From the Wisconsin Phalanx to the Lincoln Highway: The Life of Kate Baker Busey

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AT A TIME WHEN OPPORTUNITIES and forums for women’s
self-expression and social contributions were greatly limited,
Kate Baker Busey became an early pioneer in fighting
racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination through education
and through organizing for social causes throughout
her active and remarkable life.
Kate Baker was born into a family of radical social
reformers in 1855, in Ripon, Wisconsin, and lived her life
putting into practice the social ideals and philosophical
legacy of her family. Her parents, Garret H. Baker and Elmina
Clapp (who kept her maiden name), moved to Wisconsin
in 1848 to join the Wisconsin Phalanx, a commune of
social reformers. The 19 men and one boy who founded the
commune arrived to the area four years earlier, on May 27,
1844, from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Their goal was to put into
practice the ideas of French utopian socialist philosopher
Charles Fourier (1772–1837), who
advocated cooperation as the foundation
of social success. Fourier
envisioned life in cooperative communities,
called phalanxes, where
land and property were communally
owned, work was assigned on the
basis of individual interests and
desires, and compensation was
according to one’s contribution to
society. He advocated the liberation
of all human beings through education
and the liberation of human
passion, and was an early proponent
of women’s rights. Fourier is credited
with introducing the word feminisme
in 1837.
The small band of men at the Wisconsin
Phalanx was soon joined by
others who came with their families,
among them the Bakers, and before
long the population grew to about
200 souls. They constructed several
commonly-owned long-houses, and
named their settlement Ceresco, after Cereste, Roman Goddess
of Harvest. The commune prospered economically until
1849, when former New York steamboat captain David P.
Mapes established a new, commercial village near Ceresco,
which he named Ripon. The Phalanx could not compete with
Mapes’ aggressive commercial development and was dissolved
in 1851. The two settlements consolidated in 1853,
and incorporated in 1858 as the City of Ripon.
Although the Phalanx dissolved, its ideals and spirit survived,
and in 1854 the new village became the birthplace of a
new Party, formed with the explicit goal to abolish slavery.
Following the January 1854 introduction to Congress of the
Kansas-Nebraska Act by Stephen Douglas, which would have
repealed the prohibition on slavery north of latitude 36 30’
west of the Mississippi established by the 1820 Missouri
Compromise, people of anti-slavery sentiment in the Midwest
and Northeast began mobilizing. One such group met at
the small schoolhouse in Ripon on March 20, 1854. Representing
several different parties, they agreed that a unified
front was critical to fight against slavery, and formed a new,
antislavery party, which they called Republican. The chairman
of the meeting was Garrett H.
Baker. The group subsequently played
a leading role in organizing the Republican
Party in several northern states in
the summer of 1854.
In 1858, in company of several
other commune members, the Bakers
moved to Cobden, southern Illinois,
where they established a nursery
and profitable gardening business.
The solution to the question of
slavery came during their early
years in Cobden in the cataclysmic
clash between the North and the
South. Being ardent abolitionists,
the Bakers were part of the underground
railroad, helping escaped
slaves from the South to safety in
the North, and faced frequent conflicts
with their neighbors, among
whom were many southern sympathizers.
Their daughter, Kate, grew
girl hood during the Civil War,
absorbing her parents’ ideals for life.
After completing her schooling, Kate taught in Cobden,
then went to live with a sister who was art director at Saint
Louis School. Suggestion of her own artistic talent is evidenced
by her move to Cincinnati to learn wood carving
in a school run by a man who was interested in teaching
carving to women—an unusual interest at the time. After
completing her studies, Kate began began teaching
minorities. In the 1880s she traveled to Virginia to teach
wood carving to recently freed Afro-American men and
women at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute
(now Hampton University), one of the first colleges established
for African-Americans.
Kate next moved to Champaign, Illinois, where she
worked for her brother-in-law, who was an editor at The
Gazette. During her time there letters were sent by Urbana
resident, Matthew Busey, son of Simeon H. Busey, founder
of Busey Bank, who went west and worked as Indian agent
for the Colorado Indian Agency at Parker, Arizona in
1887–88. He sent regular reports to The Gazette, in which
he also talked about the need for teachers. Kate decided to
move west to answer the call. During her stay she developed
a close relationship with Matthew, and the two were
married in 1890 in Cobden.
The couple settled in Urbana, and in 1893 they bought a
two-story residence at 503 West Elm Street (where Campus
Oak Apartments now stands). This substantial, old building
became not only a home where they raised two daughters,
but also the headquarters for Kate’s social activism. In this
home she opened the first kindergarten in Urbana with a
paid teacher, and organized the first PTA. She frequently
entertained the teachers and parents in her home in an
effort to create better understanding between the two. She
was also involved in the Urbana Woman’s Club, and was
instrumental in instituting household science classes at the
University High School, including walking door to door
collecting signatures for the petition. Kate also spent endless
hours working for women’s suffrage. When this goal was
accomplished, the local suffrage group she belonged to
reorganized as the local League of Women Voters and Kate
continued working with them.
In 1904 the local Alliance Chapter of the Daughters of
American Revolution (DAR) was organized in the Busey’s
Elm Street home, where she entertained the ladies of the
chapter frequently and lavishly, with music and invited
speakers. In 1914, inspired by a talk of invited guest Judge
Joseph O. Cunningham on the “Real Lincoln Highway,”
Kate’ suggested that markers be established for the great
emancipator along the entire length of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, which Lincoln had travelled with
other attorneys between 1837–1857. The
idea was accepted, and Kate organized
nearby DAR chapters for the cause. By
1922–23 commemorative markers were
placed at every courthouse and boundary
line between every county on the circuit.
Refurbished, the Lincoln marker still
stands in front of the Champaign County
Kate Baker Busey died of pheumonia in
1934. This article was written as long overdue
celebration of her legacy.

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