In October 1908, John Quincy Boner returned home to Milan, Missouri, from a trip to Kansas City. For several days my great, great grandfather had been complaining of a pain in his side. The pain wasn’t bad enough, though, to keep the 78-year-old from going uptown on the 27th. Downtown Milan probably didn’t look a lot different then than it does today, except for the roads and cars.
That night Boner (pronounced Bonner, damn it) complained to his sister-in-law, with whom he was making his home, that the pain had gotten severe. She was worried enough that she went out late at night to fetch her next-door neighbor, Ben Johnson. But by the time the pair returned, Boner was stone cold dead on the floor. It was after midnight. Medical experts patched together a story of what might have happened.
“He had got up and attempted to pass from the room but had fallen, expiring at once,” read a report in The Milan Republican, one of two major newspapers that used to serve the formerly bustling railroad town and seat of Sullivan County. “His face was bruised where he had struck it against the stove or floor in falling.”
The entire Milan (pronounced like Mylan) community was shocked at the news, according to the paper. During a long and distinguished professional career in Milan, Boner (1830-1908) had taught school, served for 10 years as Sullivan County Clerk, and sold real estate. Before he died, he was one of the oldest residents of Milan, having settled there with his parents before the Civil War. He and his brother enlisted in the war from Milan.
“He was prominent in business, political, and social life for nearly a half century,” the paper wrote in his obituary, which revealed a family secret I’ll share later in the blog. “He enjoyed the esteem and confidence of all who knew him.”
Boner’s funeral was delayed so that his one living child, my great grandmother Elizabeth “Bessie” Boner, the wife of J.E. Thompson, could attend. Bessie, who was born in Milan, was only 11 when she lost her mother, Sarah Clark, the older sister of Sen. William Andrews Clark (R-Mont.). She was raised in California by her mother’s younger brother, Joseph Clark.
John Quincy Boner had served as a captain in the Missouri Militia during the Civil War. Joseph Edward Thompson recalls that the funeral for his father in law was the largest in the town’s history.
“John Quincy Boner was a captain in the Northern army and was very much liked and respected by all that knew him. When he died, there were four old men that were in his company during the war that I had arranged to ride in one of the mourner’s carriages….I learned that they said, ‘We want to make the last ride with the Captain.'”
The Masons — representatives of the Seaman Lodge No. 126 A. F. & A. M. — were no doubt on hand to say a few words, which were recounted in another newspaper account. The Brothers noted that Boner had responded to the sound of a higher gavel, one belonging to the Supreme Grand Master of the Universe. Boner, they eloquently wrote, had been called to the “higher lodge.”
“We think of Brother John Q. Boner as a cultured and refined gentleman, amiable, generous, polite, temperate, kind, and gentle. He loved his friends and his friends loved him,” wrote Jefferson Swanger, James Morris, and Jacob Synder. “He was a firm believer in the infinite power and love of God and in the immortality of the soul. He was a good Mason and delighted to mingle with the fraternity.”
How did John Q. wind up in Milan of all places? Well, his father, Henry Boner (1788-1874), brought the family to Milan in about 1856. At least that’s when John Quincy, the second oldest son, moved there, according to Campbell’s Gazetteer of Missouri. The family moved from Indiana, where Henry Boner had originally settled after emigrating from Europe. He was born in Northern Ireland.
The elder Boner bought 40 acres of land in Milan, according to a certificate of deposit in the General Land Office and the Register of the Land in Milan. Dated July 1, 1857, the certificate says that by an act of Congress on the 24th of April, 1820, Boner is entitled to public land for….”the southeast quarter of section fourteen in township 62, of Range Twenty, in the District of Lands subject to sale at Milan, Missouri containing forty acres.”
Ah, so where would that be? The county assessor would probably know. Indeed, the county assessor did know. Pulling out some old maps of Sullivan county, he quickly placed his finger on the exact location of the land grant. He even knew how to get there, though the best I’d be able to do is see the land from a distance. Someone else owned the land between the road and my family’s ancient stomping grounds.
It’s not clear for how long the family lived on this ground, or if they lived there at all. Another old indecipherable record would seem to indicate that Boner sold the land shortly after he bought it. Figuring that out would have to be saved for another day.
Meanwhile, John Quincy Boner is listed as county clerk in the 1870 Census. He’s living with his wife Sarah Clark (1837-1887), who was born in Pennsylvania. Sarah, who keeps house, according to the Census, is the older sister of Sen. William Andrews Clark (D-Mont.). More on that connection later.
