Myra, IL Part I: The Silver Family and Their Tragedies
By Will Best
Research by Aaron Khan and Philo Wang
Figure 1: Myra Station Facing the Northwest
Courtesy of Jim Prather
Mira, Illinois, also known as Myra or Myra Station, is located between Urbana and Sidney, Illinois. Gone are the glory days when its staple, a large grain elevator, towered above the station and office below that serviced the Wabash Railroad. The elevator and tracks may be gone but its history and the story behind the village’s name reveal a family's story, a tragic death, and a multi-year legal battle.
Silver Family Origins
David Silver was the fourth of eight children of Joseph and Patience Silver and was born in Salem County, NJ on February 15th, 1798. Joseph and Patience with their children in tow would move first to Pennsylvania in 1800 before continuing their way westward settling in Warren County, OH, and starting a farm in Springboro in Clearcreek Township a year later. The family would construct a two-story brick home on the property where David and his siblings would spend their childhoods and early adult life. David would assist his father with farm work and would learn the dairy trade. Much of his early years are unknown; though in 1823, at the age of twenty-five, David would marry Eliza Munger in Montgomery County, OH (1).
Figure 2: David Silver
Courtesy of Mike Pennell
The newlyweds would live on their father's farm in Springboro, OH, and would begin a family with their first son William who was born in 1824. Their second son John would be born in 1826, then Wallace in 1829. The only daughter of the family, Myra, would be born in 1834 and the last son Perry would be born in 1840. As his sons were growing David continued the family's business of dairy farming and would become well known for his products transporting his dairy and cattle to Cincinnati on a weekly basis (2). Much like their father before them, the sons would learn the dairy trade and David would expand the farm to around 280 acres. Alongside his weekly trips to Cincinnati David would also take cross-country trips around the Midwest to the neighboring states of Indiana and Illinois primarily to pursue other business ventures. It was on one of these trips that David would travel to Eastern Illinois and discover the vast prairies around Urbana and would be so impressed by its beauty that he decided to move his family to Illinois (3).
In June of 1854 David would move to a plot of land to the South East of Urbana and his family would follow later that year arriving in December. David set about cementing himself and his family into their new local community by establishing a large farm, erecting a two-story brick home, and integrating himself into local governance being a major proponent of the creation of public schools and public roads (4). David was a member of the Friends Society and a staunch Republican publicly adamant about his disdain for slavery. As his sons grew David would purchase farmland North of Philo that his sons would farm. John and Wallace owned jointly an 80-acre plot of land in Philo Township that they would farm jointly and that Wallace would live on.
David's wife Eliza would pass away in 1863 and her body would be supposedly buried in Mount Hope Cemetery though no record other than mentions exist. Due to his failing health, David would return to his childhood home in Springboro, Ohio in 1867 with John and Myra joining him and tending to his care. David suffered from cataracts in his final years rendering him blind but he continued to be involved in the daily affairs of his farm and continued to praise the prairies and his friends in Illinois (5). He would pass with Myra at his side in 1875. He would be buried in the Springboro Hicksite Quacker Cemetery also called the Friends Cemetery and would be remembered as the best of his fellow men and would be mourned in both Illinois and Ohio.
The sons of the family settled themselves into the local area North of Philo, IL with William, Wallace, and Perry farming the land and forming families. Wallace’s first wife was Rebecca Mullens and they were blessed with two children Howard and Charles. Later, Wallace would marry Mary Karr and would have one last son David. William married Sarah Barnett in 1855 and they would have three children as well: one son, Joseph, and two daughters: Anna and Myra. Perry would serve with the 76th Illinois Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War where he contracted a chronic bowel illness. He would be mustered out of his service on July 22nd, 1865 in Texas (6). He would return home later that year and would shortly after marry Mary Heisler where they would have one son, Alfred (Fred). Perry passed away due to complications with his illness in 1885 and would be buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. John would remain unmarried and would return to the area sometime before his father's death to tend to the family farm in Urbana Township. Perhaps the most important member of the family that relates to this story is David and Eliza’s only daughter, Myra, who returned to the Silver farm Southeast of Urbana after her father’s death and would live with her brother John. In David's will he gave Myra all of the land that he owned which included around 240 acres in Urbana Township and another 320 acres in Philo Township (7). While this was not illegal as women could own property as the Homestead Act of 1862 began to erode away at the laws keeping women from owning land in their own name it was still uncommon. Myra would not manage these large plots of land alone as John would act as her business partner both in purchasing land and overseeing the farm. This turned out to be of great advantage to Myra as the land now under her ownership became increasingly valuable as the railroad came to town.
