There is great truth in the sontence “biography is history teaching by example.” After considering the story related in the following paragraphs one is convinced that there is more real history pertaining to a city, county and state in the life record of such a man as P. I. Bonebrake of Topeka than can be found in many pages of the detailed statisties.
The editors of this publication have been fortunate in securing a transcript of Mr. Bonebrake’s personal reminiscences of his life and time, and the following article is a digest of those reminiscences, together with such comments as the historical importance seems to deserve.
He is an Ohio man by birth, and had now reached that time of life when he can count his years by the fourscore. His ancestors are of old American stock, planted in this country fully 150 years ago. The paternal ancestor came originally from Saxony, while the maternal was from England. His paternal grandfather DeWalt Bonebrake located at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, while his maternal grandfather Isaiah Adams lived in Massachusetts and New York, but most of them emigrated to Preble County, Ohio, about the year 1800. That country was then almost a wilderness, and the homes of the settlers were carved out of the heavy forest. There was no money, settlers had their meat from the forest, their clothes from the wool of their sheep, and their broad from the grain of their fielda, furs were legal tender.
His father was George Bonebrake, a preacher, circuit rider and presiding elder. He had three brothers, Frederick, Daniel and Henry, who were also preachers, and three-quarters of a century ago their names were household words in Western and Southwestern Ohio. Henry afterwards moved to New Albany, Indiana, and remained there until his children were almost grown, and then went to Attica, Iowa, where he died and was buried. Frederick and Daniel were buried at the old family graveyard near New Hope, Ohio, which had been their home from birth. Along in the early ’70s a theological seminary was erected in Dayton, Ohio, by the United Brethren Church and named the Bonebrake Theological Seminary in honor of these Bonebrake preachers. This school had educated hundreds of young men who have gone out as preachers of the Gospel and as missionaries to foreign lands.
George Bonebrake was married about 1826 to Eliza Adams. They had three ebildren: Jane; Johiel H., who became a doctor and hence was called “Doe”; and Parkiron I. During the early childhood of P. I. Bonebrake the father’s farm was located on the old National Road, which had been begun in the early part of the nineteenth century, starting from Cumberland in the Valley of the Alleghenies, coming west through the mountains, striking the Ohio River at Wheeling, and thence crossing the State of Ohio and terminating, so far as construction work was ever completed, at Indianapolis, Indiana. This National Road was the principal artery of traffic for an entire generation, and corresponded in importance in that time to the great Santa Fe Railroad of a later date. All traffic went by wagons, drawn by four and six horses.
“My earliest recollections of events,” says Mr. Bonebrake, “was a great whig meeting at Germantown, Ohio, where my father was stutioned as pastor of the United Brethren church. This was in the fall of 1840, and the campaign between the whigs and democrats was the hottest contest in the history of the country. William Henry Harrison, later elected president was present and spoke from the veranda of the hotel. My father lifted me to his shoulders that I might see him. I was more interested in two tall poles erected at the street corner, a tall hickory pole with a rooster on top and an ash pole with a coon on top, the rooster representing the democrats and the coon the whigs. At that time I was about four years old. A little later I went to school. On the first day I went with my brother. I missed him and took my cap and ran home.”
He lived the life of the normal vigorous boy, learning to defend himself and others from personal assault and injustice and acquiring some of the had as well as the good. He relates that one morning when his mother called him he used an oath which he had picked up on the street and his mother promptly chose that time and place to teach him a lesson, and he says that never before nor since had he sworn an oath.
After the conclusion of his father’s pastorate at Germantown the family returned to the farm, a place of about sixty-two acres, divided between wood and pasture. It was modestly stocked with horses, cows. hogs, sheep and chickens, but hardly had the family become settled when the father was elected presiding elder. This threw the responsibility of the farm on the mother and the children, the daughter being at that time fourteen while P. I. Bonebrake was only eight. On nearby farms lived the three other Bonebrake brothers, and the Bonebrake church was not far off, built by Grandfather DeWalt Bonebrake in the early days. Then followed pleasant years when there was plenty to eat and plenty to wear, and much social commingling among the numerous relations. When George Bonebrake’s term as presiding elder was nearing a close he was offered promotion to the office of bishop. But already on account of his long and constant devotion to church duties his health was almost broken down and his wife would not consent to his election. Instead he took a supernumerary relation with the church, and he and Samuel R. Adams, his wife’s brother, opened a store at New Hope near the old farm. Later he sold his interests to his partner, who moved the store to another location.
