Sylvanus Ferris was a cheese artisan in Herkimer County, New York before he answered George Washington Gale’s “Circular and Plan,” calling for subscribers to a religious manual labor college in the West. Along with Nehemiah West and George Washington Gale, Ferris became a proprietor of Galesburg and Knox College, serving as a member of the exploratory committee that purchased the land for the town as well as a college trustee. It was Sylvanus Ferris who provided the security on the loan covering the difference between the cost of the land and the money that the Gale’s group raised. It was Ferris, too, who went ahead of the settlers to prepare the site for inhabitation.
As might be supposed by Ferris’ involvement, Gale and Ferris were close friends. For decades after an educational venture brought them to the Illinois prairie together, Ferris never left Gale’s side. When Gale was beleaguered by the town’s Congregationalists in the wake of sectarian strife, pitting the town’s Congregationalists and Presbyterians against each other over the issue of slavery, Ferris never wavered in supporting him. Ferris’s support of Gale on the college’s board of trustees was crucial to his victory over the college’s second President and personal rival, Jonathan Blanchard, when the sectarian conflict came to a head in 1857.
Sylvanus Ferris played an integral role in the early Galesburg community, but the Ferris family’s greatest legacy, interestingly enough, comes from another member of the family. George Washington Gale Ferris (the relationship between the Gale and Ferris families was as close as George Washington and Sylvanus’s; they intermarried on several occasions), inventor of the Ferris wheel, is probably the most recognizable member of the family — despite his grandfather’s numerous accomplishments. Silvanus wasn’t completely slighted though; the street one block to the north of Main carries his name for all passersby to see.