Phrenologically Kind

Week 51: #52 Ancestors – Nice

By Eilene Lyon

“…one who is still frequently upon our streets, the fruits of whose labor all of us are reaping more or less, one of those by whom the world is more benefited than is by the world acknowledged…”

Don’t let that stern countenance fool you. William Painter was known for his talents and generosity. So much so that despite his thriving businesses and extensive land holdings, he essentially gave it all away and died a poor, but beloved, man.

The American Phrenological Journal published this portrait in 1858 in a one-page article about Painter. It’s odd to read about personality and intelligence based on the shape of one’s cranium. This “science” has been thoroughly debunked, of course.

“His head rises high from the ears upward to the location of Firmness and Conscientiousness, indicating stability, determination, a strong will, self-reliance, and general integrity, and a tendency to be at the head of affairs.”

“He appears to have large benevolence, as seen by that elevation above the root of the nose, under the hair. His kindness, however, is shown in a practical way among his acquaintances, not in speculative schemes of philanthropy…If a person is sick and in trouble, his sympathy and kindness are exercised liberally…”1

Thus, the phrenologist observed William’s character and attempted to explain it by attaching significance to physical features. Let’s face it, though, he was just a nice guy, regardless of his looks and bone structure.

William Walter Painter, my 3rd great-grandfather, was born in Greene County, Ohio, in 1821. The Painters were Quaker pioneers from Virginia, and they established a village called Paintersville (still on the map, but not really a town).2

His first wife was Caroline Fawcett who died less than a year after the marriage.3 William then married Elizabeth “Betsy” Self.4 He took the family to Wisconsin for a short time, then to Winneshiek County, Iowa, in 1849.5,6 William and Betsy had two children by then, Meltha Lucinda and David. Their son, George Patten Painter, was the first white child born in Winneshiek County. Two more daughters and two more sons followed.

The government had recently removed the Native Americans from northeastern Iowa and William had scouted the area that would become Decorah, the county seat. The river and springs held great promise for his “visions of mill-wheels, mill-stones, of saw-mills, turning lathes, possibly of woolen mills even…”7

He was preceded in his move by only one other white family, the Days, who settled east of William’s claim. William owned and platted the west side of Decorah and donated half the land for the county courthouse. The Days donated the other half.8

Dunnings3.JPG
Dunning’s Spring, Decorah, Iowa. Site of William Painter’s first mill. (E. Lyon 2012)

Dunnings13

William had excellent mechanical skills which he primarily put to use in the milling industry. His first mill was built at what became known as Dunning’s Spring.9 He later built a mill-race in the heart of Decorah and erected a gristmill, originally a wood structure, but later enclosed in a building made from local limestone.10

Both of these mills “were powered by water turbines that he built himself. Only a very few had the knowledge and skill to build one, and Painter was one of these. He was apparently a master tinner as well as a millwright, and therefore had the ability to solder up water turbines out of sheet copper.”11

Though he sold this mill in 1866, it continued operating until 1963 and is now a part of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American museum.12 After selling out in Decorah, he built a mill in the northeast part of the county, near Highlandville. He also operated a tannery. Later, he owned a sawmill in Fayette County, Iowa, before moving to Codington County, South Dakota.13

PainterMill6
William Painter’s second mill in Decorah, Iowa. Now part of the Vesterhiem Museum. The inner mill workings have been removed. (E. Lyon 2012)

William was a civic-minded man. He dug the first well in Decorah, which benefited many. He ran for public office a number of times. In 1852, he ran for county coroner, losing 66 to 44. He ran unopposed for Drainage Commissioner in 1854. In 1855, he ran for County Judge, obtaining a grand total of 10 votes. He was not in last place, though. Two others trailed behind with 9 votes and 1 vote, respectively.14

Despite his intelligence, William’s generosity didn’t help his finances. In an 1891 article in the Decorah Republican, Mr. A. Bradish recalled buying property from William Painter. In one case Mr. Bradish bought lots for $20, which he then sold for $1,500. In regard to another purchase, Bradish said, “I bought ninety feet front over there of Painter for five dollars. It was a sort of gift. Painter said he had partly decided to give those lots to a man who would start a blacksmith shop.”15

DecorahIA6
A two-block-long street in Decorah named for city founder, William Painter. (E. Lyon 2012)

One of his obituaries tells a bit more about his character, “He was unselfish, but constructive and industrious. Others gleaned wealth after his sowing, and he lived and died poor in this world’s goods. His impulses were generous, his habits correct, and in spite of a lack of educational advantages he showed himself the possessor of intelligence and talent in the departments of work and study to which he gave his attention.”16

PainterWilliam1
Headstone for William Painter and Betsy Self in the Dexter Cemetery, Codington County, South Dakota. (E. Lyon 2012)

Feature Image: William Painter c. 1855. American Phrenological Journal.

Opening quote: History of Winneshiek County p. 263

 


  1. “William Painter Phrenological Character and Biography.” 1858. The American Phrenological Journal 27:5 p. 73. 
  2. History of Greene County, Ohio: Its People, Industries, and Institutions, Vol. 1. 1918. Edited by M. A. Broadstone. B. F. Bowen Co., Indianapolis. p. 232. 
  3. William Painter and Caroline Fawcett. Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X8QB-X4W : 10 December 2017); citing Greene, Ohio, United States, reference P 96; county courthouses, Ohio; FHL microfilm 534,106. 
  4. William Painter and Elizabeth Self. Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X8Q1-F44 : 10 December 2017); citing Greene, Ohio, United States, reference p 40 #37; county courthouses, Ohio; FHL microfilm 534,106. 
  5. Painter, D. A. 1856 Iowa Census. Iowa, State Census Collection, 1836-1925, Ancestry.com. Iowa, State Census Collection, 1836-1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007. Gives birthplace as Wisconsin. 
  6. Alexander, W. E. 1882. History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties, Iowa. Western Publishing Company, Sioux City. p. 241. 
  7. Ibid. p. 263. 
  8. Ibid. p. 213. Obituary clipping from the Decorah Republican, August 7, 1902, states that he owned and platted the west half of Decorah. 
  9. Ibid. p. 264. 
  10. Ibid. p. 264. This building is on the National Register of Historic Places. 
  11. Johnson, Steven and James Hippen. 2006. “The Painter-Bernatz Stone Mill.” Vesterheim Magazine 4:1, p. 27. 
  12. “Old Stone Mill” National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Application Form. 
  13. Obituary for William Painter. Unlabeled newspaper clipping dated August 13, 1902. 
  14. History of Winneshiek. pp. 195 – 199. 
  15. “A Reminiscent Item.” Decorah Republican, by A. K. Bailey & Son. August 9, 1891. 
  16. “Death of William Painter.” Decorah Republican, August 7, 1902, p. 2, col. 5. 

17 thoughts on “Phrenologically Kind

Add yours

    1. Thanks! I thought Decorah was a very nice town. I was a bit disappointed that the large mill had been gutted. And Painter didn’t have any real connection with the Norwegians that the museum celebrates (aside from being neighbors, I suppose).

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