Begalka: Cary bust, new digital archive brings Ayer of prominence

Harvard’s founder, railroad magnate Elbridge Ayer, gets all the publicity. But when it comes to sheer magnetism, it is hard to surpass his son, Edward.

Edward Everett Ayer accumulated a vast fortune supplying the burgeoning railroad industry with ties during the turn of the century. Ayer bought timber for use by the Chicago and North Western Railway, and later furnished ties and telegraph poles to most of the western lines, including the Union Pacific, Santa Fe and Mexican Central railroads.

In about 1880, he moved from Harvard to Chicago and partnered with John B. Lord to form the Ayer and Lord Tie Co. Ayer later manufactured wood flooring, as well. But his principal preoccupation wasn’t so much selling as it was collecting.

The Newberry Library in Chicago recently announced that it was making available to the public for free more than 200,000 high-resolution, digital images of maps, manuscripts, books, pamphlets, photographs and artwork documenting early contact between white settlers and Native Americans, westward expansion and Europeans’ evolving conception of North America. They are part of the Newberry’s Edward E. Ayer and Everett D. Graff collections.

In 1911, Ayer (1841-1927) donated more than 17,000 pieces on the early contacts between American Indians and Europeans. Ayer, a member of the Newberry’s first board, was the first donor of a great collection to the library.

Since then, the Ayer endowment fund has enabled the Newberry to collect in excess of 130,000 volumes, more than 1 million manuscript pages, 2,000 maps, 500 atlases, 11,000 photographs and 3,500 drawings and paintings on the subject.

Ayer also was the principal benefactor of the Field Museum Library in Chicago and served as the museum’s first curator and first president. In writing about the first book he bought, Ayer said, “I was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the 16th of November, 1841. My schooling was in the cobblestone schoolhouse of Bigfoot Prairie and a little later in the first school at Harvard, Illinois. At this time books were very scarce, of course, and I virtually never saw any but the Bible and Josephus’ works.”

After his service with the 1st California Cavalry volunteers, Ayer was discharged in 1864 and started for home.

“I arrived July 1 at Harvard, Illinois, my home, and my father presented me a third interest in a country store of which he owned two-thirds in Harvard. About August 1 I went into Chicago to purchase goods and, while walking along Lake Street opposite the Tremont House, looked across the street and saw a sign: Cobb and Pritchard Book Store. I rushed across the street, entered, and inquired if they had Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico; and they handed down this book and its two companion volumes and two of The Conquest of Peru.

“I asked the price, and to my astonishment was told $17.50. I said, ‘What!’ and remarked I didn’t suppose such books were worth more than 50 cents a volume. I was being served by one of the proprietors, and I finally said, “My name is Edward Ayer, I live at Harvard, I have been on the plains and in the war four years. I returned a month since. My father has given me an interest in a store. I have $3.50 that I can spare now. If you will let me have volume one I will give you the $3.50 I have and every month when I come in will take and pay for another volume.”

“He said (bless him): ‘Young man, you give me the $3.50 you have and take the whole set home with you now.’ My return home was a triumphal procession. I was certainly the happiest boy in the world and, of course, only touched the earth in high places.”

Ayer paid him off – and the public, as well – handsomely.

The Edward E. Ayer Collection, one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of American Indian history.

And now you can view it by visiting There are more than 1.7 million Newberry digital images freely accessible online.

• • •

William Dennison Cary finally will have a place to call home.

The Cary-Grove Historical Society has partnered with the Cary Park District to fund a bronze bust of Cary, founder of his namesake community, to be unveiled Sunday in Jaycee Park. Historical society president Pam Losey, who spearheaded the project, said $5,000 of the $7,500 is coming from a descendant of the village founder. Shirley M. Mentch, who died in 2013, was married to Elburn F. Mentch – the great-great-grandson of William Cary.

The unexpected donation was received from her daughter, Lesley Ann Baran.

“Way back when I owned a gift shop in downtown Cary, the old-timers would come in and tell me about the village’s history,” Losey said. “When I was given this donation and told we could use it for whatever we wanted, all of a sudden I had an epiphany. I needed to find a sculptor.”

Losey settled on veteran artist Guy Bellaver of St. Charles, who used the only known picture of Cary – a somewhat fuzzy daguerreotype – to create the estimated 24-inch-tall bust.

“The fact that I only had one view made it a little tough,” said Bellaver, who first sculpted Cary’s likeness using an oil-based clay over a pipe and Styrofoam armature. “I probably have in excess of 200 hours into it. I kept changing things as I got a better feel for how it was going to look.”

The irony of foisting Cary’s likeness from obscurity to public permanence is not lost on Bellaver. There also was added pressure to capture every nuance. Bellaver even consulted a beautician in order to mimic the swoosh in Cary’s hair.

The project, a dream 22 years in the making, received seed money from Harris Bank and a donated limestone base by Ringers Landscaping of Fox River Grove. The unveiling ceremony begins at 11 a.m. Sunday in the park, located at the corner of Three Oaks and Silver Lake roads. Two of Cary’s descendants are traveling from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Phoenix to join the celebration.

“I wanted to make an impact on history,” Losey said. “Everybody knows we (the village of Cary) exist. Everybody knows we’re out there. But you need something tangible. … This is my way of getting people excited and fired up.”

• • •

The McHenry County Historical Museum is open for the season. Visiting hours are from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday at 6422 Main St. in Union. Exhibits include “Waterways and Getaways: Resort Life in McHenry County,” an “Adopt an Artifact” display of restored items from our collection, a “Members’ Only” showcase of select collections from society members and a “Tale of Ten Textiles.”

For information about upcoming events and free-admission days for select residents, visit

• Kurt Begalka is administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society and Museum. He can be reached at

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