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Columnist Debunks Plainfield's Connection to a Famous Song

While it makes a good story, there's no truth to the tales about Thomas Westendorf writing "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" in our town.

The Inquiry

Was the famed Irish ballad I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen written in Plainfield, Ill.? 

The Facts

Thomas Edison, the American inventor, once wrote the composer, commending the song. Reportedly, the ballad was broadcast during Edison’s funeral. 

Henry Ford, the automotive entrepreneur, went to great effort to obtain a copy for his Ford Museum. 

Of the many 20th century arrangements of the ballad, one was featured in the radio program Orphans of Divorce, and two were used in motion pictures: Mrs. Parkington and Magic Town.

Slim Whitman recorded a version in 1957. Elvis Presley recorded another in 1973. Bing Crosby, Mitch Miller and Johnny Cash all recorded versions of the ballad as well.

Eight years ago, when this question first crossed my desk, I wondered, “How could such a famous piece of American music been forgotten here at Plainfield, where it was said to have originated?”  

I set out on a search for the man and his music…

The ballad’s composer, Thomas Paine Westendorf, was born Feb. 23, 1848, at Bowling Green (Caroline County), Va.   

Westendorf is said to have penned the ballad, according to old accounts now widely circulated on the Internet, while he and his wife were on an ocean voyage to Germany. The couple were grieving the death of a child, and during the journey, the bereaved wife died as well.

A man of German descent on a supposed trip to Germany wrote an Irish ballad?  Something seemed amiss at the onset.

The story continues that Thomas Westendorf had been a teacher in the Plainfield, Ill., public schools, first performing this ballad at the Plainfield Town Hall in 1875.  

Unfortunately, no town hall existed here at that time; town meetings throughout the 1870s were held, primarily, at the old Central Hotel. The first village hall — little more than a small, wooden shed with two small rooms — was not erected until the late 1870s or early 1880s. 

No school records identified a “Westendorf” as a teacher here at that time.

I was becoming increasingly skeptical of any associations with our community. 

Consulting with Kathy Miller Haines, of The Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh, led to the discovery of a 1948 article entitled, “Getting Kathleen Home Again,” by Richard S. Hill.  

Hill's research was validated by Herbert R. Collins of Milford, Va., a retired employee of the venerable Smithsonian Institution. In 1967, Collins wrote an article debunking the long-held story circulating in his hometown that placed a grieving Westendorf there at the time I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen was written. Collins commissioned a portrait of Westendorf that hangs in the courthouse of the county where the composer was born.

Following the Civil War, the Westendorf family moved to Chicago, where the young Thomas studied piano and violin. While there, Westendorf became the friend of many aspiring composers. In 1871, he was employed as a band teacher at the Reform School at Chicago. 

Presumably, this was his first job, which likely terminated as a result of the Chicago Fire in October 1871.    

Westendorf then relocated to Hendricks County, Ind., for the fall 1872 school term at the Indiana House of Refuge for Juvenile Offenders.

According to Indiana marriage records, Westendorf married Jennie Morrow in Hendricks County on May 21, 1873.  

Notably, his new wife’s name was not Kathleen. Too, Plainfield, Ind., is located in Hendricks County. 

The true story unfolded one September evening — in 1875 — while his wife was vacationing alone in her hometown of Ogdensburg, N.Y. Westendorf was sitting at the foot of a tree at the Indiana reform school and it was there that he wrote the poetry and music for his fabled song. 

Based on the lyrical custom of the period, the famous ballad is actually a “reply” to an 1875 song, Barney, Take Me Home Again. That song’s composer, George W. Brown (writing under the nom de plume of George W. Persley), was Westendorf’s close friend. 

Westendorf’s ballad was first played in 1875 on an organ in what was known as Family Four Cottage at the Indiana reform school. Soon thereafter, the song was introduced to the public by a group of singers performing at the town hall in Plainfield, Ind. The sheet music was published the following year in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

At least the stories of a performance in a town hall is correct, even if the location is not.

During 1876, I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen became one of the most popular songs in America, second only to Grandfather’s Clock.

Following several moves, including a career in Washington state, Westendorf died on April 19, 1923 at Chicago. Buried in the Mount Greenwood Cemetery on the far Southwest Side, his tombstone is inscribed “He wrote that others might sing.” 

In the 1940s, a commemorative plaque was placed where Westendorf first composed the ballad (now the Indiana Department of Correction – Plainfield Juvenile Correctional Facility).

So, if you ever find yourself humming I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and someone informs you the ballad was written in Plainfield, Ill., tell them they took a wrong turn on the “misinformation highway.”

To listen to Elvis Presley's rendition of I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen, click here.

Bill Clendineng November 03, 2011 at 02:11 PM
Thank you for digging out this information. I live in Plainfield, Indiana but never knew about this connection. The reform school (known locally as "the boys' school") became a juvenile offender program and moved to a different location about 5 years ago. The facility now houses an adult short term offender program. The tree Westendorf sat under may still be there
Michael Lambert November 04, 2011 at 07:31 PM
Bill, Thanks for the updated information. I did not know that the Indiana facility had been re-purposed. Also, I don't know whether the 1940s building, named in Westendorf's honor, still stands on the site or if the tree is still there either. Thanks for reading!

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