The Greatest Volunteer to Humanity

Above: While still involved in a successful career in law and politics in Chicago, Judge Payne purchased St. Leonard’s Farm, just west of Warrenton, in 1912 and built a home there. Photo is from 1935.

John Barton Payne’s roots in Fauquier County

Part 1: From his Fauquier County roots to a successful career in law and public service, John Barton Payne accomplished much in his lifetime.

Judge John Barton Payne (1855-1935) is remembered as one of Fauquier’s greatest native sons. We honor his memory in his home county in different ways, including the John Barton Payne Community Hall on courthouse Square in Warrenton, and John Barton Payne Road outside of Marshall.

Judge Payne accomplished much during his distinguished career as a politician, lawyer, and judge. But it was what he did as a philanthropist and head of the American Red Cross that earned him recognition as “The Greatest Volunteer to Humanity.”

He was the eighth of ten children born to Dr. Amos Payne (1808-1887) and Elizabeth Barton Smith Payne (1817-1895).

Above: L-R, John Barton Payne at age 18, Dr. Amos Payne, Elizabeth Barton Smith Payne, Jennie Byrd Bryan, a noted Virginia artist and wife of Judge Payne.

The family had deep roots in Fauquier County. Judge Payne’s great-grandfather, Francis Payne Sr. (1737-1816) purchased 231 acres from Lord Fairfax in the Manor of Leeds in 1775 – on the eve of the Revolutionary War – during which he served as an ensign in the Continental Army. After the war, he returned to Fauquier County and added to his property and later founded the village of Orlean, where the next two generations of the family lived.

Payne was born in Pruntytown, West Virginia (when it was still part of Virginia). Dr. Payne had moved the family there from Fauquier in the late 1840s. They had a fine home across from the Taylor County Courthouse, and Dr. Payne continued his medical practice there for 13 years. The older children attended nearby Rector College.

The house in Pruntytown, then still part of Virginia, where John Barton Payne was born in 1855. His father had a medical practice there before the family returned to Fauquier.

As the clouds of Civil War gathered, in 1860 Dr. Payne and his family returned to the old farmstead at Orlean. What followed were difficult times, as the armies of both the North and South surged across the area; indeed, Dr. Payne’s home at Orlean was occupied by Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside as his headquarters, and the farm became the camp of the Army of the Potomac.

Sadly, his eldest son Edward Alexander Payne (1838-1863), a lieutenant in the Confederate Army, and a cousin, Robert Payne, were killed Nov. 27, 1863, during the Battle of the Wilderness. Another cousin, Fielding Payne, was killed July 3, 1863, during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. They were only three of the 28 Paynes from Fauquier to die in the war.

All of the stores and markets near Orlean were soon gone, and the Payne family survived by cultivating lands back from the road, out of sight of the marauding troops. By the end of the war, Orlean, like the rest of the county, was stripped and desolate.

A neighborhood school taught by Dr. Payne’s daughter Eugenia was started after the war, where the younger children of the family received their primary education.

An industrious youth

One of the legendary stories about John Barton Payne in his youth recalled how he managed to collect a flock of turkeys from the farms around Orlean, and with the help of another young boy, managed to drive the turkeys to a buyer in Washington, D.C. – a distance of 60 miles – without losing a single one of the birds.

At age 15, he worked as a clerk in Ullman’s Department Store in Warrenton for 26 months, earning $50 and board for the first year, and $150 for the second year. He then worked for Maj. Robert F. Mason at his general store and railroad station at Thoroughfare Gap.

Ullman’s Department Store on Lee Street, Warrenton, where John Barton Payne worked in 1870-71.

Realizing there was no future there, John Barton Payne returned to Pruntytown where he was involved with the sale of the family’s property, and went to work for Adolphus Armstrong, Clerk of the Circuit and County Courts.

It would be a life-changing opportunity. “The law library was open to him, and every evening was spent there in study,” according to the family history. He also helped support himself by working at a local sawmill, where he unfortunately suffered a crippling injury to some of the fingers of his left hand.

John Barton Payne became involved in local politics in 1876, during the Tilden-Hayes campaign, and was appointed acting chairman of the Taylor County Democratic Committee. It was in this role he developed his oratory skills.

Believing that his study of the law had adequately prepared him, he “…accepted the courtesy of a cousin who was a freight conductor, and rode to the state capital at Parkersburg in the caboose of a B&O freight train to take his law examinations,” according to the family history. “Admission to the bar at the September term of Circuit Court at Pruntytown followed.”

It was noted that for his first court case – which he handled pro bono – he represented a “shook maker,” a man skilled in making barrel staves and hoops. Details of the case have been lost over time.

Lawyer Payne soon opened a law office in Kingwood, Preston County, W. Va. “This was fruitful of firm friendships, expressed in the appointment as chairman of the Preston County Democratic committee,” he wrote. He was later involved in the publishing of The West Virginia Argus, a Democratic newspaper, and was elected mayor of Kingwood. He married the former Kate Bunker in 1878.

Judge Payne was elected chairman of the Preston County Democratic Party in 1881. Seeking greater opportunities, in November 1882, he moved to Chicago. His law practice flourished there, and in 1889, he was elected president of the Chicago Law Institute, and in 1895 he was appointed judge of the Superior Court of Cook County, Ill.

After resigning from that post in 1898, Judge Payne was the senior partner in the law firm of Winston, Payne, Strawn and Shaw, and served as president of Chicago’s South Park Board from 1911 to 1924.

Also in 1924, his law partner, Silas Strawn, urged him to seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. President, but he did not seek the nomination, “…remaining a servant of his country and humanity,” according to contemporary news accounts.

Returning to his Fauquier County roots, in August 1912, Judge Payne purchased the 798-acre St. Leonard’s Farm just outside of Warrenton from J. W. and Mary Latham for $59,000. By then a widower, he married Jennie Byrd Bryan (d. 1919), a well-known artist, in 1913. Also that year, he was offered the position of Solicitor General by Pres. Woodrow Wilson, which he declined.

Read Part 2 of this article

Special thanks to Mrs. H. Dudley Payne Jr. for sharing many documents collected by her late husband.

Part 2, to be published in the near future, describes Judge John Barton Payne’s extraordinary public service, his passing, and how he has been remembered.

John Toler
About John Toler 15 Articles
Broad Run resident John Toler is the co-author of the recent Fauquier County and Town of Warrenton history books, and has contributed numerous newspaper and magazine articles focused on the history of Fauquier, Prince William and Loudoun counties.

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