By Susan Monahan
When William Kirkman died in 1893, his funeral services were held in his stately Walla Walla home. But the mourners were so numerous that they would not fit inside, and so filled the large yard and crowded into the streets surrounding the house. This 61 year-old-man died a prosperous, revered and much-loved citizen but his was a life characterized by much hard work, heart-breaking losses of family members, and as many business failures as successes. William Kirkman came to Boston from England as a young man in the early1850’s. His goal was to sell textiles, but he was lured to California by the Gold Rush. His quest for wealth via prospecting led him also to British Columbia, Australia and Idaho. A versatile man, he also invested in cattle in California and drove them to Boise. In 1866 he drove a pack train of miners' supplies from Walla Walla to Montana. In British Columbia he was involved in the cattle business, mining, and more packing supplies to miners. At one point he had a partnership to build a suspension toll bridge across the Frasier River which ended in disaster when the bridge collapsed shortly before completion.
It's a wonder he ever stayed in one place long enough to court a girl, but in San Francisco he met Isabella Potts, a young woman who had immigrated from Ireland to join her sister in California. William and Isabella married in 1867 and moved to Idaho where William continued his interest in the cattle business. The winter of 1868-69 was a long, cold one and the Kirkman’s lost their second child, a son along with most of their cattle herd. After a brief return to California, they chose to move to Walla Walla and make it their permanent home. William Kirkman formed a partnership in cattle ranching and butchering with John Dooley, which was a successful one despite a heavy loss of livestock during the severe winter of 1881. Ever resourceful and willing to take a risk, William became involved in wheat farming as well as cattle ranching, and operated two farms in the area and a large hotel in downtown Seattle.
The Kirkman's first home in Walla Walla was a modest one, but by 1880 they were settled in what is now known as Kirkman House, an elegant brick home built in the Italianate Victorian style and characterized by arched windows, Corinthian columns and a symmetrical front. Their four children moved into the new home with William and Isabella: William Jr., Fanny Ann, Myrtle Belle and Leslie. Sadly they had lost five other children, some as infants and some as youngsters, and in their new home they would have a tenth baby, who died when she was only two days old.
William Kirkman was a generous and civic-minded man, giving of both his time and his money. He was a Walla Walla City Councilman and on the board at the Penitentiary. He was a strong proponent of inmates' having meaningful work and supported the construction there of a jute mill where as many as 255 prisoners manufactured grain bags and jute fabrics. He and Isabella were strong supporters of education and all four of their children graduated from Whitman College. William served on the Board of Education for the public schools and was a member of the board of trustees at Whitman College for many years. He was involved in politics, too, and in 1892 was elected a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.
It was in 1892 that William and Isabella decided to visit Europe, and they took Fanny Ann and William Jr. with them. Fanny Ann was engaged to be married and this was a great opportunity to see family in England and Ireland and also to go to France to shop for wedding clothes. The family visits were gratifying to all. William had many relatives still living in Lancashire, and Isabella's parents were still alive in Monaghan County Ireland. Her mother and father were both in their 90’s and were thrilled to see their daughter again and meet their grandchildren. Mr. Kirkman never returned to Walla Walla from that trip. The family spent ten months touring but on the way home on the train Mr. Kirkman died at Stevens Point, Wisconsin, April 25, 1893.
The Kirkman children all stayed in Walla Walla after they grew up. Fanny Ann married Allen Reynolds, son of a prominent family, and moved into a house next door to her mother. One of Fanny Ann and Allen's children was Ruth Reynolds, who carried on the Kirkman tradition of involvement in education by becoming a librarian at Whitman College and retiring from there after 40 years of service. Isabella, who lived to be 86, survived both her oldest son and youngest daughter, Myrtle Belle. William Kirkman Jr. married and had a son, but his wife died soon after their son was born, and William himself died in a car accident when only 60. Myrtle Belle did not marry and lived with her mother until Myrtle's death at the age of 51. Leslie Kirkman had a daughter and two sons and lived to be 64. There are still Kirkman descendants in Walla Walla and Kirkman House has benefited from their donations of furniture and other possessions of the original family. The citizens who rescued Kirkman House from being razed in 1974 did more than preserve a beautiful structure; they ensured that the Kirkman’s story would not be lost, and provided a way to share who the Kirkman’s were and how they lived with Walla Walla and numerous visitors from all over.