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Bill Thayer

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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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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑story wood frame house with a slightly pitched roof and a chimney in the center of it. The first floor is raised, and the front door and its wooden porch supported by four columns are reached by six steps. On either side of the door, a window; the upper floor has three windows. It is the birthplace of William Jennings Bryan in Salem, Illinois.]

William Jennings Bryan House, Salem, Built 1852.

 p34  Birthplace of the Great Commoner

Three blocks south of the business district of Salem, Illinois, stands a little, old, white-painted house that is to the town what the Abraham Lincoln home is to Springfield. The reason for this is that here was born a man who, if not so great as Lincoln, was a national figure for more than a quarter of a century, playing an important role in modern American history.

This man was William Jennings Bryan. He was born in this house March 19, 1860. Now owned by the city of Salem, the dwelling is a Bryan museum containing relics and souvenirs of the "Great Commoner."

In addition to this dwelling, Salem has other memorials to the man who was thrice candidate for President and was Secretary of State in the cabinet of President Wilson before World War I. Adjoining the little house is the Bryan-Bennett Library, dedicated by William Jennings Bryan himself in 1908. It is now housed in a new building of simple but dignified architecture.

Also at Salem, seat of Marion County, is a seventy-four acre tract of land that the city has set aside as Bryan Memorial Park. Just northwest of the town is the old Bryan place, home of the elder Bryan, where William played as a boy. This country residence still stands in its grove of ancient trees and is as much visited today as the Bryan birthplace.

The little house where Bryan came into the world was built in 1852 by William's father, Silas Lillard Bryan. This was shortly after Silas Bryan had married Maria Elizabeth Jennings, who had been a pupil of his when he was a teacher at Walnut Hill, near Salem. At the time of his marriage, Silas Bryan had but recently been admitted to practice as a lawyer. Prior to this he had served as superintendent of county schools.

A striking parallel exists between the Lincoln and Bryan families. Like the Lincolns, the Bryans originated in Virginia, came west to Kentucky, then moved north to arrive finally in Illinois in 1842.​a

Settled in the small, unpretentious home in Salem, a home that was outfitted with furniture made at near-by Walnut Hill, Silas Bryan became one of the best-known citizens of Marion County. He was elected to the state Senate, became a judge of the Circuit Court in 1861, and was a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention of 1870. Judge Bryan served a total of twelve years on the Circuit Court.

The Bryans lived in the Salem dwelling until William was six, then they moved to their country home outside the city. After they left the  p35 house in Salem it was successively owned by a number of families until finally taken over by the city and established as a Bryan memorial.

Through the center of the house runs a small entry hall; on one side is a sitting room and on the other a parlor. The two rooms constitute the museum part of the house. A kitchen and dining room are at the rear. Two bedrooms are on the second floor. A small porch stretches across the front of the dwelling.

Among outstanding exhibits in the museum are a rifle presented to Bryan when he was commander of a regiment during the Spanish-American War, the uniform he then wore, first editions of his books, the glasses he wore while Secretary of State, a watch chain made out of Mrs. Bryan's hair, pebbles gathered by Mr. Bryan on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a temperance loving cup, an ancient typewriter, a solid silver toothpick case he used, the flag that draped his coffin, and numerous badges and other souvenirs of the Democratic convention at Chicago in 1896 where his famous "Cross of Gold" speech made him a candidate for President.

Thayer's Note:

a Not so striking, actually: at that time, from Virginia via Kentucky was one of the commonest paths to the Prairie State, for both individuals and families. Of the pioneers mentioned this book alone, besides Bryan and Lincoln, Squire Power's family did the same (p110).

For the demographics of the migration to Illinois, where this path is specifically discussed, see Buck, Illinois in 1818, p99 ff.

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Page updated: 1 Dec 12