Walworth County Historical Society

Joseph P. Webster

Just 19 years after the original town of Elkhorn was officially formed, Joseph Philbrick Webster arrived in the settlement of Elkhorn in 1857. With him came his wife Joanna and their four children, Joseph, Mary, Louis, and Beethoven. They had traveled from their home in Madison, Indiana to Elkhorn. Webster was born in 1819 in Manchester, NH and later traveled to Boston, Mass., in 1840 already pursuing a music career. He then traveled to New York and Madison, Indiana. While in Indiana he accompanied the famous Jenny Lind at the piano. Webster then traveled to Racine. It has been said while living in Racine Webster developed "Lake Michigan Throat". The condition, also known as bronchitis, forced Webster to move away from the lake and on to Elkhorn. It was this same condition which forced him to abandon his singing career and turn instead to writing music.

The year the Webster's moved to Elkhorn, 1857, Elkhorn boosted 220 dwellings with 1,500 residents. The onset of the Civil War several years later slowed the population boom enjoyed by the fair residents of Elkhorn but offered even more material from which Webster could draw from as he composed hundreds of war time songs during this period.

Within one year of settling in the bustling community Webster would compose the first of over 1,000 songs. Two of those songs would bring great fame to Webster and the town he now called home. "Lorena" was considered second in popularity, following only Stephen Foster "Swanee River." It is said "Lorena" was a favorite sung by Confederate and Union soldiers alike, during the Civil War.

Almost 100 years later the song would be featured in the 1939 Civil War epic, "Gone with the Wind." A complete 49 second playing of the song is part of the movies’ musical score.

During the Civil War (1861-1865) Webster taught and composed a variety of war songs. He also served as a drill sergeant for the Elkhorn "Wide Awakes" soldiers who composed the home guard.

As the Civil War came slowly to an end, Webster returned to writing ballads. He also became proprietor of what was considered a "respectable saloon" which attracted young literary men of the town.

One of these "literary men" was Samuel Fillimore Bennett, who operated an Elkhorn drugstore while he studied medicine. According to museum records, one winter day in 1867, "Bennett looked up from the counter and saw Webster, violin and bow tucked under his arm, stride into the store. Recognizing that his friend was in a dark mood. Bennett asked what troubled him. Webster looked at Bennett, shrugged and said, "It is not important. It will be all right "in the sweet by and by."

Dr. Bennett wrote in later years in papers displayed a the museum, "It came to me like a flash that this might be an idea for a song and told him.. the words came like a revelation. It was not I who wrote but something within me."

It is said Webster "began humming, drumming his fingers on the desk, composing music in his mind while he looked over Bennett’s shoulder."

Webster is said to have taken the paper with the words written on it and without a word, lifted his bow to his violin.

"A lovely melody wove its way across the small store, into the hearts of the three men standing by," Dr. Bennett wrote. These men were the first to hear "In the Sweet By and By," which is still sung by people all over the world. The famous hymn has been published in sheet music, Sunday School books and in the hymnals of many denominations. It has also been translated into other languages.

Webster's home is now the home of Walworth County Historical Society.

Throughout the years the Society has reclaimed many of Webster’s possessions which had been scattered after his death. The museum boasts thousands of Civil War era antiques and unique items.

Among the items now displayed in the museum are family portraits, tea set, his elaborate rosewood piano, his violin and his favorite sitting chair, a unique piece with high side wings.

It is said Webster liked his chair because it kept him warm during the brutal months of winter. Another prize possession is the scrap of paper upon which Webster wrote the lyrics to the song, "In the Sweet By and By."

Webster lived in their Elkhorn home until his death on January 18, 1875, at the age of 56. He is buried at the Hazel Ridge Cemetery in Elkhorn. A bronze plate attached to the large granite boulder marking his grave reads, "Joseph P. Webster. In the Sweet By and By We Shall Meet."

Printed with permission from the Elkhorn Independent