Biography of Isaac E. Hess

Isaac E. Hess. Successful merchandising is a business that is necessary in a community that desires to expand and progress, but all merchandising is not, by any means, successful. When poor stocks are offered to the public and indifferent salesmen reluctantly show the wares, the business is not very likely to interest any one very long, but, on the other hand, the first class store, filled with dependable, up-to-date goods which are brought to the attention of customers by courteous employees and sold at honest prices, is a very helpful factor in building up the name and promoting the prosperity of a town, village or a city. In order, however, to be a successful merchant, a man must have many of the qualities that make for success along any line, and foresight, shrewdness, knowledge of details, good judgment and integrity are some of these. Occasionally the real mercantile spirit descends in a family from father to son and a case in point may be mentioned in referring to Philo, that bustling little city in Champaign County, where the name of Hess has been thoroughly identified with the mercantile business for the past forty-two years.

Isaac E. Hess, who is the leading general merchant at Philo, Illinois, was born at Parkville, in Sadorus Township, Champaign County, Illinois, September 3, 1871. His parents were George W. and Erzilla Jane (Dodson) Hess, the former of whom was born in Ohio and the latter in Kentucky. In his earlier years George W. Hess was a farmer. Pie came to Champaign County and located in Sadorus Township in 1858 and engaged there in agricultural pursuits until 1875, when he moved to Philo and established himself in the general mercantile business there, but his career as a merchant was short, as his death took place August 25, 1876. His widow survived him many years, the date of her death being May 4, 1915. They were the parents of the following children: Ella W., who is the wife of Martin Ellars, Ironton, Ohio; William S. Hess, merchant at Homer, Illinois; Samuel, who is general passenger agent for the Wabash Eailroad at Decatur; Fred C., who conducts a drug store at Villa Grove; George D., a resident of Champaign; and Isaac E.

Isaac E. Hess attended the public schools and was graduated from the Champaign High School in the class of 1887. In the meanwhile his older brothers had carried on the mercantile business established by the father at Philo, and he became a clerk in the store and soon began to cherish the ambition to make the business his own, which ambition he was able to gratify in 1898 when he bought the entire interests of his two brothers and then took charge. Mr. Hess has a fine modern store, with a carefully assorted stock and does a substantial business, his patronage not being confined to the town but coming from a large outlying territory. In thus being able to keep the people’s money in circulation at home, Mr. Hess has assisted the community, for it is distributed in other lines of trade together with his own and the benefit has been mutual and general.

As a successful merchant Mr. Hess fills a place of usefulness and no. small distinction in Champaign County, but it is for other reasons that he is widely known over the state and has a growing list of admirers in many sections of the country. If Champaign County should ever create a Hall of Fame there would certainly be a niche somewhere for Isaac E. Hess. He would deserve that place, not because he has been a successful business man, but because of his quiet and sustained interest and study for many years of Illinois bird life. Curiously enough, Mr. Hess’ services as an ornithologist is known and appreciated by more people outside Champaign County than within it, though this is due merely to the fact that a very restricted number of people in any one given locality are real nature lovers and students. In recent years at different times articles on Mr. Hess’ work have appeared in many newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Record-Herald, and various down-state journals. It would not be possible in this article to quote even a few of the many appreciations that have been written concerning his practical work as an ornithologist or his character as a bird poet and philosopher. In April, 1913, the Decatur Herald said editorially: “No naturalist that we know anything about makes his subjects of more gripping interest to the reader or clothes it in a finer philosophy than Isaac Hess of Philo. The Herald considers itself fortunate in being able to present to its readers Mr. Hess’ series of bird articles. Mr. Hess could not be drily and formally scientific if he tried. He would make an ornithological catalogue fascinating and put humor into an appendix of a work on pterodactyls. It is the happy mission of Mr. Hess to open the mental eyes of his fellow men to the things they have seen, but do not notice; a talk with him and a walk through timber, along a river bottom, or a ride along a country road has a new significance.”

