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George Power

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‑story brick house, with a corbie-gabled flat roof and at least three chimneys. We see the house end-on, the entrance seems to be along the right side, covered by a porch supported on four sturdy square posts. It is the Newton Walker House in Lewistown, Illinois.]

Historic American Buildings Survey

Newton Walker House, Lewistown, Built 1851.

 p112  In the Spoon River Country

Major Walker who had talked

With venerable men of the revolution . . .

These lines, from the opening poem in Edgar Lee Masters' book of poetic epitaphs, Spoon River Anthology, refer to Major Newton Walker, pioneer settler of Lewistown, early state representative, intimate friend of Abraham Lincoln's, and a commanding figure of the Spoon River country in the 1830's and '40's.

Standing today as a memorial to this man is the house in which he lived — a low, story-and-a‑half brick dwelling, distinguished by corbie gables and located on the outskirts of Lewistown. It is one of Lewistown's three outstanding old houses, the other two being the ancient, grandiose mansion of Colonel Lewis W. Ross (for whom the central Illinois city was named) and the boyhood home of the poet, Edgar Lee Masters.

When Masters described Major Walker as a person who had conversed with "venerable men of the revolution," he was referring to the major's career before settling in Lewistown in 1835. A native of Virginia, where he was born in 1803, Walker was appointed a major in the Virginia militia at the age of twenty-one, and, as a military man, came into contact with Thomas Jefferson, John Randolph, James Madison, and other leaders of the American Revolution.

"Major Walker was . . . a man who already had arrived at considerable distinction when he came to Illinois," writes Mrs. Carl B. Chandler in her article, "The Spoon River Country," in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (Vol. 14). "While yet but twenty-one, as any other in the state militia, he had been appointed to the command of the escort of Lafayette when that great man paid his memorable visit to this country in 1824, accompanying him during almost all of that triumphal trip through Virginia."

In 1834 Major Walker married Miss Eliza Simms, daughter of a respected Virginia family. Her sister, Frances, was afterward to become the wife of Colonel Ross, son of the founder of Lewistown. A year after their marriage, the Walkers came west and settled in Lewistown, the journey taking sixty days. The town in which they settled, situated just north of the Spoon River and not far from the Illinois River, had been laid out in 1822 by Ossian M. Ross, who had been granted land here by the government for his services in the War of 1812.

 p113  By the time the Walkers arrived, Lewistown was the seat of Fulton County. This county, organized by Ossian Ross, was at first very large and embraced the entire northern portion of Illinois, including the future site of Chicago. The story is told that settlers of the little village of Chicago, whose log houses clustered about Fort Dearborn, had to travel to Lewistown for licenses to wed, to open taverns, or to pay their taxes.

At first, the Walkers occupied a log cabin built by Ossian Ross on the approximate site of the present Walker house. Major Walker had acquired the log house when he purchased one hundred acres of land from Ross in 1839. The date of construction of the present brick dwelling is given as 1851. This was determined by architects of the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Before his brick house was finished, however, Major Walker had achieved some renown in Fulton County and throughout central Illinois as the designer and builder of the county's third courthouse — an impressive Greek Revival edifice, completed in 1838, that became the pride of Lewistown.

In it Abraham Lincoln, Robert Ingersoll, and Edward Dickinson Baker appeared as lawyers and here sat Stephen A. Douglas as a judge.  p114 This fine courthouse, with its columns and portico, was mysteriously burned to the ground on a December night in 1894. In that year Major Walker was ninety-one years old and was still living in his brick abode on the outskirts of town. Legend says the fire was started by an incendiary in a bitter county seat "war" between Lewistown and near-by Canton. But this was never legally proved.

There is a humorous legend in Lewistown to the effect that Major Walker, while supervising the building of the courthouse, constructed a large bobsled inside the building. When the sled was completed, it was discovered there was no way to get it outside the courthouse, which had been finished about the same time. The townspeople laughed at Major Walker's dilemma. But the major was not disturbed. He simply took the sled apart and set it up again outside the courthouse.

Of particular interest to historians and Lincoln devotees is the fact that Major Walker was Lincoln's closest friend in Lewistown. The Major first met the future President when he and Lincoln were members of the General Assembly in the old State Capitol at Vandalia. On his visits to Lewistown, Lincoln stopped in Major Walker's brick house, and the story is told that Major Walker often played his fiddle for Abe Lincoln in exchange for stories from the lanky Springfield lawyer.

It was in this house that Lincoln ate his last dinner, and made his last appearance, in Lewistown. This was when he delivered a speech from the portico of the old courthouse on August 17, 1858, in answer to an address delivered the day before by Stephen A. Douglas at near-by Proctor's Grove. That evening Lincoln was a dinner guest in Major Walker's house, and the following morning the Major drove Lincoln to a railroad station thirty-two miles away.

Major Walker lived in the brick house until his death in 1897. The dwelling afterward was acquired by a number of successive owners. There have been few changes made in the house since it was originally built almost a hundred years ago. Standing there under the great old trees of Lewistown, its white brick walls and frame porch showing signs of age, the Walker house is often visited by historically minded sightseers, Lincoln scholars, and devoted readers of the works of Edgar Lee Masters.

A distinctive feature of this house is found in the buttressed gable ends of brick masonry. The interior is finished in plaster and wallpaper, with hard maple flooring and cherry wood trim. The rooms are comfortable, with little ornamentation. Surrounding the house is a small park dedicated to the memory of the man who entertained Lincoln here with his fiddle and his hospitality.

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Page updated: 16 Jul 18