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Biography of Jesse A. Decker

A History of Clay County, Indiana:  Closing of the First Century’s History of the County, and Showing the Growth of its People, Institutions, Industries, and Wealth.  Page 144-147

New York:  Lewis Publishing Company, 1909

(Retrieved from Heritage Quest Online, January 28, 2008)

Jesse A. Decker – The history of a community concerns itself not so much with the machinery of government as with the character of the citizens who are active in its business circles and constitute the essential basis of its political and legal status and its educational and moral progress through their support of interests tending in the line of improvement.  In this connection therefore mention should be made of Jesse A. Decker, for long years a successful merchant of Brazil, where he was engaged in dealing in groceries, provisions, meat, flour and feed from October, 1866 to January, 1908.

J. A. Decker was born January 7, 1841, near Pisgah, Butler county, Ohio.  His father, Obadiah B. Decker, was born in Pennsylvania, January 26, 1816, and having removed westward was married near Piqua, Ohio to Miss Sarah Ann Austin, whose birth occurred in that state August 6, 1821.  His death occurred April 9, 1885, while his wife died November 19, 1883.  They were parents of nine children, all sons, and seven grew to manhood.  Frequently they with their father cast eight Republican votes.  Five of the number are now living:  Jesse A., William W., Elmon A., Andrew S., and Oba A.  During the pioneer epoch in the history of Clay county Obadiah B. Decker brought his family to this locality, arriving on the 16th of August, 1849, after two weeks of travel in a large covered wagon, for this was before the era of railroad building.  The father cut the date of their arrival upon a big beech tree which stood for a number of years thereafter and gave witness of the day of their coming.  Mr. Decker was a shoemaker by trade but in Indiana turned his attention to farming and also engaged in buying furs each winter.  He was likewise well known as a coon hunter and throughout Clay and adjoining counties he was frequently seen taking a lot of furs on horseback to the nearest market.  His son Jesse frequently made these trips with him and the father handled thousands of dollars’ worth of furs each winter.  The father had the assistance of his seven sons (there were no daughters in the family) in clearing up a farm of one hundred and sixty acres.  They cut down and burned large oak trees just to get the land ready for farming.  Deer, turkeys and other kinds of wild game were plentiful and Mr. Decker of this review has seen wild deer within twenty feet of the cabin home in which the family lived.  During the busiest season of the year the father frequently employed hired help and sometimes paid them in flour and meat at a rate of from fifty to seventy-five cents per day or at eight, ten or twelve dollars per month for the summer.  They raised stock of all kinds and each spring and summer the boys of the family would have a great time picking wool, which was carded and spun into cloth from which their winter garments were made.  Log rollings were very common in that locality from 1849 until 1860 and the father would spend from five to fifteen days each spring in assisting his neighbors in that way.  The wives of the helpers would at the same time have a quilting or wool picking and at night there would be a dance or party – festivities which were greatly enjoyed.  Whiskey was always served in those days and Obadiah Decker raised rye and would take the grain to Williamstown, where he had whiskey manufactured.  It sold from twenty-five to thirty-five cents per gallon in those days and was an unadulterated article.  The experiences of pioneer life were utterly unlike the modes of living at the present time.  If there was a death in the community the relatives would go to William West, a cabinet maker of the neighborhood, who manufactured cupboards, tables, bedsteads and chairs.  Receiving an order for a coffin, he would have it ready for the burial the next day, working all night at times to complete his task, and sometimes the varnish was hardly dry at the time of the funeral.  The funeral procession would be composed of farm wagons and people on horseback.  Later a man of the community purchased a spring wagon with which to go to market and church and this was often borrowed to be used for hauling the corpse to the cemetery, the coffin placed in the wagon, with a white bedsheet spread over.

In those early days Mrs. Decker, the mother, rode to church on horseback.  Services were held in a log schoolhouse, the only church at that time being at Cloverland, a representative of the Baptist denomination.  Educational privileges in the early ‘50s were poor.  The teachers were hired by the people of the district, paying so much for each scholar, and the schoolterm covered December, January and February.  The roads were often bad and the weather inclement and these conditions, combined with the amount of work to do on the farm, made it impossible for J.A. Decker and his brothers to attend school for more than about two months in the year.

After attaining his majority Mr. Decker left the farm and came to Brazil, where he attended a graded school taught by Professor Loveless, realizing the fact that his education was inadequate for the demands of the time in a growing and progressive country.  There was probably not a frame schoolhouse in the county in the early ‘50s.  One of the schoolhouses in which he pursued his studies was a low, squatty structure of round logs, with a big fireplace in one end in which could be burned a four-foot log.  The seats were made of split logs, the flat side being dressed smooth, while legs were put in the round side to rest the slab upon and thus was constructed a bench for about a dozen pupils.

