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Stories from The Great Fire: The Bisbee Family Silver

         The Jacksonville Historical Society has many intriguing objects in its collection, and every one of them tells a story. Oftentimes, it’s the story attached to the object that adds to its value. We recently received a wonderful donation of material from a descendant of the Bisbee family, and what makes the donation so exciting is the story behind it.
         This rather ornate crystal lamp and epergne and these pieces of silver are survivors of the Great Fire of 1901. The story that has been handed down through the family is that Charles R. Bisbee and his wife Alma rescued these items from their home on the southwest corner of Laura and Adams, where the Barnett Bank building stands today. But this incredible story creates more questions than answers.

         What we do know is that Alma Bisbee, in the midst of all the excitement, decided that these items were worth saving. The silver, now divided amongst extended family, was an understandable choice at the time. Beautifully engraved with a monogram specifically designed for the Bisbee family, the silver was typically considered one of the most treasured family possessions. But what about the lamp?
         Can you imagine carrying it through the streets of Jacksonville amidst the panic and chaos? They may have been fortunate enough to secure a wagon, but we don’t know for certain. Many had to carry their belongings through the streets on foot.
         We’re told that the family headed for safety in Springfield, but there’s an interesting clue that points to the route they may have taken. From their home on Laura and Adams, it would seem they headed east toward Main Street, then turned north. This is evidenced by a curious bit of info that was printed in The Metropolis on May 9, 1901:

“Two baskets of silver were left at Coleman and Neals’, corner of Monroe and Main Streets, by Mrs. C.R. Bisbee, who will be glad to learn of their whereabouts.”

          Could this be the very same silver that has been donated to the Jacksonville Historical Society? It would appear to be. But, why were they left behind, and how were they returned to the family? So many questions! This tantalizing story is one of many that help us comprehend the experience of Jacksonville’s people during those frightening, pivotal hours.
         The Jacksonville Historical Society would like to thank Louise Bisbee Geib for her generous donation, and for sharing this fascinating story from her family history.

Mitch Hemann
Senior Archivist


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