Famous Aurorans: A forty-niner, a renowned painter and political cartoonist

John Kudley Jr.
Special to the Aurora Advocate

Throughout its history, Aurora has been the home to numerous men and women who have found fame and notoriety beyond the town’s quaint and rural setting. One was a17-year-old young man who, in 1849, was lured westward to the California gold fields and beyond to Australia. As a young boy one was known to draw on barns and outbuildings before becoming a famous painter. Another spent his adult life in Aurora where he continued his career as “one of America’s all-time heavyweight political cartoonists.

Charles D. Ferguson

Charles D. Ferguson was born on July 16, 1830. He was the son of Samuel H. Ferguson and Julia McKinney. His grandfather was Capt. John Ferguson of Blandford, Massachusetts. John fled from England at the age of 16 to avoid persecution and came to America during the American Revolution with Lafayette. Having fought at Lexington, he was later promoted to captain by Gen. George Washington. John married Dorothy Hamilton a sister of Alexander Hamilton. Their son, Samuel, moved to Aurora at age 29. Samuel married Julia Forward, the daughter of Judge Samuel Forward. Julia died and Samuel married Anna McKinney. Charles was the son from this second marriage.

As a young boy he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Charles later recalled …“I remember one day resting with my brother under the shade of a tree near our Ohio homestead. ‘What will you be?’ asked my brother. ‘I will be a traveler and see the world.’” At age 17 he set out to fulfill his goal. In 1849 Charles left Aurora and headed for the California gold fields. Among the first to arrive in the gold field area of the Sierra Nevada mountains he made a small fortune. In 1888, he wrote a book, "A Third of a Century in the Gold Fields," which detailed his adventures. During his journey west he and his companions were rescued by a wagon train, camped with Pony Express riders, and fought for his life with hostile Indians. Lacking sufficient funds he fashioned himself as a doctor, pulling teeth, performing minor surgeries, and selling pills made of bread. After success in California he was attracted to the gold fields of Australia. He later became a traveling entertainer.

In 1881 he received a letter from his sister in Aurora. It was not the first that the family had sent without having received any replies. Not hearing from him she concluded that he had died. Charles decided to return home. He travelled by steamer to San Francisco and then by rail to Cleveland and on to Aurora. Charles wrote that … “I left an impetuous, inconsiderate beardless boy of seventeen years and returned a gray bearded, bald-headed man of fifty, to learn that my father and mother had long since passed over to the other shore, whence no traveler returns; that two brothers and four sisters had joined them; that of a once large family of children only three brothers and a sister remain.” He stayed only a few days before returning to his California home. He died in 1925 and is buried in Chico, California.

Archibald Willard

Archibald MacNeal Willard was the son of Samuel Willard, born on August 22, 1836 in Bedford, Ohio. His father Samuel became the leader of the Baptist congregation in Aurora in 1843. Archibald grew up in the Baptists parsonage located on Maple Lane. It is said that even though Samuel was not a very good preacher and that the congregations interest in “the cause of Zion drooped,” he was successful at fathering a son who became a renowned painter.

Early in life Archibald displayed his boyhood interest in art doodling on barns and other structures. He moved to Wellington, Ohio as a young man and was employed as a wagon painter. In his spare time he used his artistic skills painting elaborate popular decorations. In 1863, Archibald enlisted in the 86th Ohio Infantry during the Civil War. He did not see major action in the war and had time to paint several scenes from the war. When the war ended he returned to Wellington. Inspired by a July 4th parade in 1875 he painted Yankee Doodle also known as The Fourth of July Musicians, today known as The Spirit of ’76.

The painting was displayed at the nation’s Centennial Exposition in 1876. Held in Philadelphia the Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Even though President Grant praised the painting it was placed in the Art Annex and did not receive significant recognition. One art critic called the work “oppressive.” The painting was done from a sketch of three men dancing and singing. Archibald used his father Samuel as the model for the middle drummer. He had great admiration for his father’s work as a minister and was proud of his grandfather’s participation in the American Revolution. The painting is displayed in Abbot Hall in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Willard died in 1918 and is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Wellington, Ohio.

James Harrison Donahey

James Harrison (Hal) Donahey, was born on April 8, 1875, to John Catherine Donahey of West Chester, Ohio. His experience with a newspaper was with the Ohio Democrat published weekly in New Philadelphia where he was a “printer’s devil,” and apprentice. He then worked as a cartoonist for the Coshocton Democrat-Standard and the New Philadelphia Times. Hal studied at the Cleveland School of Art. In 1896 he became an illustrator for the Cleveland World before taking a position with The Plain Dealer.

Donahey gained notoriety during the 1907 Cleveland mayoral election. His political cartoons in support of Mayor Tom L. Johnson were drawn in the same manner of those of the famous Thomas Nast whose cartoons led to the downfall of the corrupt New York City administration of Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall political machine. Johnson’s opponent had been supported by the Cleveland Leader, which had brought political cartoonist Homer Davenport from the New York Journal to duel with Donahey. Donahey’s “clever, adroit, yet unabusive coverage” of the campaign led to Johnson’s victory and brought acclaim for the Plain Dealer.

In 1907, Donahey published one of his most well-known cartoons recognizing the passing of Mark Twain. The drawing shows both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sadly floating down river on log raft. His cartoons depicted political satire, yet he also displayed his warmth and attraction to small town America. He continually drew cartoons of “Brownie’s” market in Aurora which was located in the large brick building in front of the Aurora Train Station on East Garfield. He also drew cartoons of Harmon’s general store which now is the home of the Wayside Workshop adjacent to the 1815 Tavern.

Artist James Harrison Donahey drew many cartoons of “Brownie’s” market in Aurora, which was located in the large brick building in front of the Aurora Train Station on East Garfield.

Hal and his wife, Beatrice, moved to Aurora in 1929, purchasing a 31-acre farm along South Chillicothe Road, the site of the Isaac Blair house. The land was initially part of the A.B. Smythe “Commuter Village” development which failed with the stock market crash. Donahey sold all but 4.5 acres of land to a developer of the Highlands. Donahey was well known in the community for his apple orchard where he held annual picnics featuring his apple butter. He loved nature and was considered a “gentleman farmer.” In addition to his artistic skills as a cartoonist, he was also a sculptor and bird watcher. Donahey died at home in 1949 and is buried in East Avenue Cemetery in New Philadelphia.

Although they may have lived in Aurora for only a brief period, each man at various stages of their lives was inspired in some way by its small town, rural character.