Considering his chosen line of work, one might not be too surprised to learn that Hamer J. Higgins, born on February 14, 1840, entered this world in the company of putti and cherubs. However, though a Valentines’ Day baby, it was not until later in his career that Higgins became more closely acquainted with those ethereal figures of the afterlife.
Hamer J. Higgins was born in Georgetown, Brown County, Ohio to parents John Joliffe and Martha Carey (Heterick) Higgins. Many of Higgins’s paternal relations were engaged in the legal profession—his father served as a member of the Ohio State legislature, as well as a county judge and sheriff; and his grandfather Colonel Robert Higgins practiced as an attorney and district judge following his service in the Revolutionary War. Higgins’s namesake, his uncle by marriage on his father’s side Thomas L. Hamer, was a congressman and is noted for inadvertently causing Hiram Ulysses Grant (better known as President Ulysses S. Grant) to go by Ulysses after recording Grant’s name incorrectly upon his nomination to the United States Military Academy (commonly referred to as West Point) in 1839. And, the Hamer-Higgins family connection to Grant does not stop there, as Georgetown has the distinction of being the hometown of both Hamer Higgins and Ulysses S. Grant.
In September 1861, Higgins continued the military tradition started by his grandfather and enlisted in Company D of the 59th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Higgins served three years with Company D under the command of his older brother Captain Robert H. Higgins. Hamer entered as a private but was promoted to corporal by November, and promoted again to sergeant in June 1863. He mustered out on November 1, 1864, but reenlisted in Company E of the 192nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry in March 1865 and was appointed a First Lieutenant. Higgins served with Company E for one year before again mustering out on September 1, 1865. During his service, Higgins fought in the battles of Shiloh, Stone River, Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, and fought 120 consecutive days during the Atlanta Campaign in 1864. General George F. Dick, who fought with Higgins at the battles of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, once said, “[Higgins’s] military record could not be better.” Higgins is also reputed to have had “a splendid memory and it was his greatest delight to recount the stories of his army experiences to friends.”
Upon returning home to Ohio following the end of the Civil War, Higgins was appointed Deputy Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas in Brown County by his brother Robert. According to an interview with Madame Annette, published in the Bloomington Daily Bulletin in April 1900, Higgins “worked to pay his [widowed] mother’s debts” and then “started out to seek his fortune in the west.” In this case, seeking fortune meant making his way to Bloomington, Illinois in April 1868 with ten dollars to his name and the foresight to see that conditions in the city were right for business. That spring, Higgins began an apprenticeship as a marble cutter at Haldeman’s Marble Works, located at 223 E. Front Street.
By November 1875, the name of the aforementioned monument company (Haldeman’s) was listed as the Great Central Marble and Granite Company with Higgins as proprietor and James Haldeman as partner and manager. However, Higgins’s ownership of the company was short-lived. Debts accumulated such that he was forced to sell the company to Balthazar Eversole before the end of the month. Apparently unfazed by his initial business struggles, Higgins reacquired the business in late 1876 through a brief partnership with David Edwards. In September 1878, Jacob Phillip Jung, Sr.—a fellow former apprentice at Haldeman’s with whom Higgins worked from 1869 to 1873—joined the firm of H.J. Higgins & Co., as the company was known throughout Higgins’s lifetime. The firm maintained operations on the 200 block of East Front Street for a total of 80 years. Charles A. Kleinau, a stonecutter employed at the firm since 1878, joined the partnership in 1890.
Though finances were strained in 1875, it is safe to assume that business had improved in Higgins’s first four years as a proprietor. As an article about the company published then stated, “They began in business four years ago, on brains and luck; and have fairly reached the goal of success.” In 1879, H.J. Higgins & Co. was actively completing a series of projects valued at $8,000 and was able to undergo an expansion that allotted space for a new showroom. After the addition of the showroom, the company continued to make improvements to the location throughout its years in business. In 1883, the firm installed a plank sidewalk outside its building, and three years later commenced construction of a new three-floor, marble-fronted building at the East Front Street address designed by local architect George Miller. The new building included three upstairs apartments available for rent, as well as a second storefront that was at times leased to other businesses. Miller worked closely with Higgins to personalize the Victorian Romanesque design. The facade of the building, complete with decorative marble pilasters and intricate carvings, was a testament to the owners’ craft.
