history – Danville Glory Days


Victorian-Beauty-with-Fan-GraphicsFairy2Happy Valentine’s Day, friends! It was because of Valentine’s Day that I first became interested in Danville’s history. Sometime during the mid-1980s, the Commercial-News published a story for Valentine’s Day detailing the lore of Stella Barkley, the heroine of a tragic mid-19th century love story. A short-time later, our class visited the Vermilion County Museum, which has a room filled with Stella’s belongings. History came alive in that moment, and it has been a fascination every since. With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, it seemed like a good time to delve into the story once again.

Stella was born in 1856 at Covington, Indiana, the daughter of James Hiram and Cynthia Ann (Pribble) Barkley. The 1860 census shows the family living in Mound, Warren County, Indiana, where James was a merchant. Some time after 1870, the family moved to Danville and built a home at the corner of Walnut and Seminary streets.

As the story goes, Stella fell in love with a young man named Ben Bowman. Ben was described as tall, handsome and popular among his wide circle of friends; some accounts list him as a stable boy, certainly unfit for a lady of Stella’s social and economic stature. Stella’s father disapproved of Ben and forbade his daughter to have any contact with the young man. Stella’s dear friend, Amelia Johns, stepped in and carried notes between the two until Stella’s father discovered the ploy and banned Amelia from the Barkley house. Stella and Ben continued their covert romance anyway.

Meanwhile, Stella’s parents had another suitor in mind: a family friend named George “Harry” Cooper. Cooper was older than Stella and worked as a telegraph operator. Physically, he was described as gaunt, likely a symptom of the tuberculosis which he suffered.

Despite Stella’s protests, her parents pushed forward with planning Harry and Stella’s future, starting with their wedding. Her bridal wardrobe was purchased at L.S. Ayres, a fashionable department store in Indianapolis. Perhaps due to the frequent travel to Indianapolis, the harsh winter weather, stress, or a combination of factors, Stella fell ill with diphtheria or pneumonia. Declaring she would rather die than marry a man she didn’t love, she refused medical care. Her illness grew worse, but only Harry was allowed to see her; Amelia and Ben were not permitted to visit. One night, however, Ben was able to slip in and see his beloved one last time. Stella died on February 14, 1876.

The Thursday, Feb. 17, 1876 issue of the Danville Commercial newspaper mentions both Harry’s illness and Stella’s death. The front page mentions Harry:

Mr. Harry Cooper is lying seriously ill at the home of Mr. James H. Barkley.Danville Commercial newspaper, dated Thursday, February 17, 1876. Article notes the illness of Mr. Harry Cooper and references the untimely passing of his betrothed, Stella Barkley.

” data-image-meta=”{“aperture”:”0″,”credit”:””,”camera”:””,”caption”:””,”created_timestamp”:”0″,”copyright”:””,”focal_length”:”0″,”iso”:”0″,”shutter_speed”:”0″,”title”:””,”orientation”:”0″}” data-image-title=”CN_Harry Cooper_2-17-1876″ data-large-file=”https://danvilleglorydays.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/cn_harry-cooper_2-17-1876-e1515273751520.png?w=258″ data-medium-file=”https://danvilleglorydays.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/cn_harry-cooper_2-17-1876-e1515273751520.png?w=258″ data-orig-file=”https://danvilleglorydays.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/cn_harry-cooper_2-17-1876-e1515273751520.png” data-orig-size=”258,224″ data-permalink=”https://danvilleglorydays.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/stella-barkley/cn_harry-cooper_2-17-1876/” sizes=”(max-width: 258px) 85vw, 258px” src=”https://danvilleglorydays.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/cn_harry-cooper_2-17-1876-e1515273751520.png?w=840″ srcset=”https://danvilleglorydays.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/cn_harry-cooper_2-17-1876-e1515273751520.png 258w, https://danvilleglorydays.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/cn_harry-cooper_2-17-1876-e1515273751520.png?w=150 150w”>Danville Commercial, Feb. 17, 1876

“Mr. Harry Cooper, train dispatcher of the P&D railroad is lying seriously ill at the residence of Mr. Jas. H. Barkley. Mr. Cooper and Miss Barkley would, we understand, have been married, had the death angel not snatched away his intended bride. We trust Mr. Cooper, who is a highly esteemed young man and worthy of an alliance with his affianced, may be spared.”