The Wabash Railroad and Myra Station
Looking to connect two of their lines from Indianapolis to Springfield, The Great Western built a line through Eastern Illinois in 1855 (8). It would cross the Illinois Central 10 miles to the South of Champaign where the village of Tolono would develop. It would continue East going through Philo and Sidney and then would make its way to Indianapolis. In 1874 the Great Western would be bought by the Wabash Railroad Company and would be utilized to connect their existing route from Toledo to Saint Louis. This route serviced much of the traffic that traveled through the center of the state on its way west. Later the Wabash would pursue more ventures in the area by building a route from their main line at Sidney to the Northwest into Champaign. While the IC serviced Champaign and traffic to Chicago the city of Urbana wasn't serviced by any railroad until the 1880s and the Wabash sought to take advantage of the lack of service.
While the railroad was building their track two elevators along this route were constructed and opened in 1881. One was built roughly four miles to the Northwest of Sidney and would be called Deers and another would be built another four miles to the Northwest and would be named Myra, or Myra Station. Despite the fact that it was called Myra, named after Myra Silver, the station did not lie on land owned by the Silvers but rather on land owned by J. Caldwell. As Myra was well known in the area and also a wealthy landowner it is perhaps this reason the station was named in her honor.
Figure 8: 1893 Plat Map
Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives
The elevator was first owned by Jacob G. Holderman. This afforded the farmers in the area a much closer elevator making for more efficient transit of their grain. In addition to freight cargo, the line also gave the opportunity for passenger travel to the citizens of Urbana, Myra, and Deers. The line ran as many as eight passenger trains operating each day along this short route. However, it was by this means that the Silver family would be struck by their first tragedy.
The Death of Myra Silver
On the morning of November 30th, 1903 Myra was visiting Jacob Holderman at his office at the elevator before boarding a train to Champaign. She would leave the offices shortly after 9 a.m. and would make her way to the platform where she would need to cross the tracks to board the next train. What happened next and why it happened are not fully understood however Myra stepped onto the tracks just as an oncoming Wabash passenger train was arriving at the station. Myra was struck at 9:22 a.m. and thrown 25 feet from the track where she was pronounced dead (9). She had been killed instantly and her body was badly damaged and bruised. There were many witnesses to her death including the conductor and engineer of the train that struck her as well as locals who had been standing on the platform including a fireman who had attempted to warn Myra from approaching the tracks to no avail. It was a shock to the local community given Myra's age and prominence among local residents who viewed her as a local leader. Services were held at the family home and she would be buried at Mount Hope Cemetery (10). In her will, she had stipulated that the body of her father would be moved to be buried alongside her in Mount Hope Cemetery. This was reported in multiple news articles in both the Champaign Daily News and the Urbana Daily Courier however it appears that the move never occurred as no record of David's body or gravestone appeared at Mount Hope Cemetery.
