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Thomas Lakin writes memoir of his life

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By Linda Hanabarger

In 1893, after living on a farm and teaching school for 38 years in Christian County, Thomas N. Lakin purchased The Vandalia Union newspaper. 

His son, Ira, was only 18 years old when his father sent him to Vandalia, in March 1893, to take over publication of the weekly newspaper.

Accompanying him in the move to Vandalia were his wife, Rebecca, sons, Jesse and Ira, and daughters, Lulu, Minnie and Ara. A third son, Will, stayed behind in Christian County, where he died in 1914.

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

Titled, “Reminiscences,” his sons inserted a memorial tribute to their father regarding the writing of the book: "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."

The easy-to-read memoir is a tribute to Thomas’ experience as a teacher and editor.

“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.”

Born Aug. 13, 1843, in Freeport, Harrison County, Ohio, Thomas was the youngest child of Thomas Newton and Mary Ann Pepper Lakin. His mother died when he was 1 week old. 

Thomas Lakin, a saddler and harness maker, was unable to care for his 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 was taken by Joshua Pepper, his mother’s brother, of New Philadelphia, Tuscarawas County, Ohio.

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

When he was 3 years old, his uncle and aunt moved from their farm, purchasing an inn. Thomas was sent to the home of their daughter, Almira, Mrs. B.C. Cochran, where he stayed until Cochran was bit by the gold fever bug. Thomas then returned to the home of his uncle, Joshua Pepper.

One early memory Thomas wrote about was the McKnight maple sugar grove in Old Town. He remembered slightly older boys,  Hugh and Will McKnight, hauling sugar water for the operation; Hugh later moved to Ramsey, and his descendants live there today.

In the fall of 1854, Thomas moved with his foster parents to the far west – Illinois. He remembered their carriage as 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 and tolled at many places.  Indiana was suffering a drought at the time, and the family had difficulty in finding feed for their team.

In each state, his uncle 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.

Another of his mother’s brothers, Albert Pepper, had settled in Taylorville, and their daughter, Almira Cochran, along with her husband and family, had chosen Buckeye Prairie as their new home, it being named for the Ohioans who settled there.

Their new home was located 12 miles south of Taylorville, and Thomas wrote, “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.”

While 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 the 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 haystacks, and then setting fire outside these furrows.” 

Thomas fell in love with a “black-haired, black-eyed lass with rosy cheeks and a ringing cheery laugh.” He was 11. In 1863, they began their married life in a two-room brick house Thomas built on land he purchased from the Illinois Central railroad for $12 per acre.

Having completed two years at Normal University, his first teaching job was shortly after his marriage at the log, “almost chinkless,” Locust School, which was located just  north of the village of Owaneco.

The next year, he taught school in one room of the two-room brick house he built for Rebecca. The couple moved furniture each morning and fashioned temporary benches for the 30 pupils. His teaching career would take him to Sherman, Durbin, Buckeye and Pike schools.

In company with his uncle, Joshua Pepper, Thomas traveled to Springfield to meet the Republican candidate for president – Abraham Lincoln. 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 that he hoped that I would grow to be an honorable and manly man. I have tried to justify his hope.

“I was only 18 past, 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.”