On the Trail of a Circuit Rider’s Watch


Approximately twenty years ago in the month of May, Howard and I set out on our annual summer journey for the East Coast. As customary, we routed our trip through Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a few days with my mother. The month of May also signals the arrival of my birthday and on this particular trip, Mom had something waiting for me.

“Would you like to have this?” she asked as she presented me with a small box.

Opening it, I found a beautiful gold pocket watch on a chain.

“Yes, I would like to have it!” I told her.

“That’s your birthday present!”

Realizing the watch was old, I wanted to know the story about it. I vaguely remembered my mother wearing it to church when I was really small.

“It was Grandma Inman’s watch,” Mom told me. “She always carried it in her purse to church on Sundays. She gave it to your dad. He put it on the chain and gave it to me for Christmas one year. It came from her family.”

At the time, I immediately thought of Grandma’s Clay line. Her father worked for the railroad when it was just getting established in Adair, Iowa in 1873. I thought perhaps the watch belonged to Levi Clay. At summer’s end when we returned from Pennsylvania, I discovered something interesting about the watch.

“This is a minister’s watch!” I told Howard.

“What makes you think so?”

“Well, look at the design on it. There’s a dove in the middle and a cross on each side of the dove!”

Howard looked at it and handed it back.

“Wasn’t your grandfather a minister? It was probably his.”

Yes, my Grandfather Inman was a Baptist minister. But when my mother gave it to me, she mentioned Grandma Inman’s family. So, if it didn’t come from Grandma’s Clay side of the family–then it had to come from her mother’s side–the Stillians line. And my grandmother’s grandfather was a Methodist Circuit Rider!



William Michael Stillians, Jr. was born December 29, 1826 in Hampshire County, Virginia, and he died October 13, 1907 in Guthrie County, Iowa. He was born into a family of Methodist circuit riders, beginning first with his father William Michael Stillians/Stillens, Sr. (1781-1840) and passing down through William Jr.’s brother, John Inghram Stillians (1815-1884). John Inghram Stillians was the oldest son; the mantle fell upon him. Not only did he become a Methodist circuit rider, but he also practiced medicine and law. William was the youngest surviving son in the family and the last child to leave home. Unlike his brother who underwent a more formal instruction, William Jr. learned from his father. William not only learned how to preach and became a licensed itinerant preacher, but he also practiced law and medicine as well. When the elder William passed on, the younger William took over his father’s operation, including preaching at a small Presbyterian Church called Shepherd’s in Cumberland Twp., Greene County, Pennsylvania. It was the oldest church in the area, and it always seemed to be without a preacher.  Not many seminary-trained Presbyterian ministers wanted to serve at a small church in the woods. They preferred a more civilized setting.


Frustrated over the lack of available ministers, the members of Shepherds looked around and discovered the Methodist circuit riders.

“Why can’t we do something like that?” They said. “Why can’t we utilize these men who travel a circuit?”

At first, the powers in control in Philadelphia told them no. When the members continued pestering them about it, Philadelphia finally relented.

“All right! You can use a Methodist when a Presbyterian is not available. And remember–you are Presbyterians!”

So William Sr. began preaching at Shepherds. Eventually, his regular route extended from Pennsylvania to Virginia (today West Virginia), Maryland and Delaware. But whenever he was back in the area, he was certain to preach at the little church in the woods. He was then succeeded by his son.

After William, Jr.’s marriage to my second great grandmother, Catherine Lee, William settled in Cumberland Twp. He operated a mill, practiced medicine and law, and he preached at Shepherds. He was probably there for almost ten years. During that ten-year period, he fathered two daughters, lost his wife (she died in childbirth with the second daughter), married a second time (his second wife’s name was Rachel Dilley), fathered a son and began looking at a westward direction.  Eventually, he decided upon Jo Daviess County, Illinois, and the Stillians family planned to relocate there around 1856-1857. William’s departure from Shepherds marks the beginning of the story about the watch!


The members at Shepherds hated to hear the family was leaving. They had grown accustomed to the family’s presence–first with the father and next with the son. It would be difficult to find another minister who appreciated their rural culture. In gratitude, the congregation gave William a gold watch, something he treasured the rest of his life. [You can see his watch chain in this picture!]

William moved his family to Jo Daviess County. When the Civil War broke out, he became in charge of a local militia unit (hence the uniform he is wearing in this picture.) His unit patroled the river because Illinois was afraid the Confederates would sneak up the Mississippi and cause all sorts of destruction along the way. Also in the 1860s, William was placed in a number of postmaster positions in Jo Daviess County. He served as a justice of the peace, practiced medicine, and he also continued to preach. By 1870, the family left Illinois and relocated to Bear Grove Twp., Guthrie County, Iowa.Image

William spent his life being dedicated to his medical practice as well as to his church. There was just one problem with all of that: None of his sons followed in his footsteps! One of his granddaughters, however–my paternal grandmother, Adelia Viola Clay Inman (1869-1951)–married a Baptist minister. And Adelia Viola was the daughter of William’s oldest child, Mary Elizabeth Stillians (1849-1915).  This photo of William Stillians is probably the last photograph taken of him ca. 1907. He is sitting beside my great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Stillians (1849-1915)–the only surviving daughter of his first wife, Catherine Lee. The young woman in the middle is one of Mary’s daughters, Lorene, whose nickname was Lulu.


William Stillians died October 13, 1907 in Guthrie County, Iowa. He is buried in the Sunnyhill Cemetery in Adair, Iowa beside one of his granddaughters, Mary Tift. Before he died, he gave his minister’s watch to Mary Elizabeth.

“Keep this as long as you like,” he told her. “But eventually, I want it to go to Viola. She’s married to a minister.”

Mary died in September 1915 in Adair, Iowa. Before she died, she gave the watch to her daughter, Adelia Viola, who in turn gave it to her husband, Loren Waiste Inman (1870-1942).

Grandpa wore the watch the rest of his days. And when he died, the watch went back to my grandmother. She carried it in her purse when she went to church and put it away in her dresser after she arrived home.

Grandma died June 14, 1951 in Cedar Rapids, Linn, Iowa. Before she died, she gave the watch to my father Gordon Loren Inman (1908-1974). Dad, in turn, gave it to my mother for Christmas one year after putting it on a chain. My mother wore the watch to church, then she put it away in her jewelry box. 

Fast forward to May 1993-1994: Mom gave the watch to me, and it is still in my possession.


April 6, 2014; I wore the watch to church today since Howard and I became new members at a local Presbyterian Church.

Funny thing how the Presbyterians initiated the trail of this watch by giving it to a Methodist, who in turn gave it to another Methodist, and who in turn gave it to a third Methodist–and that Methodist passed it on to three or four Baptists only to return to the Presbyterians again!

The watch has traveled full circle!





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