Publisher’s Perspective – Volume 3, Issue 1

‘New’ photo of Civil War soldier (Sunday’s father) surfaces in Ames

Every now and then, I am fortunate to run across a piece of history that has to fall into the “exceptional” category. Such was the case recently when I was visiting the Ames Historical Society, a small group that is determined to keep alive the heritage of this grand city which is best known for being the home of Iowa State University.

While doing research for the cover story of this issue, I called the Ames Historical Society to ask what information was available on Billy Sunday. Soon, I was on my way to Ames, where I met Alan Spohnheimer, a fellow who, like myself, loves history of all sort, but particularly Iowa history.

He is the website administrator and had several file folders on Billy Sunday ready for me to look at, as well as several dozens photographs that he had scanned in over the years. He was very enthused about one recently-acquired photo in particular – and I soon discovered why.

Alan walked to his computer and pulled up a stunning image. It was of a young man sporting a beard, wearing a Civil war uniform. He had a piercing gaze, as though he may have been apprehensive about the conflict he had signed on for.

“This is the only known photo of Billy Sunday’s father,” said Alan. “He joined the Union army several months before Billy was born. He died in Missouri and Billy never saw his father.”

The Ames Historical Society was given a copy of the photo by Ames resident Doug Swanson, who owns and operates The Hobby Shop just a block away from the Ames Historical Building, in the center of town.

And therein lies an intriguing story. Alan took me over to meet Doug, who was happy to show me the huge Bible, circa 1860, that is the centerpiece of the story. His grandmother left the Bible to Doug and as he was leafing through it he found the large photograph of a Union soldier. On the back was written the name “William Sunday.”

Doug’s grandmother told him that her side of the family knew the Sunday family way back into the 1860s, and that the photo had been given to them nearly 150 years ago. Someone tucked it away in the Bible, where Doug discovered it. He was kind enough to let the Ames Historical Society make a copy, and to allow Iowa History Journal to reprint it here.

Billy Sunday survived a tough childhood to become a major league ball player and then the most famous evangelist of his era, maybe of all time. The fact that he never met his father haunted him. In his autobiography, The Sawdust Trail, published in 1932, Billy wrote this:

“I never saw my father. He walked from, Ames, Iowa, to Des Moines, thirty miles, to enlist in the Civil War and was assigned to Company E, Twenty-third Iowa Infantry, in August, 1862. I was born on my grandfather’s farm one mile south of Ames …

“My father was born near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and was of Pennsylvania Dutch parentage. He was a contract and brick mason by trade, and built one of the first brick buildings ever erected in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“He sleeps in an unknown grave beneath the eternal flowers and the perpetual sunshine of the Southland, waiting for the trumpet of Gabriel to sound the reveille on Resurrection morning. Then, for the first time, I shall look into the face of him whose name I bear, and whose blood courses through my veins.”

William Sunday apparently died after he came down with a severe cold when his company of soldiers waded through a party frozen river. Conditions such as these led to the death of many soldiers, on both sides of the war – including the father of the man destined to bring nearly a million souls to Jesus Christ. William was buried at Camp Patterson in Missouri, and in his later years Billy Sunday went to that area to try and find his father’s final resting place, but to no avail.

Perhaps the only photograph of his dad that Billy Sunday ever saw, as a young boy, was the same photo that Doug Swanson found in his family Bible!

For anyone wanting to know what life was like in Iowa in the 1880s, I highly recommend getting The Sawdust Trail. It is a powerful account of not only Billy Sunday’s formative years but of a fascinating era in Iowa history.

A final word: The Ames Historical Museum is a real gem for the state, filled with tons of records, photos, books, newspapers and fascinating stories from out of the past. For instance, Ames has two personal connections with the sinking of the fabled Titanic ocean liner in 1911 – with one casualty and one survivor.

If you want to know more about that tidbit of history, drop in to see the Museum at 416 Douglas, Suite 101. You’ll be glad you did!

(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)