Mr. Gardner’s life began February 16, 1845, on a Morrow County, Ohio farm and ended 83 years later on March 31, 1928. His career was an extremely varied one. He was wounded as a soldier for the Union Army during the Civil War. After that he became an attorney, a Methodist minister, a professor, financial agent and vice-president of Albion College, a member of the U.S. Congress, a banker, and an industrialist.
he was the son of John L. and Sara (Goodin) Gardner. One of his grandfathers arrived in America in 1777, a soldier in the British army, later settling in Loudoun County, Virginia, before moving to Ohio.
When Washington was only sixteen he joined the Union Army. This was in October, 1861. He was a private in Company D, 65th Ohio Infantry. He fought in the battles of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and was wounded in the right knee in fighting, it is believed, in Georgia. This was in May, 1864. After hospitalization, he was discharged December 14, 1864, in Nashville, Tennessee, after active service for more than three years. He was a seasoned war veteran at nineteen.
His next move was to seek an education, and he started preparing for college in Berea, Ohio, moving later to Hillsdale College and Ohio Wesleyan University. He received his A.B. degree from the latter institution in 1870 and an LL.B. degree from the Albany Law School in 1876 where he was valedictorian. He also attended the Boston School of Theology.
After receiving his law degree, he was admitted to practice in New York state courts and in federal courts. In 1876, he began practicing law in Grand Rapids with Samuel A. Kennedy, a friend of his boyhood and college years.
He practiced law in Grand Rapids only a year after which he joined the Michigan Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, becoming a minister. He was pastor of a number of churches including those in Jackson and Albion. He served the First Methodist Church in Albion in 1888 and was instrumental in raising funds for the church structure at South Ionia and East Erie Streets which was torn down in 1960. By 1889 the Albion College Board of Trustees appointed him a college vice-president and professor of biblical history and literature after a resolution suggesting this action was adopted by the faculty on December 16, 1889. It was while in this position that he was instrumental in raising funds for the college for a number of years.
Mr. Gardner became commander of the Michigan department of the Grand Army of the Republic, and he became commander-in-chief in 1913. After relinquishing his Albion College post in 1894, he became secretary of state of Michigan and then a member of Congress, the latter in 1899. He served in Congress until 1911. His two-volume History of Calhoun County, Michigan was published in 1913.
Desk of Washington Gardner from the U.S. Senate chamber, stored at the A.P. Gardner House.
His business interests included a directorship of the Commercial & Savings Bank (Albion), presidency of the Marion Oil & Gas Company, treasury-ship of the Grape Sugar Cereal Company, Ltd., Battle Creek; directorship of the Malleable Iron Company, and directorship of the Albion Buggy Company. He was also associated with a number of human welfare groups. He was a member of the national advisory board of the Red Cross; president of the Michigan Children’s Home Society, and a trustee of the National Children’s Home Society.
Mr. Gardner and Anna Powers were married in 1871, the year after he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan. She had been a resident of Abington, Massachusetts. They had seven children: Grace Bartlett, Mary Theodosia, who became Mrs. Harry B. Parker; Carleton Frederick, Elton Goldthwaite, Raymond Huntington, Lucy Reed, and Helen Louise.
Shortly before his death in 1928, an important Albion building was named in his honor, Washington Gardner High School, dedicated February 8 and 9, 1928. Mr. Gardner died a little more than a month later.
His death was occasion for this paragraph in the Albion Recorder obituary: “All Albion grieves today over the passing of its most distinguished citizen, Dr,. Washington Gardner, a man beloved by all and in the height of his career, one who carried the name of this city throughout the length and breadth of the country. Throughout his notable and honorable life Dr. Gardner was a soldier in the Union Army, a lawyer, a minister of the gospel, a statesman, an educator, field secretary, a United States commissioner, and in his home town a good neighbor and friend to all.
Source: Gildart, Robert. Albion College, 1835-1960, A History. Chicago: Donnelley Lakeside Press, 1961.
Source: Frank Passic. A History of the Albion Public Schools. Albion, Michigan: E. Weil Publishing Services. 1991.