spent his 20th birthday just days after arriving on Ebeye Island where the Seabees were tasked with clearing the destruction and Japanese dead the American assault forces left behind. This was their introduction to the work they would be doing for the duration of the war. Clearing the old and building the new. By May the group had built on Ebeye the first American seaplane base in the Marshall Islands. As a member of Company B he then went to Bigej Island and finally Tinian Island where he would remain until the end of the war. He was listed as a member of the second section of the Electrical Shop. The battalion’s entire story can be found in the Log Book of the 107th.

Jacob was back in the states in late November 1945 and left the service April 8, 1946. He returned to his parent’s home where he worked in the family electrical business with his father and older brother. Jacob eventually worked for 30 years at the Scotland School for Veteran’s Children before he retired. He was active in local military service and veteran groups and the 107th Seabees reunions as well as Fireman’s relief and Junior Hose and Truck Company 2 in Chambersburg. He died in 2002 and is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Chambersburg. Jacob’s obituary did not mention a wife or children and his now deceased brother was the only named relative.

John Wayne brought the story of the Seabees to the silver screen in the classic war movie “The Fighting Seabees”. Jacob Funk, the boy from the high school Visual Education Club, was the star of his own movie with the Seabees. One that I’m sure played in his head many times over the years after the war.

ATA Pilot from Chambersburg PA – Part Two

The ATA was formed shortly before the war was declared by Gerard d’Erlanger, the Director of British Airways. He foresaw that the war would make it impossible for commercial and civilian pilots to continue flying due to air travel restrictions and the inability of older and less able pilots to join the RAF. He realized these experienced pilots could serve their country by providing other air transportation services. By the time war was started in September of 1939 they had begun forming the organization and selecting pilots.

The war heated up quickly and the demand for ATA pilots increased. There were not enough men to fly all of the ferry trips and they decided to allow women to fly. There is a great website dedicated to the memory of the women who flew for the ATA called British Air Transport Auxiliary . It’s focus is on the female pilots but includes a lot of background information on the services and sacrifices these pilots made. There is also an excellent book by one of the pilots, Lettice Curtis that gives a lot of details of the day to day lives of the pilots.

The ferry pilots were assigned to pools located near the factory they would be ferrying planes from. Bill would have been assigned to one of these pools and most likely moved from one to another as needed. On the day of his accident, February 8, 1942, he was flying from Sherburn-in-Elmet Airfield in North Yorkshire, where there was an aircraft production factory. His destination was Kirkbride in Cumberland. He was flying alone in an Avro Anson.

We know from existing accident reports that Bill crashed en route at Buckles Heath, South Stainmore near Kirby Stephen in Cumbria at about 2:30 p.m. It is noted that the aircraft was flying over the Pennines in bad weather and collided with the ground due to poor visibility. The Pennines are less than 3000 feet in altitude and are more like large hills or high ground known as fells rather that what we would consider mountains. Lettice Curtis wrote about visibility problems when flying in her autobiography. She wrote that they relied entirely on maps for navigation and coal smoke from factories and home heating that turned haze to fog made for perpetually bad visibility in Winter. She noted that cloud would form above the fog making matters worse. They were prohibited from “flying over the top” and were encouraged to keep sight of the ground at all times. She said they needed to know every detail of the area so they could pinpoint their location in reference to the airfield with a glance at a road or factory along the way. These pilots also flew without radio communication. In other words, they were totally reliant on what they could see.

From what we know about the difficulty they had with navigation in the difficult weather conditions in the area we can understand how Bill’s crash may have occurred.  He had been flying with the ATA for nearly two years by that point. Hardly a novice since we know he held a pilot’s license in the U.S. as early as April 1940. In fact his obituary noted that his accident occurred on the eve of his discharge. Bill reportedly did not survive the crash and the plane was damaged beyond repair. He was buried with full military honors at Atrincham Bowden and Hale Cemetery in Manchester England. At the time of his death they would have been unable to have his body shipped home. His parents did receive his personal effects and

Bill was one of 154 American men who served in the ATA and he joined before the U.S. entered the war. They would not be violating neutrality laws flying for a civilian organization. While it is incredibly sad that he died at such a young age we know that he died doing what he loved and always aspired to do. I don’t know if his parents ever traveled to England to visit his grave but I hope they did. His schoolmate Raymond Hoover apparently survived the war. His obituary tells us he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force for a little over a year piloting planes between Canada and England.

