Lee County Biography


Maj. Obadiah J. Downing, an officer of the Union army during the late war, in which he won high honors, is a distinguished citizen of Dixon, where he is living in a beautiful home in practical retirement from business, though he still supervises his extensive agricultural interests in this and Kane Counties, comprised in two well-equipped farms, located one at South Dixon and the other in Kane County.

Maj. Downing was born in the quaint old town of North Hempstead, Queens County, N.Y., in 1835. He comes of stanch Revolutionary stock, and his ancestors were among the early settlers of his native island, the old Colonial farmhouse in which he was born having also been the birthplace of his grandfather, George Downing, and of his father, likewise named George. The former was a farmer, and spent his entire life in North Hempstead. He was a valiant soldier in the Continental army during the struggle of the American Colonies for freedom, and served under Gen. Woodhull. The father of our subject has born in 1780, and passed the early part of his life in the home of his birth. He learned the trade of a saddle and harness-maker, which he followed a few years, and then turned his attention tot eh calling to which he had been reared, and for many years carried on agricultural pursuits in his native town. During the latter part of his life, he lived retired in the village of Minneola, on Long Island, an passed away during his residence there. The maiden name of his wife was Mary Coles Jackson. She was born in South Hempstead, L.I., a daughter of Permenus Jackson. She died at Flushing, L.I., in 1880, aged 76 years. The parents of our subject reared these seven children; Charrie, the wife of I.V.A. Painter, George, Benjamin, Obadiah J., Isaac, Silas, and Mary E., wife of Arthur Vandewater.

Our subject early displayed the independent, self-reliant spirit that has characterized all his acts throughout his entire career, both in public and in private life, and at the youthful age of 15 years he began his struggle with the world, leaving the kindly shelter of the parental roof to go to Chicago to accept a position as clerk in his Uncle Obadiah Jackson's store. That was the year that the first railway extending from Chicago westward was built, and that city was then but an overgrown village compared with its present magnitude and importance. Mr. Jackson was then one of the principal merchants of the place, keeping a wholesale store, carrying a line of drygoods, clothing, groceries, hardware, boots and shoes, hats, caps, and, in fact, almost everything in general use in the country, and among his customers were many people who came one hundred and fifty miles, or more, with teams to buy goods. Our subject was connected with his uncles establishment in Chicago until 1853, when his uncle erected the first store building and opened the first store in Kankakee, and he sent his nephew to take charge of it. He managed it until 1855, when the first railway was completed as far west as Warren, in Jo Daviess County, and his uncle sent him to open a store in that place. A year later, ill-health compelled him to resign his position, and he returned to his native State.

In the few years that followed before the outbreak of the Rebellion, the Major was quietly engaged in farming and in studying law. He was not, however, unmindful of the impending contest between the North and the South, but, on the contrary, watched every movement that led up to it, keeping himself well informed in regard to the situation, and the same patriotic ardor that induced his grandsire to shoulder a musket and aid his fellow-colonists to fight the battles of the Revolution impelled him to throw aside all personal ambitions, to help to defend the Union, he being among the first to offer his services to the Government as a soldier. He enlisted in the first cavalry regiment that was organized for the war, but, as there was some delay in effecting he organization, his regiment was finally mustered in as the Second New York Cavalry, and was attached to the Army of the Potomac.

Our subject and his brave comrades soon showed the value of their soldiership by their heroic conduct in some of the most important battles of the war. They were in all of the principal engagements of the Army of the Potomac, with exception of the battle of Bull Run, and their coolness and daring helped to win many a victory. On the 12th of May 1864, and while fighting before Richmond, the Major was captured by the enemy, and was not exchanged until the 22nd of February 1865. He at once joined his regiment, and was appointed to a position on Gen. Custer's staff, and served with him in his various campaigns and battles until the termination of the war. About the 10th of April he was detailed to go to Washington to deposit some battle flags, and while there attended Ford's Theatre on the memorable night of the 14th of April, when President Lincoln was assassinated, and assisted in carrying the dying President to the house across the street.

The Major took part in the Grand Review of the Union forces at the National Capital, and early in June, 1865, his military career was brought to a close by his honorable discharge. He returned to his native State, with his honors fresh upon him, and in the fall of that year his proud fellow-citizens elected him to the New York Legislature; in 1866 again sent him to represent them in the councils of the State, and he served two terms with infinite credit to himself and his constituents.

Our subject had always retained pleasant recollections of his few years' stay in Illinois, and with keen vision had foreseen its future greatness; so in 1867, resolving to avail himself of its many superior advantages, he came to the Prairie State to take up his permanent residence within its borders. For a year and a half, he engaged in the manufacture of flax bagging. He then sold his factory, in order to indulge in his natural taste for agricultural pursuits, and purchased a farm in Lee County and another in Kane County. He removed to the latter, and actively engaged in its management until 1876, when he returned to Dixon, and located in the home which he had previously purchased, and which he has since occupied. It is pleasantly situated in North Dixon, and is a commodious residence, occupying a half-block, and surrounded by beautiful, well-kept lawns, ornamented by plants shrubs, etc.

In 1872, he was married to Mary Yates, a native of Attica NY and a daughter of Bartholomew C., and Nancy Yates, who presides over their charming home with that pleasing tact and kindly consideration for all that come under her influence that marks the true hostess. These four sons and daughters complete the family circle: Mary Olive, George, Benjamin F. and Eudora.

