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Joseph W. Fifer
McLean County, Illinois

HON. JOSEPH W. FIFER, LL. D., stands preeminent, not alone among the distinguished men of McLean county, but of the state and nation as well. He is a man of the people, standing in close touch with them, and having that confidence in the common people that distinguished our first martyr president, Abraham Lincoln. Like the latter, he boasts of no distinguished birth, but "blood will tell," and if one has within him the making of a man, time will develop any talent that he may possess. The truth of this statement is clearly shown in the life of "Private Joe" Fifer, who has held the highest office within the gift of the people of the state of Illinois, an office which he filled with an ability second to none who were ever called upon to occupy the exalted position.

Joseph W. Fifer was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1844, and with his parents, who were natives of the same state, emigrated to McLean county in 1857, locating in Danvers township, where the elder Fifer engaged in farming in connection with his trade of brick laying. Trained to be loyal and true to his country, when the safety of the government was imperiled by those who would sever it in twain, with his brother George, he walked to Bloomington, a distance of fifteen miles, and enlisted as a member of Company , Thirty-third Illinois Volunteer Infantry. George, being the older, was commissioned first lieutenant, while Joseph entered the ranks and was "only a private." As such he served three full years, his career being indeed an honorable one.

The Thirty-third regiment experienced hard service, making a record equal to any in the service. Just after the siege and fall of Vicksburg, in which the regiment took a prominent and honorable part, the Thirteenth Army Corps, to which it belonged, turned fiercely upon General Johnston, who had during the siege been threatening Grant's rear. On July 13, 1863, at Jackson, Mississippi, Sherman's force assaulted the entrenchment of Johnston, at which time Mr. Fifer, the youthful private, fell in front of a rebel abattoirs, pierced through the body by a minie ball. His comrades, who saw him fall, thought he was surely killed. The weather was torrid in the extreme, and the surgeon. Rev. Dr. Rex, told Lieutenant Fifer that unless ice could be procured his brother Joseph must die. It was fifty miles to Vicksburg, the nearest place where ice could be had, and the country was hostile, wild and war torn. Johnston B. Lott, a comrade, who touched elbows with Joseph in the ranks, bravely volunteered to go with an ambulance for ice. His mission succeeded, ice was procured, and Joseph's life was saved.

As soon as the nature of the wound would admit, he set off, mangled and almost dying to seek health once more under his father's lowly roof, up in "God's country." His recovery from his terrible wound was, perhaps, more complete than was ever known from one of like severity. For this result he has largely to thank his rugged constitution, his temperate habits, and his early inurement to labor and hardships. Bad as he was wounded, he did not ask or receive discharge from service because of disability. His brother George was killed in the engagement before Fort Esperanza, Texas, a short time before the close of hostilities.

On receiving his discharge, Mr. Fifer returned to his old home, but it was not to there long remain. He determined, in some way, to secure an education. While he believed that all labor was honorable, he yet had an ambition to make for himself a name, to be something more than a common day laborer. His means were limited, but his object must be attained, and so he entered the Illinois Wesleyan University from which he graduated in June, 1868.

After being admitted to the bar, it was not long before the ability of Mr. Fifer was recognized by his fellow-citizens, and in the spring of 1871 he was elected corporation counsel for the city of Bloomington. The city then had more important legislation than usual, the new state constitution having made important changes in the law of special assessments. Inexperienced as he was, Mr. Fifer grappled manfully and successfully with these new questions. In 1872, he was by almost unanimous consent of the Republicans of the county, chosen their candidate for state's attorney to which office he was elected, and by re-election served eight years.

In 1880, Mr. Fifer was elected to the state senate, and it is only necessary to say that he took a position in that body of equal prominence with that which he held at the bar. He acquired a state acquaintance, and made friends of all he met. A reputation for learning and ability had preceded him, and he was awarded places upon some of the most important committees of the senate, among them the judiciary committee and the committee on judicial department. His experience in the enforcement of the original law had suggested some important changes in the criminal practice, which he took an early opportunity to have incorporated in the statutes of the state. Two of the most important of these were the law in reference to continuances and the law regulating changes of venue in criminal cases. At the expiration of his term in the senate he declined reelection.

The career of Mr. Fifer in the senate brought him into prominence before the people of the state, and in 1880 he received the nomination of the state Republican convention for governor of the state. The canvass he made was a brilliant one, and everywhere "Private Joe" was cordially received, and his election was secured by a large majority. For four years his administration of the affairs of state was able and dignified. From the inception of the Columbian idea, Governor Fifer was an enthusiastic supporter of the exposition; his influence was given unreservedly to the passage of the various enabling acts by which the general assembly legalized the transfer of the parks and the issue of Chicago bonds to the corporation of the fair, and his signature was given promptly to the final measure by which the state of Illinois made munificent appropriation for her buildings and exhibit.

In 1892 he was nominated for re-election, but was defeated by John P. Altgeld, going down in the great political landslide of that year, his defeat, however, being principally caused by his advanced views in favor of compulsory education. In 1896 he was a prominent candidate before the national Republican convention for the vice-presidency, having support from many of the states of the union.

On the 15th of June, 1870, Mr. Fifer was united in marriage with Miss Gertrude Lewis, and by this union there are two children. Herman W. is a graduate of Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in the class of 1898, and is now in the law department of Wesleyan University. Florence is now the wife of J. H. Bohrer, one of the directors of the Corn Belt Bank of Bloomington.

From 1891 to 1893 Mr. Fifer was one of the trustees of Wesleyan University, from which institution he received the degree of LL. D., in 1892. He has always taken special interest in educational affairs, his struggles for an education making him the more desirous of giving a better opportunity to others, that they may not experience such hardships. While in general terms it is true that "a prophet is never without honor, save in his own country," yet this can hardly be said of Mr. Fifer. Those who know him the best, and have known him the longest, esteem him the highest. He is in the prime of life, of vigorous frame, capable of great endurance, and full of activity. Success has crowned his efforts in life, and he has acquired a competence adequate to the wants of his generous but moderate nature.

[The Biographical record of McLean County, Illinois - S.J. Clarke Publishing Company - (1899)]


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