Few men on the threshold of the anniversary of the eightieth year of their age possess the remarkable energy and activity of the subject of this sketch, John I. McCawley, who is and has been for years, the leading spirit in every big enterprise that has been launched in Clay county, Illinois. He is not only the wealthiest man in that county, but has the distinction of being the oldest native born citizen thereof. He is the son of parents who penetrated the unbroken wilderness of Illinois, when hidden dangers menaced their every step. In those early days the great forests of that state were filled with hostile Indians and ferocious beasts. The subject experienced all of the hardships and privations that fell to the lot of the youth of those days, but he had inherited many of the rugged qualities of his courageous ancestors, and the great wealth that he possesses today is the reward of perseverance and industry.
Mr. McCawley was born on the Little Wabash river, about two miles and a half from Clay City, Illinois, August 20, 1829, and has spent his entire life in Clay county. He is a son of John McCawley, a native of Kentucky, who came to Illinois in 1810. Soon after this pioneer had located in Clay county the Black Hawk war broke out, and he was warned by friendly Indians to leave the country, arid realizing that to remain meant sure death he heeded the admonition. He started back to Kentucky with an escort of Indians who accompanied him as far as Vincennes, Indiana. In 1816, when peace had been restored he returned to Clay county, and remained there until his death, in 1854. He was one of the first settlers in this section of Illinois having been born in Jefferson county, Kentucky, December 24, 1782. The grandfather of the subject was James McCawley, a native of Scotland, who afterwards moved to the north of Ireland where he married, and came to America, settling in Jefferson county.
The mother of the subject was Martha Lacey, who was born in Jefferson county, Kentucky, February 4, 1791. She died October 14, 1844. Her parents were of Irish extraction.
Mr. McCawley remained upon his father's farm until he was twenty years of age, and then traveled about the country, spending three or four years in St. Louis, where he traded in stock. He finally engaged in the grocery business at Maysville, then the county seat of Clay county. He was thus engaged for fifteen years, having added dry goods to his stock, after starting. When the Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern, then the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, was finished, in 1856, he moved to Clay City, where he re-embarked in the mercantile business, and until 1898, he had one of the largest establishments in the city. It was at the close of that year that he retired from active business affairs, although his local interests are large and varied, and he gives them personal attention.
On May 17, 1856, the subject was married to Maria L. Moore, who was born in Johnson county, Tennessee, February 9, 1840. Seven children were the fruits of this union: Arthur H., born May 14, 1857, resides in Clay City; Sarah L., wife of John T. Baird, of Olney, Illinois, born December 7, 1858; Martha Maria, wife of Dr. T. L. Leeds, of Michigan City, Indiana; Mina Julia, wife of Oscar W. Gill, of Chicago, born June 25, 1865; John G., born March 5, 1871, lives in St. Louis, in the commission business; Mary Eliza, wife of Richard S. Rowland, lawyer of Olney, Illinois, born September 9, 1873; Lewis W., born February 24, 1871, died August 17, 1905.
Mr. McCawley is a director in the Olney Bank, of Olney, Illinois. He has much money invested in real estate, and owns several large and substantial business blocks in Clay City. At one time he was the owner of three thousand acres of land, but he has disposed of the greater portion of this as it required too much of the time that he desired to devote to his other interests. His wealth is the result of his own thrift and enterprise. He was compelled to enter the battle of life at a very early age, receiving a limited education. The subject's father was blind for twenty years previous to his death, and dutiful son that he was, Mr. McCawley gave him the most tender attention. The subject belongs to both the Masons and Odd Fellows lodges, and in politics is a Democrat. He was the candidate of his party for State Senator ten years ago, but the district being strongly Republican, was defeated with the rest of the ticket. Mr. McCawley was the first Baltimore & Ohio ticket agent at Clay City.
The subject is a man of commanding presence, intellectual features, with a kindly and genial disposition, and is held in high esteem by the people of Clay City, regardless of class or condition. Few men have done as much toward the material progress of this community.
Extracted 27 Apr 2017 by Norma Hass from 1909 Biographical and Reminiscent History of Richland, Clay & Marion Counties, Illinois, pages 309-310