[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]

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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
The Old
Slave House
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑story rectangular stone house with more or less flat roof and two chimneys. It is singular for having two two‑story porches, one across the end of the house, the other along the middle of the long side: they are supported by wood columns. It is the Benjamin Godfrey House in Godfrey, Illinois.]

Benjamin Godfrey House, Godfrey, Completed 1833.

 p26  The Captain's Mansion

One of the most colorful figures of early Illinois history, a man whose life was punctuated with numerous adventures both before and after he settled in the Prairie State, was master of the old gray limestone mansion overlooking the highway just north of Godfrey. As a pioneer financier of near-by Alton this man played an important role in the development of southern Illinois. He is best remembered, however, as the founder of Monticello College and Preparatory School for Girls, one of the state's oldest institutions of higher learning.​a

This man was Captain Benjamin Godfrey, whose name was bestowed on the village outside Alton where he established his young ladies' college and where he lived during the latter part of his life. In view of Captain Godfrey's earlier career, it is somewhat surprising that such a man should found a college for "females." For he had been an uneducated Cape Cod shipmaster who had sailed the seven seas and had never seen the inside of a college building before coming to Alton.

After becoming settled in his many-roomed mansion, a two‑story dwelling marked by spacious Southern-style galleries, Captain Godfrey set about establishing his college — and in so doing directly benefited the cause of education throughout the Midwest. For he selected as Monticello's first principal a young Yale graduate named Theron Baldwin, who was afterward to exercise wide influence as an educator.

From a memorandum on the Godfrey mansion written by the late Herbert E. Hewitt of Peoria for the Historic American Buildings Survey, we learn that the Godfrey abode was built by one Calvin Riley between the years 1831 and 1833. Captain Godfrey took possession of it in 1834 and here he lived until his death in 1862. During this time he was twice married.

"The house is built with eighteen-inch walls of local limestone, and the structural lumber is of oak and other native trees," reads Mr. Hewitt's memorandum. "The exterior millwork is apparently the work of unskilled craftsmen, both in design and execution. Although there is an occasional profile which suggests the Greek Revival, it is as though it was designed from a hazy memory. The interiors indicate a higher quality of craftsman­ship, the millwork presumably being imported from New Orleans or Massachusetts. The atmosphere of the whole indicates a Southern influence."

Before moving into this house Captain Godfrey had acquired a considerable fortune through extensive financial operations at Alton in  p27 connection with Mississippi River steamboat traffic. He and an associate were then heads of the newly chartered Alton State Bank. He had come to Alton in 1832 and a year later entered the storage and commission business in partner­ship with his close friend, Winthrop S. Gilman. The firm prospered and became well known up and down the river.

It was in the Godfrey, Gilman & Co. warehouse, on the Alton riverfront, that Elijah Lovejoy, fighting antislavery editor, had his printing press hidden when he was killed by a down-river proslavery mob in 1837. After leaving the banking field Captain Godfrey became a railroad promoter and built a line between Alton and Springfield. During its construction he lived in a railway coach and followed the work as it progressed. This line is now part of the Alton system.

When his railroad was completed Captain Godfrey returned to his stone mansion on the outskirts of Alton and once more devoted himself to his favorite project, Monticello Female Seminary (as it was then called). He strongly felt that girls should have equal educational opportunities with boys. In carrying out this belief he contributed $110,000 to the founding of his college. He remained a trustee of the school until his death.

 p28  Before coming to Alton Captain Godfrey had led a career filled with adventure in many parts of the world. A native of Chatham, Massachusetts, where he was born December 4, 1794, he ran away to sea when he was nine, lived in Ireland for some years, served in the United States Navy during the War of 1812, became captain of a merchantman in the Mediterranean and Caribbean trade, and finally lost his ship during a storm in the Gulf of Mexico.

One account of him says that he then "set up as a merchant at Matamoros, Mexico, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, accumulated a fortune of $200,000 and was transporting it on pack-mules to State when he was waylaid by brigands and robbed of the whole amount. He began again in New Orleans, prospered and moved in 1832 to Alton, Ill."

Not only did Captain Godfrey engage in the banking and railroad businesses, but he was also active in the land-speculation field. At one time he is said to have owned more than ten thousand acres. When he died in 1862 he held four thousand acres in the county in which he lived — Madison. He is described as a man who was "shrewd, daring, tenacious, and life on the seas and in remote trading ports had made him somewhat high-handed."

His house is a landmark of the Alton region and is often visited by historically minded persons from all parts of the state and by students of the college he founded. It is evidently little changed, except for interior furnishings, since the days it was occupied by the enterprising Cape Cod sea captain. The wood mantels on the first floor, as well as some of the interior woodwork, show the Greek Revival style of design in vogue during the 1830's and 1840's.

For the past four decades the old Godfrey mansion has been occupied by Mr. & Mrs. William L. Waters. They appreciate the historical significance of their dwelling and have kept it, as well as the landscaped grounds around it, in first-class condition. On view in the living room of the house is a large collection of Indian relics, including axes, peace pipes, farming implements, and religious and ceremonial objects. These were collected by Mr. Waters over a period of many years.

Within walking distance of the house, in a wooded tract of three hundred acres, stand the limestone buildings of Monticello College, now gray with age and covered with ivy, and across from the campus rises the spire of the venerable Godfrey Congregational Church, a striking example of Greek Revival architecture.

Thayer's Note:

a Monticello College closed in 1971, but its grounds were inherited by the Lewis and Clark Community College.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 1 Dec 12