Lewis John Bonar was born in a log cabin near the small community of Lucerne, Knox County, Ohio on March 23, 1836. His father, James Bonar, had a small farm and Lewis spent his boyhood turning the soil and chopping wood. He would define his boyhood as a life of “denial, toil, hard work, and drudgery,” and would often fantasize about running away to the sunny south, but “an opportunity never presented itself.” His father, James, and mother, Jane Lewis, had purchased the parcel of land from Jane’s father, John Lewis. Lewis’ Grandmother, Hannah Congar Lewis, would often tell stories of the “thrilling and exciting tales” told of their experiences with the Native Americans, who lived within 200 yards of their cabin. James and Jane had 4 children while living on the farm: Lewis John was the oldest, next was Matthew Leander, born March 5, 1839, then Katherine, born March 31, 1843, and finally, Milton Ludlow, born January 12, 1852. Shortly after Milton’s birth, the family sold the farm near Lucern and bought a farm two miles east of Johnsville, Ohio in Morrow County. Lewis’ father, James, died on March 13, 1854. He and his mother stayed on the farm for two more years, but farm life never appealed to Lewis and the family eventually made their way to Bellville, Richland County, Ohio.
Lewis had a rudimentary education in his childhood, focused on the “three R’s,” as he called it. He attended school in the winter months when he was not needed on the farm, but this instilled in him a desire for further education. When he was 19, Lewis walked 12 miles from his family home to Mansfield to purchase books from Dimon Sturges’ book store. He purchased Charles Rollin’s “Ancient History” and Addison’s “Spectator.” These books were some of his prized possessions at the time and stayed in his library until his death. The following year, around 1856, Lewis accepted a position at the Strong and Waring general store in Bellville. He stayed there until the start of the Civil War when he volunteered for three months of service under Capt. Miller Moody. Because of his small stature, 5’10” and 128 pounds, Lewis was deemed unfit for service and was rejected, but he did conduct some clerical work at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio.
When he returned home, Lewis, or L.J. as he became known, married Julia A. Jackson on December 11, 1861. Julia was the daughter of Judge Benjamin Jackson of Bellville. The couple would soon move to Mansfield buying a home on the west side of South Main St. for $1800.00. L.J. would work for seven years as a salesman for Blymyer Bros. before entering the insurance business. It was in insurance where L.J. really made a name for himself. He worked for various companies up until 1871 when the Chicago Fire upended the insurance world. Fifty-eight companies filed for bankruptcy and thousands of policyholders were never paid. In 1872 a friend, John P. Vance, asked him to be a special agent with the Insurance Company of North America for Ohio. L.J. reluctantly accepted, beginning work on Valentine’s Day in 1872. He would remain associated with the company for nearly sixty years.
Despite his long career in insurance, L.J. Bonar is probably best know for his work in Mansfield civic organizations. Around 1880, L.J. was one of the original organizers of the Mansfield Humane Society. At first he would refuse any official position in the organization, but he would eventually serve 38 years as president of the society, retiring in 1927. Another organization in which L.J. found immense pride was the Abraham Lincoln Society. In 1908 he approached Huntington Brown and and suggested they create a suitable observance of the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. This call resulted in the creation of the Abraham Lincoln Society. L.J. would be secretary of the society for the first four years, before taking over as president, a position he held until 1925.
On January 26, 1899, Julia Bonar, Lewis’ wife, died at the home of their Park Ave West neighbor, Capt. J. P. Rummel, while visiting. The couple had three children, two dying in infancy and one son, James G. Bonar, who followed his father into the insurance business. On December 21, 1901, L.J. would marry Miss Harriett Webb in Erie, Pennsylvania. The two would return to Lewis’ home at 166 Park Ave West in Mansfield. On July 16, 1930, Lewis John Bonar died at his home on Park Ave West. He was one of Mansfield’s oldest citizens at 94 years old. His wife, Harriett, would continue to live in the home until her death in 1959, a few month shy of her 100th birthday. In 1960 the home was purchased and demolished to make room for a two-story commercial building.
- Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 08 July 1960, p. 1.
- Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio). 17 July 1930, p. 1.
- Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio). 17 July 1930, p. 2.
- Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 31 August 1959, p 11.
- Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio). 27 January 1899, p. 5.
- Bonar, Lewis J. A Sketch and Some Sketches (Hale Sturges Printing Co., Mansfield, Ohio).