John Wesley Stipes. In the spring of 1917, after the declaration of war was made and preparations were hurried to convert and organize this nation for war, the United States Government made known its purpose for the selection of a location for an aviation field in Illinois and preferably convenient to the State University. A committee of half a dozen men were called together by President James of the University, and of this committee J. W. Stipes, of Champaign, was elected chairman. This committee gave careful study to the problems involved and after looking over many locations selected four possible sites, each a mile square, containing 640 acres. That was the work of the committee and after that the government had to choose among these four locations. The presence of the State University was a big factor in deciding the problem, since the university would undoubtedly furnish a large number of men for the aviation corps. The Champaign Chamber of Commerce, together with the committee, began an energetic canvass to convince the government that the Rantoul field would be the best suited for the purpose. Mr. J. W. Stipes went to Washington and for several weeks used his untiring efforts, as a result of which it was decided to acquire and develop the site at Rantoul.
In line with what seems a general policy of the Federal Government during the war, the improvement of this site was turned over to the civil authorities, and in this case largely to local men. Mr. Stipes, at the head of these local citizens, together with the English Brothers, secured the contract for improving and erecting the buildings on the ground, the contract to be completed in sixty days. Four days after the contract was signed 800 men were busily engaged, and at the end of ten days a force of 1,500 men and 225 teams were at work. By the end of June every building was under way and fifty per cent of the improvement was completed, and before the end of the summer the grounds were in use for the training of an aviation corps. The buildings consist of barracks, store buildings, hospital, school, and twelve hangars for the flying machines, one capable of holding six machines, and altogether these buildings constitute a small city in itself. It was a heroic undertaking to develop the grounds. Nine miles of drain tile were laid, three miles of sewer, a septic tank was constructed, two and a half miles of water mains were put under ground, electric power was brought a distance of eighteen miles, a spur of a railway track was built, three and a quarter million feet of lumber was used, a hundred thousand cubic yards of earth were shifted for grading and filling, and a fine crop of four hundred acres of corn was destroyed to make way for this colossal government enterprise. All was done and finished satisfactorily within the sixty days allowed by the contract.
People who are in a position to know, give much of the credit of this achievement to John W. Stipes. That is only one of the big undertakings he has successfully carried out during a lifetime.
A well written book of fiction frequently pleases because the imaginary characters overcome handicaps and reach their various goals sometimes through almost unbelievable hardships. In looking about among real people it is possible, more often than one may think, without trying to find quiet men whose handicaps have not been imaginary and whose achievements prove that they have lived bravely outside the page of the story book. Many of the elements found in the pages of fiction have been exemplified in the career of Mr. Stipes, who is a self made, self educated man, and for years has been a factor in the life and affairs of Champaign County.
John Wesley Stipes was born in Montgomery County, Iowa, September 14, 1860. His parents were John and Harriet (Bean) Stipes, both of whom were born in Virginia. The family resided in Iowa when the Civil War broke out, the father being a supporter of the Union cause. In all times of public stress there is more or less excitement and sectional feeling is apt to be aroused, and it was through an outbreak of this kind, incident to the attempted arrest of an outspoken sympathizer with the secession movement, that John Stipes lost his life. He left his widow with five children, John Wesley being the youngest. The others also survive, as follows: Sarah, who is the widow of George Peterson, of Henderson, Iowa; George, a resident of Urbana, Illinois; Louise, wife of Edward Good, of Paxico, Kansas; Thomas, who is a resident, of Wabash, Indiana. The mother migrated to Champaign, Illinois, when John Wesley was yet an infant.
By the time he was ten years of age John Wesley Stipes had made some progress in the district schools but after that age had little opportunity for study, as he then became a boy of all work on a farm, the proprietor of which, Mr. Barley, had quite a family of young children to be looked after as well as horses to be cared for and fields to be cultivated. No doubt it often required a stout bit of courage, especially on cold winter mornings, to be the first up on the farm, to make the fires and then do the farm chores and then to amiably take care of the children while the family ate breakfast. His own breakfast followed and then his day’s work was supposed to start. Mr. Stipes remembers that his earliest attempts at handling a three-horse plow were not very successful, as he encountered much trouble in turning the plow at the end of the furrow. His plowing had to be kept up until noon, when he was permitted to return to the house and take care of the children while the other workers ate dinner, his meal following afterward. With changing seasons his work varied but never slackened, his wages being $5 a month. Mr. Stipes displayed even then a proper business sense, spending his first twenty dollars for a heifer. He continued on the farm under the same conditions until two years had passed by and he was a fine, sturdy youth of twelve years.
In 1872 Mr. Button placed John W. Stipes and Homer Stillwell in his brickyard at Urbana, and this was a fortunate change for John Wesley and he soon developed an interest in this line of work and willingly and faithfully labored there for eight years, during this time mastering the details of the brick business and incidentally of the manufacturing of tile. He began to make plans for embarking in business for himself, and just here came in an element that some workers might have overlooked. This was that while working steadily with his hands he had also built up a reputation for fidelity to his employer, for honest effort and persevering industry, and this brought him the respect and confidence of the late Judge J. O. Cunningham. Judge Cunningham testified to his sterling character and readily recommended him to the farming community in need of tile, whereby he had no difficulty in contracting with them for their tile requirements on the basis of an advance of twenty-five per cent of the price of their contract. This would enable him to start the manufacturing and after the plant started the farmers were to have their pro rata of the manufacture as the work proceeded. It is not necessary to add that every contract was faithfully and honestly completed.
Mr. Stipes was thus soon on the highway of success. In the course of time Judge Smith, of Champaign, and L. L. Hayworth, of Decatur, engaged him to go over to Decatur, Illinois, and build a tile plant there for them, which work required a year of his time, after which he returned to Champaign and became associated with George F. Beardsley in organizing a company to build a tile factory in Champaign. He subsequently bought the Sheldon Tile Company of Urbana, the Madero Tile Company and also the stock and plant of the Urbana Brick Company, which had failed after operating three years.
In April, 1881, Mr. Stipes was married to Miss Eliza Garrison, who was born at Urbana, Illinois, and they have the following children: Royal A., of Champaign; Opal, wife of E. S. Pilcher, of Champaign; Bessie, wife of M. L. Hecker; Helen J., wife of Robert Eisner; and John W., of Texas. In politics Mr. Stipes is a Republican and has been a member of the school board for years. He is a member of the Methodist Church and fraternally is an Elk and Knight of Pythias.