Some years later the family moved to Abbington, Indiana, where the daughter Jane, married Joseph Manning. This town was a rough place, located on the turnpike from Southeast Indiana and Southwest Ohio to Cincinnati, had a number of saloons and was an undesirable place to live. Here came a great affliction, when the mother of the family died. This occurred during the cholers year of 1848, when people died by the hundreds. Mrs. George Bonebrake was a noble woman, a loving wife and mother, and her children have always praised her memory. Her death made a complete change in the family. P. I. Bonebrake was about fourteen years of age, and from that time until his marriage he had no home, living at hotels and boarding houses. The family soon afterwards moved to Attica, Iowa, where the boy’s actual life as a business man commenced. Let him relate that portion of his experience in his own words: “It was bere I had my Gettysburg and Waterloo. At that date Iowa had a boom. I was a minor but my brother and I opened two stores, one in Attica and one in Gosport. We also acted as land agents and made money rapidly. Doc and I succeeded the firms of Manning & Bonebrake and ran the two stores. We sold some farms on commission and altogether had made about eight thousand dollars. These times were our Gettysburg. After this came our Waterloo. We sold out our two stores, one of them to two brothers who proved incompetent and went bankrupt, owing the Bonebrake brothers a balance of five thousand five hundred dollars, which was totally lost. We then moved to Adel, Dallas County, Iowa, and opened a store. At this time the panie of 1856 came on the country. Every bank in the country failed. Values of almost every kind went to almost nothing. Corn eight cents per bushel, flour a dollar and a quarter per hundred, and everything in proportion. Here again I was out of business.”
From early boyhood Mr. Bonebrake had an ambition to become a lawyer. With that in view he entered Cornell College at Mount Vernon, Iowa, intending to take a short course and then study law. But the panie shut off his income and he never succeeded in carrying out his ambition. When he returned to Attica he was twenty-one years of age, and independent to do as he liked. He had followed politics with much interest for a number of years and had especially watched the course of events in Kansas. In the meantime he became engaged to the girl who afterwards became his wife, with the certainty that the wedding day might be some distance off. He says: “The more I read of Kansas and thought of Kansas the more I determined to cast my lot there. I laid my conclusion before my fiancee, and said you can go with me or wait until I make a home for you. She answered substantially in the language of Ruth to Naomi, ‘Where thou goest I will go and thy country shall be my country.’ This conclusion made necessary a change of plan. I could not afford to marry and take a bride into a new country without some definite arrangement for our mutual support. We concluded however to get married and await events. On the 18th day of December, 1857, Martha A. Lowe and myself were married.”
About that time Mrs. Bonebrake’s father got the Kansas fever, sold his farms, and in the spring of 1859 the little party started to Kansas in the latter days of May. They had three wagons and a buggy and a good tent, but most of the journey was made in the rain and mud. They arrived at what is now North Topeka on the 8th day of June, 1859. Of the interesting period of history which follows Mr. Bonebrake must be allowed to speak in his own words:
“At that time the method of crossing the river was a rope ferry owned by Louis Pappan, a Frenchman, who bad married a Kaw squaw. When we arrived at the river we found that a little steamer had gone up the river and had cut the rope and a new rope had to be procured from Leavenworth. This took about three days, and by that time hundreds of wagons were waiting to cross. I had never seen an Indian before this time. I had a somewhat romantie idea of the noblo redmen. I found them ragged, dirty, living on what they could beg and the offals of the camp. We tried to secure a room in Topeka to occupy as a store. My father-in-law had taken a lot of dry goods in part payment for his farm. We failed to find a storeroom and moved on to Auburn, twelve miles southwest of Topeka, a growing village, where we opened a store.
“I immediately began to improve some land and make a farm. I lived in town until I had land in enltivation and a honse built and some stock. I bought and sold cattle and colte and did a good business. But I took six hundred sheep on the shares. I knew nothing about sheep husbandry and as a result lost money. The sheep were old. A sheep will lie down and die on the slightest provecation. I worked on the farm until 1866, about three years, and did fairly well.”
