The Life of Colonel Reuben May
1815 - 1902
Dale & Sharon Sternberg
Fred T. May

A book about the life of Colonel Reuben May has been published by Gateway Press of Baltimore, MD and is now available for purchase. This 318 page book with index and photos relates the life of a son of Thomas May [1787-1867], who was born in a log cabin on Shelby Creek in present-day Pike County, Kentucky.

If one word were chosen to describe the Reuben May we discovered while researching and writing this book, it would be passionate. Once this man -the oldest child of a pioneer family in the remote mountains of Eastern Kentucky- set a goal or took up a cause, he pursued it with a tenacious fervor. During Reuben's childhood and early years of marriage he developed qualities that destined him to become a leader of men. The Kentucky State Militia recognized his leadership abilities when he became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Pike County Militia by the time he was thirty.

In his twentieth year Reuben married Emmeriah Honaker, the daughter of a prominent public official, surveyor and landowner in Pike County. Their parents were well-acquainted with each other and it was a good match. Reuben's father was a large landowner who accumulated a substantial estate during his lifetime. Reuben and his siblings -like all children in the region- had a limited education, but they were fortunate that their father could help each of them establish large farms for their own families.

Impatient to find new ways to build a better life for his growing family, Reuben became acquainted with some influential men in the state who needed someone to manage their investments in saltmaking operations in Clay County. At the age of thirty-four -and most likely with some financial backing from his father- he ventured west over the mountains to establish himself in the salt manufacturing business. His ninth child was born soon after the family moved.

From deeds and court records we know that Reuben was not averse to taking risks. He was determined to gain 100% ownership of the facilities he operated and at every opportunity he bought shares from his partners -with mortgages on properties as security- even though he knew that previous owners had failed to manufacture and transport salt from the region and manage to earn sufficient income to pay their debts. After about ten years in business, Reuben's creditors also began to foreclose on his mortgaged properties. Soon afterward he was faced with a duty to serve his country in the Civil War.

Although Reuben was well aware that his brothers and in-laws were showing support of the rising cause of the Confederacy, he made his choice for the Union with the same vigor he made other choices in life -with great determination. Impassioned speeches that he gave years later were unequivocal in their message:

"The old flag under which Kentucky had thrived and grown, and under whose beautiful folds I have grown to manhood shall be my flag, and I will defend it against my neighbors, relatives and brothers who assail it, though my life be taken, I shall stand for the Union, I will uphold the flag!"

Reuben's military enlistment ran for three years and during that period his leadership abilities were sharply honed. He trained his men in the fundamentals of warfare, encouraged them with his speeches, was wounded at a major battle at Stones River, Tennessee, and led his regiment in the Siege of Jackson, Mississippi. His inspiring speeches to the troops, the confidence placed in him by military superiors and his promotion to Colonel in the Seventh Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment tell us of the officer he became.

The years that Reuben spent in the Union Army defined him for the remaining thirty-eight years of his life. He became known -to friend and foe alike- as Col. Reuben May. While the war was still enmeshed in massive troop movements and bloody battles, his wife and nine of their children had to flee to Wisconsin to seek refuge from Rebel marauders in Clay County. After mustering out of service, Reuben moved to a large farm they had purchased in Vernon County and his pent-up political ambitions soon came to the forefront.

Like his uncle Samuel May, who had served in both houses of the Kentucky State Legislature, Reuben was nominated and elected to serve as a Republican in the 1870 Wisconsin State Assembly. Of his eight political races from 1869 to 1890, he won only two -both to the Assembly by large majorities on the Republican ticket. In Reuben's six other Wisconsin races -one for State Assembly, one for State Senate, two for U.S. Congress and two for Governor- he spearheaded the hopes of four different parties.

Two races for legislative seats were lost by only a few votes, but the others were not close contests. He became a spokesman for popular movements of the period, including: the Grange movement opposing the power of railroads and excessive grain elevator charges; "greenbacks" vs. the gold standard; compulsory education of children; and women's suffrage. Details of the ideologies he espoused are preserved in his speeches and in editorials of supporting and opposing newspapers in Wisconsin.

There is no lack of evidence that in every cause he supported, Col. Reuben May was a very passionate man.


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© 2004 Fred T. May