Saturday, March 31, 2007
Search for works on Macon County history turns up series of stories handed down through generations
By RON INGRAM - H&R Staff Writer
DECATUR - Local history buffs are excited by the rediscovery and recent publication of a series of vignettes on pioneer life in Macon County, penned in 1912 by the Rev. Nathan Martin Baker.Born in 1837 into the family that built the first cabin in Long Creek Township in 1828, the Presbyterian minister wrote the short stories for two of his grandchildren, Charles Martin Burrill and Lida Marilla Burrill.His family left its mark on the community, giving its name to Baker Woods west of Decatur Airport, which it owned before the Decatur Park District bought the property.
Baker's Civil War uniform and other personal items from that period are on display at the Macon County Historical Society Museum.A 1912 story in the Daily Review, a predecessor of the Herald & Review, was an interview with Baker, a highly respected Decatur resident, about the gift he created for his grandchildren. After that airing, the existence of the stories faded from public consciousness.
Enter Brent Wielt, historic sites manager for the Macon County Conservation District, who was on the Internet last fall searching www.worldcat.org for books on Macon County history when he ran across "Long-Ago Stories From a Pioneering Family of Macon County, Illinois," in the Library of Congress. It was compiled and edited by Jacqueline Baker Pratt and published by Gateway Press Inc. of Baltimore, Md.
"I stumbled across this and had no idea what it was," Wielt said. "I initially thought it must be family letters someone had published. I contacted the publisher to see how to get hold of (the editor)."Wielt found Pratt, 71, living in Oregon and struck up a correspondence with her that led to Pratt sending him a copy of the book.After reading it, Wielt said he thought the work should not simply sit in the Library of Congress but should be available locally."I was glad we could find a part of Rev. Baker's story," Wielt said. "He kept those stories from getting scattered to the four winds. It's not traditional history but told through anecdotal stories.
"Wielt wound up buying 10 of the books, which he has donated to the Decatur Public Library, Illinois State Library, University of Illinois Library and the Decatur Genealogical Society, among other places where the public can have access to them.
In a telephone interview, Pratt said she came across the stories by chance in 2005 while visiting an elderly aunt in Virginia."She handed me these stories all typed and asked if I'd ever seen them before," Pratt said. "I hadn't."However, she later found that her brother was aware of the tales. She said he gave her a small wooden box that had belonged to their father, William Young Baker. The box contained a letter dated Jan. 26, 1916, from the Rev. Baker that explained the box "was made out of a part of the ceiling of the stairway of a log house built by your great-great-grandfather (William D. Baker)- and may it not be possible to preserve these little keepsakes and their history, connected as that history is with so many generations of Bakers yet to be?"
"I'm a fairly tactile person, and holding that box really involved me in those stories," she said. "I took Rev. Baker talking about future generations as a calling."A good friend was a publisher with Gateway Books and arranged for 100 copies of the stories to be printed and bound in hardcover, Pratt said. She gave copies to all her known relatives as Christmas gifts but continued to search for the Burrill branch of the family, which she has not found."I was enchanted by him as a storyteller," Pratt said of the Rev. Baker, who served as a chaplain with the 116th Illinois Infantry during the Civil War.
He enlisted as a private and reportedly fought on the front lines. He later was pastor of several Presbyterian churches in the Decatur area during a 50-year span, including 28 years at North Fork Presbyterian Church. He died in May 1922 at age 84.Pratt said she may do a softcover copy of the "Long-Ago Stories" if there is enough interest in the book. She can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.Ron Ingram can be reached at email@example.com or 421-7973.