Hon. Thomas R. Burling is one of the leading citizens of Nebraska, of which he was an early pioneer, and with whose interests he has long been identified as an agriculturist, as a statesman, and as a merchant, and in all that relates to her commercial, social and political life, he is pre-eminent. He is now carrying on an extensive business in the town of Firth, as a dealer in dry-goods, hardware, clothing, boots, shoes, groceries, and other merchandise. He is a native of England, but coming to this country when a child, he has become thoroughly Americanized, reared, as he was, under our institutions and educated in our schools.
Our subject is a son of John and Mary (Harry) Burling, natives respectively of Cambridgeshire, England, and Wales. Mr. Burling was a farmer, and prior to coming to this country with his family he was actively engaged in agricultural pursuits about five miles south of Cambridge, in his native shire. The mother of our subject was a woman of superior refinement and education, and for twenty-one years taught a school in England. In 1854 Mr. and Mrs. Burling decided to leave the old home on English soil, and with the other members of their family, begin life anew in the United States of America, whither their two eldest children, Sarah and John, had preceded them. Our subject was then but eight years old, but he remembers well how they sang as they stepped on board the sailing-vessel “Emerald,” bound for this country:
Singing with a mingled feeling of mirth and sorrow, as they left their native isle forever, with all its tender and hallowed associations, to seek a new home among strangers in a far-away country. Mr. Burling and his family finally arrived safely in port at New York City, after a voyage of twenty-eight days, about the middle of December, 1854. They remained in that city about eighteen months, Mr. Burling readily finding employment in the building of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
After that he removed with his wife and children to Bureau County, Ill., and took up his residence in Wyanet, where he remained for three years, engaging in various occupations. He then purchased a farm near Buda, Ill., and from its 160 acres derived a comfortable income. In 1862 his household was deeply bereft by the death of the noble woman who had so patiently aided and encouraged him in his work since the early days of their wedded life, and who had tenderly and wisely reared their children to become good and useful members of society.
Thomas R. Burling, of this sketch, was born March 15, 1846, in Cambridgeshire, England, and there spent the first eight years of his life, gaining in the school of which his mother was teacher his first knowledge of letters. He received his first instructions in America in the excellent public schools of New York City, where, by reason of his quickness and fine scholarship, he became the. banner scholar of his classes, as is proved by the records that he has preserved of his rank. When his parents removed to Illinois he attended the public, district and village schools very regularly for some years, and maintained the same high standing that had characterized his scholarship in the schools of New York. After he was fifteen years old his education was conducted more irregularly than before, as he was often kept at home to work on the farm, a common experience of farmers’ lads.
About that time his brothers John and Peter enlisted to help fight the battles of their adopted country, becoming members of the 93d Illinois Infantry, and our subject, and a younger brother were detained at home to manage the farm, which they did very successfully, their father continuing to realize good profits therefrom. Our subject continued at home until he was twenty-one, and, as he was then no longer needed, he went to work on a farm until 1863; his mother having died the year previous to that time, his old home had lost all its charms for him. When he went forth into the world to work among strangers he was poorly and insufficiently clad and with a light purse, but he lacked not courage, manliness, nor the true spirit of independence, and was firm in his resolution to make the best of his situation and to make a success of life.
At the age of nineteen he met and became enamored with the grace and pleasing manners of Miss Mary A. Streetor, but on account of changes in his father’s home, their marriage was postponed for three years, finally taking place Oct. 22, 1868, in Lincoln, Neb., their marriage, being among the first recorded in the State. Mrs. Burling was born near Galesburg, Ill., Jan. 21, 1851, being the senior in a family of three children born to A. J. and Deborah (Boom) Streetor. Her father was the nominee of the Union Labor party for the office of President of the United States. The most of her girlhood was passed at Galesburg, until the removal of her parents to Bureau County, Ill., where she met our subject. She afterward went to Lincoln, Neb., to live, and had been residing there about a year when she was married, Mr. Burling arriving here a week before that event to claim the hand of his promised bride.
After marriage Mr. and Mrs. Burling pre-empted eighty acres of land in Buda Precinct, on section 24, and bravely and cheerfully faced the trials and privations of the pioneer life that lay before them, beginning their housekeeping in the most primitive manner in the little sod house, the characteristic habitation of the early settlers of this region. This was afterward replaced by a small log house, still standing on the old homestead. The years that followed were fraught with many hardships and discouragements, so great indeed, that many of the early settlers left Nebraska and returned to their old homes in the East, rather than run the risk of starvation under the regime of the grasshopper, and the drouths that prevailed for several seasons to an alarming extent. But the tide at last turned, and after experiencing many privations and severe hardships, their labors were rewarded, and they became possessed of an assured income and a fine large farm. Mr. Burling sold his homestead in 1877, but he still owns 600 acres of very valuable land, and his marked success has placed him among the moneyed men of Lancaster County.
In 1878 Mr. Burling was selected by his party to represent the people of this district in the State Legislature, he being regarded as a man of conspicuous ability, excellent business principles, and of undoubted integrity of character, and his brilliant record as a statesman amply justified his constituents in their choice of him. While faithful to the responsible trusts imposed upon him as a Legislator, he devoted his leisure time to the management of his large farming interests. During his term in the Legislature Mr. Burling was instrumental in bringing about some much needed legislation to protect the interests of the State and of the people. He was the author and introducer of a bill urging the right of a Sheriff to offer a man $50 for the capture and conviction of a horse thief. He also introduced a bill to exempt fruit and forest trees from taxation, and likewise a bill allowing any agricultural society to hold 160 acres of land as fair grounds, free from taxation. All these bills became laws and have proved very beneficial. Mr. Burling was very active in securing the necessary appropriations for the capitol building of Lincoln, which was passed upon by a bare majority after a long and severe debate. In all of his legislative career our subject was devoted to the interests of the people, and at the same time was true to the Republican party, of whose principles he is a stanch advocate.
After his retirement from public life, Mr. Burling resumed his agricultural pursuits with renewed energy, and made many valuable improvements upon his estate. It is amply supplied with buildings, among which may be mentioned a commodious frame dwelling, two stories in height; a barn for horses and cattle, 40×54 feet in dimensions, the largest in the township. A fine supply of water is secured by windmill pumps. Mr. Burling pays much attention to raising choice fruits, has strawberries in abundance, and also has a fine young orchard of about 200 trees, apple, cherry and plum.
In 1886, Mr. Burling desiring to secure the exceptionally fine school privileges of the town of Firth for his children, removed here, and in the month of December bought a half-interest in the old Champion stand, entering into partnership with Mr. Champion. The latter retained charge of the business until October, 1887, when our subject purchased the whole business and has since managed it alone. He carries the largest stock of any merchant in Firth, and is doing a fine business.
To Mr. and Mrs. Burling have been born seven children, namely: Harry H., Fanny E.. Frank A., Worthington (deceased), Perry R., Blanche A., Earl (deceased). Mr. Burling is regarded as a great addition to this community, as he is liberal and public-spirited, and greatly interested in advancing the educational interests of the town. He is a prominent member of the I. O. O. F., at Firth, and has been through every chair. Mrs. Burling, who is a woman of fine character and perceptions, is a valued member of the Presbyterian Church, of Firth.
Source: Portrait and biographical album of Lancaster county, Nebraska; Chicago, Chapman brothers, 1888.