Some months before this editorial appeared the Decatur Herald published a full page article, illustrated, under the title, “Philo’s Bird Lover, Philosopher, a remarkable combination of business man and interpreter of nature, student and champion of his feathered friends, to whom it is good to listen.” It is only doing justice where justice is due to quote some of the paragraphs from this very interesting special correspondent.

“Perhaps it was because of Philo’s trees affording so many opportunities for songsters’ nests that Isaac Hess became an ornithologist. Every country boy, he believes, is more or less an unconscious naturalist up to a certain age. He is interested in the wild life about him, learns to know the names of the birds, something of their haunts and habits, and then distractions come in; further development is arrested. Mr. Hess started in as other boys have done, only in his case there was no break in his study of birds through the crowding in of other interests. Though a busy man, he has continued to be a student in his favorite subject and has become a we)l recognized authority on the birds of central Illinois, a writer of note on ornithological subjects, and the author of papers and pamphlets, one of which is used as the basis of a course in the University of Illinois.

“Sound him on almost any phase of his favorite subject, and Mr. Hess invariably will respond: ‘I have a pamphlet on that,’ or ‘I am now preparing a paper on that very thing.’ One is brought to a realization of his capacity for hard work by records of the Illinois Academy of Science, articles in the Bird Magazine and other popular and scientific journals to which he contributes, and in the almost countless letters and articles in newspapers by which he has sought to disseminate the information that he has acquired and make it of use to those about him.

“Mr. Hess’ single greatest achievement was the gathering of data on 104 different species of birds found in a ten-mile radius from his home, which data was published in 1910 and remains the most complete and authoritative work of its kind in central Illinois. Not only did Mr. Hess make his way through swamps, over hedges and along the rough course of Salt Fork Creek and the Embarrass River, often creeping on hands and knees and lying for hours at a time scarcely daring to breathe lest the knowledge of his presence should disturb some little feathered home builder, but he collected the eggs of ninety-four different species, which collection occupying cases in the rear of his store, is one which bird lovers come far to see.

“Take into consideration the fact that for years Mr. Hess kept an earliest nesting record of the birds that visited this radius, and one has an idea of the size of the task. Mr. Hess also has a most complete collection of mounted birds, although most of his hunting is done with glass and camera rather than with gun, and he much prefers birds living to birds dead.

“No matter how well a genius may write he seldom writes as well as he talks. You would be interested in Mr. Hess’ work on Breeding Birds or his paper on the Passing of Our Game Birds, but you will be a good deal more interested to sit down with him for an hour and hear him discuss birds, for it is then that you get Mr. Hess’ philosophy as well as absorbingly interesting information which he has picked up first hand. You may not be a bird lover, but the probabilities are that after one of these talks with Mr. Hess your eyes will be opened to things that you never have seen before and your thought directed into new channels.

“For one thing Mr. Hess is teaching the farmers in Champaign County what birds are their friends and are deserving of their protection for the good they do in devouring weed seeds and insects. He has taught them, for instance, that the Red-Tailed Hawk that voloplanes so gracefully on strong pinions high in air has no designs on the henhouse, but is looking for the field mice which his wonderful eye discloses to him in the grass 100 yards below him. The true name of this hawk, Mr. Hess says, should be the Farmers’ Friend, and he is a wholly different bird from the smaller low-flying thief that darts over the fence, seizes a chicken, and is off with it before a gun can be sighted.

“Many of his acquaintances fail to understand the work he is doing and cannot understand his willingness to put in days of ‘ hard labor to secure a new specimen or discover some new traits in his friends, the birds. But in this respect perhaps he does not suffer so much from lack of appreciation as other geniuses of different bent, for there is in every human a love of nature, but even if they did not care to follow Mr. Hess into realms of ornithological bliss they would still listen to him so entertainingly does he talk on birds or any other topic.

