Growing up smart
Theodore Burton’s father, William, was 63 and pastor of Jefferson’s Congregational Church when his wife, Elizabeth, 39, gave birth to Theodore, “a gift from God.” The December baby was doted upon.
“His father built for Theodore a little wagon the pioneer forebearer of the modern baby carriage and the elderly scholar drawing his young son become a familiar sight on the strets of Jefferson,” Crissey wrote.
While still a youngster, the family moved to Austinburg, and in 1858, William Burton died.
“His going marked a house of desolation,” Burton would later write in a letter to a friend. “I knew knew not (where) to turn.”
His sense of direction soon recovered, however, as civil war spread across the county. Growing up in a hotbed of abolitionist activity, Burton embraced the reports from the weekly newspaper and would share them at the Austinburg corners with whomever was willing to listen to his orations. He soon became known as the town crier of war news for all of Austinburg.
Then one day the newspaper failed to arrive. Burton walked to Jefferson, then the additional 10 miles to Ashtabula, where he located a copy of the Cleveland Leader, edited by Edwin Cowles, an Austinburg native. The newspaper’s owner would not allow Burton to take the newspaper with him, so Burton memorized the several accounts of the second Battle of Bull Run and Cowles’ editorial. Then he returned to Austinburg and recited the accounts. Those who heard his recitation remarked that the words he used were clear indication that Burton had memorized the editorial rather than paraphrase it with an adolescent’s vocabulary.
His father had purchased property in Iowa before his death, and Burton’s older brothers went west to that land. When it became necessary to sell the home in Austinburg, Burton also headed to Iowa, where he enrolled in Grinnell College. It is said he left behind the “most brilliant record for scholarship ever made by a student of that institution.” But he did not forget his roots; Burton studied the Ashtabula Sentinel as eagerly as he did Cicero. He continued to follow the exploits of Wade, as well. And he still found time to do manual labor, financing his education by working in the fields at harvest and teaching district school during the winters.
Burton left Iowa in 1866 to study at Oberlin College. His original intentions were to follow in his father’s career path of ministry, but he gave up that notion for law. From Oberlin, he went to Chicago to read law in the office of Lyman Trumbull, and in 1875 returned to Ohio to work in the John. M. Henderson law firm. His first year in practice, Burton earned $3,000. By 1878, he had his own practice in Cleveland and made a name for himself as an attorney for corporations.
Although he was engaged to a college sweetheart for eight years, Burton eventually concluded that he was “married to his career” and broke the engagement. His law practice was very profitable and gave him the resources to enjoy the best life had to offer, including foreign travel. In 1880, he made his first transatlantic trip, a journey that awakened a nomadic instinct. Burton would make 28 trips to Europe in his life, as well as journeys to the Orient, Australia and South America. Some of his closest, lifelong friendships were forged on the decks of these transatlantic liners.
“His social pores seemed to open when exposed to the sea air and, in his earlier crossings, he formed some of the pleasantest friendships of his life,” wrote Crissey.