Oliver Pillsbury by Hon. J. W. Patterson

William Pillsbury, from whom most and probably all of the Pillsburys of this country have descended, emigrated from Dorchester, England, and settled in old Newbury, now Newburyport, Mass., about the year 1641.

Oliver Pillsbury, the subject of this sketch, sprung from this line. He was born in Henniker, N. H., February 16, 1817. His parents, Deacon Oliver Pillsbury and Anna Smith Pillsbury, were both persons of unusual physical and mental strength. The writer recalls distinctly, after a lapse of more than thirty years, the amiable expression and serene dignity of Mrs. Pillsbury, and the masculine thought and deep, solemn voice of the deacon as he led the devotions of the religious assemblies of the people. He was one of the strong men of the town and a pillar in the church. Others might veer and drift, but we all knew that the deacon was anchored within the veil, and was as sure to outride the storm as the hill upon which he had fixed his home. He was a man of strong powers, a stern will, and constant devotion to the great ends of life as he saw them. The qualities of both parents were transmitted in large measure to their children. Our state has produced but few men who were the peers in intellectual strength and moral courage to their first born, Parker Pillsbury. Not many men in our country, indeed, in the years that preceded the civil war, struck heavier blows for, or clung with a more courageous, self-sacrificing devotion to, liberty than he. Those of us who knew him could hear the deep undertone of the deacon's voice in his, and knew he would conquer or die. In the roll-call of the imperishables in the great struggle for liberty, his name will be heard among the first.

Of such stock is Oliver, the fifth son of Dea. Oliver Pillsbury. During the first seventeen years of his life he experienced the usual fortune of the sons of New England farmers,—a maximum of hard work and a minimum of schooling; but at that time, having been overtaken by a lameness which threatened to be permanent, he was sent to the academy, that he might prepare for duties suited to his prospective infirmity. He entirely recovered, but this circumstance gave a new drift to his life. For nearly five years he pursued his studies with unabated interest and industry, giving thoroughness and a practical character to his acquisitions by teaching during the winter months. Mr. Pillsbury had few equals and no superiors among those who taught at that time in our public schools. He was master both of his school and his studies, and had the faculty of inspiring his pupils with his own spirit. Many who have since done good work in life look back with gratitude to those years of pupilage.

In 1839, Mr. Pillsbury left New England and went to New Jersey, where he opened a tuition school, there being no free schools in the state at that time. There, though an entire stranger, he gained the confidence of the whole community at once, and held it during eight years of successful work. During the last six years of this time he taught the academy at Bound Brook, Somerset county. While there he married Matilda Nevius, who died in 1847, leaving a young daughter, an only child. The position which Mr. Pillsbury acquired among the educators of New Jersey may be learned from the fact that he was prominent among the few gentlemen who held the first school convention at the capital, over which he presided, and which was followed by similar conventions in other cities. The movement thus begun resulted in the establishment of public instruction in that state. To have been a leading spirit in the accomplishment of so beneficent a work, in a sojourn of only eight years, should be a perpetual honor to the life of any man.

At the end of this time, Mr. Pillsbury's health having become impaired, he returned to his native place, where he purchased the paternal homestead and entered again upon the work of his boyhood. For seventeen years he followed the life of a farmer, but did not move in its old empirical ruts. He applied the knowledge and improved methods which modern investigation has given to agriculture, and in a little time doubled the productive power of his farm. The successful factor in every industry is brains, and in this case even New Hampshire farming proved no exception to the rule.

In 1850, Mr. Pillsbury contracted a second marriage with Miss Sarah Wilkins, of Henniker, his present esteemed and accomplished wife.

Though assiduous in the pursuits of agriculture, his benevolent instincts led him to take an active interest in the causes of temperance, anti-slavery, and whatever else the public welfare seemed to demand. His efforts in this direction, in co-operation with those of others, produced a change in the politics of the town, which resulted in his introduction to public life. He was elected moderator of town-meeting fourteen times, selectman six times, and to the legislature three times. In all these trusts he showed himself wise, able, and efficient. As a legislator, he did not seem anxious merely to shine, but to be useful, and to advance the interests of the state. Such qualities and service commended him to public favor, and in 1862 he was elected a councilor for the last year of Gov. Berry's administration, and re-elected to the council of Gov. Gilmore. This, it will be remembered, was while the hardships and horrors of the civil war were upon us, and when questions that could not be settled by precedent, and that tested the authority and resources of the state, were brought daily before the governor and his council for decision. The exigencies of the government would not suffer delay. Not only great permanent interests, but the very life of the nation was in peril, and large and frequent demands were made upon the states for supplies of men and money, when every resource seemed exhausted. In such times means must be invented and resources created. Criticism becomes silent, and waits for the return of peace to awaken into unreasoning activity. Under the pressure of such events, weak men are likely to be paralyzed, avaricious men corrupt, and bold men to abuse power.

