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.
According to items posted in The Nodaway Democrat newspaper, John W. VanNess was divorced from Lovica VanNess in Nodaway County in April 1876. I have found no record of when and where John was married to Lovica, but it could have been no earlier than the latter part of 1870, as John was still single and living with his parents at the time of the 1870 census. I also cannot confirm Lovica’s maiden name; I can only report that the 1870 census showed 22-year-old Lovica Rice living in Nodaway County and 11-year-old Lovica Wilson just across the border in Taylor County, Iowa, at that time. Lovica Rice would have been 3 years older than John. Lovica Wilson would have been only 17 at the time of the divorce and, hence, somewhat younger at the time of marriage.
John married (2) his cousin Ella Sarah VanNess in Jasper County, Iowa, on 1 May 1876. She was the daughter of John's Uncle George W. VanNess and Mary Jane (Wilson) VanNess.  NOTE: Many other family researchers and even Ella's printed obituary have shown her maiden name as Wilson. As noted above, though, Wilson was her mother's maiden name. Ella's children and Ella herself may have promoted this bit of misinformation to conceal the closeness of her relationship to John. However, census records from 1856, 1860, and 1870 show her (as either “Ella” or “Sarah”) in the household of George and Mary VanNess. Moreover, an on-line index of the Jasper County, Iowa, Marriage Register shows that J. W. “Vanries” married Ella “Vanries” on 1 May 1876. I haven’t yet seen the original register, but I feel sure that “Vanries” is a misinterpretation of the original handwriting.
According to Ella's obituary, she was born in Marshalltown, Marshall County, Iowa on 23 July 1852. The 1900 census concurs that she was born in Iowa in July, but gives the year as 1854.  Her tombstone splits the difference and lists a birth year of 1853. The correct year probably is 1854, as the two censuses recorded soonest after her birth give ages consistent with a birth date in July 1854 (age 1 in the 1856 Iowa state census and age 5 in the 1860 U.S. census).
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. All together, John and Ella were the parents of TWELVE children:
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.
As of 1921, however, John and Ella had moved to Omaha, as John is listed in the Omaha City Directory for that year. There John died the following year. His tombstone at Westlawn-Hillcrest Memorial Park in Omaha shows that he died in 1922, and cemetery records show a more exact date of 20 May 1922. 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 on 2 April 1942, and at least two Fairbury newspapers published obituaries. She was laid to rest next to John.
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:
*Listed as “Robert” in the 1880 census.