L. J. Bonar: The Sage of Mansfield

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 J Bonar

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.

Julia Jackson Bonar (from the Mansfield News Journal, 27 January 1899)

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.[1]  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.

Lewis J. Bonar’s home at 166 Park Ave West (from the Mansfield News Journal, 12 May 1960)

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.[2]


  1. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/645.html
  2. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio).  08 July 1960, p. 1.
  3. Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio). 17 July 1930, p. 1.
  4. Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio). 17 July 1930, p. 2.
  5. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 31 August 1959, p 11.
  6. Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio). 27 January 1899, p. 5.
  7. Bonar, Lewis J. A Sketch and Some Sketches (Hale Sturges Printing Co., Mansfield, Ohio).


A Mansfield Soldiers Meeting with President Lincoln

In 1893 a book, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville Prison to the White House, was published by Ralph O. Bates, which detailed his experience in the infamous Andersonville Prison during the Civil War.  The book detailed the capture, transport, and eventual escape of Ralph, or Billy, as he was called in the book, and fellow prisoner Richard King and their eventual arrival at Washington D.C. to meet President Lincoln.  The book closes with Billy’s return to Mansfield and his reunion with his parents.  It is a fascinating tale of bravery and struggle, and Bates traveled the country telling the story.  But did it really happen?

It is hard to say for sure where Ralph Orr “Billy” Bates was born.  In the book, he states he is from Mansfield, Richland County, Ohio, and was born on June 29, 1847.  This information is also copied on FindAGrave.com.[1]  An article in the Mansfield News on January 27, 1922 also hints at a Mansfield connection.  Bates’ widow, Rozella, placed an ad in the newspaper looking for anyone who may have known Billy to help her secure a Civil War pension.  In the ad, she states “he was born in or near Mansfield.”[2]  What we do know is his parents, Calvin C. Bates and Kezia Fink, were married in Knox County on October 6, 1846.[3]  The 1850 U. S. Census shows the couple with a son, Ralph, living in Franklin Township, Morrow County, Ohio.[4]  Morrow County was organized March 1, 1848 from parts of Crawford, Delaware, Knox, and Richland counties.  Franklin Township would have been part of Knox County before 1848.[5]  While only circumstantial evidence suggests the Bates family lived in Mansfield at any time, they were in the area and probably would have conducted business in and around Mansfield.

Calvin Bates and Kisiah/Kezia Fink marriage record from Knox County, Ohio

According to the book, Bates enlisted in Troop H of the Ninth Ohio Calvary on June 7, 1862 and was mustered in on June 29th.  There are a couple of problems with this statement.  There is no record of a Ralph Bates being connected to the Ninth Ohio Calvary.  In addition to this, the regiment was not organized until December of 1862.  It is believed that Bates served during the Civil War.  There is a record of him entering the service on January 10, 1864 and serving in Company A of the 129th Indiana Infantry.[6]  However, this also contradicts his timeline of events in the book.  According to Bates, he didn’t make his escape from Andersonville until March 2, 1864 and arrived in Washington D.C. on April 28, 1864 to meet President Lincoln.  He does note in the book that he reenlisted and served in the 129th.  Though, he notes, he doesn’t join his regiment until the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain which took place on June 27, 1864.

One of the more exciting moments in the book is when Bates writes about his experience in Andersonville Prison and his interaction with Confederate Captian Henry Wirz.  After the war, Wirz would be charged with war crimes, found guilty, and hanged on November 10, 1865.  According to Bates, a Southern woman was allowed to enter the prison and hand out “tracts” to the prisoners.  The woman took offense to something in one of the prayers of fellow prisoner Rev. Hathaway and spat in his face.  Bates escorted the woman to the gates and told the guard about the disturbance.  The woman then spat in Bates’s face, causing him to push her to the ground.  The woman reported the incident to Wirz and he had the men involved placed in a chain gang.  Bates admitted to pushing the woman and Wirz gave him a particularly brutal punishment.  He ordered Bates’s thumbs to be tied together by a cord and to be suspended from a beam, causing the flesh to be cut to the bone.  When another prisoner tried to give him water, Wirz fired 5 shots into the man, killing him.  Bates spoke up saying: “For God’s sake, if you shoot anyone, shoot me, and end this torture.”  Wirz proceeded to empty his revolver with two shots hitting Bates in the left leg, one fracturing the bone between the knee and ankle.  Bates was cut down and, a few days later, Wirz came back and said to him: “Well you little yank, I thought I had killed you.”  Bates responded saying he would not die until he saw Wirz hung.  This enraged Wirz and he shot Bates a third time, this time the ball struck the left side just above the heart.

