A pair of North Country men, born just a few miles apart in Jefferson County, left New York in their adult years and settled about 65 miles apart in Illinois, where each left his lasting mark. Together, their names were also attached to an institution in Arkansas that lives on nearly a century and a half later.
John Budlong was born in February 1833 in Rodman, New York, about eight miles south of Watertown. The Budlong family has many historical connections dating back to the Revolutionary War. John attended several of the best schools in the region: the Rodman Seminary, the Jefferson County Institute at Watertown, the Adams Institute, and Falley Seminary at Fulton in Oswego County. At the age of 18 he began a wide-ranging teaching career, working in North Carolina, Texas, and Missouri before returning to Rodman, where he continued teaching and began studying law.
Within a year of being elected Justice of the Peace, he joined the Civil War as an officer at the outset of fighting, and in June 1863 left the service as a first lieutenant. He and a partner immediately purchased a Watertown-based newspaper, the Northern New York Journal, and operated it for a few years with Budlong as editor. He also became involved in politics and was a popular public speaker, delivering a notable address at Perch River, north of Watertown, on the rights of freed slaves after the war.
An excerpt provides the gist of his message: “We ask that all men may be free and equal. The right which we insist upon possessing, we would freely offer to all men within the borders of our land. You say that the Negro cannot be allowed to vote, by reason of ignorance. Make, then, a test of his ability, and even though it may be a college education, he will, in time attain unto it. If you ask of him a property qualification, give him a chance in the race of life, and he, too, will pile up his thousands. But continue to deny him his rights, continue to rob and persecute him, and another hurricane of truth will overtake this people.”
In the late 1860s, Budlong sold his properties in Jefferson County and moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he had purchased a 180-acre farm adjacent to the city. During the next 20 years he was a cornerstone of the community. Politically, he served multiple terms as city supervisor, was elected to the legislature, frequently was a party representative at conventions, and was chosen by various parties as a candidate for state treasurer and senator.
He served in a leadership capacity in many organizations, including the YMCA, his church, and missionary societies, and was in constant demand as a public speaker for all sorts of events. He also became a business leader, building impressive wealth through expanding his farm, buying and selling real estate, operating a grocery company, and investing in local concerns. He owned several farms in Iowa and nearly 200 lots in subdivisions around the city. As Rockford’s expansion enveloped his farm, the property grew to include more than 40 homes and four manufacturing firms.
A Winnebago County history written in 1892 cited Budlong’s stature in the community: “The credit for a large share of enterprise which helps to make Rockford one of the most prosperous of cities in the United States, belongs to the gentleman whose name is at the head of this sketch, and who is President of the Royal Sewing Machine Company. He is also a stockholder of the Standard Furniture Company, the Bit and Tool Company, the Excelsior Furniture Company, and the Rockford Manufacturing Company, in which latter organization he is Director. Indeed, almost every advantage that the town enjoys, from a business point of view, is owing in a greater or lesser degree to his push and energy. He is very popular with the people and has made a financial success of his various undertakings.”
Throughout his life, Budlong maintained strong support for blacks, praising the progress he witnessed on business trips to the South, but noting the inequities that remained. That viewpoint coincided with his father-in-law’s long-held beliefs. Back in 1865, while still living in Jefferson County, New York, John had married Minnie (Ermina) Smith, a daughter of Philander Smith, whose own father’s name was the source for Smith’s Mills before it became known as Adams.
While living in Jefferson County, Philander dabbled in politics and developed a measure of wealth through real-estate deals in northern New York, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. In the early 1870s, when John Budlong was beginning his new life in Rockford, Illinois, Smith moved to Oak Park, an affluent suburb of Chicago. He owned many properties (the Philander Smith block today is assessed at $6 million), and spent freely in support of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which enjoyed a revival in Oak Park thanks to his largesse, including providing a free building lot for a new edifice and donating $5,000 towards its construction.
But Philander’s open wallet extended far beyond Chicago. His fortune funded many charity efforts overseas, and after his death in 1882, the giving continued through the energetic efforts of his wife, Adeline (her status as a Mayflower descendant was memorialized in the name of one of John and Minnie Budlong’s children—Standish Smith Budlong).
With a bank account the modern equivalent of about $4 million, Adeline was a busy giver. In China, she funded the Philander Smith Memorial Hospital, a school, a Biblical institute, a deaconess home, and two other facilities. In Japan there was the Philander Smith Biblical Institute. In India, she financed the Philander Smith Institute, a church, and several large buildings used for various purposes. In the states, other recipients were several missionary groups, aid societies, churches, and social organizations. Included was the Freedman’s Aid Society, which organized groups of teachers in the North after the Civil War and housed them in the South while they taught at schools for the children of freed slaves.
One other stateside institution affected by Philander Smith’s fortune was a college for blacks – Walden Seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas. Facing financial failure, the trustees found help in the person of Adeline Smith, who donated $10,500 in 1882 (equal to $251,000 in 2016). In appreciation, they renamed the school Philander Smith College, a title it still bears today. It was a mission also supported by John and Minnie Budlong, reflected in the school’s early years by the addition of Budlong Hall.
In 1894, the school’s chorus took to the road, performing concerts to raise funds for the completion of Budlong Hall. In doing so, they marked the beginning of a musical tradition. In 2016, the school’s president cited some PSC highlights: “For over 124 years, Philander Smith College has produced a significant portion of African-American teachers in the state of Arkansas. Our collegiate choir has become world famous for its excellence, having performed also at the White House.”
Also built in connection with the college prior to 1900 was the Adeline Smith Home for Girls, honoring the giving legacy of Mrs. Smith, who managed her husband’s fortune well enough that before she died in 1895, her donations to charities totaled $10,000 more than the original account.
In 2003, the former Philander Smith house in Adams, now the Ripley House Museum, became home to the Historical Association of South Jefferson, helping preserve the local legacy of a generous native.
Photos: Rockford Manufacturing Company, John Budlong, Director (1889); Royal Sewing Machine Company, John Budlong, President (1889); Philander Smith College with Budlong Hall, the new addition at the front of the photo (1897)
A version of this story was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.