OREGON – Richard Gill trembled as he touched the 148-year-old letter, dated May 26, 1864, and sent to Brookville from the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia by an Ogle County Civil War Army private.
“Not many letters are available from the Andersonville Prison, but I have one,” said Gill, choking up. “To hold these letters in your hands and think of how many times his family members looked at them, it’s a little much.”
Gill, of Tulsa, Okla., made an appearance at the Ogle County Historical Museum a week ago at the invitation of Debbie Dickson, director of the Oregon Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to the rare letter from Andersonville, Gill brought other letters and tintype photos from the Civil War era.
“I’m humbled to be in Oregon and see it all here together representing a young man’s life,” Gill said.
That young man was William W. Guyer, an 18-year-old from Brookville in far western Ogle County who enlisted in the 92nd Volunteer Regiment in 1862.
“Half of that regiment was from Ogle County,” local history expert Bill Bailey said. “They trained at Camp Fuller in Rockford.”
From his time at Camp Fuller to his incarceration at Andersonville, Guyer regularly sent letters to his aunt and uncle, Susan and Frederick Guyer of Brookville, who, it is thought, raised him.
Guyer starved to death in the prison on Aug. 8, 1864.
“Having that many letters is just incredible,” said Bailey, who was on hand for Gill’s presentation.
“As a hobbyist of history, I have read old writings,” Gill said. “The way they communicated, there was a thought process going on. It came from their heart. To think about the terrible conditions Pvt. Guyer was in and his exquisite style of writing ... it’s emotionally touching.”
Guyer’s family eventually left Brookville and settled in Kansas, where the photos and letters were stashed away in an attic. In 1976, a distant relative, Nancy Allison, asked whether she could go through some of the contents of the attic, which the family thought was junk and wanted to throw out.
Allison took Guyer’s letters and photos home with her and stored them away, not really understanding their significance.
Last year, while visiting with Gill at church, she told him about her collection. “I had no idea what it was until I started flipping through the pages,” Gill said. “I had goosebumps on my fingers.”
An attorney assessed the collection at $15,000, and Allison has asked Gill to see whether the state’s library is willing to buy it. His stopover in Oregon was made on his trip to Springfield.
“I’m going to the Abraham Lincoln Library to see if I can find a home for them,” Gill said. “Nancy realizes there is a value for them, and it is possible the library may purchase them.”
Gill has an alternative plan for the Guyer collection, should the state not buy it.
“I promise you this: My failure in Springfield will be your success in Oregon,” said Gill, indicating that the collection then would come to Ogle County.
“It would be my gift to you,” he said.
If the collection ends up downstate, Gill hopes to makes arrangements that allows the Ogle County and Polo historical societies to have access to them whenever they want.