Today’s post is the obituary of William Mills, the father of Yellow Springs. I’ve always been fascinated by this man who spent large sums of his own money to build our wonderful village out of the dense wilderness that he found when he arrived here. William Mills started out a very wealthy man and nearly sixty-six years later he had nothing that he could call his own.
As published in the Xenia Torchlight on November 12, 1879:
Death of Judge William Mills.
The many friends of Judge William Mills will be sad, and some of them shocked, to learn that he is dead. He died at his residence in Yellow Springs, Monday night, Nov. 3d, about 12 o’clock.He has been for a long time, years perhaps, a sufferer from cystitis, or inflammation of the bladder. He kept the knowledge of his suffering to himself, however, and in his anxiety to do his best to meet the expenses of life, he went about the county on business, often walking, when every step was painful. About two months ago his disease became so severe that he felt himself obliged to consult a physician, but already it had got a fatal hold. His sufferings grew more intense, his whole system became affected by the disease and he ran rapidly down until death, like a friend, came to his relief.
Judge Mills was born in Connecticut, January 5th, 1814. Thus he had nearly completed his 66th year. When he was a boy of about eight years of age, his father moved into the new and growing West; first to Illinois and afterwards, when William was about twelve years of age to Ohio, and settled in Cincinnati. He purchased a large tract of land in Miami township, Greene county, comprising both what was afterwards the Neff property and that of Judge Mills, and moved here when nearly all the region was wilderness. He was a man of wealth and one of the foremost men of his time in all the vicinity, and his house a resort for the many eminent men of the nation, of whom Judge Mills used so often to speak. Here, a wide awake and enterprising lad, William Mills spent his early years, and thus became one of the earliest residents of Greene County. His father gave him the best opportunities for education that could be had in the vicinity. Being a ready scholar he acquired a good English education, and afterwards studied Latin and Greek, making trips to Springfield on horseback or on foot, once a week, to recite his lessons to a private tutor. Subsequently he studied at Miami University and at Kenyon. There he had nearly completed his course when circumstances called him home. What he learned he always retained a remarkable degree, and an interest in education and all measures and institutions for its promotion characterized his whole subsequent life.
For some years after this, he was engaged in mercantile pursuits, managing a store of his father’s, on Mad River, near Enon. When he arrived at manhood he had of his father about 600 acres of land comprising the tract on which Yellow Springs is now located and most of the section on which it stands.
He married Miss Margareta Poague, and established his home in what was then dense wilderness, but which afterwards, under his hand, became the beautiful park which surrounded his former residence, now the property of Mr. Wm. Means. By this wife he had one daughter, now Mrs. Hollingshead of Dayton. His first wife dying in early life, he subsequently married Mrs. Ann Eliza Starry. She was the companion of the most active part of his life, the mother of six children, five of whom, three sons and two daughters, are still living. She died in July, 1864.
Until the financial troubles of 1857, Judge Mills was a man of large property and his intelligence, public spirit, energy and enterprise made him a leader in all measures for the public good. He early espoused the cause of temperance and for many months went to Xenia one evening in every week to preside over a division of the Sons of Temperance. His sympathies were always with the cause of Anti slavery, and he was one of the earliest opponents of the encroachment of the slave power, and the end of the slave, and had [taken] measures to advance the means of education his voice and his heart were in favor of the best improvements. His hand and his store of provisions were always open to assist the poor. He was the friend and adviser of the young, and his generous hospitalities were extended to all.
When the Little Miami Railroad from Springfield to Cincinnati was projected, he took hold heartily in his favor. When after reaching only about twelve miles from Cincinnati, work was suspended for want of funds, and efforts to negotiate loans made by some of the strongest men of southwestern Ohio had failed, Judge Mills offered to go to New York and Boston to make another bid and pay his own expenses, asking no remuneration if he failed. His proposition was accepted and against great discouragements from leading capitalists he succeeded in obtaining a loan of $500,000 ($12.9 million dollars by today’s standards). This was the first eastern capital invested in western railroads and secured the completion of the Little Miami road to Springfield, the first rail road built in the State of Ohio, also the Mad River road to Sandusky.
When Antioch College was projected as a liberal institution, open to both sexes, he entered with enthusiasm into this and determined it possible to secure its location in Yellow Springs. For this purpose he gave the twenty acres of land on which the College now stands and over $20,000 ($560,000 by today’s standards) in money. He traveled, talked, wrote and negotiated in its favor, and gave it the benefit of his enterprise, energy and financial credit. His name secured the loans which were necessary to complete the buildings and he was personally beholden on nearly or quite all its paper until the payments of the debts and reorganization of the College in 1859. When Horace Mann was called to the Presidency of the College, Judge Mills was his friend and coadjutor in the measures to give the College its highest and the many respects, advanced positions in educational features. He was the generous friend of every student and his house was the welcome home of all, young and old, who were attracted either by the best interest in the College.