The qualities which Mr. Pillsbury developed in these trying circumstances ought to make his name historic. The writer has received communications from two gentlemen who were associated with him in the council, and whose services to the state are universally acknowledged, and, as they express more forcibly than any words of mine can do the part which the subject of this sketch took in that eventful period, I take the responsibility to publish such portions of their respective letters as bear specially upon the subject of this paper. The known character of the writers will give additional weight to their strong language of encomium. Hon. John W. Sanborn, of Wakefield, writes, as follows:—

"Learning that you are to prepare a biographical sketch of Hon. Oliver Pillsbury, I take pleasure in saying that I formed acquaintance with him in 1863, being then associated with him in Gov. Gilmore's council. His great executive ability, patriotism, honesty, and integrity won the respect and admiration of all his associates. At that time the country was engaged in that terrible war for the support of the government and its own salvation, and grave questions came before us relative to the prosecution of the same. Although an ardent Republican, he never let partisan feelings warp his judgment in his official acts. He had strong convictions of right, but was always ready to discuss all questions with that frankness and fairness which characterize men of noble minds, and he fully appreciated the opinions of his opponents. I had the honor to serve with him on the military committee of the council, which had important matters to consider,—questions involving the rights and interests of the soldiers, their families, and the state. The duties of this committee were arduous and often difficult, but I can attest to the fidelity and untiring energy with which he performed his part. He took great interest in the welfare of the soldiers, particularly the sick and wounded, and was ever ready to minister to their wants. In a word, he was a model councilor for the time in which he served, and the future historian will class him among our ablest and most efficient men."

Hon. John W. Noyes, of Chester, who was also in official association with Mr. Pillsbury, says:—

"I was with him a very considerable portion of the time for two years, while we were members of Gov. Gilmore's council, during the war. He was the most important member of the council, on account of his past experience and familiarity with the duties of the situation; in fact, his information and judgment were exceedingly valuable to the governor, and all the other members of the council.

"I regard Mr. Pillsbury as one of the best-informed and most competent business men in this state. I hardly think that there is another man in the state that could fill his present position as well as he does. I told Gov. Stearns before he made the appointment, that, if he knew Mr. Pillsbury as well as I did, he would not need recommendations, but would urge his acceptance of the place."

It would be idle to add anything to such commendations.

In 1869, Mr. Pillsbury was appointed insurance commissioner, by Gov. Stearns, for a period of three years, and has been re-appointed from time to time to the office, which he still holds. Soon after his appointment he drafted and secured the enactment of the present law of the state relative to insurance companies of other states and other countries. This law established the department of insurance, and has given to the people a degree of protection against the frauds and impositions of unreliable companies never before enjoyed is this state, and has brought into its treasury, by tax on insurance premiums, over hundred and twelve thousand dollars, in addition to the compensation of the commissioner.

During the whole term of his office, Mr. Pillsbury has worked quietly but assiduously to eliminate unreliable companies from our borders, and has carefully avoided the admission of all such as are not regarded as perfectly trustworthy. It is universally affirmed by men familiar with the insurance business, that the commissioner of this state has administered his office with unusual skill and success, and his reports are much sought for and often quoted and referred to as authority in other states. The state may well congratulate itself on having had the continued services, for thirteen years, of one so able and experienced in an office so intimately connected with the material interest of the people.

In 1871, Mr. Pillsbury moved to Concord, and the estimation in which he is held in the community is attested by the fact, that, during the eleven years of his residence at the capital, he has twice been elected to represent one of its wards in the legislature, and has been a member of its board of education for seven years, and was president of the board at the time he tendered his resignation. When a member of the legislature, Mr. Pillsbury was eminently practical, and whenever he spoke was listened to with marked attention; for he only addressed the house on subjects that he had thoroughly considered, and it was understood that his remarks were likely to aid the members in reaching a wise and just conclusion.

As one of the supervisors of the educational interests of Concord, Mr. Pillsbury was exceptionally intelligent, conscientious, and painstaking. His views on the general subject were comprehensive, and he kept himself informed as to all real improvements in methods of instruction. He discountenanced shams, and labored faithfully to make the schools sources of knowledge, of discipline, and of virtue. To the other public trusts so honorably held by the subject of this sketch, we may add that of trustee of the State Industrial School. He has had a deep and abiding interest in this institution since its founding, and has given to it an active and efficient support.

We can only realize how pure and unselfish his labors of this character have been, when we reflect that Mr. Pillsbury has no children of his own to kindle and feed his sympathies, but that they spring from a general benevolence toward all children of whatever condition in life. His only child was a daughter of rare mental activity and attainments, and of unusual sweetness of temper. She married Mr. J. S. Eveleth, of Beverly, Mass., where, after a residence of nearly two years, she died of consumption, in the flower and promise of early womanhood, leaving two homes stricken and desolate.

In this brief sketch we have unconsciously drawn a model citizen,—a man in all the relations of life faithful to the claims of duty; in the family, society, and the state, blameless; benevolent without ostentation, patriotic without the claim of reward, and true to every trust.

"While we such precedents can boast at home,
Keep thy Fabricius and thy Cato, Rome."