“Broad, fair-minded, and seeking always to find the best, rather than the other in his fellow men, Mr. Hess has inoculated most of his followers to some extent with his spirit and no matter how delicate the subject, nor how widely different may be the views on any question at his store clearing house of public opinion, there is always that spirit of good fellowship and respect for feelings in the discussion.

“One might gather the impression from this sketch that the subject of it may be a genius but not a business man. Perhaps the reader has visions of a topsy-turvy stock in an untidy, neglected store, but the opposite is true. Nowhere will be found a more tidy and up-to-date dry goods store and some of the commercial journals to which Mr. Hess has contributed his ideas on stock-keeping and bookkeeping have paid him the highest compliments, venturing the opinion that writer must have an ideal store, which it is. And this is also true of his home, for he is married to a woman who shares his love of nature. They have a pretty home and a very pretty baby girl. Living so many years so close to nature has made Mr. Hess an optimist. He accepts the Creator’s plan and believes with the poet that ‘All’s right with the world.’ To not everyone is given that ability or the desire to emphasize the good and minimize the bad.”

Mr. Hess is a member of the scientific associations, the American Ornithologists’ Union, Wilson’s Club, and Illinois Academy of Science. For three years he was a special writer for the Decatur Herald, preparing a series of 157 articles on bird life, and this series is now running in the Quincy Whig. He was one of three authors compiling work on American birds to be published in the German language under auspices of the royal family of Germany when war interfered with all plans. At the present time Mr. Hess is engaged on a book, “Illinois Birds,” the publication of which will be eagerly anticipated by his many friends and admirers all over the state. Mr. Hess has lectured nearly everywhere in Illinois before university clubs, farmers’ institutes, Boy Scout clubs, high schools, women’s clubs, Milliken University at Decatur, the University of Illinois and the Patterson Springs Chautauqua. These lectures and addresses are illustrated with slides from photos of his own taking of Illinois birds “in situ.” Some time ago Mr. Hess was offered the position of instructor of the Nature Class Summer School in the University of Illinois.

Not all of Mr. Hess’ studies of bird life have been through the medium of camera and field notes. He has expressed himself many times in poetry, and it will not be out of place to include his verses on “The Upland Plover”:

But for notes of Whippoorwills
Not a sound of spring so thrills
Ear and heart and sets me list’ning,
Like the weird and plaintive whistling,
Of the dainty Upland Plover Wild, elusive meadow-lover;

When o’er May-day breeze is floating,
Soothing, whistled Plover-noting,
I am seized of great desire
Born of hidden motive, higher
Than the sordid dollar chasing;
Sluggish blood, aroused, is racing Through my veins; forsaking duties
I’m away with Nature’s beauties;

Slyly slipping through the sedges
Creeping, peeping, behind hedges
To the fields where I discover
Haunts of winsome Upland Plover;
In the fields of scented clover
Bobolinks are bubbling over;
Meadow-larks are tuning madly;
Dickcissels are offring gladly
Sweetest anthems of thanksgiving;
All lute of the joys of living.

But to me the sweetest ear-sounds
Satisfying full-of-cheer sounds,
Sirens from the mated lover
Of the patient setting Plover;
Rising like a flash from cover
Poised on flutt’ring wings to hover
In mid-air above his treasure
He, to show the world his pleasure,
Sounds his message (song epistle)
Voloplanes down with his whistle.

Mr. Hess married, May 23, 1894, Miss Florence Adams, who was born in McLean County, Illinois. Their daughter, Edith Constance, was born March 8, 1912. For many years Mr. Hess has been a member of the Order of Odd Fellows and attends the lodge at Philo. Although a sound Republican in his political sentiments, he is by no means a politician, nor is he illiberal in his attitude on general public questions. Among other business interests he was at its inauguration and conventions secretary of the Florida Fruit Lands Company, which divided 180,000 acres of everglades.



Stewart, J. R. A Standard History of Champaign County Illinois. The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago and New York. 1918.

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