In laying out the town to be both around the College, he also expended large sums of money. His ardent hopefulness built features of a large and flourishing town, which never was realized. He sold lots on credit and put so much faith in the value of paper which utterly failed him in the hour of need. The panic of 1857 found him with large nominal assets and large debts, which he counted on them to meet. Property depreciated, paper proved worthless, assets failed, creditors were clamorous, and after making turn after turn in the hope of getting through till better times would make his assets equal to his liabilities, he was finally obliged to surrender. In his failure he reserved nothing and saved nothing. Real and personal estate, household furniture, place, all were given up and sold for the benefit of his creditors. Of course many suffered by his failure, and as usual, there were many to curse him. Those who can never forgive a man by whom they have lost a dollar, and those in whose sight it is an unpardonable sin to make financial mistakes and lose money, had hard things to say, but never can say that he kept to himself a cent which belonged to them, or that he kept back from his creditors a cent which should have been given up.
When the war broke out he entered and was appointed Quartermaster of the 74th Regiment O.V.I. Subsequently he was detailed as Post Quartermaster at Nashville, and the provisions for the army south of that point had all to pass through his hands. In this, though opportunities were abundant, his hands were stained with no speculation.
He drew only his salary, and this he forwarded to Yellow Springs for the support and education of his children. At this time, July 1864, he was doubly afflicted in the loss of his wife, who had been his true and noble companion alike in adversity and in prosperity.
At the close of the war he found himself without property and without a home for it was during the war, and in his absence that his property was sold. He made his home in Nashville where he was for two years Recorder of the city. He was Director of the State Penitentiary and one of the Trustees of Central College under the direction of the Methodists.
In March, 1868, he was married to Mrs. Ratford, of Edgefield, a lady of some property and of superior accomplishments by whom he had one daughter. He continued to live there taking a leading part in the politics of Tennessee during the period of its reconstruction. When the politics changed, however, and the Southern element again came into control, Judge Mills felt the power of Southern ostracism, lost all position and all business and was obliged to come north to seek for something to do. He went first, in 1870, to Atchison, Kansas, and remained about three years. Afterwards he went to Chicago and engaged in real estate agency. The crises of 1873 and onward put a stop to this business and in 1876 he returned to Yellow Springs, where he has since lived.
In his later days, Judge Mills struggled with comparative poverty, and a part of the time with painful disease, doing his best by such means as he could lay hold of by way of writing, selling books, and such measures, to obtain the means of livelihood; but, he was sustained at home by his noble and heroic wife, who was always cheerful and who knew how to make a happy house with limited resources. Besides, while he had nothing which he could call his own, it was a satisfaction to him to live where he could see the work of his prosperous days, and witness the success of enterprises which he had done much to inaugurate. It was a perpetual gratification to him to feel that, for the world, he had not lived in vain. He counted this better than wealth with out it. The wants of his last days were faithfully administered by his devoted wife and many friends.
Col. Elisha Mills was married to a second wife in Connecticut, between the periods of his removals to Illinois and to Ohio. Judge Mills always esteemed her and spoke of her as a mother indeed. His parents were members of the Episcopal church, and he was brought up under its influence. His mother at least would have been glad to see his talent given to the ministry of that church; but he chose to devote himself to business. As there was no church of that denomination in the place, he united with the Methodist church, in which he was for many years a very active member, a leader in social meetings and Sabbath-schools and a licensed exhorter (sic). Not only at home but abroad, he was an earnest worker in the interest of church and for the salvation of men. Never a sectarian, in later days he withdrew from that church and never united with any other, though, wherever he was, he showed himself a religious man manifesting a sympathy with true Christian work wherever it was seen.
He left a request to be buried from his own residence, plainly and without ostentation. This request was regarded; and he was so buried on Thursday afternoon. Rev. A.W. Coan, to whom he was cordially attached; conducted the service, assisted by Prof. Weston, who had been his friend of many years, and who officiated at the funeral of his former wife, by Rev. T.D. Peake of the Methodist church, Rev. E. W. Humphreys, of Yellow Springs, and Dr. N. Summerbell of Enon, who had been associated with him many years ago. A large concourse of neighbors and friends, both of the vicinity and from a distance, were present to show their respect for the memory of the honored dead. His remains were escorted to the grave by members of Garfield’s Band, without instruments, and followed by a large procession.
Thus he sleeps peacefully at last at the end of an eventful life, having outlived the most of his early acquaintances, and leaving behind him very many who will cherish his memory with fondness for his large-hearted friendship, and for the kind words and generous aid which they have received at his hands.