John W. VanNess, the third child of Moses and Lucinda (Martin) VanNess, was born in April 1851 near Camargo, Illinois (which was then in Coles County but was later included in Douglas County). His family moved to Fremont County, Iowa, when he was three years old, and then down to Nodaway County, Missouri, when he was in his teens.
John learned carpentry as a young man and undertook a career in the construction trade. Newspaper clippings mention him building houses and farm buildings, but he seemed to specialize in water tanks and, later, grain elevators. Apparently he constructed elevators in many places from Iowa out to Colorado.
John married Ella Sarah (or Sarah Ella) Wilson in Jasper County, Iowa, on 1 May 1876. According to the 1900 census, she was born in July 1854, although her tombstone lists a birth year of 1853. Her place of birth is also uncertain. The 1880 and 1900 Federal censuses, as well as the Kansas State census of 1905, all give her place of birth as Iowa; the 1910 and 1930 Federal censuses show it as Illinois; and the 1940 census says Ohio. I have not yet clearly identified Ella in the 1860, 1870, or 1920 censuses, nor have I managed to identify her parents.
After marrying, John and Ella apparently lived for several years in the vicinity of Blanchard, Iowa, moving occasionally back and forth across the Missouri-Iowa border. Their first child, Ralston, was born in Iowa in December 1876; son Charles was born in Missouri sometime in 1878; and daughter Katie in Iowa in February 1880. As of June 1880, the census shows them in Lincoln Township of Atchison County, Missouri, the same township where John’s parents and his brothers Isaac and Cyrus were living. They had at least three more children in Missouri (1883, ’84, and ’87). They moved on to Kansas, though, before their son Frank was born in 1889.
John and Ella were not recorded in the Kansas State census of 1895, but we know they were living in Belleville, Republic County, Kansas well before that. Belleville newspapers were carrying ads for John’s business as early as 1889 and, sadly, they also noted the passing of John's daughter Katie in July 1892 and of his 9-month old baby girl (name not stated) in July 1894. The 1900 census shows them living in Belleville with John’s father, Moses VanNess, and with seven of their children, two having died, two others having grown up and moved out, and the youngest, Alice, not yet born. Six months after that census was taken, John and Ella’s son Harry died of membranous croup in December 1900.
The next 12 years saw at least four moves for John and his family. In October 1901, The Belleville Freeman reported that “John VanNess has moved to Courtland,” which is 14 miles west of Belleville but still within Republic County. The Kansas State census of 1905, however, shows John and Ella in Big Bend township of Republic County, about 12 miles north of Courtland, and by the time of the 1910 census, they had moved another 3 miles north and crossed the State line, becoming residents of Hardy, Nuckolls County, Nebraska. By 1912, they apparently had moved again, to Fairbury, Jefferson County, Nebraska, as items in Belleville newspapers reported (in May and again in July) that “Mrs. Oscar Washburn” (Nettie VanNess) had gone off to visit her parents in Fairbury.
I believe John and Ella were still in Fairbury in 1920, although that would be hard to prove from the census listing. It shows a J. W. Van Ness (born in Iowa, not Illinois) living with a wife “Mary,” who’s about 8 years younger than Ella would have been, plus a daughter “Mary” (born in Nebraska, not Kansas), who’s 4 years too young to be John’s actual daughter Mary. I also notice that the Van Ness household is very nearly the last one enumerated in Fairbury, so perhaps the census taker was tired or in a rush to finish up, and just got careless.
John’s tombstone at Westlawn-Hillcrest Memorial Park in Omaha shows that he died in 1922. I have not found any obituary for him or a more exact date of death. Ella lived on another 20 years after his death. The 1930 census shows her once again in Fairbury, living with her daughter Mary Gaffney and Mary’s husband Hugh. The 1940 census shows her as a lodger in the household of Harvey Knoblock in Fairbury, although it also notes that she had been living in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1935. Ella passed away in 1942 and was buried next to John.
John and Ella were the parents of TWELVE children:
If you can suggest any corrections to the information above or provide any further details about the lives of John, Ella, and their descendants, please contact me at the address shown in the image below: