By Mike Scott
Clark County’s rich history would not be complete without the contributions of the French family, who this week celebrate the 150th anniversary of the purchase of their farm near Athens.
William Southwell French was born in Crowland, Lincolnshire, England, on October 25, 1828. He came to America in 1851, settling in Henry County, Illinois. He married Eliza Kerby in 1855. Their only son, Thomas, was born June 28, 1856. In 1857, the family moved to Clark County, settling near St. Francisville.
Family legend states William left his team in the field to answer Lincoln’s first call for volunteers. That call may have actually been David Moore’s call, but records show William enlisted at Kahoka on June 8, 1861.
William served as a member of the Home Guard that fought in the Battle of Athens. The unit was later organized as the 21st Missouri Infantry, and William became the orderly for Colonel David Moore.
In William’s bible, there is a handwritten note beside the 91st Psalm, “Read this chapter on my knees in Colonel Moore’s tent at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, April 6, 1862.”
During that battle, Moore’s horse was shot out from beneath him, and William had to obtain a new mount. Moore was wounded, and William brought him up river to Keokuk where Moore’s leg was amputated. Within 60 days, Moore returned to the regiment and led his men in the second battle at Corinth, Mississippi. William, again, had to find a new mount for Moore after his horse was shot.
After the war, William returned to Clark County, and on August 29, 1865, he purchased 40 acres from a man named Thompson. There was a log house with a stone cellar on the land. William build a frame addition of four rooms. Members of the French family have lived on the site ever since.
Thanks to the work of Don French in 1975, and Peggy French in 2008, the family history of the Tom and Maggie French family is well documented on two books. The books have extensive genealogies of the French families, but also have some interesting stories from Clark County’s history and days long past.
In 1881, Thomas French married Margaret Mahala Harper, known as Maggie.
Tom met Maggie at a party in 1880 at the Ed Smith house in Athens. Maggie was amused by Tom’s cockney accent, likely learned from his father. As an old lady, she remembered Tom saying something about “arnessing the orse”.
After they were married, they bought the forty acres just west of the original French forty. Tom and his father farmed together.
One morning in the winter of 1884, when he went over to help with the chores, his father told him that the Gordon eighty (which lies just east of the orignal French forty) was for sale. After finishing the chores, Tom walked over to Gordons, bought the farm, and then went home to breakfast and told Maggie. She would later chuckle, “ A lot of breakfasts went by before it was paid for.”
Another of the family stories handed down through the generations comes from Maggie, concerning her father, Patterson Harper’s, homecoming.
The family water supply came from a spring along the path leading from the road to the house. One of girls was sent to the spring for water, but came running back without the bucket. She cried and told her mother that a tramp had tried to catch her and was coming up the path. That tramp was Patterson Harper, bearded and dirty, coming home from the war.
Maggie was also a good friend of Alice Spencer. A few days before the tragic murder of the Spencer family, Maggie had spent the night with Alice, and they had slept in the attic. A skein of wool yarn that Alice had spun was hanging on a nail in a rafter. As the murder swung the axe, its blade cut through the skein of yarn. Maggie recalled that at the funeral, some of the men carried rope.
Tom and Maggie had eleven children, six boys and five girls: William, Sarah, Benjamin, Ralph, Frederic, Ethel, Frank, Ina, Ernest, Edith and Frances.
Shortly after the turn of the century, they had accumulated 300 acres of land.
Life was much different then. Bread had to be baked daily. Canning took place in the summer. Soap was made at home. Water was poured through wood ashes to leach out the lye. Waste grease, bacon rinds, ect, were boiled in the lye water until a soft soap was formed.
Work was especially difficult when there was a sickness in the family, and getting a doctor by buggy took a long time.
Home treatments were common.
Ethel recalled, “ We used puffballs for stopping bleeding.”
Whenever any of the children weren’t eating well or just didn’t feel good, castor oil was given. Turpentine or kerosene mixed with lard was used to treat chest colds.
To run a successfurl farm, sometimes it was necessary to take a gamble to succeed. Around 1900, there was a surplus of corn. Tom built 19 corn cribs out of rails split from white oak. He bought corn for 13 cents a bushel, and sold in a few years later, during a drought, for a dollar a bushel.
Also around 1900, the barn was built. The family then moved into the hayloft of the new barn while the log cabin and old frame house were torn down, and the present house constructed.
The stories in the French family history books are far too numerous to print here.
Living in that home today is David French, and his wife Angie, who are understandably proud of the family’s history. David is the great-great grandson of William Southwell French, who purchased the land in 1865. David has run the farm since 1983.
“This is the proudest thing a person can experience,” David said. “I have total respect for how hard they worked, and the sacrifices they made to keep it going all these years. It’s so easy for us today, we take everything for granted. One of their biggest joys was getting together with family and friends and making homemade ice cream. They didn’t have a lot of stuff, but they never complained.”
We also had the opportunity to speak to David’s aunt, Mary McFarland, the last member of the French family to be born in the French house, back in 1927. Mary now makes her home in Kodiak, Alaska.
“It was a time that was very different. We didn’t have running water or a gas furnace. We had wood stoves, and every evening the boys would saw hickory logs and the sisters would carry them into the house. And the next day, we did it all again,” Mary said.
“And we didn’t have a bathroom, we had a path outside.”
One “luxury” was a telephone, and she fondly remembers talking to her grandmother on the telephone.
She attended rural school at Grover College, which was a walk across the field from home, and then high school in Revere.
It was around 1940 when electricity came to the farm, and they got their first tractor, a Ford, in 1942. Running water arrived in 1946, but they didn’t have indoor plumbing until 1948. And the road was gravelled in 1949.
The women of the French family were strong.
“I had the pleasure of knowing both by grandmothers. They were strong, religious ladies that weren’t telling you about religion all the time, but they were living it,” she said.
“One of the wonderful things about that time was the closeness of families. We were poor, poor, poor, but we kids never knew it. Our parents worked very hard to provide what we needed,” she added.
“It was a great experience growing up on a farm in those days,” she said.