The Major is identified with the finances of the city as a Director in the City National Bank, and all enterprises that will forward its prosperity find in him a prompt and liberal advocate. He is prominently known in the social life of Dixon as a member of the following organizations; Dixon Post, No. 299, G.A.R.; the Masonic fraternity to which he has belonged since 1856; and the Modern Woodsmen of America. Politically he is a Republican of the the staunchest type and he has held by the party through all its triumphs and defeats since he cast his first Presidential vote for Gen. Fremont, its first candidate for the Presidency.

History of Lee County 1892


Few men living today are more familiar with the history of the state than Major Obadiah J. Downing, of Dixon, now a venerable man of seventy-eight years. Although he has advanced far on life's journey and the snows of many winters have whitened his hair, the springtime of youth is in his heart. In spirit and in his interests he has never seemed to grow old and, keeping in touch through wide reading with the world's progress, he converses most interestingly upon subjects of vital moment to city, state and nation. Yet Major Downing was one of the supporters of Fremont in 1856 and was one of the earliest merchants of northern Illinois, His birth occurred at North Hempstead, Queens county, New York, in 1835 and he is descended from good old Revolutionary stock, his ancestors having been among the earliest settlers of the Empire state. The old colonial farmhouse which was the family homestead was the birthplace of his great-grandfather and of succeeding generations down to the present time. George Downing, the great grandfather, spent his entire life in New Hampshire and was a soldier in the Continental army, serving under General Woodhull in the struggle for American independence.

After spending the first fifteen years of his life in Queens county, Long Island, New York, Major Downing made his way westward to Chicago to accept the position of clerk in the store of his uncle, Obadiah Jackson. That year the railroad was extended westward and Mr. Jackson, who was the proprietor of one of the leading wholesale houses of Chicago of that day, planned to extend his business by establishing branch stores. He carried a complete line of general merchandise and people came from a distance of one hundred and fifty miles to trade with him. In 1853 with the building of the railroad he opened the first store in Kankakee, Illinois, and placed his nephew, Major Downing, in charge. The latter successfully managed the business until 1855, when with the building of the railroad to Warren, Jo Daviess county, Illinois, Mr. Jackson sent him there to open another store. A year later ill health compelled Major Downing to resign his position and he returned to New York, where he engaged in farming and took up the study of law.

At the beginning of the Civil war, however, he put aside all business and personal considerations and joined the first cavalry regiment organized for service in the Union army. On account of delay in effecting the full organization, however, it was organized as the Second New York Regiment of Cavalry and was attached to the army of the Potomac, in all of the battles of which Major Downing took an active part with the exception of the first battle of Bull Run. On the 2d of May, 1864, at Richmond, Virginia, he was captured and was not exchanged until the 22d of February, 1865, in the meantime suffering all of the hardships of southern prison life. When released he rejoined his regiment and as a member of the staff of General Custer served until the end of the war. About the 10th of April, 1865, he was detailed to Washington to deposit some flags and was in Ford's Theatre on the night of April 14th, when President Lincoln was shot, and went with the party that conveyed the president to his house across the street. Continuing in the capital until the close of hostilities, he there participated in the Grand Review, when thousands of victorious Union soldiers marched through the city, passing along the broad Pennsylvania avenue, over which hung a banner inscribed "The only debt which this country owes that she cannot pay is the debt which she owes her soldiers."

Our subject was commissioned lieutenant on his entrance into the army and was promoted to the ranks of captain and major. He was commissioned colonel by brevet toward the close of the war. On the 5th of June, 1865, Major Downing was honorably discharged and after his return to the north was elected a member of the New York legislature for the years 1866 and 1867. He served for two terms and in the latter year again came to Illinois, locating at Dixon, where he began the manufacture of flax bagging at Dixon, this being the first flax tow bagging made in the United States. The factory which he occupied is still standing on the bank of Rock river. He conducted the business for two years and then sold out, turning his attention to agricultural pursuits, which he followed in both Lee and Kane counties, purchasing three hundred acres of land in Lee county and six hundred acres in Kane county. He resided in Kane county until 1876, when he returned to Dixon and here engaged in the agricultural implement business until 1877. He retired permanently from business cares in 1892 and has since lived in the enjoyment of a rest which he has truly earned and richly merits. He has made judicious investment of his capital, so that he derives a very gratifying annual income. He is one of the directors of the City National Bank and was also a director of the old Lee County Bank, having been elected in 1883.

In early manhood Major Downing was married to Miss Mary Yates, a daughter of Bartholomew and Nancy Yates, of Attica, New York. They became the parents of four children: Mary 0., now the wife of Dr. Z. W. Moss, of Dixon; George J., a merchant of this city; Benjamin F., who is engaged in the real-estate and insurance business at Dixon; and Eudora, now the wife of John M. Stager, of Sterling, Illinois.

Major Downing was reared in the Quaker faith. His life has been largely patterned after the golden rule and his many sterling traits of character have commended him to the confidence, goodwill will and respect of all who know him. He is a charter member of Dixon Post, No. 299, G. A. R., and thus maintains pleasant relations with his old army comrades. Since 1856 he has been a member of the Masonic fraternity and in his life exemplifies its beneficent spirit. He cast his first presidential vote for Fremont in 1856 and has continuously supported the republican party since that time. His early connection with mercantile interests and his later identification with the commercial and agricultural life of Illinois have made him well known as a citizen here. More than six decades have passed since he first arrived in this state and his memory today forms a connecting link between the primitive past and the progressive present. Throughout his entire life he has been actuated by a spirit of loyalty that has ever been as pronounced in days of peace as when he followed the old flag on the battlefields of the south.

History of Lee County - Frank E. Stevens 1914


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