Stella’s death is noted a few columns down:

CN_Stella Barkley_2-17-1876_webDanville Commercial, Feb. 17, 1876

“On or about the 6th inst., Miss Stella Barkley, only child of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Barkley, an amiable young lady of twenty years, was taken ill, and in spite of all the loving care of parents and friends, with the added skill of the very best physicians that could be procured, her illness increased in severity until Monday morning last, when the silver cord was loosed, the golden bowl was broken, and the gentle spirit of this fair young maiden went out to God who gave it. To say that the parents of the deceased are heart-broken and inconsolable would but feebly express their feelings. They have the sympathy of all their friends and acquaintances in their dire extermity. The funeral services will take place to-day from the family residence, Revs. N.P. Heath and A.L. Brooks officiating.”

Barkley, Stella_DGDStella was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, her final resting place is marked by a pink granite column topped with a marble angel reaching skyward. The monument simply lists her first name. The angel’s face is said to have been carved by stonemasons in Italy from her death mask. After her passing, her bedroom was sealed off and left as a memorial, and so it stayed for nearly five decades.

Stella’s father, James, died on April 23, 1915. The 1920 census shows Cynthia aged 88 years, along with a servant, John H. Tilford; she died on June 14, 1920. Both James and Cynthia are buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, although neither seem to have a marker. The Barkleys left an estate valued at $800,000, which today would be over $10 million. Having no heirs, their fortune went to dozens of distant relatives.

Stella’s story could have been easily obscured by the mists of time, but fate would not have it so. To settle the estate, the Barkley home and its contents were brought to auction. In 1924, Stella’s room was reopened for the first time since her passing and many of her personal items purchased by Mabel Bredehoft. Years later, in October 1948, the story of Stella Barkley was presented at the fall meeting of the Clover Club, a long-established social and literary women’s club in Danville.

Stella’s trousseau was eventually donated to the Vermilion County Historical Museum, where they are on display in the Bredehoft Memorial Room, nicknamed the “Sad Room.” A price tag of $20, dated January 7, 1876, still hangs on one of Stella’s hats; today, the equivalent price would be well over $400. Notably absent is her wedding dress; some speculate that she was buried in it while others believe the dress never arrived. While we don’t know exactly what it looked like, we can be certain it would have been spectacular. Perhaps it looked something like this.

What about the others?
I always wondered what happened to the supporting characters in the story. Did Amelia and Ben fall in love? What happened to Harry after Stella died?

Harry Cooper
The Heritage article offers

that at some point after Stella’s death, Cooper and the Barkleys had a falling out and as a result, Cooper “went away and died.” However, this does not seem to be quite the case. The 1880 census lists James H. Barkley and “Synthia” Barkley at 38 N. Walnut Street in Danville; James’ occupation is listed as “capitalist.” Residing with them was George H. Cooper, aged 32, a telegraph operator. Seven years later, Harry passed away on October 7, 1887 at his family’s farm in Dublin, Indiana. His father had passed away three months earlier at the age of 92. According to the article in the Daily Commercial on October 8, 1887, Cynthia Barkley attended Harry in his last moments:

1887-10-08 (Harry Cooper)Danville Daily Commercial, Oct. 8, 1887

“A dispatch was received here yesterday announcing the death of Harry Cooper at Dublin, Ind., which occurred yesterday afternoon. The deceased has been at Dublin, his home, since last spring. His father died at Dublin three weeks ago and his mother died a year ago. The funeral will take place at Dublin tomorrow and the interment will also take place there. Mrs. J.H. Barkley was present at his death.”

Cooper’s will was filed on December 31, 1887; in it, he bequeaths his worldly goods to Cynthia and James Barkley.

