In going through some family material, I came across this autobiography of my great grandfather, William S. Cornelius. I guess everyone referred to him as “W.S.” This autobiography was written on April 12, 1942 when he was 81 years old. He still had another 20 years to go!
It’s great to have this written account and it is contained in the Cornelius Roots and Shoots book written by Uncle Jay Cornelius, one of William’s sons.
Brief Autobiography of William S. Cornelius
April 12, 1942
I was born near Delavan, Tazewell County, Illinois February 14, 1861, and lived there for eighteen years except for one-half year I lived in Missouri. We left Illinois on June 26, 1879 for Columbus, Cherokee County, Kansas to join my Uncle Edward who had left in March 1879. The whole family moved except for two little sisters. One had died before we left Tazewell County and the other, Sarah, died on the trip and was buried near Hannibal, Missouri, where we crossed the Mississippi River by ferry.
Father and I worked for Les Patterson, whose wife was a “school-marm” until the early part of 1882. On February 8 of that year, I started for California by train, came through Salt Lake City, Utah. They were just putting up the big Mormon Temple and I stayed over one day and attended the Mormon Communion meeting that evening.
I arrived at The Willows, California on February 17, 1882. I came out with Frank and Marion Hilliard and we went over to Dr. Hugh Glenn’s Ranch Headquarters at Jacinto, east of The Willows on the Sacramento River. Frank had come out to California seven years before and had a good job as foreman of the Glenn Ranch. The next morning I had a job about three miles southwest of the Headquarters on the G.W. Hoag Ranch. Charles Newman was the boss.
I worked there about two and a half years, then went into stable boss and then herded geese off of the wheat fields during the winter months. The bookkeeper and foreman for the goose herders was W.P. Mason. I rode a horse most of the time while herding; her name was Daisy. She was a good mare because you could shoot off of her and she wouldn’t scare. We herded from the first of November to the first day of May and used Winchester rifles “45-60,” which used big bullets and made lots of noise. I killed hundreds of geese and just let them lay. A Chinaman on the ranch moulded and loaded all of the ammunition for the seven herders. They bought lead by the bar and powder by the keg. We had to save our empty shells for reloading.
The important thing was to keep the geese moving and not to let them light. The foreman said that the best herders killed the fewest geese. Each herder had a regular beat to follow. About a half section was an average beat. We were paid $30 cash per month, plus board and room, and they supplied us with a horse and ammunition.
In 1885 I went over to the Glen Ranch Headquarters and worked with the Hilliard boys. There were many Chinese around at that time. Every town had a Chinatown and everyone who could afford it had a Chinese cook and laundryman. I had herded about two months for the Glenn Ranch when I received a telegram that my father was very ill, so I immediately left for Columbus. But when I arrived back home in Kansas, Father had died a few days before, On Christmas Day, December 28, 1885.
I stayed there for a while and farmed Father’s place. I had bought a team of horses and a little equipment. Mother later married David Lewis and moved to town. Lewis was a butcher in a partnership with a man by the name of Duncan. I decided to return to California the following spring, so sold the team and machinery and rented the place out.
I went back to California to work on the Dr. Glenn Ranch in the summer of 1886. I got the same job back again that I had before. The same job I had the day that Dr. Glenn was shot and killed on February 11, 1883.
I went to work on the Mud Ranch, also owned by Doc Glenn, and that was in 1886 and Jim Snowden was then the foreman. I drove a jerk-line team of ten mules. They never allowed less than ten for each foreman, there were usually about fifteen for each foreman. We were never allowed to let our team stop and rest. Each driver had a big black snake whip. A driver could either ride a mule or walk or sit on the wagon and had to pull off of the road if anything went wrong. I quit the Mud Ranch and went to work for Jim Boyd for a while, then from there went to Vacaville for one winter and worked for Duff Hawkins as a roustabout. I finally decided to return to Kansas. I married Cassie S. Evans in Columbus on February 14, 1888 and had planned to return to California to make our home, but Mrs. Evans objected to Cassie leaving Kansas because she was not yet eighteen years old. So, we stayed in Kansas.
Times were very hard in the 1890s. I sold fat hogs for $2.25 per head. I worked hard; all horses and walking machinery. Had to hunt and trap in spare time to make a living. Corn was selling for 10 to 12 cents a bushel. There was a $400 mortgage on the home place when my father, Jesse, died that hadn’t been paid. So I farmed it and rented an adjoining 80 acres. I had about $100 left so bought thirty-seven shoats. I cut and threshed my grain and ground it to fatten the hogs to sell so that I could pay off the mortgage. Later bought 40 acres, [another] 80 acres and [then] another 40 acres from Tommy Orbison. Then, in 1910, I sold and traded the Kansas land and bought and moved to a new farm in Perkins County, Nebraska. The war started a few years later and farm products went sky high and I made a “barrel of money” in just a few years. I bought a big house in town for $4,500 [in] Madrid, Nebraska, in 1918 and moved there, leaving the farms for the boys to run (Evan, Leland and Floyd).
In February 1922, when I was the President of the Farmer’s Union of Perkins County, I made a trip to Sacramento, California with seven carloads of hogs. I sold them all there in Sacramento and went up to Willows, California to see if any of my old friends were still there. Found Marion Hilliard working for Golden State Orchards south of Hamilton City (Monroeville). We had a good long visit – too long – I missed the train back to Orland. I still liked California, so bought a house and 10 acres on south side of Orland, California for $7,000 and moved there in June 1922 with my wife Cassie and two children, Gladys and General. This is where I am living now.