As is well known, Mr. P. I. Bonebrake for many years stood as one of the most prominent figures in Kansas politics. His entrance into the field of practical politics is an interesting chapter in itself. This too can be best described in his own words: “I took an active part in politics as soon as I was located in Kansas. One day when I was riding the mower a couple of gentlemen called on me and asked if I would become a candidate for county clerk of Shawnee County. It seems that a number of gentlemen had selected a ticket to be endorsed by the county committee. Chester Thomas was known all over the state as ‘Uncle Chet.’ It can be said of him that there was no shrewder politician in the state. His whole life was given to politics. It was the custom in Shawnee county to select candidates in advance of the meeting of the convention. At this time politics and parties were not governed by the Golden Rule. Of this particular incident a story is given in John Spear’s History of James H. Lane, as follows: A ticket had been selected, but on reviewing it Unele Chet was not pleased. He said, ‘Gentlemen, what we want is a Christian on that ticket to save it, or we are scooped. I know a Christian gentleman driving a mowing machine out on the south side of the county, with the crown out of his hat and his toes out of his boots, who would make a good candidate and a good officer. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump, and it’s an infernal hard lump at that.’ They got the ‘leaven’ and Mr. Bonebrake and the ticket went right through. That man had since become distinguished, honored and respected as a statesman.”
In this way Mr. Bonebrake entered Kansas politics, and was elected and served as county clerk of Shawnee ten years. He next became a candidate for the Legislature and was elected unanimously, and while in the Legislature he secured the appropriation for the first cottage for the Topeka Asylum. He and a fellow legislator also revised the tax laws, which were approved and adopted almost unanimously by the Legislature. At the close of his term a number of his fellow members asked him to become candidate for state anditor, to which he agreed, and he was nominated in the convention and elected and held the office six years, three terms, and it is his distinction that he was the first “third termer” for a state office in the history of Kansas. Having been in office continuously for twenty years, Mr. Bonebrake now determined to quit politics, but without solicitation on his part he was elected a member of the Republican State Central Committee, and later was elected chairman. This was a position involving arduous duties, but both campaigns were completely successful for the republican party. Mr. Bonebrake always took an interest in city affairs.
In the fifty odd years since he came to Kansas he had been a constantly busy man, and well may he be prond of his public record. There had never been a criticism from newspapers or other sources that touched his record for houesty or integrity as a public officer. He not only held office for many consecutive years but sometimes several offices at a time.
The modern generation should remember Mr. Bonebrake not only for his record in public affairs but also for his varied usefulness and service in behalf of those institutions and public utilities which have made Topeka a real capital city. He filled the office of president of the board of education for years, and organized the Central National Bank and was its president for thirty years. He helped promote almost all the public utilities, including the rolling mills, King Bridge Works, Brush Electric Light Works, sugar mills, street railroad, the woolen mills of North Topeka and the city waterworks. He was also president of the construction company that built the Santa Fe Bailroad from Kansas City to Fort Madison.
Mr. Bonebrake takes great pride and satisfaction in the fact that the board of police commissioners, of Topeka of which he was chairman, drove every saloon out of Topeka and from that date to this there had not been a place in Topeka where intoxicating liquors have been sold publicly.
The great bereavement of his life came with the death of his beloved wife on June 10, 1905. She was not only the mainstay of her immediate family, but extended her influence and activities in behalf of religion, benevolence and temperance throughout the City of Topeka. It is natural that Mr. Bonebrake should especially cherish some of the testimonials to her great worth penned by Bishop Vincent, Bishop Ninde and Bishop Quayle. She was the mother of two sons whose records reflect honor upon their parents.
Mr. Bonebrake joined the Methodist Episcopal Church in his twentieth year and had been a member to present, an officer or teacher in Sunday School for more than thirty years. He is a member of Orient Lodge No. 51, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, a member of Lincoln Post, Grand Army of the Republic, director of the Kansas Historical Society. Also a member of the second business club of the City of Topeka.
As Mr. Bonebrake says, were it not for the terrible war now raging in Europe, the years of his life might be called the “Golden Age.” His span of life covers a time in which more discoveries of importance to mankind have been made than in 1,000 years in the past. His life record helps us to realize how close we really are to the primitive days and our national youth.
Mr. Bonebrake elosed the interview by saying: “I owe a debt of gratitude to the citizens of Kansas; to the citizens of Shawnee County and to the citizens of Topeka. They gave me positions of houor and responsibility for more than twenty-five years. How well they have been rewarded is for them to determine. I have been given a long life. Nearly sixty years had been spent in Kansas. The most eventful years in the history of the country. Two great fundamental questions that have been agitated from the foundation of the Government have been settled. The slavery question and whether we are a Nation or a Confederacy, both were permanently settled at Appomatox after four years of bloody war.”