Another feature of pioneer life was less pleasant, for in the early days there were horse thieves, robbers and murderers who infested the country and it was an impossibility to arrest the culprits and secure their conviction according to law, for they were banded together and when one of them would get in trouble the others would stand by him until he was cleared.  The good people, therefore, had to organize and eventually broke up the band.  They formed a society known as the Regulators, of which Obadiah Decker became a member.  As time went on the organization grew stronger and more determined to break up the band of outlaws, who were in command of one John A. Clark, who lived on a farm about two miles west of Cloverland in the house now occupied by Charles Hendricks.  Not far distant lived other members of the band and it was arranged between them that when any of them saw an opportunity to trade horses or buy a cow from a family emigrating westward they would pay for the same in counterfeit money.  The mover was left absolutely helpless, for the band would warn him to go on and keep quiet about the transaction or it would be worse for him. On one occasion Clark, in a quarrel with a man in Cloverland, went to his wagon which was standing near, secured the wagon hammer and knocked the man in the head, killing him on the spot, and yet he was not arrested for the crime!  The law abiding people realized that something must be done.  They went to the homes of all whom they knew to be antagonistic to the band, routing them out at night with the intention of lynching the culprits but they escaped, although some were shot.  At different times the law abiding citizens made a raid upon the bandits.  On one occasion, following such a raid, the next morning twelve or fifteen of the bandits, mounted on horseback, rode through Cloverland, shouting that they were going to Deckers, Modesitts and Corbans and take them out and lynch them.  They were all armed with revolvers, dirks and knives.  They reached the Decker home about eight o’clock in the morning and to their surprise found about twenty-five men there who had been after them in the night and were holding counsel as to what to do next.  The bandits, not making their real errand known, said they wanted to buy hogs.  One Nathaniel Modesitt, a man of too much “grit” to quietly accept such an excuse, called out that he would lick any of the party in a fair fight, saying, “You came here for trouble and not for hogs;” but his challenge was not accepted.  The Regulators did not care to enter into an open fight, as they knew that some of their number would be killed or seriously wounded.  Later the whole force of the Regulators was called out with the intention of capturing Clark.  There were over two hundred men who proceeded to Clark’s house in day time but they found him out, learning that he had gone to Terre Haute.  Proceeding to the city, they asked of the authorities permission to find Clark and were told, “Get him if you can.”  They then proceeded to one of Clark’s friends, who kept a den and was noted for stealing.  They did not succeed in finding Clark but took his friend out east of the city across the canal bridge and, placing a rope around his neck, they pulled him up, then let him down, asking him to tell where Clark was.  He did not have the information, however, but he confessed to stealing meat and other supplies.  Clark’s band was so well organized that they kept him out of sight and later the family removed to Illinois.  At length, the band of lawbreakers was broken up but occasionally a horse theft as committed for several years and lesser depredations were committed, so that the Regulators continued their organization until there was no further need of the society, the last call for their aid being made in 1862.  There are still four members of the society living in Brazil:  Lake Modesitt, Sanford Modesitt, and William and Jesse Decker.

There were two men and their families who moved into a cabin near a war widow by the name of Peake, her husband having responded to the call to arms in 1861.  In the fall of 1861 those two men came, strangers to the neighborhood, and settled in the cabin.  No one knew anything about them and it seemed as though they got a living without working for it.  Smokehouses were occasionally robbed of the meat and wheat and corn were also missed at different times.  The two families found they were crowded in the little cabin and made known to the widow that they wished her to move away so they could have her cabin.  She objected and one night she was taken out and all sorts of indignities heaped upon her.  She brought suit against the men and while she was attending trial her house was burned to the ground.  The neighbors then sought of the old-time law of the Regulators, called a meeting, organized and selected officers and plans were made to mete out justice to the two men.  This was in the spring of 1862.  About fifty members of the new society went to the cabin, knocked in the door with a fence rail and grabbed the two criminals (who had pistols under their pillows) before they were aware of what was going on. Taking them a half mile into the woods, they gave them a severe beating and told them to take their families and go and not to stop on this side of the Wabash river.  That was the last movement of the Regulators but it seemed to be the only way to maintain law and order in those days.

During the period of the rebellion the Deckers were true to the stars and stripes.  As there were seven sons in the family, all possessing natural musical talent, they had a martial band of their own and attended the meetings to help create enthusiasm incident to organizing companies for the front.  This they did from the spring of 1861 until August, 1862, when three of the brothers joined the union army, including Jesse A. Decker.

Following the return from the war Mr. Decker was married August 13, 1865, to Miss Lestia A. Kelsey, who was born in Ohio.  That fall Mr. Decker and Henry Moore rented an old-fashioned sawmill, Mr. Decker borrowing three hundred dollars in order to engage in the business of making lumber.  He found at the end of ten months that the work was too hard for him, so he sold out to his partner, clearing, however, four hundred and twenty-five dollars on the transaction.  Removing to Brazil, he bought out David Keeler, who was engaged in the ice cream business where now stands the First National bank.  This was in October, 1866.  After a time he developed his business into a grocery store and for forty-one years after gave his time and energies to that business, which had grown to extensive and profitable proportions.

In 1885 Mr. Decker was called upon to mourn the loss of his wife, who died on the 22d of April of that year.  His father also passed away on the 9th of May while his mother had died on the 10th of November, 1883.  By Mr. Decker’s first marriage there were born three children:  Budd E.; Leuzetta, who died at the age of thirty-one years; and Ira, who died at the age of eleven years.  On the 19th of April, 1887, Mr. Decker was again married, his second union being with Miss Angie Gonter, who was born in Ohio.  Mention of her family is made on another page of this work.  By this marriage there is one son, Benjamin H., who is now studying electrical engineering at the University of Illinois.  Mr. Decker’s son, B. E., is now and has been engaged in the housefurnishing business in Brazil since 1889.  It is managed along progressive lines and in strict accordance with a high standard of commercial ethics.  J.A. Decker stands today as one of the prominent and honored pioneer settlers and few men have more intimate knowledge of the history of Clay county during the past sixty-seven years.


January 28, 2008