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Gerrit Thorn


Gerrit T. Thorn, for many years one of the leading lawyers of the interior of the state, was born in La Fayette, Onondaga county, N. Y., on the 20th of July, 1832, the youngest son of Jehiel Thorn, who was also a native of New York, having been born at New Baltimore, Green county, November 29th, 1793, the youngest of the family. His oldest sister married Peter Vanslyke, a soldier of the revolution, who was severely wounded by the Waltmeyer men, a band of Tories infesting the borders during the revolution, and he was afterwards known as Gen. Vanslyke.


The name was originally Thorne, but Gerrit's father dropped the final "e," although other members of the family retain it.


Gerrit's father and his two brothers were soldiers in the last war with Great Britain and were stationed at Brooklyn Heights, N. Y. The former died near Syracuse, N. Y., May 8th, 1852; his mother, who was Sarah Houghtaling, was born at Coxsackie, Green County, N. Y., July 22nd, 1799, and was of Holland and English descent, her ancestors being among the earliest settlers from Holland in Green County on the Hudson. She died at Salem, Or., September 24th, 1887, at the home of her son James. The earliest members of the Thorne family came to this country between 1630 and 1640, and settled near New York on Long Island. They were Quakers, and some of them were quite prominent, and sympathized with the struggle of the colonies for independence.


Gerrit T. Thorn, after a thorough education in public and private schools, having given especial attention to mathematics and civil engineering, at the age of sixteen, entered the office of Isaac W. Brewster, a lawyer, who was practicing law in the village of Jamesville, near where he was born. He was also postmaster, and young Thorn became his clerk and deputy, which position he held for nearly a year.


It was while he was thus engaged that he made up his mind to study law, and when he became of age to go to Wisconsin. One of the old citizens of the village received from Wisconsin The Watertown Chronicle, which was then published by Jonathan E. Hadley, and while Gerrit was thus clerking in the post office, he was allowed to take this paper and read it. The reading of this paper, and the accounts that it gave of Wisconsin, was what first awakened his interest in the west.


The constitution of Wisconsin, when it was adopted by the people, was published in The Watertown Chronicle, and it was the reading of that instrument, which was the first legal document he had ever read, that turned his attention to the study of law. In the spring of 1849, after there had been a change in the administration, and Gen. Taylor became president, Gerrit lost his position as clerk in the post office and returned to his school books again until July, 1850, when he went to Rome, Bradford County, Pa., and took a position as clerk and bookkeeper in a large country store owned by the Hon. Henry W. Tracy, afterwards a member of congress, and Judson Holcomb.


In the fall of 1851, he took a trip down the Susquehanna river, intending to go to Meadville to attend Alleghany College, where his brother James was then attending, but getting stormed in, he went back through the mountains to Town Hill, Luzerne county, Pa., and there taught a select school, commencing in November, 1851, and remained there until the spring of 1852, when he returned to his old home in New York. In 1852 and 1853 he attended the Yates Polytechnic Institute at Chittenango, Madison County, N. Y., for the purpose of preparing for college.


His health having become somewhat impaired he abandoned studies for a time, and in the last week of April, 1854, on a stormy afternoon, he landed on the old wharf, from a lake steamer, in Milwaukee. The following summer he spent most of his time on a farm in Dodge County, but made several excursions on foot through Dodge, Jefferson, Waukesha, Dane, Columbia and Fond du Lac counties, enjoying the sights of the beautiful prairies and oak openings. The next winter he taught school at the village of Columbus, and the Second ward school in Watertown, the following summer.


While at Watertown, in the summer of 1855, he resumed the study of law in the office of the Hon. Samuel Baird, and after the close of his school, in September, 1855, he went to the village of Juneau, Dodge County, and entered the law office of the Hon. Charles Billinghurst, then a member of congress. While at Juneau, he was deputy register of deeds, under Paul Juneau, and was also, for more than a year, deputy clerk of the circuit court of Dodge County.


He continued his legal studies in Dodge and Jefferson counties until 1858, when he was admitted to practice, and opened his first law office at Juneau in the fall of that year. In May, 1859, he went to Jefferson, and practiced there for ten years, with excellent success, gaining a reputation as a skillful lawyer and an able advocate. While a resident of Jefferson, he founded and named The Jefferson Banner, a Democratic paper, and was its political editor for three years, making it one of the leading journals of that party in the interior of the state. This editorial work, however, was entirely subordinate to his law practice.


After the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861. Mr. Thorn made one of the first war speeches in the city of Jefferson, and helped to raise Company E of the Fourth Wisconsin infantry, more than half of the company being raised at that first war meeting.


