Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County
Published by the Club
Increase Allen Lapham
Address by William Ward Wight at Unveiling of the Lapham Memorial, Lapham Park, Milwaukee, June 18, 1915.
Some few years ago, in another place, before a different gathering, the pleasing duty devolved upon me of portraying at some length the career and character of him in whose honor we today assemble. Much that was then said was foreign to the purpose for which we are now gathered. Some few thoughts will I trust bear repetition.
Increase Allen Lapham was born in Palmyra, Wayne County, New York, March 7, 1811. His parents were of Quaker descent, the family having its American origin in Providence, Rhode Island. His father was a contractor on the Erie canal and the family's domicile changed with the father's business necessity. In about 1824 the family lived in Lockport where especially stupendous and intricate engineering construction marked the entry of the canal into the waters of Lake Erie. Here where Darius Lapham, an elder brother, was an engineer, Increase carried the target rod and vernier. Here and later, on the Miami canal in Ohio, he acquired that skill and facility in surveying which made his early life here both useful and successful.
In December, 1827, he went to Louisville, Kentucky, and in 1828 and 1829 he was employed as a rodman on the canal then constructing around the falls of the Ohio. While in Louisville he supplemented the education of the field by a short attendance at Jefferson seminary. In this neighborhood among the river shells of the region he began his conchological collection. Here also began his herbarium a convenient pursuit for one who as a surveyor must track the fields and neighbor the flowers. Here too he made observations on the geology and climatic conditions of the country. Here too he wrote for Silliman's Journal of Science and Art his first scientific paper. Here too so wide was the range of his humanities he became a member and an officer of the Ohio Historical and Philosophical Society. And all this when he was scarce 25 years of age!
From a position so well established, from a reputation so favor-able, from pursuits so congenial and so stimulating, the desire for new fields, the youthful love of change, the summons of his Ohio friend, Byron Kilbourn, brought him to Milwaukee.
Very early in July of 1836 he arrived in this little hamlet where the aboriginal warrior still stalked, and whose greatest asset was its possibilities. He was easily this young student of 25 years chiefest citizen of Milwaukee, a pre-eminence which until his death he never surrendered.
The prospect of a competence by the ownership of land was one of the possibilities of the growing Milwaukee. Mr. Kilbourn had been a heavy purchaser; Mr. Lapham in a small way followed his lead. His knowledge as a surveyor, his quickly acquired reputation for fairness, led to his appointment as register of claims in the West ward or Kilbourn town an office without pay established by his fellow citizen. Connected with this registry was a sort of court where preemptions were entered and where, as a species of judge, young Lapham executed certificates of title which yielded in importance only to a patent from the United States land office.
On October 24, 1838, Mr. Lapham married, his wife being Ann M. Alcott, of Rochester, New York. Of their five children, all survive. A daughter of their son Charles, influenced by her veneration for her grandfather's worth, did more than any other person to bestow the name of Lapham Park upon this beautiful breathing place.
Of Mrs. Lapham now more than fifty years dead it should be stated that she was a helpmeet for her husband. His papers received her criticism, all his labors her encouragement, all his scientific tasks her assistance, all his varied successes her applause.
During the decades of the forties and the fifties Mr. Lapham's pen was very busy. The subjects upon which he employed it were so many and so varied that one is filled with astonishment at the fertility and the variety of his genius. To enumerate all his writings is to cover all the then known field of useful knowledge. Not the least important was upon the flora and fauna of his adopted state, upon its grasses and its forest trees. An article written and illustrated by him upon the grasses of Wisconsin was published in 1855. He described and made drawings of eleven species of grasses. Surely a man who lived so near to nature and who bent his head so close to the earth to learn its secrets, deserves to be perpetuated in yonder charming spot, charming even in its present sombre garb, where blooming flowers and growing grasses shall be his constant neighbors.
Mr. Lapham was intensely interested in the education of youth. On October 7, 1846, he deeded to the then newly incorporated city of Milwaukee a plat of about thirteen acres in the present Sixth ward to be used forever for the purposes of a High school. The common council accepted the gift, thanked the donor, appointed a board of trustees and then rested from its labors! The land reverted to the grantor.
The name of Increase A. Lapham appears at the head of those citizens who on March 1, 1851, became incorporated by legislative act as the Normal institute and the High school of Milwaukee. This institution became later Milwaukee Female college it is now Milwaukee Downer college. Of this girls' school he became president in 1851 and so continued until he declined further election in 1863. He was a trustee from 1851 until his death twenty-four years. In the welfare of the young women gathered in that college he was deeply interested, tempering and holding in check the extreme views of the early patron of the school, Miss Catherine Beecher, yet advocating the advanced and symmetrical development of the feminine mind. His books, his collections, the wealth of his varied learning, were always at the service of teachers and pupils.
How gladly would I his remote successor at the head of the trustees of Milwaukee Downer college exhibit to President Lap-ham the present institution in the Eighteenth ward, the seeds of which his labors planted and his industry watered.
Perhaps Dr. Lapham for in 1860 Amherst college conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws is most fondly remembered in his relation to the present weather bureau. Lake Michigan was the blackboard upon which he practiced his examples. To track the path of the tempests, to map their movements, to follow them from river to lake, from lake to seacoast, these things were his pastime but more than a pastime, for he saw the practical benefits to flow from tracing what before were believed to be the whims and vagaries of the weather. Earnest and labored were his efforts to convince mariners and legislators that the fickle weather could be watched and the secrets of coming calm or storm revealed. He wrote much on this and kindred subjects, using freely news-paper columns. Hence, when after persistent efforts the weather bureau was established in 1870, it was truthfully stated by Professor Baird in the Science Record:
"To Professor I. A. Lapham must be given the credit of having brought to a successful conclusion this long line of efforts."
By the summer of 1871 Dr. Lapham had investigated the history and mapped the position of every known meteorite that had fallen within the limits of the North American continent. He first called the attention of scientists to certain lines in some of the irons which are now known as Laphamite markings. Nor had an-other branch of science overlooked his name. Dr. Asa Gray of Harvard university named Laphamia, a new genus of plants of five species belonging to the Southwestern frontier. Dr. Lapham might well be remembered as a botanist, for at his death his herbarium consisted of 24,000 specimens, representing 8,000 species.
From the rolls of scarcely any learned society was his name absent. In Europe much better than in his own country were his learning appreciated and his achievements recognized. He was an honorary member of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquarians at Copenhagen, and of the International Society of Anthropology and Antiquity of Man.
In pursuits congenial to his tastes and beneficial to his race, Dr. Lapham passed his busy days until his hour came. He rested not until the end arrived. He died September 14, 1875, upon Oconomowoc lake, on the edge of which his farm was. He had just finished a paper upon the lakes of Wisconsin considered in their relation to fish production. He had been subject to attacks of heart failure and had seldom been left alone. This particular day, how-ever, feeling much improved, he had taken his oars as the afternoon wore on for a pull upon the lake. Not promptly returning, search was made. A few feet from the shore his boat was found, and within, the body of our friend prostrate and lifeless.
This little writing has but ill performed its task if it has not indicated how appropriately a park in this city of his useful residence bears his name, and how surely the members of the Old Settlers' club have honored themselves by placing the boulder, with its inset medallion of him, in the limits of that park. No building should hold the monument to him whose books were the open air, the giant stone, the blossoming flower, the lowly grass, the warbling bird, the fugitive insect. With these trophies of Nature we place him and we leave him.
Had the weather been propitious we should have stood by the rugged stone while his granddaughter unveiled for all time to the gaze of the world the lineaments of the honored ancestor. Such ceremony as the circumstances permit I now entrust to her affectionate charge.