By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
GODFREY — Compared to the long list of famous people who have emerged from the region, Capt. Benjamin Godfrey never quite got his due.
Arguably, though, he was as financially successful and contributed as much if not more to the well-being of the community than anyone honored with a statue.
Now, after a lull, a committee is picking up its effort to pull Godfrey’s name from relative obscurity. Despite having an entire town named in his honor, many people are unfamiliar with the man who blazed trails on land and water more than 180 years ago.
Fund-raising has resumed on a project to create a trail in honor of Godfrey, marking the site of his home, his grave, points at Lewis and Clark Community College and other sites that were important to his legacy.
Godfrey was significant to the mid-19th century. A former schooner master who carried the title of “Capt. Godfrey,” he platted the village of Monticello, which became Godfrey. He founded the Monticello Female Seminary, which is today the home of the LCCC campus. He helped charter the Alton & Sangamon Railroad. He made fortunes in river and rail shipping, lost some of that fortune, remade it and eventually gave much of it back to the community.
His philanthropy still has meaning today, said Zeke Jabusch, a longtime North Alton-Godfrey businessman who is heading up the fund-raising committee’s effort.
“The reason we chose Benjamin Godfrey, he brings to bear a spirit of vision and entrepreneurship and sense of community that is sadly lacking in our country,” Jabusch said. “He recognized that in order for growth to occur anywhere there have to be partnerships, there have to be relationships, there have to desires among people to move forward.”
An example of a necessary relationship is that of neighboring Alton and Godfrey, where there have been rifts through the years.
“Not outwardly, but politically, which dispels the notion of growth, not only those two communities, but the region. In order to grow, there has to be a desire for partnership,” Jabusch said.
“We think, in our study of Benjamin Godfrey, that he had just that (desire). All of those he related to historically have gone down in the annals of time as being pretty forward-thinking men.”
One of those was Abraham Lincoln, who served as Godfrey’s attorney for some of Godfrey’s railroad work.
Another was Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist newspaper man killed for his views in 1837 in Alton. Lovejoy’s press was housed in a warehouse owned by Godfrey and a business partner at the corner of William Street and West Broadway.
Godfrey supported the philosophy that men could do better for the world around them, and he showed it in word and deed. Oddly, he had spent the early part of his sailing years as a hauler of slaves before he had a conversion of conscience. He spoke little of those years after his move to Alton from New Orleans in 1832.
Jabusch says the committee wants to partner with entities “that can help us in moving the project forward.” On that list he includes organizations and businesses.
“In terms of our fund-raising efforts, we’re looking at those organizations that have a belief in community. We’ve been successful up to date,” he said.
The overall project cost is around $90,000. Supporters have raised around $12,000 to date. Grant money — around $10,000 — is also a possibility.
The group began its efforts more than three years ago, originally meeting with Judy Hoffman, now deceased, who had written a book on the history of the community of Godfrey. She and others helped get the effort off the ground, but after a handful of meetings the effort subsided.
“It lay fallow for about a year and a half, and I decided we had to do something. We reinstituted and reformed the committee, we tried to staff the committee with people who had interests, historically, in the community.”
The committee includes Don Huber, Brett Stawar, John Rain, Chuck West, Linda Nevlin, representatives from the school district, college, cemetery, businesses and elsewhere.
Supporters want to base the campaign on multiple platforms — a brochure, curriculum in the schools including a children’s book, and a trail with site plaques.
The group has already produced the brochure — a slick foldout much like a map with photos — with the help of genealogists from Hayner Public Library District in Alton and the Monticello Foundation, which underwrote the cost of the brochure.
The envisioned book would be a continuation of an existing children’s series that is used by third- and fourth-graders in the Alton district. The committee is enlisting the district’s classrooms and graphic arts department to assist in the illustrations.
The Daughters of the American Revolution has stepped up to assist with a grant application for work to be done at Godfrey’s grave in Godfrey Cemetery, 732 Mulberry St.
“Very few people know he’s buried there,” Jabusch said. Godfrey died in 1862 at age 67.
The Illinois Historical Society has agreed to recognize the efforts but is not providing any money toward it.
“The ultimate result in terms of tourism, we think, will be worthwhile,” he said.
The Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau is solidly behind the project, he said, just as the agency has gotten behind efforts involving Lincoln, Lovejoy, Miles Davis and Robert Wadlow.
The Benjamin Godfrey Legacy Trail is no one-day’s walk. Sites are located throughout the community, but several are near each other. In addition to the Lovejoy Warehouse site and the cemetery, the stops will include:
– St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, at Third and Market streets, built by Godfrey in 1834 and the first church in Alton.
– The Hayner Genealogy Library at 401 State St., which houses a collection of artifacts related to Godfrey.
– The starting point of the Alton & Sangamon Railroad, which began at the riverfront, near what is Third and Piasa streets.
– Plank Road, which began at Fourth and Belle streets and was created in 1836 to connect a local quarry with the stone needed during construction on Monticello Female Seminary.
– Monticello College, inspired by his daughters and his belief that woman were entitled to a formal education. The buildings, predominantly Caldwell Hall, are a part of present-day Lewis and Clark.
– Benjamin Godfrey Memorial Chapel, the chapel for both the seminary and a local Congregational church. It is on the LCCC campus.
– The Godfrey Mansion, 6722 Godfrey Road, the site where Godfrey and his family lived, also on the college grounds.
“Those sites we intend to identify by plaque and then tie it in with an audio. The audio will tie in with the book also,” Jabusch said.
A videography is also being prepared, featuring among some of Godfrey’s living descendants as well as characters re-enacting moments of Godfrey’s life. A taste of that was featured last October in a well-attended event at LCCC called, “A Night With Benjamin Godfrey and His Friends.”
“Selfishly, I have to say that’s one of the best events I’ve ever attended,” Jabusch said. “The portrayals were meaningful and the audience was attuned to it. They were enthralled with the presentation. We had a meal, a period meal, that was probably the best the college had ever served up ’til then.”
Sponsors are planning another public function to tie it all together, probably in September, either on the campus or outdoors at the Godfrey Mansion.
Fund-raising has resumed in earnest and will continue at least through May, he said, with supporters and character portrayers taking the message to the community, to businesses, organizations and the public.
“We hope we will have generated enough money to complete the (plaques at the) sites this summer,” he said. The audio and the book publication are also in the works.
“What we want to do is pay as we go,” Jabusch said, estimating it would take at a year to amass what is needed.
The memorial sites will be financed first at a cost of around $15,000.
Among big supporters so far have been Monticello Foundation, the North Alton-Godfrey Business Council and individual benefactors.
Women’s groups are also a targeted audience, particularly because of Godfrey’s effort on behalf of women’s education.
Godfrey was indeed a man ahead of his time, Jabusch said.
“The more I read the more I’m amazed his involvement with people that would carry forward throughout history,” he said.
For more information or to donate toward the project call (618) 465-6676 or (618) 466-8353.
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH