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Jerome Bisby

Resident of Burr Oak, Iowa, during the Ingallses’ stay there. Mr. Bisby was said to have given singing lessons to Laura Ingalls.

On Monday night, the proprietor of the billiard hall in Burr Oak, in putting out the lights, one of the lamps exploded, the oil running down and igniting, set the building on fire in the ceiling. The alarm was given, although late, and the people gathered, and in a few minutes had the flames under control. If the building had burned down, the Burr Oak Hotel would have gone with it, as the two join. – Decorah newspaper, February 1877


In her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder introduces Mr. Bisbee, one of the hotel boarders during the time the Ingalls family lived in Burr Oak, Iowa. Wilder writes: “…Mr. Bisbee, one of the boarders, took a notion to teach me to sing… I would rather play but Mr. Bisbee was one of the richest men in Burr Oak and our best paying, steady boarder. He must be pleased if possible.

She goes on to tell about the time the saloon caught fire, and the men formed a bucket brigade in order to put it out. Mr. Bisbee pumped and pumped (all the time yelling, “Fire!”), but never stepped away with his bucket of water. Finally, another man jerked Mr. Bisbee out of line; the bucket he had been trying to fill had no bottom in it!

And it is from Mr. Bisbee that they rent the little red brick house on the very edge of Burr Oak, the house where Grace Ingalls is born. When the Ingallses decide to return to Walnut Grove still owing him rent money Pa promised to pay, Mr. Bisbee threatens to take the horses to sell for the rent money, prompting Pa to call him a “rich old skinflint.”

Cynthia Rylant used Wilder’s Pioneer Girl manuscripts as the basis for her Mr. Bisbee character in Old Town in the Green Groves. Rylant’s Mr. Bisbee is said “to own a lot of property in town, but he preferred living in a hotel.” (see page 89) She describes him as an old man having “long white whiskers,” and Jim LaMarche depicted Mr. Bisbee as such (see page 132).

One Winneshiek County “Mr. Bisbee” was Benjamin Lee Bisby, born 1826 in New York. In 1851, he moved to Hesper Township, Winneshiek County, Iowa, about two miles east of Burr Oak. He and his wife, Roxy, were always enumerated on the census in Hesper Township, where Mr. Bisby had a bounty claim of 160 acres and smaller parcels of land and town lots, or he was recorded as living in Decorah. He paid personal property taxes in Hesper Township. However, Benjamin Bisby also owned property in Burr Oak, both the house in which Grace was born and various lots west of the Masters Hotel on Lansing Street. Mr. and Mrs. Bisby had no children, but they adopted a son in the 1880s. During the Ingallses’ stay in Burr Oak, this Mr. Benjamin Bisby certainly had a wife; would he likely be a steady boarder at the hotel if he was married?

Benjamin Bisby was indeed a rich man, but the older I get, the less joy I have in hearing someone only slightly younger than I called “old,” skinflint or no. Mr. Bisby was ten years older than Charles Ingalls.

There was another Mr. Bisby in Burr Oak during the Ingallses’ stay there, Benjamin’s brother, Jerome S. Bisby (or S.J. Bisby), a tinsmith, who can be found on the Burr Oak censuses in both 1860 and 1870; he is also listed in the Burr Oak Township Business Directory for 1876, the year the Ingalls family was living there. By 1880 he had moved to Millville (Wabasha County) Minnesota, and was a hardware merchant. He married his wife, Ina, shortly afterwards; they had a son, Lorenzo, born in Wabasha County.

Jerome Bisby was born in 1838 in Pennsylvania and was not married while living in Burr Oak; his tinsmith shop was located on small lot just west of Silver Creek behind the hotel. It is highly likely that Jerome – not Benjamin – was the Mr. Bisby who lived in the hotel, and that the Ingallses knew both brothers?

Benjamin and Jerome’s father, Ezra Bisby, had died in Burr Oak in January 1876 at age seventy-six (their mother Charlotte had died three years earlier); the parents are both buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery. The house in which Grace was born is where Ezra, Charlotte, and Jerome had lived, but was left to Benjamin Bisby after the death of their father. The house is shown in the photo at right.

Benjamin Bisby died in 1895 at age 69; his obituary says that he had lived in Hesper Township until moving to Decorah in 1870, where he had lived for the past 25 years. He and his wife are both buried in Burr Oak Cemetery, but perhaps that was only because his parents were buried there. Jerome married in 1882 and moved to Minnesota.


Mr. Bisbee (PG), correct spelling is Bisby
     Benjamin Bisby
     Jerome Bisby