Biography of James A. Burge

James A. Burge. The oldest citizen of Fredonia, in point of residence, James A. Burge had watched and participated in the progress and development of this thriving city for forty-seven years, during forty-three of which he was identified with enterprises that contributed materially to the city’s prestige. From 1879 until his retirement, in 1912, he was connected with the Western Union Telegraph Company, first as messenger and later as manager, and the many friendships which he made while acting in these capacities have remained with him during the passing of the years.

Mr. Burge was born in Lake County, Illinois, January 17, 1847, and is a son of James and Sarah (Chittenden) Burge. James Burge was born in Somersetshire, England, in 1812, and accompanied his six brothers and his parents to America when a lad, the family first settling in Ontario, Canada. When still a young man James Burge removed to Lake County, Illinois, where he was married, and settled on a farm forty miles northwest of Chicago, at a time when the present Illinois metropolis had only one log hotel. Mr. Burge was a farmer all his life and was successful in his operations, accumulating two properties aggregating 300 acres. He was first a whig and later a republican, and while he was a man of some consequence in his community did not seek office. His death occurred in 1896. Mr. Burge married Sarah Chittenden, who was a member of an old New England family, and a daughter of Myron Chittenden, of Vermont, a soldier of the War of 1812, who secured a grant of land in Lake County, Illinois, from the United States Government and retained it until his death. Mr. and Mrs. Burge were the parents of two children: James A.; and Leonard, who was born in 1849, and died as a retired farmer at Waukegan, Illinois, in 1915.

James A. Burge was educated in the public schools of Lake County, Illinois, and at the age of seventeen years enlisted in the One Hundred Thirty-fourth Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry, with which he served as a musician until the close of the Civil war. After the close of that struggle he taught school for a time in Illinois, but in 1867 came to Kansas and located at Oskaloosa, Jefferson County, where he also followed teaching for several terms and then took up the study of law. Mr. Burge was admitted to practice by Judge John T. Morton, of Topeka, in June, 1869, and soon set out on horseback for Southern Kansas. At Humboldt, Judge J. R. Goodin and J. B. F. Cates suggested Fredonia as a promising young town, and to this community he accordingly came. In March of the following year Mr. Burge bought the lot at the corner of Madison and Eighth streets, on which his present residence now stands, and built a small house thereon entirely with his own hands. He had gained some skill in carpentry while constructing board fences in Northern Illinois. The windows and doors and some pine lumber were hauled by wagon from Fort Scott, Mr. Burge himself going after the material with a horse team. He had since owned and steadily lived upon this lot, a period of forty-seven years, which is a point no other citizen of Fredonia can claim. In the early spring of 1870 W. A. Peffer settled at Fredonia and the law partnership of Peffer & Burge was formed, the office of the firm being in the building of the last named on the north side of the square. Not long afterward, W. C. Don Carlos was admitted to the firm, which was dissolved when Mr. Peffer started the Fredonia Journal in January, 1871. In 1873-4 Mr. Burge served as deputy county attorney under J. W. Sutherland, of Neodesha, and for several years thereafter was associated in law practice with the late S. S. Kirkpatrick. Finally, he abandoned the law and gave his attention to other pursuits, eventually establishing a livery business on the north side of the square.

It was during the time that he was engaged in the livery business that Mr. Burge became first connected with the Western Union Telegraph Company. In November, 1879, the Frisco Railroad was built to Fredonia and he established an omnibus line, the first in Wilson County, and made connection with all trains. Thus it was that he began delivering messages uptown and carrying them from the city to the Frisco depot, a service that was voluntary and gratis upon his part and of inestimable value to the public. In 1886, when both the Santa Fe and Missouri Pacific railroads were constructed to Fredonia, the telegraph company’s business so increased that it was found necessary to establish a fully equipped office in the heart of the city. The man who had so generously served the people was naturally deemed the one to take charge Railroad officials and business men presented Mr. Burge with a handsome gold watch, and at the same time signed a petition to the Western Union Telegraph Company asking for his appointment as manager of the uptown office. He was promptly selected. Mr. Burge at that time did not know telegraphy, but with characteristic enterprise and energy set about remedying this defect, and by giving to its study an hour of his time every day managed to master its principles. At first he was assisted in his work by another operator, but after several months was fully qualified to handle the business by himself.

During the entire thirty-three years that he was connected with the telegraph office, Mr. Burge never asked for a lay-off or was away from the office, except for a few days on two different occasions, once when he was called to Illinois to attend the funeral of his mother, and again when his father died. The telegraph company figures on a certain percentage of loss on its messages because of damages arising from nondelivery, but during Mr. Burge’s long term of service not one cent of loss was reported from the Fredonia office. As an instructor, it is said that Mr. Burge taught more young men the art of telegraphy who have been successful in their work than any other man in Kansas. In 1912, at his own request, Mr. Burge was retired by the telegraph company, feeling that consideration for himself made this step in order. He still continues his labors, however, as special telegraph correspondent for the Topeka Capital, the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Times, and for many years was also the representative at Fredonia of the Saint Louis Globe-Democrat. He became connected in this capacity with the last-named paper, in 1877, and for two years thereafter had to send his communications to Thayer and Chanute by mail, the nearest telegraph offices being located at those points. Mr. Burge had also been well known as a musician, having joined the first brass band organized in Fredonia in 1872 and later becoming the leader of several band organizations.

Mr. Burge early became a member of a number of fraternities, which assisted in boosting the new community, and still holds membership in all the Masonic bodies here, his name appearing on the charters of the Knights Templar, Kilwining Chapter and Eastern Star. In the boom of 1885-6 he had erected a double-room, two-story brick building on the north side of the square on the ground he had owned since 1870. The reaction which followed, so well remembered by many, meant a clear loss to Mr. Burge of $5,000. He deeded away the property without receiving a cent, but kept his credit good. For this great loss, which included about everything he possessed, he did not disavow responsibility, censure the government, blame the laws nor join any calamity clique. He faithfully continued his membership with the political party of his lifetime, and had never deviated in his adherence. He had been a resident republican of Wilson County longer than any other voter, always stanch, unselfish and dependable, and through all the years had never sought personal preferment nor been a candidate for any elective or appointive office.

At the time of Mr. Burge’s retirement, a Fredonia paper spoke, in part, as follows: “Finally, while the retiring of J. A. Burge does not mark an epoch in the town’s history, it is an incident which tends to the eventful. Besides being an active factor since 1869 in the town’s daily life, he had done full work from that day–when there were not more than forty or fifty frame buildings on the townsite–in promoting its advancement. He had served on committees to save the county seat, to build churches and the courthouse, to secure railroads, factories and business institutions, and according to his means had contributed liberally in behalf of all enterprises. His confidence and hope in ultimate success were constant, and his hearty support had been given to every public movement making for development and progress. As a citizen in business and as a neighbor, no man had more cheerfully rendered kindnesses and favors to others, and his friendly deeds have been voluntary.”

Mr. Burge was married first to Miss Phoebe Ann Wood, and his second wife was Miss Quimby, who died in 1901. His present wife, to whom he was married in 1906, was formerly Miss H. C. Catron. Mr. Burge had no children.


Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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