Nathaniel Asa Siepel was born February 25, 1856 on his family’s farm in Hancock County, Illinois. Nathaniel’s father, Philip Siepel, was born in Germany, his mother, Eliza Fawver, in Virginia. Philip and Eliza were married in Shenandoah County, Virginia in 1848. From there, they migrated to Illinois, pioneer fashion, in 1854, with three young children in tow. Eliza’s mother and two brothers also migrated to Hancock County. (The older of the two Fawver brothers, by some reports, came first, settling his family there some months before the others arrived.) Shortly after arriving in Hancock County, Eliza gave birth to the Siepels’ fourth child who died before Nathaniel, their fifth, was born. Two more children would come along by the end of the decade.
Nathaniel, age 4, appears in the 1860 census, along with his parents and five siblings. Nathaniel had several Fawver cousins who lived nearby until they moved to Missouri in 1866. His daughter Edna told of a childhood memory related by her father, of hippity-hopping across the fields with one of the cousins to their grandmother’s funeral. (Polly Fawver died in 1863, when Nathaniel was seven. She was buried at what is now called Belnap-Dill Cemetery, a mile or so from the Siepel and Fawver places as the crow flies, the route the young boys apparently took to get there!) By 1870, his two older sisters had married, leaving 14-year-old Nathaniel, two brothers and his youngest sister at home. Nathaniel was apparently missed in the 1880 census enumeration. He is not listed in his parents’ household, and I have not been able to find him elsewhere. By 1884, however, Nathaniel appears as a landowner on a Hancock County plat.
Philip and Eliza originally settled their family on 80 acres in Hancock Township, the “Siepel homeplace.” In time, Philip would, “by his own honesty and economy,” secure several more parcels, eventually owning a nice farm of approximately 330 acres, according to a county history of the time written by T.A. Gregg. By 1884, Philip had conveyed the farm to his three sons. Nathaniel and John each ended up with 120 acres south of the homeplace and a 25-acre wooded parcel to the north (now called “the Northwoods”). George received the homeplace, although Philip and Eliza would continue to live there until their deaths.
On Christmas Eve in 1884, Nathaniel married Frances “Fannie” Knoedler (pronounced Needler), at her parents’ home near Blandinsville, in McDonough County. I don’t know how the two met, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was at church or school, as those two commonplace institutions served as gathering places in their rural, far-flung community. From the time they were married, Nathaniel and Fannie belonged to the Friendship M.E. Church in McDonough County, where Fannie’s family were members.
Over the next ten years, Nathaniel and Fannie would have four children. Their first, my great grandmother Edythe, was born in the fall of 1885. Son John came along in 1887, followed by Morris in 1890. Sadly, little Morris died when he was just 10 months old. The Siepels fourth and last child, Edna, was born in 1894. The 1900 census enumerates the Siepel family of five. The census shows that Edythe, John and Edna all attended school during that year, and a 1900-1901 booklet from rural Woodville school (the same school Nathaniel might have attended as a boy) lists the three Siepel children as students. Another great sadness befell the family when John died suddenly of diphtheria in March 1901. He was 13 years old. John’s obituary, published in The [Carthage] Republican, reported that his parents were utterly heartbroken. The farm must have felt very different in his absence.
For the next 14 years, Nathaniel continued to work the farm. His daughter Edythe married in 1905 and soon thereafter moved to Galesburg, about 60 miles to the north. Edythe remained close to her parents and sister. I wonder how often she might have been able to visit in those early years of her marriage? Edna married in 1913, and I imagine Nathaniel was happy that her husband was a farmer, willing and able to take over the family farm with his new bride. The following year, after 29 years on the farm, Nathaniel and Fannie bought a house in town, town being the small village of Tennessee, Illinois, a few miles to the east. The two would live there for the next twelve years.
Nathaniel died on July 20, 1926, at the age of 70. He was survived by Fannie, Edythe and Edna, five grandchildren, and his youngest sister. He also left a large extended family and a lifetime of friends and acquaintances. Nathaniel was buried in the churchyard of the Friendship Church, where his boys were laid to rest so many years before.
By all accounts, Nathaniel led a quiet, agrarian life, faithful and deeply connected to his family and rural community. At one time Nathaniel held an exhorter’s license and perhaps had thoughts of joining the Christian ministry. Nathaniel’s obituary, in the colorful language of the day, tells us that he was “gifted in prayer and when he brought his humble petitions to the throne of grace all who heard him felt that the Divine presence was in their midst.”
Through the ups and downs of life, I feel certain that Nathaniel was grounded by the patchwork quilt of fields and farms and woods around him, the familiar places that he knew for his whole life as “home.” How pleased Nathaniel would be to know that much of the property that formed the landscape of his life is to this day owned and cared for by Siepel descendants!
“[T]he care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility . . .”
—Wendell Berry (The Art of the Commonplace, The Agrarian Essays)
Rest in peace, Grandfather Siepel.