Stephen Wilson slept upstairs above Gardner’s first General Store, located at 103 S. Elm where the Masonic Lodge and Rustic Connection are today. He worked seven days a week. His roommate was an old Mexican War veteran, Wesley Iliff, who was employed by J.W. Sponable also. The roommates and owner would eventually become captives of Missouri Bushwackers when Gardner was raided during the Civil War in 1861.
Sponable built the store, originally a red two-story wooden structure, which faced north onto Main and extended almost to the south alley in 1857.
In 1860, 15 year old Stephen Wilson was bound out by his father to J.W. Sponable as an errand boy and clerk for the general store. Wages paid to Wilson’s father were $50, plus room and board the first year. The second year, Wilson’s father earned $75, and $125 the third year. Stephen was never given any of the wages. They went entirely to his father.
Wilson was born on Feb. 3, 1845 in Washington County, Ohio. His family, farmers, moved to Blackhawk County Iowa when Stephen was 9 years old. After moving two more times in the late 1850s the Wilson family finally settled in the young town of Gardner in 1859.
On the night of October 22, 1861, during the turmoil of the Civil War, Gardner became the first town to be raided in Johnson County by Missouri Bushwhackers.
At 10:30 p.m., the Bushwhackers decided to break into and loot the general store. Wilson, along with his roommate, Iliff and the store’s owner, Sponable were taken captive.
Wilson remembered the details of that night in vivid detail well into his old age and gave interviews and a first hand account years later.
In 1862, at the age of 17, Wilson became Gardner’s seventh known post master and is also the youngest to ever hold that position. He retained the position as postmaster for three years.
In 1866, he was one of the twelve founding members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) No. 23, which was Gardner’s chapter.
By 22, his total wealth added up to $25.70.
He left Gardner in November 1867 and traveled to St. Louis where he worked as a clerk in a boot and shoe shop.
A year later, he returned home to Gardner and purchased the general store stock from Sponable in 1868. Stephen ran a successful general store for 13 years and followed tradition by selling his stock in 1881 to Arthur Bigelow, a clerk boy who had worked for Wilson.
Afterward, Wilson moved the old wooden store building that Sponable had built to the southeast corner of Main and Center Streets. The building was then used by his older brother, William Jasper Wilson as a blacksmith shop and a paint shop for wagons and buggies.
Wilson moved to Olathe in 1882, “making banking and merchandising his business for the remainder of his life” according to his obituary.
According to Virginia Johnson’s research, in 1915 when Stephen was 70, he reminisced on his life and said, “My greatest delight is to enjoy and make use of every inch of that which belong to me without infringing upon the rights of others. My accumulations far exceed the highest ideas, possibilities or ambitions of my youthful days.”
Wilson had no children and was never married, though he was an uncle to his brother’s five children. On March 17, 1917, Wilson had a stroke and was paralyzed thereafter. Stephen Jefferson Wilson passed away on May 27, 1917 at the age of 72.
A funeral service was conducted at Gardner’s First Presbyterian Church, and his body is buried in the Gardner Cemetery.
“While he never sought publicity it is well known to many of his friends that having lived here the greater part of his life and being familiar with much of the early history of the state he took a deep interest in gathering facts for the use of the state historical society,” his obituary in the May 31, 1917 edition of the Gardner Gazette reads.
In his honor and following his lead of being interested in local history, the Gardner Historical Museum is conducting a Historic Downtown Walking Tour during the Festival on the Trails on June 12. A re-enactment of Stephen Wilson and some of his account of the Bushwackers’ raid on the general store will be portrayed and included in the tour.
Admission for the tour is free, and tour times are 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 5 p.m. Tour starts at the northwest corner of Main and Elm streets.
Festival tour will include Wilson’s account of Bushwackers’ raid on local general store