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The Best Farm in Knox County, Illinois

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Section map of Sparta Township, Illinois. Aaron Noble Phelps' farm is located northeast of town in the highlighted section. (Illustration from Atlas Map of Knox County, Illinois, Andreas, Lyter & Company, Davenport, 1870, 91 pages. Scanned by Todd Walter. Courtesy the Knox County, Illinois Genealogy & History ILGENWEB project.) (Larger image 230K)
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"Premium farm of A. N. Phelps Sec 8 Sparta Tp Knox Co ILL " (Larger image 101K)

The entire table set. The pieces are silverplate, which has worn off in several locations, of slightly varying styles, and appear to be from two manufacturers.
The coffee server is engraved, "Table Sett Awarded by the Illinois State Agricultural Society to Mrs. A. N. Phelps 1871." Larger image [40kb]

Hidden From the Japanese—The Premium for Best Farm

For many years, the silver coffee server with the elephant ear handles and the delicate spout graced the top of the buffet in my grandmother's formal dining room. Usually wrapped in plastic to ward off tarnish, I never saw it used. My grandmother told me only that it had been won as a prize at a fair. As a child, I could only stare curiously and try to imagine the kind of county fair that would give away an expensive silver service as a prize.

When first Grandpa and then Grandma Phelps passed on, the silver service was passed to me by my father. Up close, I finally read the engraving:

"Table Sett Awarded by the Illinois State Agricultural Society to Mrs. A. N. Phelps 1871."

"A. N. Phelps?" I wondered. A quick check of my family history files turned up Ronald Aaron Noble Phelps, of Wataga, Knox County, Illinois, my fourth great-grandfather, and his wife, Sarah Jerusha Adams of Painesville, Ohio. He was born in 1819 and they were married in 1847, so we can assume Sarah was at least 44 years old at the time she received the coffee set.

But why was this set a prize? What had my great-great-grandmother done to earn a silver table set—of all things—from an agricultural society? Further research led me to The History of Knox County, where the circumstances were revealed.

Mr. Phelps was born in Westfield, Mass., September 8, 1819. He came, with his mother and two sisters, to Galesburg [Illinois] in 1836. The amount of his worldly possessions at that time was enough to buy a box stove and a cow, valued at $30. The eldest daughter [of Col. Phelps, or Aaron's sister, Seraphina Princess Phelps became Mrs. George Avery, of Galesburg, and the youngest [Sybelana Phelps] the wife of B. Killbourn, of Wisconsin. The mother died at Galesburg, November 29, 1855.

The father, Aaron Noble Phelps, had died previous to the family's moving west, at Westfield, Mass., in March 1830. He and his wife (Miss Clarissa Root Phelps) were married in 1814. Their only son, Ronald A. N. Phelps and Mrs. Sarah J. Adams were married March 29, 1847, and moved to their present home in 1856, which has since taken the premiums already mentioned." (2)

Section 8 also includes the premium farm owned by A. N. Phelps, Esq., and contains 200 acres without a foot of waste land... As an indication that Sparta [Township] is a rich agricultural locality, capable of producing a great quantity as well as a great variety of crops and having in it many enterprising stock-raisers, besides begin well watered by natural streams and springs, may be noted the fact that A. N. Phelps' two-hundred acre farm now owned by William Robson on Section 8, took three first prizes from the State Agricultural Society."(3) The farm was ranked first in 1868, 1870, and "previously for five successive years."

During World War II, many Californians feared they would be invaded by the Japanese. This fear was so strong within our family that they buried a treasured silver coffee and tea service at their cabin in the mountains outside Los Angeles. The service remained hidden there for a number of years until after the war, around 1953. My parents were visiting my father's Aunt Helen. A single piece of the silver service was in the house. My mother admired the piece, and Aunt Helen told of the remaining pieces buried in the Los Angeles forest. She told my mother, Annabeth, that they ought to be hers now.

My mother passed on this story to her mother-in-law, Betty Phelps. The next year, as my parents prepared to visit Aunt Helen again, Betty asked Annabeth to please do her a favor and pick up a box that Aunt Helen wanted Betty to have. The box contained the silver service. Thus it remained in my grandparent's home for the next 40 years, until they both passed away and my father gave it to me.

Illinois State Agricultural Society Award to Mrs. A. N. Phelps

"Section 8 [of Sparta Township, Illinois] also includes the premium farm owned by A. N. Phelps, Esq., and contains 200 acres without a foot of waste land. This farm was granted the first premium by the Illinois State Agricultural Society in 1868, and again in 1870. It had been awarded the first premium by the Knox County Agricultural Society previously for five successive years."

