Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1992


Tracing the Bentley Legacy

by Julie Hammond March



Julie March is Curator of Collections and Exhibits of the History Museum at Bentley House in Springfield, Missouri. This article was prepared in conjunction with her research for an exhibit at the Museum about the Bentley family.

Springfield is to have another lovely residence. It is to be built by J.F.G. Bentley of the Bank of Springfield on Washington A ve....The Bentley home is to be the English Village type of the Elizabethan period. The front will be of pressed brick with brownstone trimmings, the upper story is a framehouse of cement panels. There will be 14 rooms and the house will have hot water heat. It will cost about $15,000. (The Springfield Leader, February 22, 1892.)

The Bentley house soon became a center for lavish entertaining. The society page of The Springfield Leader included the following on May 28, 1894:

The outstanding social event of this week was the elegant reception given by Mrs. J.F.G. Bentley at her beautiful new home on Washington and Calhoun. Thursday afternoon lady fi'iends of Mrs. Bentley were received and in the evening she and Mr. Bentley entertained the Jaculty and trustees of Drury College. The house was decorated in roses, a diffrent color being used in each room.

J.F.G. Bentley's several fraternal organizations often met at the home. He was a Royal Arch Mason and a member of Friends in Council.

The parlor was often used fi)r special occasions, as for example the weddings of two of Mrs. Bentley's nieces. For its part the library was used much as we would use a family room today. It possessed a fine collection of books on many subjects. The family often spent the evening together there, reading to each other.

A large carriage house stood to the east of the house with ample room below for horses and carriages, and an apartment above for servants.

When sons Elwyn and Frank Bentley went to college at Cornell, their mother accompanied them to cook and keep house. They returned to Springfield to again live at home with their parents. The Bentlcys had come from comparatively humble beginnings, but they made certain that the sons benefitted from the many advantages provided by wealth. Elwyn and Frank worked at the Bank of Springfield until J.F.G.'s death in 1912. Soon thereafter the bank was sold; and Elwyn and Frank "retired" at ages 46 and 44.

Elwyn Bentley spent a great deal of time in New York City, where he studied philosophy, music, and dancing. In Springfield he was the leader of The Round Table, a group of professional and business men who met to discuss philosophy and other topics. He never married, and became increasingly eccentric as the years passed. In 1931 he was arrested in St. Louis for practicing dentistry without a license-- with tragic consequences. The Springfield Leader reported:

[8]

Elwyn B. Bentley, 60, whose eccentric career as a banker, scholar, and amateur dentist ended last night when he took his own life at the home of his brother...Tile suicide came while Bentley was acutely conscious of the humiliation resulting from his arrest....Friends here believed he would escape prosecution but apparently it was with Bentley not a question punishment but of damaged pride and disgrace to his family.

The year Frank Bentley retired, he married Georgia Moist Wiley, and subsequently concentrated his energies on genealogical research and writing. The couple had a fine library which was begun in earlier years by Frank's father, J.F.G. Bentley. Frank and Georgia stayed at home a great deal and were described by relatives as being "bookish."

Tryphena ( Mrs. J.F.G.) Bentley died at the age of 92 in 1932 (not long after Elwyn's suicide), leaving the entire family estate to Frank. Frank and Georgia continued to live in the home at Calhoun and Washington until their deaths, Frank in 1963 and Georgia in 1964.

The Bentleys represent one of the types of people who migrated to Southwest Missouri following the Civil War. Like many others, they sought prosperity and a new start in an area fairly remote from their original homes. Many of J.F.G.'s letters indicate his awareness that starting again in Greene County was his one big chance to make a success of his life, and to become more independent from his family in Ohio. The Bentleys in their Yankee background, Congregational religion, and level of prosperity were surely among a minority as was their dramatic financial success. J.F.G. prospered due to a combination of family financial backing, hard work, intelligence and good luck. Many with similar backgrounds failed or moved on.

The family was also different socially and culturally from the run of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who settled Greene County. Certainly they had different aspirations for their sons. They were ambitious that Elwyn's and Frank's education and level of culture would reflect their notion of the highest social and economic class.

The Bentley Collection of the Museum of Ozarks History is a rich resource for insights into the family's history, some of which are reflected in this writing. The Bentleys were among many Yankee-de-scended, entrepreneurial immigrants who came to the Ozarks following the Civil War who transformed and modernized the region. They were oriented to property, to the increment of real estate values, and to credit -- the basis of J.F.G. Bentley's career in Greene County. He bought land and town lots at a low price and saw them soar in value. He not only extended credit, he created it, and profited on the explosion of demand for that financial commodity. But the Bentleys are unique, perhaps primarily because their house at Washington and Calhoun (though modest by St. Louis or Kansas City standards of the time) is preserved in Springfield as a house museum, an outstanding residence of an outstanding family of its generation.

RBF

The Bentleys: Tryphena, Frank, Elwyn and J.F.G.
The Bentley House.


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