Charles Willard Lapham was born July 21, 1852 in the small village of Danby, Vermont to Joseph and Lydia Lapham. The family was part of the Society of Friends Church, better known as Quakers. Shortly after Charles was born, the family moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan. While there his mother gave birth to his only sibling, a brother named Chester.
In 1870, when Charles was nineteen, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois. His father Joseph, a tanner and a cobbler by trade, set up his shoe-and-leather business on Erie Street in the heart of downtown of the Windy City. Charles did not work for his father’s business, but is listed as a clerk for George Congdon, also a shoe maker and ostensibly competition for Joseph.
On October 8, 1871 Charles got caught in “The Great Chicago Fire” which consumed much of Chicago over a three-day period. He suffered extensive lung damage from smoke inhalation, but perhaps more relevant to his development and the eccentricities of the house he would later build in Thomasville, is believed to have experienced psychological trauma. Nonetheless, Charles proved himself to be an ambitious business man.
By April 1873, Charles used capital obtained from his father and opened his own shoe store in downtown Chicago. His business did well, and within a few years he had expanded to three stores, and enlisted the help of his brother Chester. Although the brothers dissolved their partnership after only a couple of years, Charles continued to excel in the shoe business.
Charles married Emma Conger in October of 1880, the daughter of a prominent family from Collins Center, New York. As Charles had been living with his parents until his marriage, the newlyweds moved into a hotel, before renting a series of apartments. Meanwhile, Charles continued in the shoe business, expanding to four stores by 1881.
The Laphams lived comfortably, partially due to Charles’ business success. But it was also due to Emma’s inheritance from her father, who had passed away shortly before her marriage. Her sister Ella socialized amongst the prominent families of Buffalo, New York, and married Charles Waterhouse Goodyear. The Goodyears were and remain one of the most powerful and wealthy families in the United States.
Charles Lapham first vacationed in Thomasville in 1882. He came alone, as his wife was nursing their one-year old son Anson Joseph and was pregnant with their second child, Lydia. By 1884, Lapham and a friend, Ephraim Hackett of Milwaukee, purchased neighboring lots on the 600 north block of Dawson Street. Both Lapham and Hackett’s houses were completed by early 1885.
Lapham displayed considerable interest in cultural improvement during his time in Thomasville, particularly during his first few years as a property owner. In 1886, he campaigned for Thomasville to build an opera house, which achieved success by 1888. In 1887, he campaigned for a “Pleasure Park” in Thomasville of considerably larger size than Paradise Park. The park opened in 1888, with a wide variety of flora and fauna and was considered a success, albeit a source of scorn for some. In 1895, the park was transformed into Glen Arven Country Club, complete with one of Georgia’s earliest eighteen hole golf courses.
The details of Charles and Emma Lapham’s family life in Thomasville are scant, but it included at least one tragedy: the death of their daughter Lydia, whom they called Dollie, of illness in 1886. When the Laphams left Thomasville forever in 1894, Charles’ shoe business had collapsed, and he described his profession as a real estate agent and “pleasure seeker.” The events that followed the sale of their home in Thomasville suggest Emma was disturbed by Charles’ apparent aversion to work.
Emma Lapham’s mother died in 1905, leaving her and sister Ella the remainder of her family’s considerable fortune. She filed for a legal separation from Charles less than a year later, an extraordinary move at the time by itself; it was made more unusual by her agreement to pay for their children’s education, and pay Charles thirty-five dollars a month alimony. Charles ended up in San Diego, Emma in Arizona with the two younger boys, Charles Jr. and Frank.
The two other Lapham children, Portia and Anson, both suffered from some degree of mental retardation or illness, and both spent time in mental health facilities. Emma and the two children in Arizona worked in the cattle ranching business, and had some success. In a sad and ironic twist, having finally found peace away from her seemingly strange and pyrophobic husband, Emma died from a kerosene lamp exploding and setting her bed on fire in 1912. Charles Jr. and Frank carried on the cattle business after their mother’s death.
Charles Lapham passed away in San Diego, California in 1919. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the family’s plot in Chicago, along with his daughter who died in Thomasville, Lydia. Although Charles Lapham, Jr. remained married for many years, he and his wife Margaret never had children, nor did any of the children of Charles and Emma Lapham. The progeny of Charles and Emma Lapham ended with the death of their son Charles Jr. in 1971 at the age of 84.
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