Figure 9: Myra's Gravestone at Mount Hope Cemetery
Myra had appointed both R. S. Wilbur and her brother John Silver as executors of her will to manage and divide her immense estate and land holdings. With the land that had been given to her by her father and the land that she and John had purchased before her passing Myra controlled roughly 360 acres in Urbana Township, 320 acres in Philo Township, and some 80 acres in Concordia, KS (11). These land holdings and her other assets would be valued at roughly $80,000 (around $3 million today). As directed in Myra's will all of her debts were to be first paid off before sections of land and parts of her financial holdings were to be divided amongst the family. Of most importance, her farmland and the family home were to be given to John to farm and see the profits of until his own passing. Small sections of land were given to a few of Myra's nieces and nephews and money in the amounts of $250, $500, and $1,000 were to be given to other family members and organizations including the Urbana First Baptist Church (12).
The Silvers Move On
While the executors were gathering documents and materials for Myra's will, Alfred Silver, the son of Perry and Mary and Myra's nephew would finalize his purchase of the Myra Station grain elevator for the sum of $6,000 and would start the Silver Elevator Company (13). Following Myra's death John would oversee his newly owned farmland and would continue the family business of dairy farming. He quickly became well known for the quality of cattle that he would raise and sell in the Champaign-Urbana area. Two of his sales were recorded in the Urbana Daily Courier with T. J. Colvin, a local influential businessman and manager for the Champaign-Urbana Meat Market, buying an entire train car's worth of steer in 1908 (14). John would then pass in January of 1909 throwing the ownership of the Silver estate into question as the executors of John's will began to go through his holdings and assets.
Figure 10: Alfred (Fred) E. Silver
Courtesy of Mike Pennell
Alfred Silver would go on to continue managing the grain elevator at Myra Station and the elevator's daily activities. Much of the farmland North of Philo was then divided up amongst the remaining relatives and the farmland South of Myra Station around the family home was sold at auction on the steps of the courthouse in Urbana in accordance with Myra’s will and was purchased by Fred Silver for $185 per acre (15). He would then look for other ventures and would begin a search for a buyer for the elevator so that he could assist with organizing the contents of John's will and step away from his work managing the station. His troubles with the elevator though would continue before the end of the year as on December 23rd, 1909 the safe located in Fred's office would be broken into. Thieves used a railroad iron to break open the lock however found the inside of the safe empty (16). Only four days later Fred would sell the elevator to H. N. Pell who would take ownership starting on the 1st of the new year.
The Discovery of John's Deceit
While John’s executors were going through his will they discovered that it had not been updated since 1898, before Myra’s death. In his will he specifically left everything to Myra and in the chance of her death to an appointed council that would go through and appraise John’s land; though no council was listed and no one had been appointed to choose said council. So his executors assumed this position and during this period of discovery, they found that John had not been truthful during the initial assessment of Myra’s estate starting in 1903 and had been uncooperative with R. S. Wilbur during the initial assessment of Myra's assets. He used his position as executor to hide plots of land that Myra owned that he claimed as his own as well as cattle, farm equipment, and grain (17). In addition, John denied a contract that Myra had entered into but had not formalized into writing for the purchase of 80 acres of land around the grain elevator at Myra Station. She had also entered into a verbal agreement with Fred on assisting with the purchase of the elevator in 1903 which John had denied as well. Since these contracts were not finalized in writing what John did while legal was unethical. John did however take control of a savings deposit box at the First National Bank in Urbana which amounted to $5,600 that was entirely made up of Myra's own earnings (18). These seizures of both equipment and monetary funds were illegal as the only assets that were to be given to John in Myra's will were the real estate and land itself, no monetary funds were to be given to him.
Why John did this is unknown as this fraud was not found until after John's passing, however, it can be implied that it was to limit the amount of land that his siblings could potentially contest after Myra's death. In addition, it was odd that it took six years after Myra's death to bring these complaints forward to the court. John himself was sworn under oath as an executor of Myra's will and would have been subject to subpoenas or contempt of court had R. S. Wilbur introduced his unwillingness to cooperate with the assessment of Myra's will.
