REV. WILLIAM BAINBRIDGE DOWNER, a noted teacher of Madison and other counties, distinguished by many years of faithful service, a retired minister of the gospel, living at Cazenovia, was born December 12, 1815, in the town of Smithfield, now Fenner. He came of heroic stock, one of his ancestors having fought under William of Orange at the memorable battle of the Boyne. His father, Joel Downer, was born in Pownal, Vt., November 9, 1780, and came to that part of Cazenovia now known as Fenner in 1802. The father of Joel Downer was John Downer, an early settler of Pownal, Vt., and his grandfather, William Downer, a native of England, whose wife was of Holland descent. John Downer was one of the famous Green Mountain Boys who fought under General Stark in the battle of Bennington. He married Lydia Dunham, of Pownal, Vt., a daughter of Dr. Obadiah Dunham and Lucy Gillett, his wife. Dr. Dunham was a soldier in the French and Indian War, and one of the delegates from Pownal to the Dorset Convention, which took the incipient measures that led to the formation of the State of Vermont. He died in 1813, his wife in 1830, on her ninetieth birthday anniversary. One of her granddaughters, Mrs. Lucy D. Thurber, of New York, died recently in her ninety-third year. Mr. John Downer died at seventy-two years of age, in 1815. His wife died the same year, aged about fifty-eight.
Joel Downer was married in 1806 to Lovina Risley, a native of East Hartford, Conn., who came with her father's family to Smithfield in 1801. Her father, Stephen Risley, was a soldier of the Revolutionary War, and was one of the guard at the execution of Major Andre. Mr. Downer and wife became the parents of nine children, six sons and three daughters, of whom our subject and a twin sister were fifth and sixth in order of birth. All attained maturity, with the exception of one son, who was accidentally killed in infancy. Hiram died in his twenty-fourth year, unmarried. Joel G., the eldest brother, died in Oroville, Cal., in 1867, when sixty years of age, having gone to that State in 1850. His son, Hiram K., served his country faithfully in the War of the Rebellion, and was mortally wounded at the battle of the Wilderness. Joel Downer died on his farm in Fenner, where he had lived some sixty years, May 22, 1865, in his eighty-fifth year. His wife died September 17, 1866, in her eighty-first year. Six of his children taught school more or less; and four of the children--William and Mary (the twins), Luke W., and Cornelia--are now living.
Our subject was reared to farm life, and received a fair schooling in the common schools, besides being for some little time a student at different institutions, and also adding thereto while teaching and by study at home. He began teaching in 1835, when in his twentieth year. He united with the Peterboro Baptist church April 27, 1834, commenced preaching July 5, 1836, and was ordained Christmas Day, 1840, at Three Mile Bay, Jefferson County, N.Y. In 1843-44 he was pastor of the Baptist church in Preston, Chenango County, teaching school in the winter to aid in the support of his family. His marriage took place in Fenner, February 26, 1839, to Harriet L. Fay, who had been his pupil in school. She bore him eight children, of whom five are now living, namely: Mary E., wife of Seymour Spencer, of Syracuse, who has two sons and two daughters; William W., a farmer, of Chittenango; Charles E., of Syracuse, who has one son, Harry Vincent; Flora C., a young lady at home, keeping house for her father; and Henry Lincoln, named after the martyred President, who is married, and has one daughter, born July 4, 1893. When the War of the Rebellion broke out, our subject enlisted at Canastota, being one of the first to enlist from the town of Fenner, but was rejected at Elmira on account of his age, he being then over forty-five. He again enlisted August 25, 1862, at Hamilton, and joined the One Hundred and Fifty-seventh New York Volunteers as a private in Company F. After serving some six months, he was honorably discharged on account of physical disability resulting from over-exertion and fever. He came to his present home in April, 1863, and has since then, with the exception of some two and a half years in Chautauqua County, been numbered among the prominent and respected citizens of Cazenovia. Owing to failing health, he has sometimes been in straitened circumstances, but since January, 1891, has been in receipt of a small pension, a material help well deserved. The home he occupies in Cazenovia was deeded to Mrs. Downer and her children by her father.
