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Thomas Lakin recalls newspaper career

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By The Staff

Three weeks ago, I contributed a story for this column telling how I had been contacted by editor and publisher Mike Lakin of The Mt. Pulaski Times for permission to reprint an earlier column.

Immediately, my antennae went up, because Thomas N. Lakin was editor and publisher of The Vandalia Union. I learned from Mike that his grandfather, William Lakin, and Thomas Lakin were cousins.

Thomas Lakin moved his family, wife Rebecca, sons Jesse and Ira, and daughters Lulu, Minnie and Ara to Vandalia, arriving on March 29, 1893. After living for 38 years in Christian County, farming and teaching school, he made the leap to the newspaper business.

Ira Lakin was only 18 years old when his father sent him to Vandalia in early March of the same year to take over publication of the weekly newspaper. A third son, Will, did not move with the family to Vandalia.

In 1916, falling ill and unable to perform his editorial duties at the Union, his family encouraged Thomas to write a sketch of his life, because his one great ambition was to “die in the harness,” as he often expressed it.

As a memorial tribute, inserted in the front of Thomas’ memoirs, his sons wrote, “This seemed to please him, and he eagerly set to the task. Sometimes, as he wrote, he was racked with pain or so weak he could scarcely hold the tablet on the arm of his chair. He persevered and finished one month before his death on March 19, 1917.”

Being an editor and former schoolteacher, the story of Thomas Lakin’s life, as he recorded it in his "Reminiscences" booklet, is easy to read.

“None of us knew anything about running a newspaper, but, fortunately, we had a good editor and foreman in Angus Wahl,” he wrote. “After 38 years of farm life, we moved to Vandalia and Ira and I both undertook to study the printer’s trade.”

Thomas was born on Aug. 13, 1843, in Freeport, Harrison County, Ohio, the son of Thomas Newton Lakin and Mary Ann Pepper. His mother died when he was 7 days old, and his father, a saddle and harness maker, was unable to care for the three children, who were “scattered to different homes.”

A brother, Albert, was taken to the home of an uncle, Josephus Lakin; sister, Almira (Allie), to the home of Samuel Lakin, both of Dresden, Ohio; and infant, Thomas, to the home of his mother’s brother, Joshua Pepper, in New Philadelphia, Tuscarawas County, Ohio.

His uncle would get up in the middle of the night to milk the cow, so the baby would have warm milk, and he delighted in telling Thomas that he drank 14 barrels of milk in his first three years of life.

When he was 3, his aunt and uncle moved from their farm and purchased an inn. Thomas was sent to the home of their daughter, Almira, Mrs. B.C. Cochran, where he stayed until "Cochran," as he referred to him, was bit by the gold fever bug. Thomas then returned to the home of his aunt and uncle.

One early memory Thomas wrote about was the McKnight maple sugar grove in Old Town. He remembered slightly older boys Will and Hugh McKnight hauling sugar water for the operation. Hugh later moved to Fayette County, settling in Ramsey.

In the fall of 1854, Thomas moved with his foster parents to the Far West – Illinois. He remembered their carriage was an elegant two-seated affair, with glass doors. They followed the National Road from Columbus, Ohio, to Terre Haute, Ind., striking north at this point for Christian County.

In Ohio, the road was piked, but in Indiana, it was a plank road, tolled at many places. Indiana was suffering a drought at that time and they had difficulty in finding feed for their team.

In each state, Joshua Pepper was forced to exchange his money to that of the state they were entering. Each state had its own currency, and Ohio bank notes would not buy anything in Indiana.

A few months before their move, another of Thomas’ uncles, Albert Pepper, had settled in Taylorville, their destination. His foster parents had chosen the Buckeye Prairie as their new home, it being named for the Ohio natives who settled there.

Located 12 miles south of Taylorville, Uncle Joshua Pepper built a home near their daughter, Almira Cochran, with whom Thomas had spent part of his childhood.

“The Illinois Central Railroad had been graded, but no track laid at this time, so all of our goods were shipped overland to Terre Haute, a one-week journey,” he remembered.

Where his young eyes were accustomed to big hills and fertile valleys, canal boats and tow paths, in Illinois they saw no rivers, no vales, no woods – just prairie, beautiful and ever changing.

“A mass of green in springtime, a garden of flowers in the summer, in fall covered with tall grass and rosin weeds and in late fall and winter, scenes of indescribable beauty when great seas of prairie fires swept over it, threatening destruction to everything before them.

“Our only protection was to backfire by plowing several furrows around our homes and hay stacks, and then setting fire outside these furrows.”

Thomas fell in love at age 11, and nine years later, married Rebecca Hunter, the “black haired, black eyed lass, with rosy cheeks and a ringing cheery laugh.” She was another Ohio native. In 1863, they began their married life in a two-room brick house that Thomas built on land he purchased for $12 an acre from the Illinois Central Railroad.

Having completed two years at Normal University, his first teaching job was shortly after his marriage. It was at Locust School – the “almost chinkless” log structure located one-fourth mile north of where Owaneco now stands.

The next year he taught school in one room of their two-room brick home. He and Rebecca moved furniture each morning, fashioning temporary benches for the 30 scholars. His teaching career would take him to Sherman, Durbin, Buckeye and Pike schools until 1893, when he made the move to Vandalia and took up the reins of the Union.

In company with his uncle, Joshua Pepper, he traveled to Springfield to meet the Republican candidate for president. Calling on him at his law office, Thomas wrote, “I was a blazing Democrat, while my uncle was a Republican. Mr. Lincoln expressed himself as quite confident of his election in November.

“Before we left, Mr. Lincoln placed his hand on my head with his blessing and said he hoped that I would grow up to be an honorable and manly man. I have tried to justify his hope.

“I was only 18 and could not vote for Mr. Lincoln then, but in 1864 I voted for him good and hard and have never since departed from the principles he advocated."