As for the actual craftsmen who kept H.J. Higgins & Co. operational, it was reported in 1887 that Higgins kept “two men on the road and the whole force of employees range[d] from eighteen to twenty-five men.” In 1889, H.J. Higgins & Co. employed twenty men, paid their stonecutters $3.25 a day, and annually sold $50,000 worth of goods across eight or nine states.
An advertisement published in 1900 suggests that business for Higgins & Co. remained strong leading into the twentieth century, mentioning that “large cash contracts” closed in the previous year put the company in a position to offer customers the “greatest value that can be obtained anywhere.” The ad encouraged the customers in question to view the “three car-loads of stock monuments—more than our show rooms will contain,” before committing to a purchase elsewhere.
Eighty years in business, twenty-seven of which were under Higgins, were not without minor hardships, however. In November 1879, the company suffered a small fire in its stable after a box of sulphur spontaneously combusted. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished before any damage was done. In April 1880, a marble monument situated on the sidewalk outside of the business was overturned and smashed by a couple of “low-lived scoundrel[s].” The grave marker was valued at $22; and the bill was presented to the assailants—who were apprehended by Officer William G. Boyce, and who “promptly agreed to pay for it.” A call was put out to anyone in the market for a cheap tombstone, and a journalist reporting for the Pantagraph recommended that, “it would be well for lively young bums desirous of raising Hades generally to keep out of earshot of Officer Boyce’s bailiwick.” Then, in June 1881, the firm found itself at the center of a lawsuit when a marble cutter by the name of Daniel Butler sued H.J. Higgins & Co. for failing to fulfill a contract of employment. Higgins & Co. denied the existence of such an agreement. The later outcome of the suit is unknown.
Another challenge for any business is the threat of competition within the industry. In addition to H.J. Higgins & Co., Bloomington boasted two to three other monument-making companies throughout the time that the firm was in business—the earliest of these being Haldeman’s. In 1889, it was reported that there were “several other marble shops in the city, employing from five to ten hands each.” That said, remarks such as, “this firm has met with remarkable success, all of which we are glad to note, for they are exemplary business men,” and the “reputation of Higgins & Co. as men who thoroughly understand their profession and turn out monuments of the most exquisite finish and design, has made them celebrated all over the State,” more than subtly allude to Higgins & Co.’s dominance in their field.
Considering that Higgins & Co. was in business for more than eight decades and enjoyed the demonstrable success that it did, the probability that the company would be commissioned to create a variety of noteworthy monuments throughout the region was relatively high. After all, “Higgins [was] one of the leaders in his line of business not alone in Bloomington but the central part of Illinois.” The creations of H.J. Higgins & Co. can to be traced to locales as far reaching as Los Angeles, New York City, and Winnipeg, Canada. A selection of their more notable local works include: the Marie Litta (1884-85) and J.H. Melluish (1884) monuments, and the Bloomington Cemetery Vault (1888) at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery; and the John Jackson Kemp Mausoleum (1892) at Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, IL.
Commissioned by a group of Bloomington residents following the premature death of the locally renowned, internationally featured, opera star in 1883, the monument for Marie Litta stands seventeen feet, five inches high and is composed of five separate pieces—all crafted from Barre, Vermont granite. The monument is embellished with a songbook and musical notes representing the career of the deceased, and is topped with a four-foot draped urn symbolizing “eternal life.” Higgins & Co. was prepared to install the monument in December 1884. However, residents elected not to erect the monument until July 4, 1885, so that weather conditions would better allow for a public ceremony.
Also constructed in 1884, the J.H. Melluish monument—fashioned in the sarcophagus style out of Quincy granite and erected on a spacious lot edged with granite coping—was described as “one of the handsomest and neatest stones in the cemetery.” Melluish was a well-known watchmaker and jeweler in Bloomington.
