Typical Southern Homestead of
Colonel Reuben May Recalls Many Incidents of His Life

by Robert C. Dunn
(Reprinted from the LaCrosse Tribune, March 29th, 1931)
Article and Photos Courtesy of Dale and Sharon Sternberg of Marshfield, Wisconsin.
Colonel Reuben May (1815-1902)
    Colonel Reuben May, a typical southern gentleman, was, perhaps, never the Toast of the South, but he became an acknowledged figure among the pioneers of Viroqua, where he lived from the time the Civil War ended until his death in 1902. During all of those years he clung to those habits and customs so typical of the South, adapting them to this more northern clime. In the minds of men who today remember him as they saw him when they were youngsters about Viroqua, Colonel May was a huge, strapping fellow--a man with a bit of the dash of the South, a romantic figure. They remember him as they used to see him riding about his great, 700-acre farm four miles west of Viroqua, on what is now Highway No. 50.

In my mind there is a bit of stirring oratory, first spoken by one who has already been forgotten, which gives a mental image of this man and his life. The opening words of the oration remind me of Colonel May, for he was of the New South before it was born. If memory serves faithfully, the name of the oration was "The New South," and it started thus: "There was a South of slavery and tradition. That South is dead. There is a South of Union and Freedom. That South, thank God, is living, breathing, growing every hour."

     That was Colonel May, according to the picture given by relatives and friends who knew him well. He was living, he was breathing, he was growing every hour. There is a romance in those words. Just so there was romance in the Colonel and his life.

Home Among Strangers

The oration goes on: "Dr. Talmadge has painted for you, with a master's hand, the picture..."
And so today is an attempt to paint the picture of this man, practically driven from his home in the South, as he built and progressed in this, a practically new country, among almost a strange people.

     It is only fair to present the picture of Colonel May as he appeared most characteristically of the South. He wore a large-brimmed, black, soft felt hat, and his coat and waistcoat were of fine material. The coat was a long black Prince Albert, hanging nearly to his knees. Riding breeches were what he wore for the most part around the farm, with high leather riding boots. And he was always astride a fine thoroughbred horse he called Prince.

     The story is told that he slept with a revolver under his pillow at night, and that he somewhat feared reprisals from his Kentucky relatives. He had two large wolf hounds and wolf hunting was a favorite sport of his, for there were many of them about the neighborhood at that time. It is said that he was an especially kind master and treated his farm hands kindly. But he was dignified and a bit aloof of mein. He was near six feet in height and broad-shouldered, though his sons were bigger than he.

     His title of Colonel was not a sobriquet. He was fully entitled to it. He enlisted in the Union Army and first served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 8th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry and later as Colonel of the 7th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. Colonel May's parents came to Kentucky from Virginia, and the Colonel was born in Pike County, June 23rd, 1815. On March 5th, 1835, he was married to Miss Emma Honaker of Pike County, whose family moved to Vernon County in 1857.

Editor's Note: Colonel Reuben May was the son of Thomas May (1787-1867) and Dorcas Patton May of Pike County, Kentucky. Owner of a large farm on Shelby Creek, Thomas was the brother of Samuel May, builder of the Samuel May House in Prestonsburg. Reuben was a cousin of Colonel Jack May, Commander of the 5th Kentucky Infantry, C.S.A. and, later, the 10th Kentucky Cavalry, C.S.A. Fourteen years older than Jack, Reuben owned a farm near Manchester in Clay County, Kentucky during the 1850-1860 period.
The two men were close friends, and Jack may have lived with his cousin when he was practicing law in Manchester during the middle 1850s.
Emma Honaker May,
wife of Colonel Reuben May.
                                                  Neighbors Annoyed Him

