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


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Joseph Smith
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a sprawling three‑story brick house, with several kinds of roof and a mansarded tower; the front door is reached from the street by a flight of more than a dozen steps, interrupted by a landing. A long porch extends over half the front of the house and around the right corner, supported by pairs of columns. It is the Cannon House in Danville, Illinois.]

Joseph G. Cannon House,​1 Danville, Built 1876.

 p82  Here Lived "Uncle Joe"

Among numerous old houses in Danville the best known was a rambling brick residence, marked by a cupola, mansard roof, and other ornamental features of Victorian architecture, which stood at 418 North Vermilion Street. This was the home, during his entire career as a picturesque natural figure, of Joseph Gurney Cannon — better known as "Uncle Joe."

It was in 1876, three years after being first elected to Congress, that Joseph Cannon built the spacious house on Vermilion Street. Here he resided, between sessions of Congress, for the remainder of his life and here he died in 1926 at the age of ninety.

Before settling down in his Danville residence, Joseph Cannon had served as state's attorney. He began the practice of law at Shelbyville, Illinois, in 1858, then practiced at Tuscola, and afterward came to Danville. He was born on May 7, 1836, in New Garden, Guildford County, North Carolina, where his father, Dr. Horace Franklin Cannon, was one of the founders of Guilford College. His grandfather was a native of Ireland.

As a young lawyer in Danville, Joseph Cannon won many friends by his likable personality and undoubted abilities. In 1862 he married Mary P. Reed, a native of Canfield, Ohio. After the two‑story residence on Vermilion Street was built, Mrs. Cannon became its mistress and here she proved herself a worthy partner of the man who was to become known to the American people as "Uncle Joe" Cannon.

At the time Cannon house was completed, its owner was serving in Congress. He first ran for Congress in 1870 but was defeated. Again a candidate in 1872, he was elected and served continuously in the House until 1891, when a Democratic landslide swept the country and caused "Uncle Joe" to lose his seat.

Referring to his first term in Congress, a standard biographical reference work says of him: "His uncouth manners and racy speech earned for him at once the popular appellation of 'the Hayseed Member from Illinois,' a title subsequently replaced by that of 'Uncle Joe.' "

After his defeat in 1890, Cannon came back to his Danville residence and immediately made plans to seek the office at the next election. He was elected in 1892 and served continuously in the lower house until his retirement in 1923, with the single exception of the 1913‑1915 term.

Seated in his den in the roomy Vermilion Street house, "Uncle Joe" often told stories of his early days as a lawyer in Danville. And among  p83 the most interesting of these stories were those concerning Abraham Lincoln, who earlier had practiced law on the same judicial circuit where Cannon began his career. "Uncle Joe" said that he first saw Lincoln at the Republican state convention in Decatur in 1860. Cannon was then practicing at Tuscola.

It was on that occasion that "Uncle Joe" heard Lincoln utter a remark that showed the dry humor of the Civil War President. Joe Cannon and a group of his friends met the Springfield lawyer at the post office in Decatur and when one of them, addressing Lincoln, expressed surprise at seeing him at the convention, Lincoln observed: "I'm too much of a candidate to be here, and not enough of one to stay away."

Joe Cannon was in the crowd that heard Lincoln speak at the Decatur convention. He recalls how Lincoln appeared in the audience during  p84 the convention proceedings and was immediately identified by the hundreds of delegates. Shouts of "Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln" went up from the crowd. They wanted him to speak.

"When Abe Lincoln found it almost impossible to get to the platform because of the thick crowd," said Joe Cannon, "I saw a group of huskies pick him up on their shoulders and carry him in a recumbent position to the platform. This brought cheers from the crowd."

Joe Cannon had not yet attained his highest position, that of speaker of the House of Representatives, when he was saddened by the loss of his wife. She died in the Danville residence in 1899. From that date until his own death "Uncle Joe" remained a widower, occupying the large residence with his two daughters.

In 1901 he was named speaker and served in that position until 1911. This was the period of his greatest fame as a national figure, a period when his familiar cigar appeared in cartoons all over the country.

He was offered the nomination of Vice-President of the United States in 1908 but declined, feeling he could be more useful to his country in the House. In 1916 the House commemorated his eightieth birthday with a public testimonial.

When the time came for him to retire, "Uncle Joe," between puffs on his ever-present cigar, told friends that he was going back to Danville to spend the remainder of his days in the old residence on Vermilion Street. His daughters wanted him to build a new home out in the country, but the "Sage of Vermilion County," as the newspapers sometimes called him, preferred to remain in the dwelling associated with his fondest memories.

"His principal pleasure, after leaving Congress," says a newspaper account, "was in sitting among the souvenirs of his public service. The walls of his den, and of many another room in the large house, were crowded with cartoons that appeared during his heyday, and with pictures of famous friends. He listened much to the radio, too, and read his Bible every day until his eyes grew dim. Within a few months of his death in 1926, he personally took care of all his correspondence, sitting for several hours each day at his desk dictating to a secretary."

The Author's Note:

1 Razed since this was written.

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Page updated: 28 Mar 13