"...As an indication that Sparta [Township — later Knox County — ] is a rich agricultural locality, capable of producing a great quantity as well as a great variety of crops and having in it many enterprising stock-raisers, besides begin well watered by nattural streams and springs, may be noted the fact that A. N. Phelps' two-hundred acre farm now owned by William Robson on Section 8, took three first prizes from the State Agricultural Society." (History of Knox County, p. 836) The farm was ranked first in 1868, 1870, and "previously for five succesive years."

"Hezekiah Buffum settled on Section 23, in 1834.  Asay DeLong, Lyman Field, and Wm. Heath, on Sec. 31, in 1836.  Asay DeLong built the first house between Henderson and Knoxville timber.  First Supervisor was Thomas H. Taylor; first Constable, M. P. DeLong; first Justices of the Peace, Ransom Babcock and Mariam Booker.  Coal is in abundance on Sections 16, 17, 22 and 23.  Over three quarters of the Township is best of fine rolling prairie, with best of improvements, and the best of citizens.  J. M. Holyoke, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, M. P. DeLong, President of Agricultural Society, Wm. Robson and W. S. Patterson, extensive stock dealers, are from Sparta.  Phelps' celebrated farm, which took the first premium at State Fair, is on Section 8, and is certainly as fine a farm as we ever saw.  ....."(4) (Atlas Map of Knox County, Illinois, Andreas, Lyter & Co., Davenport, Iowa, 1870, 91 pages. Emphasis added.)

"Mr. Phelps was born in Westfield, Mass., September 8, 1819. He came, with his mother and two sisters, to Galesburg [Illinois] in 1836. The amount of his worldly possessions at that time was enough to buy a box stove and a cow, valued at $30. The eldest daughter [Seraphina Princess Phelps] became Mrs. G. Avery, of Galesburg, and the youngest [Sybelana Phelps] the wife of B. Killbourn, of Wisconsin. The mother died at Galesburg, November 29, 1855. The father, Aaron Noble Phelps, had died previous to the family's moving west, at Westfield, Mass., in March 1830. He and his wife (Miss Clarissa Root) were married in 1814. Their only son, A. N. Phelps and Mrs. Sarah J. Adams were married March 29, 1847, and moved to their present home in 1856, which has since taken the premiums already mentioned." (History of Knox County, p. 489)

About the Coffee and Tea Service

The service has been appraised as a "Monumental Victorian Egyptian Revival Coffee and Tea Service Set." The fact that the pieces were given as prizes and are silverplated suggests to me that the pieces may have been manufactured in quantity. The engraving says 1871. The two stamps are:

  • "Quadruple Plate Wilcox Silver Plate Co. 1881 W" encircling crossed hammers
  • "New Haven Conn. Rogers Smith & Co. 1881"

"1881" refers to the style number of the pattern. My research has found that the service was manufactured after 1862 and before 1868, since the Rogers, Smith factory was moved from Hartford to New Haven in 1862 and six years later to Meriden.

The coffee service has seven pieces, as illustrated above. Each is silver-plated; the base metal appears to be nickel and lead, as it is visible on a couple of pieces where the silver plate has worn away. Each piece is engraved with a vine or ivy motif. The tops of the handles and legs are decorated with what appears to be an Indian-head. The pieces are, from left to right in the picture above:

  • The coffee server, 15" tall, 11 1/2" across, with a spigot and kerosene warmer
  • A teapot, 8" tall and 5" across, with a spout and handle.
  • A sugar bowl, 4 1/2" by 7".
  • A creamer, 4 1/2" by 7", with a hinged lid.
  • A covered sugar bowl, 6" tall and 5" across, with a lid and handles.
  • A sugar bowl, 6" tall and 5" across.
  • A covered sweat meats bowl, 7" high and 9" across, with a lid and handles.
  • A large bowl 8" high and 10" across. This bowl is different from the others in that there is no vine design on the bowl, and the lid is engraved with clusters of leaves. The side of the bowl has what appears to be a holder for the lid.

Excerpted from History of Knox County, by Charles C. Chapman. 1870. Knox County Historial Society. p. 489.

(4) (Atlas Map of Knox County, Illinois, Andreas, Lyter & Co., Davenport, Iowa, 1870, 91 pages. Emphasis added.)