He then had a strong desire to enlist, and was only restrained from so doing by reason of the delicate health of his wife, to whom he was married in May, 1859. He continued to give his aid and help in securing recruits for the Union army, until the following year, when he enlisted himself in August, 1862, and was soon after commissioned lieutenant colonel of the Twenty-ninth regiment of Wisconsin infantry. The regiment immediately went into camp at Madison, and the last of October, 1862, was ordered to the front, proceeded at once down the Mississippi river, and encamped, on the 7th of November, on the eastern bank of that river opposite Helena, Arkansas. The regiment remained there during the winter, and performed picket and outpost duties, being stationed for a time at Friars Point, below Helena, and afterwards made an expedition up White river to Duvals Bluff, Ark., the latter part of January, 1863.


After this expedition the regiment returned to Helena, and was stationed five miles out on Little Rock Road. After the return, Col. Thorn, whose health was very much impaired, received news that his wife and only child had become seriously ill, and were not expected to live. He sought a furlough to visit them, but being unable to obtain it, resigned his position and hastened home, only to find that his wife had died two weeks before his arrival, in March, 1863.


Col. Thorn has literary tastes and has been greatly interested in educational matters. While a resident of Jefferson, he was one of the leaders in founding the Jefferson Liberal Institute, drew up its charter, and was president of its board of trustees the first two years of its existence. At the laying of the corner stone of this institution he delivered a very able address, which was published at the time, in which he clearly and forcibly set forth what should be the aim and scope of a public educational institution. The Liberal Institute buildings and property have since been purchased by the city of Jefferson, and are now used as its high school.


During the years of 1867-8, Col. Thorn represented Jefferson County in the state senate, and was member of the committees on federal relations, railroads and claims. He was also at that time the youngest member of the senate. During his service in that body he delivered an eloquent and stinging rebuke to a certain "Copperhead" senator who had spoken sneeringly of the Union soldiers. For this speech he received many congratulations from patriotic men of all parties. In January, 1869, he removed to Fond du Lac, and while a resident of that city he was elected to the legislative assembly, serving on the judiciary committee and the joint committee on charitable and penal institutions. As a legislator he was alert, a ready debater, quick and accurate in judgment and in the details of business.


Politics and party scheming have always been distasteful to him. All public positions that he has held have come to him without his seeking. His devotion is to his profession, general literature and history.


In 1873, Col. Thorn's health not being good, he sold out his business and library to James F. Ware, and went to Maryland, and was most of the time in Washington during the following year. In October, 1874, his health having very much improved, his desire to return to Wisconsin became irresistible, and he returned and opened a law office in the city of Appleton, where he had large practice and was accounted one of the ablest lawyers in that circuit. In the winter of 1877-8 he became very severely afflicted with rheumatism and was unable to attend to any business. He was advised by his physicians that a change of climate would be beneficial, so in the fall of that year he sold his business at Appleton, with the intention of wholly giving up practice.


He then went to Nebraska and spent four years on a farm. In March, 1883, he went to California, and his family returned east to Valparaiso, Ind.  After reaching California, he spent some months there and in Oregon, and, in June of that year, went to what was then Washington territory, and remained in the Puget Sound country and British Columbia, until September, 1886, when he returned again to Wisconsin, being among the first passengers who came over the new Canadian Pacific road through to Winnipeg in Manitoba, and thence home. Having become reinvigorated by his rest and change, after returning to the state, and spending one winter in Milwaukee, he settled in New London, where he resumed his law practice.


He has always been a Democrat in politics, was a Democratic candidate for presidential elector in 1864, and a delegate to the national Democratic convention assembled at New York in 1868, that nominated Horatio Seymour for president.


Col. Thorn has been twice married. His first wife, whose death has already been mentioned, was Miss Maria Bicknell of Vermont. She was a teacher in the Fox Lake, Wis., high school, and a lady of much culture.  March 7th, 1864, he married Elizabeth Clark of Prince George County, Md., a descendant of one of the families that came from England and settled in Maryland in Lord Baltimore's time. They have a family of three sons and two daughters. One of his sons, G. T., Jr., is a lawyer, and his youngest son, Paul C., is taking the law course in that state university at Madison, Wis. Robert C. is a clerk in his father's office. The daughters are Blanch E. and Grace Edna; and all have received a thorough education. Col. Thorn has two brothers living, Dr. Robert Thorn of Pittsburgh, Pa., who has nearly reached his four score years, and James Thorn, who is a lawyer, who has passed his three score and ten, and now lives in Oregon; and one sister, his oldest, Hester Jane Vandenburg, a resident of Milwaukee, who is in her 78th year.


Col. Thorn has delivered several public addresses which have stamped him as an eloquent, patriotic man, and a man of thought and scholarly tastes. A Fourth of July oration at Chilton, in 1876, was an eloquent tribute to our free institutions and to Christianity, which he declares to be the foundation of all true liberty.


Men of Progress: Wisconsin, edited by Andrew J. Aikens and Lewis A. Proctor, Milwaukee, The Evening Wisconsin Company, 1897.