I think of Bill when I pass the old high school and the house he grew up in and it makes me happy to think that someone else might read these brief notes on his short life. My friend, the researcher in England who started all this asked me if there was a plaque or anything else in Chambersburg that honored his memory and service. Sadly there is not. I provided the obituary for him on Find A Grave and asked that his parents be connected to him and this has been completed. Where his hometown has not memorialized him the internet has given me the ability to keep his memory alive in a different way. Please stop by his memorial and leave a note.

First Officer William Johnston Elliott 18 Apr 1917 – 8 Feb 1942

A photo from a collage in his senior yearbook.

A photo from a collage in his senior yearbook.

ATA Pilot from Chambersburg PA – Part One

In March of 2013 the Public Opinion newspaper posted a request for information on their Facebook page. Someone researching WWII era plane crashes near his home in England was looking for information on one of the pilots who was involved in a crash. He had the name of the pilot and his hometown and hoped to get more information on the crash from family members and a photo of the pilot for his book.

The Chambersburg pilot’s name was William Johnston Elliott and he only had his death date. After a search of the 1930 census in Chambersburg I found a possible matching family which led me to three of their burials in Harbaugh Church Cemetery. William was not there. Dead end for now. No pun intended.

Another local resident responding to the researcher verified my assumption and also told him that William had only one brother who died unmarried and that there were no living relatives. He also indicated that the brother, Jack, left his personal effects to the resident’s father who was deceased and that coincidentally he himself had purchased an old yearbook that belonged to William. He mentioned that one the schoolmates who signed his yearbook had drawn an airplane and described it this way, “The odd thing is that Bill must have announced to his buddies that he was planning to fly, because one of them signed the yearbook by drawing a little picture of a plane in the process of augering in and crashing, with some boyish caption that I can’t remember.”

In my later findings it became apparent that William liked to be called Bill so I’ll use that for the rest of this story. I first found Bill on an incoming passenger list for the Canadian Pacific steamship line. He had embarked from St. John New Brunswick and arrived in Liverpool on 18 March 1941 with Raymond Hoover, another Chambersburg man, along with two others in the care of the Minister of Aircraft Production, London. I later learned that Raymond Hoover attended Chambersburg High School with Bill but graduated a year earlier.

Bill grew up in Chambersburg very close to the hospital and not too far from where the high school was located at the time. The house is still there and probably hasn’t changed much. I imagine a young man would have walked to school in the 1930’s.  In 1931 it was a brand new building built on the location of the old school and Bill would have been in one of the first classes to attend the new state of the art high school. The building he attended now stands empty and is a shell of it’s former self.  A new high school was built a few blocks away that has also been recently upgraded and enlarged. Time marches on.

W. J. Elliott Science Club CASHS 1934In high school Bill was in the Science Club and appears in their group photos. In his senior profile he give his ambition; To be a “real” aviator. His hobby was building model airplanes.

W J Elliott Sr Photo CASHS 1935

In the 1934 yearbook there was an ad for flying lessons at a small local airport called Sunset Airport. This no doubt fueled a young boys dreams for his future career. Bill graduated in 1935 and the next we hear from him is in a news article from April 1940 telling us he is a 22 year old census taker and has an unusual method for getting around.

“Census Taker Flies to Work, Chambersburg, April 11 – Bill Elliott probably established a record among the nation’s 140,000 census takers Wednesday when thirteen minutes after leaving Chambersburg he was ringing doorbells in Mont Alto, ten miles away. The 22 year old enumerator didn’t violate Pennsylvania’s automobile speed law of fifty miles an hour to accomplish the feat. He simply went by airplane. Bill, whose more formal name is William J. Elliott and who holds a commercial pilot’s license, doesn’t have an automobile. Anxious to finish enumerating the town by Saturday of this week, he decided that rather then wait for the Mont Alto bus, which leaves Chambersburg at 9:40 a.m. he would make the trip by plane. Accompanied by George Cook, Jr., manager of the Sunset airport, north of Chambersburg. Elliott hopped off from the field there shortly before 9 o’clock Wednesday morning and eight minutes later landed the plane in a pasture along the Fayetteville Rd. in Mont Alto. Cook returned the plane to Chambersburg. Bill was seen off on his novel flight by his supervisor, Norland H. Martin, assistant supervisor  of the Franklin-Adams-York census district.”- The Gettysburg Times, 11 Apr 1940, page eight.

Eleven months later Bill was arriving in London as a member of the Air Transport Auxilliary. A young man with aspirations of a career as a pilot must have seen this as a golden opportunity. Since the U.S. had not yet entered the war he had to travel to Canada and join a civilian organization that was employing pilots to work with RAF ferry pools transporting aircraft. The ATA had taken over all of this ferry transport by August of 1941.

The Air Transport Auxilliary deserves a closer look and I will address this in my next post along with the conclusion of Bill’s story.