By Gwendolyn Danner
The Harvard Herald
21 September, 1984
Northwest Herald, used with permission

[Notes added to clarify and correct]

The modern portion of this story began on Sept. 5, 1984, when a member of the Greater Harvard Area Historical Society called a member of the board of that group to ask if the Society could do anything about the Harvard man, whose body was listed as one of those unclaimed at the mausoleum which is about to be razed at Rockford. The G. H. A. H. S. Board member thought perhaps something could be done, and the wheels started rolling. Rather, the bells started ringing, because much of the business involved in this effort was transacted by telephone.

The story is part detective story stuff, part a love story, and it began a long time ago when Harvard was a very new town. The Ayer family had come to Big Foot Prairie from Kenosha in 1846. They had come to Kenosha in 1836, and there several of their children had been born, among them almost certainly their second daughter, Annie. Their oldest child was the first white girl born in Kenosha County, and Annie was the next child.

But by the time they moved south from Big Foot Prairie, she was a young lady and in January of 1858 she married Abner J. Burbank, Harvard's first station master, and in September of that year a son was born to them. Annie named him Elbridge Ayer for her father, little dreaming that one day that unusual name would be the reason he would be rescued from an unmarked grave in a different town.

He would have a younger brother and a sister, he would undoubtedly have gone to school during the War years [Note: Civil War 1861-65] and later in the Harvard school, and probably there and at home drawn pictures for and of everyone he came in contact with. The McHenry County History that was published in 1885 says that at that time he was a portrait painter in St. Paul, Minn. and his whole life seems to have been dedicated to that type of work.

It was rare indeed, for people to go to Europe in those days, but he would not only go, he would be a student in Munich and Paris. We do not know whether he had been a student at the Academy of Design in Chicago before that time but it seems likely that there would be where he had gone first [Note: Every current source states he did attend the Academy of Design, but we do not have a source document]. Probably with that school's encouragement, he went on to the world famous European teachers with whom he studied abroad.

At any rate, he had an established reputation as a portrait painter when his Uncle Edward Ayer commissioned him to do a series of painting of numerous Indian chiefs. He had started doing these in 1897, and most of the early years of the 20th century would go into this work. Although by this time he was in his early 40s, he had not previously married according to his account of his life in Who's Who [Note: Burbank was married to Alice Blanche Wheeler in Rockford, IL on 4 November, 1880 - Burbank was 22]. The oldest of these books examined was that for 1909, and from then through 1937 each new volume carried his name. Following that date, there is a referral to those seeking information to see Volume X of these books for another two or three years, and then the name is dropped, although his death would not occur until 1949.

He fell quite in love with the western part of our country and lived in that area for some years. He lived on many Indian reservations, learned to speak several Indian dialects with some degree of volubility. Eventually, perhaps in 1905, in Valentine, Neb. he married Nettle B. Kalblinger. I say "perhaps," because although that is the date given in the earlier volumnes, he later changes the date to 1909 and it is so in the 1937 edition. There is no record of her death, nor of a divorce. Yet, in 1913, at the time of her mother's death, Blanche Alice Wheeler's name is listed as Mrs. E. A. Burbank and her address is given as Chicago. There is never any change in the Who's Who, except in the matter of the date of the marriage to Nettie Kalblinger. [Note: Other sources state he married Nettie Tabor in California on 10 June, 1909 - need original document]

Fred Carson, who was the G. H. A. H. S. member who first noticed the name in the unclaimed list of bodies, had known Mr. Burbank while he was a school child. He recalls that the artist never minded the children stopping on their way home from school when he would be painting. Those times when he would have his work outside on the lawn, the children were welcome to stop and watch, and could even ask questions. If he were painting inside when it was cold or windy or he had a sitter for a portrait, he never objected to the children standing with their faces against the window. Then when Fred Carson was in high school, he shoveled the walks for the family. [Note: We would like information as to actual addresses for Burbank and his parents in Harvard - as well as the address of Burbank's studio referenced in this paragraph]

The Harvard Historical Society has spent a good deal of time trying to find any relatives but no one has come up with any but President Ford and Mrs. Paul Marcks and their relationship is fairly distant. So the Society has been busy making arrangements. Thanks to the kindness of Mount Auburn Cemetery Association Board and Russell Johnson, and the kindness and generosity of L. Ben Saunders, along with the support of Harvard's City Council, it will be possible to bring this native son home to Harvard - the place he listed as "Home" in Who's Who, many times when he was far away as well as when he really was a resident.

He won many awards for his paintings and they are said to be retained at the Newberry Library, the Chicago Historical Society, the Art Institute and the Field Museum, all in Chicago, the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and the Thurber Gallery. Besides his oils, he did some 1800 red chalk drawings of Indians of all stations in their tribes. Some of these are still said to be in a fair state of order, although chalk is notoriously hard to keep. There is also a book which he helped with about his life, called "Burbank among the Indians" it is interesting, and. tells about his adventures within the different Indian tribes.

There are said to be a few pieces of his work right here in Harvard. The Stahl Insurance Agency is the proud possessor of one such item. Others have copies of various items and Burley Galvin had at one time several things that had been given to him or he had acquired because Burbank was a friend, but with his usual generosity, he had given many of these things to others. Mr. Burbank had also illustrated a book of poems and vignettes by White Fox Skyhawk, an Indian poet with whom he was close friends. A plaque has been made of some of the poems and I have seen the one called the Pony Express, with the poem of the same name beneath the picture. I had hoped to borrow it, so that it might be reproduced but was not able to talk to the owner.

When we talk of his pictures, you might be interested to know that a few years ago when the G.H.A.H.S. had even less money than they do now, a lady in California wrote to them about a Burbank picture she had. His Indian pictures are most valuable but she had a full length portrait of a white women (sic) she thought was a member of the Burbank or Ayer families. She did not offer any assurances that it was, and she wanted $5,000 for it. Needless to say, the Society did not buy it, but the fact is mentioned just to show the honor in which his work is still held.

We would welcome any further information anyone can give us. We know he grew up here, the house that used to be across from the library but now is one lot east was his parents' home at one time. He lived here off and on much of his life. He lived in Rockford in 1910 and in Chicago in 1913.

Sometime later he and Blanche Alice were divorced and she remarried. That husband was Jeremiah O'Sullivan. When the Abbey mausoleum was built he bought two crypts for himself and his Wife. It was the fashionable place to inter your dead at that time, and as it says in the Rockford account of the early days of the now dying building, it was also very expensive. When her second husband died in 1946, Blanche Alice interred him there.

Three years later Elbridge Ayer Burbank died in Colma, Calif. [Note: Burbank died at the Laguna Honda Home in San Francisco] and was buried there. He and his wife had evidently had a reconciliation after her second husband's death, although it had not progressed as far as remarriage. Anyway, she had his body disinterred in Colma, cremated [Note: Burbank was cremated and interred in Olivet Memorial Park - before Blanche's request to have his ashes moved] and brought to the mausoleum in Rockford. And when she died in 1953, she was interred between the two husbands.

At present, plans are to inter all three urns in the mausoleum in Harvard in Mount Auburn. It had been her express wish that they be kept together, and it is hoped that this will last for them forever. The Harvard Society - the G. H. A. H. S. - expect to have a brief service when the bodies are brought to Harvard [Note: all three were moved as ashes]. There will be a notice in the Herald.