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Bill Thayer

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Dr. Black

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a three‑story rectangular brick house lavishly trimmed in stone, with a steep mansarded roof. It is the Strawn House in Jacksonville, Illinois.]

Julius E. Strawn House, Jacksonville, Built 1880.

 p76  House of Art

An outstanding example of a venerable residence that long has functioned as an art museum is the old Strawn abode in Jacksonville. During World War II, however, this imposing late Victorian mansion was converted into a Red Cross knitting and sewing center and then it played a part in the war effort.

The man who built this house was Julius E. Strawn, one of the wealthiest and best-known men of Morgan County, benefactor of educational and religious institutions, and son of an early settler of the county.​a1 The mansion was built in 1880 and in the years immediately after its completion was regarded as an outstanding sight of Jacksonville. It became a social gathering place of the first magnitude and here the Strawns entertained many distinguished people.

The story of the Strawn family in Morgan County goes back to 1831. In that year Julius' father, Jacob Strawn, a sturdy, energetic native of Pennsylvania, arrived in the county, acquired a tract of land, and became a cattle breeder. Morgan County had been established only six years earlier. In the course of time, Jacob Strawn bought additional tracts and soon was a leading landowner and cattle raiser of the region.

At that time Jacob Strawn and his family lived in a log house at Grass Plains, a small settlement about five miles southwest of Jacksonville. In this primitive abode Julius Strawn was born on December 2, 1835. The elder Strawn continued to buy more land as he derived increased profits from his herds of cattle, which were sold in the St. Louis market. It is said that in the years before his death in 1865 he owned as much as 18,000 acres in Morgan and Sangamon counties.

His son, Julius, when ten years old, was sent to a private school conducted by the Rev. William Eddy, who afterward became well-known missionary. Julius Strawn later attended Illinois College and, upon his graduation in 1857, went to New York and Philadelphia as an agent for his father's cattle business. He returned to Morgan County, cultivated his father's lands, and when the Civil War broke out was appointed to the staff of Governor Richard Yates.

After the Civil War, Julius Strawn toured Europe. Being a person who had early acquired a taste for painting, music, literature, and intellectual pursuits, he visited all of the leading galleries, museums, and historic memorials of the British Isles and central Europe.

In the years after the completion of his brick mansion in Jacksonville, years in which his house was the show place of the city, Julius  p77 Strawn reigned as one of the leading citizens of Jacksonville and Morgan County. All during this time he was a trustee of both Illinois College and the Presbyterian Academy. He contributed liberally to both of these institutions and was one of the most influential persons in that part of the state.

After his death, the Strawn mansion was occupied by his widow. She had long dreamed that her home should some day become a center of art in Jacksonville. This dream was realized in 1916 when her son, Dr. David Strawn, presented the house to the Jacksonville Art Association.​a2 Without much alteration of its nineteen spacious rooms, the mansion was converted into an art museum that soon attracted wide attention.

At the time he presented the house to the Art Association, Dr. Strawn began an art library which grew with the years. Many noteworthy art exhibitions were held in this house after it was converted into a museum.

Thayer's Note:

a1 a2 I am indebted to Kevin Ledbetter, a collateral descendant of the Strawns who has devoted time and careful research to his family's history, for pointing out the author's confusion on one point (no doubt due to quick note-taking), which spawned two errors as he reworked the article.

Essentially, our author John Drury has confused Julius Strawn with his father Jacob: the house was built not by Julius Strawn but by his mother Phoebe, his father's widow; it was Jacob who made his family's fortune in farming and cattle-raising (and died in his modest log house in 1865), and his widow and his son who spent it on the house and its furnishings. How vividly I can imagine her, having lived in that rude cabin half her life, building herself a nice place to live out her final years! A careful article by Greg Olson in the online version of the Jacksonville Journal-Courier is better than Drury's.

Thus on p77, Drury's second mistake: the unnamed widow is not Julius' wife but Jacob's, and David Gates Strawn is Jacob's son, not Julius'.

The origins of the Strawn family are succinctly given by Green B. Raum, in History of Illinois Republicanism (Chicago: Rollins Publishing Company, 1900), p618 — in which the four towns mentioned are the county seats of LaSalle, Marshall, Putnam, and Morgan counties respectively:

The Illinois branch of the family sprang from four brothers, who were natives of Pennsylvania, emigrated to Ohio, and in the early '30's removed to Illinois. Joel Strawn settled near Ottawa; General John Strawn near Lacon; Jeremiah Strawn near Hennepin and Jacob Strawn near Jacksonville.

Here too, though, a clarification is in order, and a small correction for sure. At no time in the 19c was there a United States Army officer, whether a general or holding any other rank, by the name of Strawn: Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (Government Printing Office, 1903), p931, passes directly from Strawbridge to Strayer. Neither was John Strawn a Marine Corps general, of which there were very few in the 19c; and given the family history, a Confederate general is of course unthinkable.

But John Strawn did in fact serve as a military officer, if very briefly: for about a month at the beginning of the Black Hawk War, he commanded the 40th Regiment, 4th Brigade, 1st Division, Illinois State Militia, owing no doubt the state appointment to his prominence as a local landowner. As a regimental commander his rank was Colonel; and though the regiment was called into the service of the United States, it's not clear — to me at least — that he or the 40th saw action. The regiment was mustered out on June 18, 1832, well before the end of the short war. (Record of the Services of Illinois Soldiers in the Black Hawk War, 1831‑32, and in the Mexican War, 1846‑8, Springfield, Ill., 1882).

John Strawn died in Lacon and was buried in the family cemetery in Marshall County; his own tombstone (q.v.) gives his rank as Colonel, as does a contemporary obituary transcribed on that page.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 15