Ayers, Marshall Paul, (deceased), pioneer of Morgan County and banker, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 27, 1823, and died in Jacksonville, Illinois, September 30, 1902. He was a son of David B. and Eliza (Freitag) Ayers. The Ayers family was founded in America in 1632 by English ancestors who, in that year landed at Plymouth Rock. The family in succeeding generations became quite numerous, and many of its representatives have distinguished themselves in the various walks of life. One of them, a grand-uncle of David B. Ayers, served in New Jersey troops during the Revolutionary War, and two members of the family were hanged by the British for their loyalty to the Federal cause in providing the American troops with beef, in defiance of the orders issued by the British commander.
David B. Ayers, a native of Philadelphia, removed to Jacksonville, Illinois, in May, 1830, and, locating on the site now occupied by the Ayers National Bank, established the first drug store in Illinois. He was one of the first Trustees of Illinois College and of the Jacksonville Female Academy, was deeply interest in educational and religious work generally, and was regarded as a man of philanthropic disposition. His entire life in Jacksonville was spent in the conduct of the drug business. His death occurred in 1851.
Accompanying his parents to Illinois in 1830, Marshall P. Ayers entered the subscription schools of Jacksonville, and afterward became a student in Illinois College during the period when Rev. Edward Beecher was its President, and was graduated therefrom in 1843. Immediately thereafter he engaged in business with his father, and upon the death of the latter succeeded him in the management of the vast real estate interests of John C. Griggs, of Philadelphia, who owned many thousands of acres of valuable farming land in Central Illinois. During the period devoted to the disposition of these lands, Mr. Ayers was compelled to drive thousands of miles over the State, and thereby in all probability became personally known to a greater number of citizens of the State than any other man of his time. Having suffered great inconvenience from his inability to secure adequate banking facilities for the proper conduct of this business, in 1852 he organized the private bank of M. P. Ayers, subsequently taking into partnership with him Joel Catlin, and still later William H. Campbell, of Cincinnati, Ohio. After the death of Mr. Campbell, he admitted his brother, Augustus E. Ayers, into partnership, About 1866 William S. Hook entered the firm, which was thereupon styled M. P. Ayers & Company. In August, 1886, the interest of Mr. Hook was purchased by John A. Ayers, who, May 1, 1901, organized the Ayers National Bank, of which M. P. Ayers became President. At the time of his death, M. P. Ayers was the dean of the Illinois bankers. It is worthy of note in this connection that an account opened by Mr. Ayers in December 1852, with the American Exchange Bank of New York (now the American Exchange National Bank) has ever since been carried on the books of that institution.
Throughout the Civil War Mr. Ayers campaigned Morgan County in the interests of the Union cause. One of his acts during this period, which alone entitles his name to be perpetuated in the annals of Illinois, was his identification with the material assistance rendered the Christian Commission. In 1863 Jacob Strawn, of Jacksonville, offered to give the sum of $10,000 to assist this commission in its labors, provided other individuals subscribed an equal amount. The offer was immediately taken up, and Mr. Ayers, with the assistance of Rev. C. C. McCabe (now a Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church), William Reynolds and A. J. Tyng, of Peoria, Illinois, inaugurated a systematic canvass for the requisite subscriptions. They were successful in their undertaking, with the result that more than $20,000 was raised in this way in aid of the commission.
Several enterprises of great importance to the community owed their inception to the progressive spirit always manifested by Mr. Ayers, and others received his unstinted support. In 1871 he became the author of the project for constructing the Jacksonville & Southeastern Railroad, extending from Jacksonville to Waverly. The road was afterward extended to Centralia, and is now operated by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company. In 1856 he and J. O. King, another citizen of Jacksonville, established the Jacksonville Gas Company. He afterward erected the Home Woolen Mills in Jacksonville, which were subsequently destroyed by fire. One of the most important business transactions of his career was his identification with the immense landed possessions of John T. Alexander, an extensive land proprietor and cattle dealer of Morgan County. In company with two trustees, in 1870 he acquired 23,000 acres of land in Champaign County and 7,000 acres in Morgan County, all of which had previously been the property of Mr. Alexander. After securing the title to this land, much of which was greatly improved under their management by drainage and otherwise rendering it highly valuable, they paid off the indebtedness thereon, leaving Mr. Alexander’s widow an independent fortune, and disposed of the land at a good profit. After the business had been placed upon a sound basis, its conduct was intrusted to A. E. Ayers & Company, as successors to M. P. Ayers and his associates. The labor of disposing of this great property occupied several years, and formed the most extensive real estate transaction taking place in the history of Illinois.
In early life a Whig, upon the organization of the Republican party, Mr. Ayers became affiliated therewith, voting for General John C. Fremont and all the later presidential candidates of that party. For many years he served as a Trustee of Illinois College. A devoted member of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, he was actively identified with the progress of religious work, and organized many Sunday-schools in Morgan County. He was also deeply interested in the advancement of the temperance cause, and, being a fluent and eloquent speaker, was able to accomplish much good in this direction. His intellect was broadened by wide reading and contact with men; he was independent in thought and possessed of positive convictions on subjects pertaining to the welfare of the public.
On October 29, 1846, Mr. Ayers as untied in marriage with Laura Allen, a daughter of Rev. John Allen, D.D., a minister in the Presbyterian Church. She was born in Huntsville, Alabama, and accompanied her parents to Illinois in 1845. Mr. and Mrs. Ayers became the parents of eight children, of whom seven survive, namely: John A., President of the Ayers National Bank; Lou W., widow of Edward L. McDonald, of Jacksonville; Walter, of Jacksonville; Edward A., M.D., of New York City; Effie, wife of E. F. Kaime, of Denver, Colorado; Helen A., widow of E. F. Bullard; Laura A., wife of George E. Moeller, Decatur, Illinois; David B., the third child, is deceased. Mrs. Ayers survived her husband until 1906, when she died in her home in Jacksonville.