This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in August 2014 before the launch of this weblog.
William Gaither, Tazewell County treasurer
By Jared Olar
The Gaither surname occupies a special place in the history of Pekin and Tazewell County, chiefly due to the central role played by Mary Elizabeth Gaither (1852-1945) in the planning and construction of the Pekin Carnegie Library in 1902. She also compiled and wrote the early history of the library up to 1902.
Having devoted much of her years to the public library, Miss Gaither, as she was usually known (never having married), later moved to California, where she lived her remaining years in the home of her older brother Otho, outliving him by a few months and dying in Lindsay, Calif., on Jan. 11, 1945. Her obituary, published on the front page of the Jan. 13, 1945 Pekin Daily Times, surprisingly is silent about her involvement in the library, but offers these remarks on the decades-old ties of Miss Gaither and her family to Pekin:
“The news carries oldtimers down a long memory lane to Civil War days in Pekin. At the turn of the year, word came of the death of Mrs. Margaretha Neef, whose memory also included Civil War and Abraham Lincoln days in Pekin. Still living of that day and almost the same age is Mrs. Anna Schipper, now in Florida for the winter.
“The old Gaither home in Pekin was the house that now is the Congressman Dirksen home. Many remember old Mr. Gaither because of the shawl he wore. Miss Gaither is best remembered here as a music teacher – but that was long, long ago.”
“Mr. Gaither” was William Gaither, Esq., who held a number of public offices in Tazewell County, including that of county treasurer. His social prominence and political activities earned him a place in the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell County, which also includes numerous biographies of the “Old Settlers of Tazewell County.” Gaither’s biography is on page 42 of the atlas, and an engraving of his residence on Buena Vista Street is found on page 124.
William Gaither was born April 8, 1813, in Hagerstown, Maryland, the son of Zachariah Gaither (1782-1834) and Elizabeth Garver (1786-1827). The biography says William became a cabinet-maker’s apprentice at the age of 17. “After completing his apprenticeship, and business not being very brisk in his native state, he was desirous of trying his fortunes in a new country, and with that intention he started westward, and traveled overland to the Ohio river, then by steamer, landing in Pekin, Illinois, in October, 1836. He remained here but a short time, then went to Tremont, which was then the county seat of Tazewell county. He there resumed his trade, which he carried on for a number of years,” the biography says.
In 1844, he married Ann Eliza Coleman Garrett, and together they had seven children, three of whom died in childhood – William, Otho, Martha, Mary, Charles, Samuel and Lincoln. He and his family moved back to Pekin in 1863.
The biography continues, “In the year 1850 he was lured from the quiet walks of life, and was in the fall of that year elected sheriff of Tazewell county, as the candidate of the Whig party. Under the then existing constitution of the state, a sheriff was not eligible for reelection for the succeeding term. After the expiration of his term of office, Mr. Gaither turned his attention to agricultural pursuits, and to his trade, which claimed his attention for several years. In 1862 he was appointed by Sheriff Williamson, his deputy. During that year he did most of the business of the office. In the fall of 1862, Mr. Gaither was nominated by the Republican party, for sheriff, but of course was defeated, as the Democrats at that time were largely in the ascendancy in Tazewell county.”
The biography goes on to tell of Gaither’s subsequent involvement in public affairs: appointed by President Lincoln a federal inspector of revenue for the Eighth District (encompassing Tazewell County), removed from that office by President Johnson over policy differences, appointed assistant county treasurer and collector in the fall of 1867, appointed county treasurer in September 1869 to fill the vacancy created by the death of County Treasurer Barber, then elected county treasurer in November 1869.
At the time of the publication of the 1873 Atlas Map, Gaither was serving a second elected term as treasurer. He died in Pekin on Jan. 11, 1892 – coincidentally the same day and month that his daughter Mary died in 1945. His widow Ann Eliza died in 1912.
Among the records and mementos preserved in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room archives is a collection of papers and letters of William Gaither, many of them associated with his activities as treasurer and collector for the county. The collection, formerly in the possession of Miss Gaither, was donated to the library in 1970 by Miss Gaither’s niece (Otho’s daughter), Nellie Gaither Urling-Smith.