Van Galder was born on July 3, 1822, in Royalton, Niagara County, New York to Jacob and Rhoda Wilson Van Galder. Jacob, Rhoda and their children left New York, living in Ohio and Michigan before the growing family settled on a farm in La Prairie Township, Rock County, Wisconsin. Jacob had worked periodically as a cooper (a barrel maker) and passed this skill to Truman. In his youth Truman worked on the farm but when mature opened the first cooper shop in Janesville, Wisconsin, and by all records was a successful and respected businessman in every respect. In 1843, while the family was living in Ohio, Truman married Mary Phelps. They had eight children: Harriet, Rhonda, William, Adelaide, Philo, Frank, Nettie, Sylvia and Fred. In 1868 Truman and family moved to Sycamore.
Phoebe Van Galder, Truman’s sister, was married to Uriah L. Phelps (who would be instrumental in Van Galder’s success). Phoebe died May 1, 1868, in Sycamore. Uriah was a brick maker whose business is shown on the 1871 Sycamore Township plat map in section 29. Phelps suffered from mental illness. His short obit in the December 30, 1885 Sycamore True Republican reads, “Mr. U. L. Phelps, formerly an active brick maker of this place, died at Kankakee Insane Asylum a few days since.” Although it can’t be confirmed, Phoebe’s death and Uriah’s mental decline are probably the reason the Van Galders moved to Sycamore.
The 1870 federal census shows Truman, Mary, Philo, Frank, Sylvia and Fred Van Galder living in the Uriah L. Phelps home (the other children had married or died). There is a record that in June of 1872 Van Galder filed for bankruptcy. Perhaps during the first few years in Sycamore he was still working unsuccessfully as a cooper. No other bankruptcy records were found.
By 1880, Van Galder was running the Phelps operation. The federal census that year shows only son Fred still living at home. An indication of a successful business, the census lists his seven employees. Brick making was very labor intensive. Because steam shovels were not invented until 1879, early brick makers had to dig for clay by hand. Usually done in autumn, the clay was allowed to sit until spring to soften. In spring, the clay was worked by hand to reduce it to a powder that was mixed with water to just the right consistency. Sanded moulds would allow the formed mixture to slip out easily. Filled moulds were taken to a drying area where the bricks were removed and allowed to air-dry, usually protected from rain and harsh sun, for about four days. They then were sufficiently hard enough to be fired in the kilns, first at a relatively low temperature for 24-48 hours and then at higher temperatures of around 1800 degrees until ready.
The True Republican reported in March of 1880 that Van Galder had shipped 150,000 bricks to Chicago. He also supplied I. L. Ellwood 250,000 bricks for a new factory, earning $7 per thousand. And, of course, in 1880 he supplied the bricks for the train depot.
Truman Van Galder died January 24, 1882 in Sycamore. His obituary described him as one of Sycamore’s “best citizens”.
Portrait photo courtesy of Darrell Baum, Truman's third great-grandson.