Amelia Johns
Stella’s good friend Amelia Johns remained in Danville her entire life, never married, and worked in millinery sales; she passed away on at the age of 65 and was also buried in Spring Hill Cemetery.

Ben Bowman
Stella’s star-crossed suitor, Ben Bowman, was the most challenging to track down. There was indeed a Bowman family residing in Danville in the 1870s. In fact, Alexander Bowman was a prominent surveyor and architect. Knowing this, it was possible to work backwards and find Alexander listed in the 1860 Champaign County, Illinois Census, where his household members are listed as wife Amelia, three daughters, and two sons–including a son named Benjamin (spelled as “Benjiman”), who was listed as six years old at the time. This clue led to a marriage license issued to Ben F. Bowman, son of Alexander and Amelia (Booth) Bowman, born around 1860. The license was dated May 9, 1894, and his bride’s name was Maggie May Wilson. They would go on to have four children and move to New Hampshire. Ben died at the age of 64 on February 28, 1917 in Gorham, New Hampshire. His occupation in the 1910 Census is listed as a newspaper writer. This information suggests that Ben wasn’t a stable boy after all, which makes one wonder why Stella’s parents disapproved of him.

So perhaps someone else will read the story of Stella somewhere, somehow, and become fascinated with Danville’s rich legacy. I hope so. There are so many stories yet to tell.


  • Illinois: Places Lincoln Slept. Excerpts from newspapers and other sources from the files of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.
  • “Love’s Labor Lost: Stella Barkley 1856-1876” by June Uthe. Heritage of Vermilion County, Winter 1985-86.
  • Kay, M., & Cornelius, J. (2001). Sisters of the Clover Club. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-), 94(3), 243-260. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40193503
  • “Illinois: Places Lincoln Slept. Excerpts from newspapers and other sources.” From the files of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.
  • Will records, 1827-1922; index, 1826-1977; Author: Illinois. County Court (Vermilion County); Probate Place: Vermilion, Illinois.
  • Lyndsey Blair, “L.S. Ayres Department Store,” Discover Indiana, accessed February 12, 2019, https://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/31.

“Well, Danville was a poor town. It was the miserablest town I ever  did see. I did not want to stay here. Why nobody wanted to stay here. There was nothing but hazel brush. Many of the cabins which had been built were abandoned, while those who owned them had gone to the edge of the timber to herd their stock and raise something to eat. Danville was most all hazel brush and deserted log cabins.” Henry Harbaugh, recalling his first trip to Danville in 1836.

The first public sale of lots was held on April 10, 1827. One recollection in Lottie Jones’ work recalls: “The sale was an odd sight. The bluffs along the rivers and Stony creek were a mass of underbrush. There was no sign of a prospective city, and many amusing stories are even yet told of killing rattlesnakes on the day of the sale. ”

The area had been surveyed by Dan Beckwith, the first Vermilion County Surveyor, and his very good friend, Amos Williams. Around 100 lots were available, and the sale had been well-advertised from Vandalia to Indianapolis. The sale was quite successful, with 42 lots sold, averaging about $22 each. The story is recounted that Amos suggested the new town be named in honor of his good friend Dan, and so it was.

scrapbookamoswil00danv_0113Source: Scrap book. Amos Williams and early Danville, Illinois (1935), pg. 81.

In the following year, Beckwith and Williams would become brothers-in-law when Beckwith married Williams’ sister Mary. Their daughter Melissa would eventually marry Joseph Lamon, and their family would make their home in a small white wood frame house on North Street, which would later be moved to Lincoln Park and regarded as one of Danville’s iconic structures. Dan and Mary’s son Hiram would go on to become a prominent lawyer and Illinois historian. From such humble roots has grown greatness.

Happy 191st birthday, Danville. And many more.

History of Vermilion County, Illinois: A Tale of Its Evolution, Volume 1 by Lottie Jones, pg. 151.

Scrap book. Amos Williams and early Danville, Illinois (1935).

The Graphics Fairy


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