Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rheuna Drake Lawrence (1837-1901)

From the Encyclopedia of Biography of Illinois, Volume III.

   After profiling two local Chautauqua County politicians with odd names, today's biography takes us to the city of Springfield, Illinois. The individual shown above, Rheuna Drake Lawrence, was a prominent public official in Springfield for many decades and he served as that city's mayor from 1891-1892. Details on Mr. Lawrence's life are somewhat lacking online, but two sources giving a good overview of his public career were discovered via Google books. The first of these was an annual Springfield Public School Report (Volume 43) which furnished the portrait of Lawrence shown above. The second is a 1996 work entitled Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House, authored by Donald Hoffman. This particular book has a chapter or two devoted to Rheuna Lawrence's migration to Springfield and his later public career.
   Rheuna Drake Lawrence was originally born near Cedarville, Ohio on January 18, 1837, the son of Lewis W. and Sarah Minerva Lawrence. Rheuna left his Ohio home at an early age and found employment as a bricklayer in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. He eventually relocated to Chicago and then to Springfield, where he settled in 1856. Once he had taken up residence, Lawrence became a building contractor and during the next few years aided in the design and construction of the Springfield Universalist Church, as well as additions to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum. 
  In January 1859 Rheuna Lawrence married Mary Agnes Maxcy and two daughters were eventually born to the couple: Agnes Salome Lawrence (died aged 1 in 1862) and Susana Lawrence (1862-1946). Susana Lawrence later gained notoriety as an heiress and as well as her connections to noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
  During the late 1860s Lawrence began dabbling in the business of railroad contracting, and later began a lasting interest in the burgeoning coal mining industry. In 1872 he and a few partners established a coal mining town in Barclay, Illinois and Lawrence became manager of said company for several years. In 1876 he was named by then Illinois Governor John Lourie Beveridge as a member of the commission that would eventually locate and design the Illinois State Penitentiary. He served on this commission until August of 1878 when he resigned, and within a few short years was appointed to the office of Springfield Superintendent of Public Works.

    This portrait of Rheuna D. Lawrence appeared in the 1996 book Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House.
   Throughout the 1880s, Lawrence's public profile in Illinois continued to rise and in 1881 he was named as President of the Springfield Board of Trade. Ten years later the citizens of Springfield elected Lawrence as its Mayor for a one year term. During his mayoralty, it is mentioned that "his administration accomplished many reforms and much was done in the way of municipal improvements." Shortly after the conclusion of his term in 1892, he was appointed as a member of the Springfield Public School Board. He served on this board for almost nine years (including six as its president) and was later named as the head of the Springfield Board of Public Charities.
   After a "long and painful illness", Rheuna Drake Lawrence died at age 63 on February 17, 1901, and was later memorialized in the earlier mentioned 43rd Annual Report of the Springfield Public Schools as a man who "in every public capacity he has served has commanded universal respect". Lawrence was interred at the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, and it can certainly be said that he is buried among good company! This massive cemetery is the final resting place of numerous Illinois public figures, including oddly named Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards (1775-1833), Illinois Governor and Senator Shelby Moore Cullom (1829-1914) and last but not least, Abraham Lincoln and his wife and children!

From the Indianapolis Journal, February 18, 1901.

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