Upon the discovery of this fraud, John’s executors showed these misdeeds to the family including Fred who decided this matter needed to be resolved correctly. Instead of following through with John’s will which would see the entirety of John’s holdings being sold, Fred and other family members took John to court posthumously. This was to reopen Myra’s will as well as to correctly estimate her estate. During these trials, R. S. Wilbur, Myra’s original and now only living executor was called into court to correct these mistakes. At first, the family was displeased with Wilbur’s first correction and claimed that there was still money missing from the accounts for Myra’s estate and introduced these complaints to the court (19). Shortly after these complaints were entered, R. S. Wilbur would pass and throw one the court into Thankfully, R. S. Wilbur had stipulated another local gentleman to oversee the remainder of the case in the case of his passing, N. A. Riley. He would then continue Wilbur's work in correcting the first estimate to appease the family. It was decided that sections of farmland that John had purchased between 1903 and 1909 would be sold and the profits of the sale would be used to correct the balance and appease the family. The entire affair that had lasted for seven years finally ended in 1910 and the Silvers looked to move on.
The Silvers Misfortune Continues
Fred would continue to live on the family farm south of Myra Station with his wife Katherine (Kitty) and their six children: Harold, Martha, Mary (Ethel), John, Ralph, and Donald. Since his involvement with the elevator was concluded he began to pursue other ventures into local politics. In 1909 Fred threw his hat into the ring running as a second Assistant Supervisor for the city of Urbana. This in and of itself was controversial as no other city in the county had a second Assistant Supervisor and there was talk amongst the local townspeople that if Fred was elected they would protest and seek to oust him from his office (20). These complaints fell on deaf ears as the city of Urbana saw a second Assistant Supervisor as necessary as Urbana had been experiencing a rapid growth in population in the early 1900s.
The first tragedy that Fred's family would face would be the death of their son Ralph in 1913. At age five while accompanying his father in the field Ralph was thrown from a seeder when the horses driving it were spooked (21). He fell hard onto a rock and his skull was fractured in two places. He would remain unconscious when doctors arrived and would die an hour later. He would be buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Figure 12: Ralph Silver Gravestone
The two remaining original siblings William and Wallace would retire to their farms in their later years and let their children handle the work. That wouldn’t stop more misfortune from befalling the Silvers as in 1910 William would be gravely injured by a falling hay bale that weighed 108 pounds and fractured one of his ribs and left him battered and bruised but alive (22). For Wallace, his life seemed to have ended quietly as he would pass in 1914 known as one of the most prominent farmers in Philo Township. It seems though that fate had it out for William as in 1918 while his son was driving with him in an automobile near Bement, IL in Piatt County they would have an accident in which William’s injuries would prove fatal (23). Joseph who was driving was severely injured but not fatally.
Cruel fate wasn’t finished just yet. Fred would work for the city of Urbana being reelected multiple times as one of the Assistant Supervisors and was well known for the quality of his work and of his character. Seeking to continue his political career and advance to a senior position he would throw his hat into the primary in 1923 for Supervisor for the city of Urbana. This run would be short-lived as he would lose the primary against Jacob White and would retire from local politics (24).
Using his connections and his now free time he took his family and children on trips around the Midwest. It was on one of these trips with his daughter Ethel and other community members that both Fred and Ethel would meet their unfortunate ends. On a boat outing along the Fox River near Montello WI, which is between the Wisconsin Dells and Oshkosh, Ethel was swimming next to a boat where her father watched. Ethel was pulled under the water by a powerful undertow and Fred dove in after her in an attempt to rescue her that was unfortunately in vain as both would drown (25). Both of their bodies would be recovered and brought back to Champaign-Urbana where they were buried next to Ralph in the Woodlawn Cemetery.
The Silver family despite their many tragedies would continue to live in the Champaign-Urbana area. With Fred's passing his son Harold would inherit the family farm and home. David A. Silver, Wallace's son, would purchase most of the Silver farmland north of Philo. Joseph despite having a crushed shoulder from a car accident in 1918 would continue to farm his land to the Southeast of Philo.
Part II will be released in early 2024 and will focus on the history of the Myra elevator from 1930 to the present.
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