Bates survived his ordeal and months later, on March 2, 1864, along with Richard “Dick” King, dug a 49-foot tunnel to the outside of the prison walls.  “Billy and Dick” encountered many people on their journey to freedom, including an old African-American couple who hid them from Confederate soldiers.  One of the most surprising encounters was their meeting with General W. T. Sherman.  It was Sherman who, after meeting the men, arranged for them to be sent to Washington D. C.  In Sherman’s memoirs, published in 1889, he wrote briefly about meeting men who had escaped from Andersonville.  He gives no details of the men but does describe the conditions of the prison.[7]  These mirror closely the descriptions given by Bates in his book.

After they met with Lincoln, Bates and King headed home.  King was dropped off at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Bates continued on to Mansfield, Ohio.  Upon arriving at night, he was quickly taken to the “Wilder House,” most likely the Wiler House, where he was met by the Crosby’s who immediately recognized him as “Cal’s boy.”  He was quickly reunited with his parents and returned home to recover.

Almost immediately, people tried to verify the facts and Bates was called a fraud by many.  The G. A. R. investigated Bates after the release of the book and said he had been kicked out of the organization four years earlier “under not very favorable circumstances,” referring to him as a fraud and “dead beat.”[8]  Bates continued to lecture where he could until his death on December 27, 1909.  Afterward, his widow, Rozella, continued to lecture and republished the book in 1910.  The new edition contained testimonials by people who allegedly knew Bates, verifying his story.  Debate on the authenticity of the book continued for years.  The book in its entirety can be read online through the Internet Archive here.


  1. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/144902324/ralph-orr-bates
  2. The Mansfield News, 27 Jan 1922, p. 17.
  3. Ancestry.com. Ohio, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1774-1993 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
  4. U. S. Census, Year: 1850; Census Place: Franklin, Morrow, Ohio; Roll: 716; Page: 477a
  5. Sinko, Tuck. Ohio, Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. P. 130 & 170.
  6. Historical Data Systems, comp. U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009.
  7. Sherman, William T. Memoirs, Vol. 2 (1889). p.  143.
  8. Roster and Proceedings of the … Annual Encampment of the Department of Ohio, Grand Army of the Republic (1898). p. 198.

Postcards: Lexington, Ohio

In the spring of 1812 the first cabin was constructed in what is now Lexington, Ohio.  Amariah Watson brought his wife and four children from Knox County and soon after his arrival he constructed a sawmill and a gristmill.  Watson got along well with the local tribes in the area and made friends by grinding their grain in his gristmill.  Around 1815 Jacob Cook built the first tavern and in 1825 William Damsell built the first grocery store.  It wasn’t until 1839 that Lexington was officially recognized as a village by the U.S. Government.  In 1870 the population of Lexington was 482 persons, according to the U.S. Federal Census, that number had grown to 4,822 in 2010.

For more information on Lexington, Ohio check out these books:

Tales of the old-timers : the history of Lexington / by Robert A. Carter

Looking back at Lexington : a history of the Village of Lexington, Ohio 1813-2002 / / compiled and edited by students and teachers at Lexington Junior High School

Looking back at Lexington, part 2. Voices of Lexington : a history of the Village of Lexington, Ohio 1813-2003 / / compiled and edited by students and teachers at Lexington Junior High School

Looking back at Lexington, part 3 Glimpses of Lexington : a history of the Village of Lexington, Ohio 1813-2005 / / compiled and edited by students and teachers at Lexington Junior High School

Enjoy these postcard images of Lexington, Ohio, click on image for more detail.