The couple had seven children by my count, though several died very early. Great Grandmother Bess was the youngest. She was only nine when her mother died. The oldest child, Ellen, died at seven. Minnie, born in 1865, lived to the “ripe” old age of 33. Ella, the third child, died at 21. Robert, the fourth oldest, passed at 11 in 1880. George only lived one year. And Charles spent only six years on this planet before he died in 1880.
It’s really hard to imagine what kind of toll this must have taken on the parents, who kept having more children even as younger ones passed away. One day I’ll dig into the records and find out how they died. I know that Bess, who lived until 76, suffered from respiratory problems early in her adulthood. They mysteriously disappeared after she moved to arid Arizona with her husband J.E. Thompson in the early 1900s.
Given all the suffering that John Quincy went through, it’s no wonder that after his wife died he sent Bess to Los Angeles to be raised by Joseph Clark, another of Sara’s younger brothers.
Most of the family, excluding Bess, is buried in the Milan Cemetery, located only two blocks from Milan’s town center. They were mowing some extremely thick grass the day I visited. Despite my watery eyes, I managed a thorough inspection. It’s a good thing I walked it all because an inauspicious gated section in the back turned out to be the family plot.
I suppose you are supposed to feel creepy walking through a cemetery. But I always get excited, about the possibility of a discovery, a story that wants to be told. People get buried in cemeteries for a reason; they want future generations to find them one day. It’s the layman’s way to achieve a trace of immortality.
As previously mentioned, John Quincy held a bunch of jobs. In the 1880 Census, he lists his occupation as a real estate agent. We know that he was also a teacher. But the job that intrigued me the most was county clerk. They keep records, records that probably still exist, records in John Quincy Boner’s hand.
The clerk’s office is on the first floor of the Sullivan County courthouse, located in the middle of the main square in Milan. Milan is planned like many other county seats in Missouri. The courthouse sits on a big grassy square in the middle. The town’s fathers decided to put the original building on the site of curious V-shaped mound, pointing to the northwest, elevated 15 feet above the ground.
When they cleared the grounds in 1845, they found three Indian skeletons ringed by stones. Undeterred, they used the rocks as foundation stones for the jail. Sullivan County lies in territory ceded in 1824 by the Iowa, Sac, and Fox tribes. Three railroads came through in the 1870s, bringing growth to Milan, transforming it into a major shipping point. The train station is abandoned today.
The courthouse, though, is ringed by shops and restaurants, where county government employees can spend their government paychecks on local goods and services. If all goes as planned, the local economy disproportionately benefits from the arrangement.
John Quincy would easily recognize Milan and its grid were he walking its streets on this day, though the courthouse where he worked burned down in 1908. Even so, many of the buildings that ring the town square are easily more than 100 years old, including the one for Poole’s; a sign indicates that it dates back to 1862. The old Masonic Lodge remains upright despite standing on a hill down a side road. A little bit of prosperity has crept back into Milan in recent years thanks to a new pork processing plant. Many of the plant workers are Hispanic (apparently native workers didn’t want the low-paying jobs), which accounts for the Latin bakery, grocery, and restaurant.
When I explain the nature of my quest to the county clerk’s lovely assistant, her eyes widen. “I know where the books are,” she says, disappearing into a vault. She reappears 30 seconds later with an immense leather-bound volume so thick with dust that we both stand at arm’s length for a while. I open the book. The cursive handwriting is very clear, as you might suspect from a former school teacher. I turn the page. There’s his signature at the bottom of an entry. Maybe one day I’ll sit down with 10 year’s worth of volumes and write the story of what happened in Sullivan County in the 1870s, from my Great Grandfather’s perspective. But not today.
The historical society is closed today, as it is most days. If you want genealogical information, it looks like you have to buy it. But the library is open and I’m told they have old newspapers on microfilm. They are often the best source of information anyway. Obituaries are the place to start, and the library had two for Boner. The librarian took a break from helping her unemployed husband write a resume to load the microfilm into one of those impossible machines.
The piece in the Milan Republican reveals a family secret, making the whole trip worthwhile. It says that Boner was a “warm and personal” friend of his brother-in-law of William Andrews Clark. “It is said that when Clark was a young man without friends or money that he was passing through Missouri on his way west and Mr. Boner helped him to his journey’s end. Mr. Clark never forgot the favor and always saw that Uncle John never wanted for anything.”