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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑and-a‑half-story brick house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 60° with three dormer windows on the front and one on the side, and a chimney. The full width of the ground floor is shaded by a flat-roofed porch supported by four pairs of slender columns or posts. It is the Joseph Fifer House in Bloomington, Illinois.]

Joseph W. Fifer House, Bloomington, Built 1896.

 p59  Victorian Mansion

Although not so old as most of the dwellings in this book, the large brick residence at 909 North McLean Street, in Bloomington, is worthy of attention as the home of one of the best-known Illinoisans of his time. This man was Joseph Wilson Fifer, nineteenth governor of Illinois and famed throughout the nation as "Private Joe" Fifer. As the "grand old man of Illinois" for more than a quarter of a century, "Private Joe" held court in his Bloomington residence and here his public birthday parties were outstanding annual events. Many people came from other parts of the state and nation to pay tribute to Joe Fifer on these occasions.

This McLean Street house, set back on a shaded, landscaped lawn across from Franklin Park, was built in 1896. It is a typical residence of the 1890's — massive, spacious, comfortable, and marked by that distinguishing characteristic of a late Victorian mansion, a hospitable veranda extending across the entire front. The house is two and one-half stories high, is of plain architecture, and has such other appurtenances of late Victorian dwellings as semi-circular bays and dormers.

At the time Fifer built his home he and four other former governors  p60 of the state were active in what was considered one of the most spectacular gubernatorial campaigns in the history of the state. This was the battle of John R. Tanner, Republican, to replace Governor John P. Altgeld as the state's chief executive. Governor Altgeld, who was seeking re-election, had been criticized throughout the state for freeing from prison two of the men sentenced for complicity in the Haymarket Riot of 1886. Altgeld had felt that the men were unjustly convicted. Most historians now agree that he was correct in this view.

During the turmoil of the campaign, however, "Private Joe" was not among those who denounced Governor Altgeld for pardoning the men. He and Altgeld were friends. It is said he even felt that Altgeld "had just grounds" for freeing the Haymarket men. What impelled Fifer to campaign against Altgeld, the Democrat, was simply his devotion to the Republican Party.

It was in the gubernatorial campaign of 1888, when he himself was a candidate for governor, that Fifer earned the sobriquet which remained with him for the rest of his life. The other Republican candidates for the nomination for governor that year were General John C. Smith, General John C. McNulta, General John I. Reinecker, Colonel Clarke F. Carr, Major J. A. Connelly, and Captain Frank Wright. Fifer was the only one who had served as a private in the Civil War. Thus he became "Private Joe" during the campaign. And, as "Private Joe", he was afterward victorious over his Democratic rival, who was General John M. Palmer.

Many improvements and reforms were introduced into the state by Governor Fifer during his term of office. He corrected evil voting practices, introduced the pardon law, improved school laws and obtained a compulsory education enactment, and achieved economies for the state through close supervision of contracts and commissions. He ran for re-election in 1892 but was defeated in the Cleveland landslide of that year, his victorious opponent being John P. Altgeld. "Private Joe" returned to Bloomington and once more took up the practice of law.

If Fifer had planned to live quietly in his big McLean Street house, this wish was not to be realized, for President McKinley appointed him to the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1899. He was reappointed in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Three years later he resigned, once more to practice law in Bloomington. Then in 1920 he was elected a delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention — when he was eighty years old. But his age was no hindrance; he was one of the most active men at the convention. "Private Joe" lived eighteen years after that and died in his home on August 6, 1938.

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Page updated: 7 Dec 07