Francis M. Leigh of St. Joseph village is one of Champaign County’s veteran farmers. He is also one of those living who have seen most of the development of this section of the country. His own part has been not entirely that of a witness, and taking the aggregate results of the work and influence of the Leigh family it can truthfully be said that their lives are inseparably identified with all the real history of the county.
Mr. Leigh is one of the oldest native sons of St. Joseph Township, having been born on a farm a mile and a quarter north of the village of that name September 3, 1845. His parents were Henry and Jemimah (Fisher) Leigh, natives of Virginia who early settled in Ohio, where they married, and in the spring of 1836 journeyed westward on horseback to Illinois, living two years where the town of Catlin now stands in Vermilion County, and then coming to Champaign County and locating in St. Joseph Township. Francis Leigh was fourth in a family of seven children, three sons and four daughters.
There were few of the modern facilities for giving an education to a family when Francis Leigh was a boy, and he and his brothers and sisters would walk two and a half miles every day back and forth to the schoolhouse, where a three months’ terms was about the extent of the book advantages for each year. Henry Leigh was never in rugged health, and his sons from an early age had to assist in the labors of the farm.
At the age of twenty-two Francis Leigh laid the foundation of his own home by his marriage to Martha Ross. She was a native of Edgar County, Illinois, and daughter of John and Catherine Ross. Mr. and Mrs. Leigh confronted life bravely and with every anticipation of success and had the youth and enthusiasm that insured a bright future. In looking after a home they bought eighty acres of Illinois Central Railroad land a mile north of the village of St. Joseph. For this land they paid only $10 an acre. The prairie had never been broken by the plow, and there were no building improvements. They began housekeeping in a very simple home, plowed and cultivated the fields, and as the fruit of their industry they were able to make from time to time many improvements that added to their comfort and convenience. They put up comfortable buildings, planted fruit and shade trees, and in course of time added to their estate until the farm consisted of 200 acres. When Mr. Leigh sold this farm four years ago it brought $225 an acre. It is noteworthy that when his father, Henry Leigh, entered his 120 acres from the Government the price was only $1.25 per acre.
To Mr. and Mrs. Leigh were born nine children, three of whom died in infancy. The other six are Catherine, Ivy, Lola, John Milton, Marion E. and William Everett. Mr. and Mrs. Leigh recognized their duty to these young people and saw to it that they had opportunities to attend regularly as possible school in District No. 171. The children grew up and they are now married and settled in life. Catherine is the wife of Lafayette Murphy, a Michigan farmer, and her children are named Frank, Lora, Ora, Fred and Ruth. The daughter Ivy is the wife of Elmer Stoup, a farmer north of Fythian in Vermilion County. Lola L. married Elmer Bantz, living in Homer Township, and their three children are Frank. Clyde and Faye. John M., a farmer in St. Joseph Township, married Lula Jacobs and has three children, Rolla, Edward and Arvilla. Marion E. has had a very successful career as a farmer and is now living retired in St. Joseph. He married Belle Lease and their family consists of Cora and Etta. The son William Everett farms the old homestead of his father and by his marriage to Virginia Carr has three children, Ray, Louis and Ivy.
The companion of his early struggles as a farmer and the sharer of his joys and sorrows was taken from Mr. Leigh a number of years ago. Later he married Mrs. Clara Chase, widow of Albert Chase. Her two children by that marriage were Carl and Pearl Chase, both of whom received their education in the Catlin School. Carl is now train dispatcher at Peru, Indiana, and by his marriage to Alice Ginther has a daughter, Martha Temperance. Pearl is the wife of Charles Boughton and their family consists of two children, Holland and Wilma.
The active years of his life Mr. Leigh spent as a farmer, grain raiser and handler of horses and other live stock. About ten years ago he gave up the responsibilities of the farm and removed to the village of St. Joseph, where he bought a good home on Main Street. This house he has extensively remodeled, adding to it and improving it and beautifying the grounds.
Many of the experiences of Mr. Leigh reflect the history of changes and developments in Champaign County. During the winter of 1862 he hauled corn to Champaign and sold it at 9 cents a bushel. The same year the taxes on his farm were $2.50 and he had difficulty in raising even that small amount. Even before then his father had hauled wheat to Chicago and was barely able to exchange a large load for a limited supply of groceries. That was a time when toil and hardship were scantily rewarded. In spite of the present era of high prices and the complaints made on that score it is evidence that a bushel of grain today will command more of the necessities and luxuries of life than at any time in history. Mr. Leigh was only nine years of age when he had his first experience as a practical farmer. He was set to work plowing corn for his father with one of the old-fashioned single-shovel plows. That was hard work, but he had no idea how hard it really was since he was unable to contrast the implements he used with the modern riding plow. Mr. Leigh can look back to a time when in the spring of the year half of the land in Champaign County was covered with water. Evidently all the changes and developments are the result of strenuous labors on the part of the farmers and the early settlers and those who have followed them, and it is impossible to pay all the honor that they deserve to such people. When Mr. Leigh was a small boy he drove in a wagon to Champaign with his mother to witness the first train pass through the county on the Illinois Central Railway. His father was a very successful hunter. At that time deer and other wild game abounded, and Mr. Leigh recalls a time when eleven deer carcasses were hanging up as the store of winter meat. His father also understood the art of tanning, and always converted the deer hides into a fine quality of buckskin. He was also expert in making whips and other useful articles out of buckskin. Mr. Leigh as a boy several times wandered over that portion of the land where the city of Champaign now stands, and he knew St. Joseph Township as a variegated vista of wild prairie and sloughs.
Mr. Leigh served as a director of his local schools for twenty years and also served as mayor of the village of St. Joseph two terms, being solicited to take the office again, but declining. He was an active member of the Christian Church at St. Joseph, is a Democrat in politics and is a member of the Modern Woodmen of America.