It was his entrance in the war with the Union forces that led eventually to his coming to Viroqua. Relatives and neighbors depraded his property, killing and carrying off his livestock and burning his barns. His wife with her children set out for Viroqua, knowing she would find safe harbor where her family was already safely ensconced. She bought the property that has ever since been known as the Colonel May property for $1,000, so the story goes. She moved her little family, minus the head of the home, who was still away fighting for his country, to a little house on the place. There they remained until shortly after October 5th, 1864, the date the Colonel was mustered out of the army, when he came to his new home. Colonel May fought in the Battles of Perryville, Laurel Hill, Stone River, Murfreesboro, the Seige of Vicksburg, Jackson, Miss., Comut River, La., Semmes Post, and Yellow Bayou. He was wounded at Murfreesboro and laid up for four months. His son, Tom, was also wounded in the war, losing one eye.

     On his arrival here, he built the house that still stands, a low, rambling structure, typical of southern plantations. What appears to be the main part of the house is really the newest part, for it was apparently built by putting two smaller houses together. The front of the house is extraordinarily wide and there are two wings to the rear. Where one wing was added, it was apparently put together without removing either of the outside walls, and as a result, the wall between the rooms is between a foot and a half and two feet thick.

Employed Many Men

The property, when Colonel May owned it, amounted to nearly 700 acres. He employed six or seven men throughout the year besides his sons, and at harvest time had a regular army of hired labor. One of the notable incidents of his life on this farm was the finding of lead on the property. He expended nearly $4,000 in sinking shafts and making diggings, and mined enough lead to bring him in about $800. The mines are still visible from the highway on the left of the road going west from the farm home. They are atop the bank of the first left-hand turn.
    Some claim that Colonel May was one of the first in Vernon County to raise tobacco, and J. D. Honaker of Viroqua, a nephew of the Colonel, declared that the Colonel raised one crop shortly after arriving here, but did not attempt it again for years, one of the reasons being that there was no market in or near Viroqua.

     He had eight sons, Richard dying sometime prior to 1884. The other boys were Zwing, William, Tom, Bascomb, Lonnie, Bob, and Hugh. Lonnie, Bob and Hugh are still living in California. Lonnie lived in Viroqua until last fall, when he moved to the West Coast to join his brothers. He also had five daughters.

     Colonel May was an eloquent speaker and had a remarkable and wonderful voice that could be heard, it is said, at a distance of four blocks. He was a democrat at first, and after serving as a member of the state assembly, ran for state senator and was defeated. That was in 1875. When the Greenback Party was formed a few years later, he became a member and ran for governor on that party's ticket in 1879. His wife died in 1881 and on February 28th, 1883, he remarried, taking as his wife Mrs. Phebe A. Aiken, nee Dolliver.

     Throughout his life he was a Methodist, and was known to be a religious man. He took good care of his family and became a figure of prominence in the community.

Home Still Stands

His home stands today a monument to his integrity and hard work. It is but a shell of its former self. Its walls are sagging, its basement walls are crumbling away. Except for a few coats of whitewash and fresh wallpaper, it has not been materially changed since the Mays lived in it. The Louis Thompson family, of which Mrs. Thompson and two of her sons are left on the farm, have occupied the place for the past 27 years.

     At the rear of the house an outer shed stands just as it did years ago, except that it is much the worse for age. On the ridge is the same old dinner bell which the Mays used to call the men from the field for meals. Further back is an old stone shed, and beside it is a large iron kettle probably used years ago for boiling down sap or some other use. To the rear and left of the house, as one faces the road, are the remnants of the old Colonel May School. It formerly stood 100 or 150 yards further east in a field that is now cultivated, and even 25 years ago the children of the district attended the school. About 25 years ago a new school was built 200 yards east of the old location, and eight or ten years ago the present modern school house was built, about the doorway of which is the legend, "Col. May School District No. 7."

On the left is Sharon Sternberg, a direct descendant of Colonel Reuben May, during her visit to the May House in April, 2001. On the right is Robert Perry, past president of Friends of the Samuel May House. Courtesy of Dale and Sharon Sternberg of Marshfield, Wisconsin.
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