Of all the monuments created by Higgins & Co., Higgins is quoted as saying, “That is my masterpiece,” when referring to the John Jackson Kemp Mausoleum in Lexington. Built out of Indiana limestone, the face of the mausoleum stands twenty-two feet high, and covers a plot of land thirty-five by thirty-eight feet. Though the scale of the monument is significant in itself, the monument is especially noteworthy for its prominent placement atop a hill and for the unique statuary that adorns it—including a central marble angel placing flowers on a cross, flanked on either side by two life-sized stone dogs. The design is complete with two large curved wings and four marble columns that enhance the gated entrance, above which Kemp’s name is engraved.
Regarding matters of materials, pricing, and overall design, the sketchbooks kept by the company dating from 1897 to as late as 1933 serve as a rich resource. From these sketches, one is able to gather a clearer sense of the monument makers’ creative process.
In 1882, H.J. Higgins & Co. was still receiving blocks of granite and marble from which their workers would carve grave markers. By 1900, however, the company was ordering more stock monuments on which their workers then only had to carve names and decoration. The firm regularly purchased granite from the Jones Brothers Company in Barre, Vermont beginning in 1882. In October 1887, Higgins & Co. purchased an interest in the Wetmore and Morse Granite Company in Barry, New York.
Marble statuary of various styles and themes may grace a number of Higgins & Co. monuments, but the company did not carve these statues onsite. Rather, the company ordered all marble statuary from Vermont, or other eastern states, and had it transported to Bloomington via the railroad. Included in the sketchbooks are drafts of monuments that reflect this arrangement, as well as a shade of personality of at least one of the monument makers. That is to say, the pencil drawings of monument designs meant to be crowned with a statue are finished with a cutout catalogue or magazine image of the statue and pasted to the page in the appropriate place. In some cases, the catalogue images extend beyond the page and are folded over in the book. Despite the fact that the monument company did not carve statues of marble, the monument makers at Higgins & Co. did exercise their creative inclinations by occasionally carving small “whimsies” of various shapes out of spare scraps of granite or marble.
Though not strictly creative in terms of artistry of design, one inventive tactic utilized by the company—and evidenced in the sketchbooks—pertained to prices. In order to keep the competition at bay, Higgins & Co. did not advertise their prices. Instead, the company created a secret code by which they could document the prices of their designs without risking the price becoming public. According to family lore, sketches of the monuments were coded with letters that stood for a number that indicated the price. For example, one of the company’s codes was based on the phrase “HOPEANDTRY.” In this case, the numbers one through nine, plus zero, represented each of the ten letters in the phrase. “H” equaled one, “O” equaled two, “T” equaled eight, and so on. Therefore, if the code “HED” appeared next to a sketch, the cost of the monument equaled $147.
As for getting the word out about their services, Higgins & Co. seems to have largely advertised through newspaper print and word of mouth, as well as through the employment of traveling salesmen. The monuments made for use in Bloomington were not often marked with a company logo, though the firm’s craftsmanship was often discernible by admirers.
Higgins maintained majority control of the H.J. Higgins & Co. until his death in 1902. In 1899, Higgins owned 60 percent of the company, Jung 35 percent, and Kleinau the remaining five. At the time of his death, Higgins’s share was valued at $20,000.
As a result of the founder’s passing, the former H.J. Higgins & Co. was soon after incorporated as Higgins, Jung, and Kleinau and reorganized as a joint-stock company, with partners Jung and Kleinau acting as president and vice president respectively. Following the deaths of Jung and Kleinau in 1933, descendants of the three original partners continued to operate and own a majority of the stock in the company until its closing in 1956.
It should be noted that, on January 19, 1870, Higgins married fellow Ohio native Alice Devore. Devore’s parents, Nicholas Jackson and Hannah Woods Devore, were married in Brown County, and it is likely that Higgins and she had become acquainted there. The couple had eight children: Mattie, Frank B., Ernest Elmo, Maude, Charles, Ina, Robert, and Lillian. Higgins’s wife Alice died on May 29, 1887. Less than eighteen months later, Higgins married Mary Stuart Lane on October 31, 1888. The couple had one child, George.
