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Susan Johnson wore a Victorian-era dress and finery recently as she portrayed Idalette Campbell, daughter of La Salle’s first mayor, Alexander Campbell, during a history program put on by her and her husband, Bill Johnson, retired government and history teacher. NewsTribune photos/Craig Sterrett
The Alexander Campbell mansion has been restored and is a private home at Fourth and Bucklin streets in La Salle. Henry Maze of Peru says a parrot used to mimic how Campbell would be alerted that his "car" had arrived, when the trolley that used to travel the middle of Bucklin Street was coming. NewsTribune photo/Craig Sterrett
A husband-and-wife team of retired history teachers took two very different approaches in a program on La Salle’s first mayor and his family.
In a program this month at Hegeler Carus Mansion, retired government and history teacher Bill Johnson played it straight, providing background on the physical and human geography of La Salle-Peru, giving detailed background on railroad land agent Alexander Campbell and his role in real estate and the development of La Salle, his backing for the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in a failed U.S. Senate race and his terms in the state legislature and Congress.
Johnson’s wife, Susan, the former La Salle-Peru Township High School social science department chairman, dressed in Victorian-era finery and told the Campbell family’s story as a first-person account by the late Idalette Campbell, who was Alexander Campbell’s last of six children and last survivor.
“I would like to thank Henry and Deb Hackman for restoring my home,” Susan Johnson remarked while in character as Idalette. Referring to the Hackmans raising a family there, she said, “You could once again hear the voices of children growing up in this house.”
The Hackmans in 1992 returned the Alexander Campbell house at Fourth and Bucklin streets back to a single-family dwelling; it had been broken up into apartments in the 20th century after the death in 1942 of Idaletta. The Hackmans were tickled by the performance, but were even more surprised when they learned Alexander Campbell’s marriage date in Pennsylvania was March 11 — the same as their anniversary.
The Johnsons’ research had uncovered correspondence between Lincoln and Campbell in which Lincoln had requested a campaign donation and Campbell had turned him down on that particular monetary request but vowed to drum up support for Lincoln locally.
Instead of one of the historians simply saying they had found the letters, “Idalette” told the audience how, when the Chicago Historical Society was seeking information on Lincoln, she and her sister, Ella, gave the letters they had in their possession to the historical society. She also talked about how, as the last survivor in a family with no living sons, she bequeathed amounts from the estate ranging from $3,000 to $20,000 to Alexander’s charities and other causes including Oakwood Cemetery, La Salle Public Library, First Congregational Church of La Salle, People’s Hospital, a trust for the Shriners Hospital, the Masonic Lodge and the American Legion post.
She talked about her twice-yearly trips in her chauffeur-driven Cadillac to shop at Marshall Field in Chicago, and how her father made few public-speaking appearances 1888-1898 in the last 10 years of his life.
She was born after her father was mayor but spoke with pride about his election to Congress as an Independent in 1878. She also talked about how she and her sister, Ella, ordered the large Tiffany mosaic of Jesus and Nicodemus to be displayed in First Congregational Church at Joliet and Fourth streets in La Salle. Alexander Campbell was among the first members of the church when it was founded in 1852, and Johnson, portraying Idalette, said her father always took comfort in and from the church.
Bill started compiling information on Campbell before the La Salle sesquicentennial in 2001 after being asked to do so by Ron Vasile, historian for Canal Corridor Association.
“I kept accumulating more and more information over the years and I just thought it was time to put it together,” Bill said of the program he and his wife put on this week.
In the past 10 years, he came across quite a bit of information he hadn’t found before La Salle’s 150th.
“There was quite a connection to Campbell and Matthiessen and Hegeler coming to La Salle,” Bill emphasized.
Campbell was born in Pennsylvania then moved westward and gained wealth while working first as a clerk and later in management in iron manufacturing in Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri. He came to La Salle in 1850 or ’51 and planned to return to Missouri. However, he began buying and selling real estate, and became rich after he recognized the potential of La Salle because of coal fields and the incoming Illinois Central Railroad.
He wrote a 32-page economic-development publication, “A Glance at Illinois, her lands and her comparative value for economic growth.”
La Salle outgrew Peru in the mid-19th century due to several factors, said Johnson: La Salle’s coal; engineers’ decision to build the Illinois Central Railroad bridge over the Illinois River near the mouth of the Little Vermilion at La Salle rather than near the mouth of the Illinois and Michigan Canal at Peru; as well as aggressive civic leadership influenced Matthiessen and Hegeler to locate a zinc smelter in La Salle. “It was a win-win situation for Matthiessen and Hegeler, the Illinois Central Railroad and the city of La Salle,” Bill Johnson said.
Besides enticing and aiding Matthiessen and Hegeler, Campbell acted as the land agent for the Illinois Central Railroad in La Salle. One of his duties was to sell railroad lots to M&H workers to locate near the M&H industrial operations, and from that, as well as buying and selling land, he became wealthy. Later he, with help from Edward Pulsifer of Hennepin, was involved in platting subdivisions. In addition, Johnson said, Campbell aided the railroad’s aggressive marketing campaign to ensure businesses and industry located along the railroad.
In the 1800s, perhaps even more than today, Campbell and Peru’s first mayor, Theron Brewster, both were encouraged to become mayor and get involved in politics because of their proven track records in business and land development. At the time, terms were only one-year. Campbell was chosen in 1852 and re-elected in 1853.
Campbell once had been a Whig, politically, then became a Republican prior to the Civil War. He had a great distrust of banks and bank notes, and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as an independent, serving 1875-77. He was in favor of the U.S. Treasury adding or subtracting money as needed in the economy — government-backed notes or cash. He authored three books on the topic.
Just as he was a forefather of La Salle, he was one of the main theorists of the Greenback Party. As such, he was called “Old Greenback,” said Johnson, and had 21 delegates who were committed to nominating him as the Greenback Party’s candidate to run for president.