William H. Pells, who was so well known to the early settlers of this community for his enterprise, integrity and sterling worth, may well be called not only one of the fathers of Paxton, but also of Ford county. He was a native of Poughkeepsie, New York, born June 12, 1813. His educational advantages were limited to a few years' attendance at the schools of his native city, but by reading and contact with the business world he became a well informed man and a shrewd financier. When only thirteen years of age he was compelled by force of circumstances to begin life's struggle on his own account. His father, who was financially well-to-do, by endorsing for others became involved in financial ruin.
The independence and self-reliance of young William asserted themselves in a marked degree. Going to New York city, he spent six months driving a milk wagon, after which he secured a position as clerk in a grocery store, continuing until 1830. That year witnessed his emigration to Palmyra, New York, where he arrived penniless. Though not an experienced woodman, he replenished his exchequer by chopping wood and clearing land. Though a mere boy, he was possessed of indomitable energy and if he could not get employment to which he was accustomed, he accustomed himself to such employment as he could get. The same business he followed at Ridgeway. There on the 19th of November, 1831, he entered the store of H. Francis as clerk. His carefully husbanded earnings were judiciously invested in good lands in that vicinity, which were then selling from $3.00 to $5.00 per acre, and thus was laid a safe foundation for financial growth. Domestic by nature, Mr. Pells early in life sought to surround himself with the hallowed influence of wife and home. The lady of his choice was Miss Maria B. Whitaker, a native of Norfolk, England, to whom he was married in 1836.
After clerking ten years Mr. Pells became a full partner in the store with his employer and in 1846 became sole proprietor, continuing until 1851 with marked success. Admitting his brother to partnership, the business was carried on by the two until 1856, when Mr. Pells disposed of his entire interest. The same year he purchased from the Medina & Alabama Plank Road Company that part of the road extending from Medina to Ridgeway. In the hands of the Company it had been a losing investment, but Mr. Pells with characteristic thoroughness, rebuilt it with elegant gravel, making it one of the best roads in the state, paying a liberal yearly dividend on the large amount of money expended in its construction. He continued to operate the road until the charter expired in 1881.
In 1856, Mr. Pells came to what is now Ford County, Illinois, though then it was part of Vermilion County. He, R. R. Murdock and Leander Britt purchased the site and laid out Prospect City, as Paxton was then called. With commendable pride he watched the growth of the infant town and to the last heartily assisted in everything that would advance its growth. In 1859 he took a prominent part in the organization of Ford county and in making Paxton the seat of justice. Schools, churches and charities of all kinds found in him a liberal supporter. Every interest promising to be beneficial to the town or county claimed his attention.
In 1866 he began the erection of Pells' Block, completing it in 1867, a three-story brick block with 50 feet frontage on Market street, where the Lee & Grayson and Samuelson brick business buildings now stand.
The two first floor rooms were occupied by the J. S. Loose dry-goods store and the bank of Toy & Thompson, until they built the bank building now owned by Paxton bank. The second floor was occupied by offices and for years the Paxton Record had its home on the third floor. This was the first iron front building erected in Ford county. This block was destroyed by fire in October, 1874, that began in the next building south of this, and burned eleven business houses before it could be checked.
He was one of the promoters and organizers of the Lafayette, Bloomington & Mississippi Railroad Company and for several years was its vice president. But for his earnest efforts and those of a few others along the line of the road, it probably never would have been built. It has since become a part of the Lake Erie & Western system.
In 1876 he visited Petoskey, Michigan, and being favorably impressed with the climate and soil, purchased a large tract of land containing twelve thousand acres in Emmet county, which was then almost an unbroken forest, inhabited by one hundred whites and eleven hundred Indians. In 1882 the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad ran through Mr. Pells' tract of land, near the center of which sprang up a town, named by the railroad company in honor of him, Pellston.
In political sentiment Mr. Pells was an old-line democrat, a great admirer of Stephen A. Douglas and like Douglas, a war democrat, contributing always most liberally for the good of the soldiers and their families. Though not an aspirant for places of public trust, he held a number of official positions. In religious belief he was a Universalist.
Mr. and Mrs. Pells had a family of three children, though only one now living; Hannah W., wife of Colonel Charles Bogardus, of Paxton. His son, Edgar Z. Pells, died at Rochester, New York, in 1899.
After a brief married life of only nine years, Mr. Pells was deprived by death of his companion. Notwithstanding he survived her over forty years, she was his only wedded companion. On the 26th of June, 1886, Mr. Pells joined his wife and child in the spirit world, while his body was laid to rest beside that of his wife at Ridgeway, New York. He was a man possessed of such traits of character as are worthy to be imitated and should never be forgotten; shrewd and far-sighted in business affairs, scrupulously honest, free-hearted, charitable, with a kind word and tender thought for all. His charities were always unostentatious and quietly given and kept from the public when possible.

Extracted 19 Oct 2016 by Norma Hass from History of Ford County, Illinois, From Its Earliest Settlement to 1908, author E. A. Gardner, Volume 1, pages 318-322.

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