In the absence of a will, Higgins’s wife Mary and his children divided his assets. Following Higgins’s death, Mary, and Higgins’s son Frank became directors and stockholders of Higgins, Jung, and Kleinau upon its incorporation. All eight of Higgins’s surviving children owned stock in the company.
An advertisement printed in 1933, eight days after the death of the last surviving partner Charles Kleinau, stated, “Higgins-Jung-Kleinau Co. will continue in business under the same policies in which they have operated during the past sixty years.” As evidenced by the firm’s employment history, this company loyalty was not simply limited to familial relations. Bookkeeper Ada Maxwell was employed with the firm for over forty-four years. Having been hired on as bookkeeper in September 1895, Maxwell came to serve as director, secretary, treasurer, and stockholder. When Jung died in 1933, he left Maxwell with the rights and dividends from twelve shares of his stock in Higgins, Jung, and Kleinau. Maxwell retired from the firm in 1938-39. It is possible that Maxwell is to thank for much of the record keeping that prompted the Pantagraph to refer to the firm upon its closing as a “storehouse of local history.” According to S.P. Boozell, the manager at the time, as many as three generations of names were recorded on monuments created by the firm.
Keeping that in mind, one could argue that Hamer J. Higgins’s true lasting legacy is his company’s contribution to creating and preserving a tangible, and highly visible, historical record of Central Illinois residents. As stated by a reporter for The Eye while commenting on the landscape of Bloomington Cemetery in the 1890s:
“One very singular feature of the observations was the fact that the handsomest and most artistic designs bore the imprint of Higgins & Co. …The work was noticeable over the graves of nearly all of our deceased wealthy and distinguished citizens. To Messrs. Higgins & Co. belongs the credit of creating a pronounced taste for making beautiful and lasting improvements to our cemetery where can now be found many of the finest works of art in the west. Our citizens can felicitate over the fact that the Bloomington cemetery will this summer, when clothed in its accustomed verdure, be the most beautiful in the country.”
Higgins died at his home at 511 E. Jackson Street on April 15, 1902 after abruptly falling fatally ill after his health had started to wane. The Pantagraph reported that less than a week before his passing, Higgins was struck with an “aggravated attack of grip…which developed into paralysis of the brain following the rupture of a blood vessel.” According to the article, Higgins experienced two to three days of intense pain before slipping into a “comatose state.” Higgins’s son Ernest Elmo died at the age of 26 from “la grippe” three years prior.
Higgins was a Republican in politics, a member of the Christian Church, and associated with various social groups including the William T. Sherman Post no. 146 of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), the Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W), and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.).
The following words written about Higgins at the time of his death, “Mr. Higgins was an enterprising, progressive business man, and had a high standing in the city,” seem to be corroborated by descriptions of his funeral service, which include mention of elaborate floral offerings, singers, and a procession to the cemetery that extended multiple blocks. This procession was led by a drum corps from the A.O.U.W. and followed by fellow members of the G.A.R.
The funeral service began at the family’s residence at 511 E. Jackson Street, where Reverend James H. Gillard of the Christian Church read the last rites over the body. Reports indicate that the “house was crowded to its greatest capacity, yet not one-third of the great crowd present was able to gain admission.” A $200 bill from Beck Memorial Home includes the cost of a fine walnut casket, and the rental of eight family carriages, seventy-two chairs, and four singers. The service at the house concluded with a flag ritual performed by members of the G.A.R. The site of Higgins’s grave was generously adorned with flowers. Jung and Kleinau were pallbearers, along with A.B. Thompson and Chris Schmidt of the A.O.U.W. and S.J. Leach and W.H. Moore of the G.A.R. Higgins’s body was laid to rest next to his first wife at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in a family plot that later came to contain the graves of his two wives, and several of his children and their spouses.