In the 1920s Frances Pearson Meeks left Danville and took a trip down memory lane to the state where she was born. She visited the area where her father Gustavus Pearson and her grandfather John Pearson took part in the 1849 California gold rush. Among the post cards from the excursion is one with James W. Marshall’s picture on it. He discovered the gold that sparked the gold rush. The following is scribbled on the back of the card, “His discovery gave fame to the state, made romantic local history, and changed much of the course of human events.” It was estimated the discovery of gold drew 300,000 people to the state.

Frances was born in California in 1870, decades after her father had make the long trek overland to seek his fortune in the precious metal. He did make a fortune but it wasn’t in gold. He prospered as an entrepreneur by developing land and investing in mills and other enterprises. Late in life he described himself as a financier.

When Gustavas participated in the California gold rush, he and his companions were credited by historians with establishing the first wagon road from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles when they made their way to the gold fields. He is also credited with being among the first to explore Yosemite Valley. During the time he spent in California he developed vineyards and a mill among other endeavors. Historians report he shipped the first thousand barrels of wine cross country from the Golden State. He had many successes in California but when it became time for Frances to be educated, he returned to Vermilion County so she could attend school in Danville. It was California’s loss and a gain for Illinois when the remarkable family returned to the Prairie State.

Gustavus had arrived in Danville in 1832 with his parents, John and Elizabeth, when he was nearly 5 years old. His father John was a lawyer who also became a judge and a successful real estate investor. When Gustavus returned he lived out the rest of his life in a home he built and entitled Spring Glen in Danville. He built a hotel in the city and followed other business interests. He also authored a fine history of Vermilion County.

After she had finished her education in Danville, Frances attended Michigan State Normal and Cornell University. She was reportedly one of the first women admitted to the latter school. She furthered her education by doing graduate work at Illinois Wesleyan University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois. Following her education she returned to Danville where she embarked on a teaching career while also working tirelessly to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Danville.

She was a staunch advocate for improving the educational system and gaining equal rights for women.

Educator and historian Katherine Stapp recalled Frances was a remarkable woman who had a presence about her that exuded confidence. She smiled when she recalled how Francis expressed her opinion in a meeting where her male counterparts were ruling the conversation. “Excuse me, but I do have an opinion,” Stapp recalled she said as she gained the floor to express her views. She observed Francis was never one to take a non-participating role as she “lighted pathways for others to follow.” She founded and led many organizations during her life and also provided financial assistance and scholarships for numerous students.

Francis married James Meeks in 1898 and spent eight years with him in Washington D.C. after he was elected to Congress in 1932. But it was in Danville where she spent most of the eventful 92 years of her life. In their book Women Of Conscience, authors Janet Duitsman Cornelius and Martha Lefrenze Kay title Francis Pearson Meeks one of the foremost community leaders in Danville history. That she was.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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