One of the enduring legends of the 19th century was that of the man who was born in a log cabin, grew up in poverty, but through hard work and frugal living, became a success. The legend was repeated, whether accurate or not. For example, presidential candidate Zachary Taylor claimed to have been born in a log cabin although he was not, because he believed it would make him more appealing to the voters. In contrast, President Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin and rose to become one of America’s most respected presidents.
The legend continued to be repeated at least until the end of the century by people in far more modest circumstances than presidential candidates, but who were successful nonetheless. The legend was used in the Portrait and Biographical Record of John and Pettis Counties, Missouri, printed in 1895, in reference to a Pettis County farmer and stockman.
Alfred L. Stirlen was born in 1857 in Allen County, Indiana, nine miles from Fort Wayne, in a log cabin built by his father, Wilson R. Stirlen, shortly after he had migrated from Ohio to Indiana. His mother, Cynthia Gradless Stirlen, died giving birth to Alfred. His father later remarried, and Alfred was raised by his father and stepmother.
Alfred grew up on the family farm. When he was 20, he moved to Sedalia, a town with a reputation for being a progressive area where a young man who worked hard could prosper. He spent 18 months working on his uncle’s farm near Sedalia. He saved his wages and purchased two horses, paying cash for one and arranging credit to pay for the other.
He rented a small farm and, using the horses as draft animals, began to farm. In 1883, he married Miss Fannie Gorrell, the daughter of Captain John B. and Mary Tabb Gorrell, who lived 10 miles north of Sedalia. The couple would have four children, Nannie Maude, born in 1884; Lura Blanche, born in 1886; Wilson Robert, born in 1888, and Walter Wayne. The three older children survived; Walter Wayne died as an infant.
Unlike many successful men of the late 19th century, Stirlen was not involved in community affairs; he instead concentrated his energy on his farm. He voted a Republican ticket, but was not active in local politics. He and his wife were members of the Baptist Church.
In 1889, Stirlin bought a 170-acre farm in Section 3, Township 45, Range 41, of Pettis County. He began to make improvements to the property, building good fences and other outbuildings. He erected a “comfortable residence,” believed in the 19th century to be the just reward for hard work and frugality. The family home was far more opulent than the cabin in which Stirlen was born, confirming that he had indeed improved his circumstances.
Stirlin, while practicing general farming, was primarily a stockman. He raised Shorthorn and Durham cattle, popular breeds at the time. He raised Poland China hogs, a breed developed in the 19th century in Ohio. He also raised Denmark horses. His stock was said to be “as fine as is to be found in the state.” Stirlen was “recognized as one of the efficient farmers and shrewd businessmen” of Pettis County.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.