Mr. Downer has lived in seven different counties, and taught school in six counties in the State. He is a Republican in politics, and has taken some active part in local affairs, having served as School Commissioner and held various town offices. He was one of the founders of Knowlton Post, No. 160, Grand Army of the Republic, of Cazenovia, his name heading the roster. He was also Chaplain for some years, and has officiated at funerals and on memorial days on various occasions. He is well known in literary and political circles throughout this part of the State as a poet of acknowledged talent and a ready writer and speaker, as well as newspaper correspondent. On November 29, 1892, Mr. Downer suffered a severe bereavement in the loss of his beloved wife, who had been his faithful and devoted companion for over fifty-two years. He first made her acquaintance in 1838, when she became one of his pupils in the district in Fenner in which her parents resided. Mrs. Downer was a woman of true Christian character, having at an early age manifested an interest in religious matters, and united with the Baptist church in Fenner. We quote the following from her obituary notice: "She was the kind and faithful mother of eight children, five of whom survive. Her eldest, William Lorenzo, died November 10, 1862, from a wound received in the battle of Corinth, Miss. At the time her husband was with the army in Virginia, while with her four children, aged respectively fourteen, twelve, seven, and two years, she had charge of a farm of one hundred and twelve acres, and had also the care of her husband's parents, aged respectively eighty-two and seventy-seven years, performing the great task nobly, but to the impairment of her naturally robust constitution. . . . Her life was one of industry and most tender care of her family, thus winning their love while promoting their welfare." An extract from a letter written by our subject two weeks after his wife's death will not be out of place in this biography: "During the War of the Rebellion Mrs. Downer manifested a patriotic interest in the preservation of the Union, and freely consented to her husband's enlistment in the army, though it entailed unwonted cares and labor upon her, which she nobly endured and performed to-the best of her ability. . . . She was quite reluctant to have me attend the Grand Army of the Republic Encampment at Washington, fearing it would be too fatiguing for me, and, when she finally consented to my going, charged me not to march in the grand parade. I marched with the 'boys,' however, and was glad to be able to show her on my return that it did not injure me, notwithstanding my age, this being my seventy-seventh birthday anniversary, my twin sister, Mrs. Lewis Johnson, being also living. Last August we began repairs on our buildings, and had made them much more comfortable for ourselves and our farm stock; but our loved one has made a happy exchange, we trust, for the 'many mansions' of her Heavenly Father." The letter concludes with the following verses, a spontaneous outpouring from the heart of the bereaved husband:--
Farewell, farewell, dear wife, adieu;
To me thou hast been kind and true,
And oft this sorrowing heart of mine
Has beat in unison with thine.
Right well I recollect the time
We two were wed in youthful prime,
When each to each gave solemn vow
Faithful to be from then till now.
O Death, thou hast a fearful sting;
To mortals sorrow thou dost bring;
Asunder tear the ties of life
Which bind the husband to his wife.
But, then, there is another view;
And Death is now a friend so true,
Becomes the gate to endless joy,
Where sin and sorrow ne'er annoy.
Thus may it be for us, my dear
Our mortal union ended here,
We meet again beyond the skies,
Where no disunion can arise.
So will I live in hope, my love,
Of meeting thee in heaven above;
In endless glory there to reign,
Freed from all sorrow, sin, and pain.
It is with such sweet hope and Christian resignation that Mr. Downer bears his heavy loss, his faith enabling him to pierce the gloom of sorrow and see the sunshine beyond, looking to a happy reunion in that fair land where there shall be "no more death, neither sorrow nor crying; for God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes." Besides preaching many sermons and writing essays on different subjects, Mr. Downer has delivered addresses on various occasions of public interest. An agricultural address delivered at Cazenovia in 1866, on the occasion of the town fair, was repeatedly published by the State Agricultural Society in their Transactions (1865 and 1866) and otherwise. Other addresses have been published in the county papers or in pamphlet. Of one of these last Hon. Gerrit Smith, who had known him from childhood, wrote him as follows:--
PETERBORO, March 31, 1872.
My old Neighbor and Friend,--I have this moment finished reading your address before our Association of Teachers. The address is good,--very good. It compares well with other productions of your pen, and that is praise enough to bestow upon it.
Mr. Downer has not engaged in teaching since 1890, having taught that year in a district where he had taught three terms previously. Three of his children--William W., Charles E., and Flora C.--have also taught three or more terms, respectively. His poetical compositions have been written on a great variety of topics. Some of them have been published in papers and otherwise. His last one will appropriately close this narrative:--
To-day returns the solemn hour
When Death our loved one snatched away,
And by his own resistless power
Bore her to realms of endless day.
In sadness, yet with sacred joy,
The wife and mother comes in view;
Our thoughts of her find now employ,
As we the past in thought renew.
We think of her in youthful days,
When life's brief race had just begun;
Or, later, when more sober ways
Had told of conflicts fought and won.
Life's battles must be ever fought
By those who would life's victories win:
We gain life's prize by triumphs wrought
In earnest strife 'gainst self and sin.
Thus fought the wife and mother dear,
The glorious victory to obtain;
And thus she left us mourning here,
Forevermore with Christ to reign.
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