Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Wilson Families of Lake Forest, Illinois

The Wilson family name comes from several countries including Scotland. In Scotland the name may have begun with the Vikings who arrived in medieval times. Like others,  the Wilson’s of Scotland moved to Northern Ireland and then to America. They are often called Scots-Irish because many people believe that the Scots and Irish intermarried before coming to America. Most historians believe this is not true, especially those who came before the American Revolution. Only in the United States is the term "Scots-Irish" used - the more correct term being “Ulster-Scots.”

In 2010, some of you traveled with us to Lake Forest on our annual history tour. Since then, we have been working on a video of Lake Forest Scots and the homes they built. David Forlow has done most of the work. Elaine and I have been interested bystanders helping where we can           

Around 1900, 17 Scottish-born people with the last name of Wilson lived in Lake Forest. If we count families born in the U.S. to Scottish ancestors, it brings the total to 30. They were mostly common folk, hard-working and industrious. Here is a brief summary of some of these families:

  • William Wilson was a chauffeur living with his Scottish born wife, Mary, and their children, on an estate on the 1400 block of N. Green Bay Rd.  
  • Another William Wilson, was a coachman for a private family. His wife Lottie, son David and daughter Jane were all born in Scotland. 
  •  George Wilson was the gardener for the Chatfield-Taylor family. His sisters, Lizzie and Mary, worked for the same family.  They were all born in Scotland and lived on Illinois Road.      
  • A few doors away on Illinois Road lived Scottish born David Wilson with his wife and five children.  David was a carpenter.  
  • Two other Scottish carpenters named Wilson, lived a block away on Washington Circle. One was Thomas Wilson with his wife Mary and a Scottish-born niece, Mary Lindsey. A couple of houses down lived Alexander Wilson, with his wife Rachel and son Alexander II - all born in Scotland.  
  • There was a golf club maker named Alexander Wilson and another with the same name was the Reverend Alexander Wilson a Presbyterian minister.  
  • Scottish-born James Wilson was a gardener for the Clow family at their estate, “Landsdowne,” in Lake Bluff.          

"It seems that some Scottish Wilsons cultivated souls and the others the land." ~  David Forlow

Thomas Edward Wilson is the most remembered today. He was born in Canada, 1868, and was Scots-Irish. (His biographer says he was very proud of his Scottish heritage.) He worked in the meat packing business where he started as a clerk. He rose quickly through the ranks and by 1916 was running a business known as Wilson and Company, the third largest meat packing company in the country.  His empire stretched from Canada to South America. Murdo MacKenzie came from Tain, Scotland, to manage his operations in Brazil.  MacKenzie oversaw a herd of 250,000 cows distributed over nine million acres.

By 1918, Wilson and Company had assets of more than $129 million. (That is several billion in today’s money.) Thomas Wilson owned “Edellyn Farm,” 450 acres just north of Lake Forest which was named for his son Ed and daughter Helen. After Thomas’ death, 200 acres of the farm were sold and that land became part of the Lakehurst Mall. Mr. Wilson  kept Scottish Clydesdale horses and raised champion Scottish short horn cows at Edellyn Farms.

But it’s not the meat packing business for which Thomas Edward Wilson is remembered. You see, like his fellow Scots, Thomas was thrifty and saw any unused parts of an animal as waste. Thomas found a way to use animal by-products, which were usually discarded. Instead, he made tennis racket strings out of the waste.

It is this little side business for which he is remembered today - the Wilson Sporting Goods Company. It is one of the most recognizable brand names in the world.

Thomas E. Wilson was a major figure in the development of 4-H clubs in America. He died in 1968. 

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
Scottish-American History Club

August 4th - Scottish Home Picnic. Museum open from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.  For more information click here.
September 8 - History Club meeting - Presentation by the Eastland Historical Society
October 6 - History Club tour - Dundee and Elgin, Illinois
November 3 - History Club meeting.  TBA

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Perfect Day for a Cruise

It was July 25, 1915 and the Western Electric Company was to have its annual picnic. The plant, located in Cicero, Illinois, was the manufacturing arm of the Bell Telephone Co. It employed thousands of people most of whom were Czech and Polish immigrants.

The street cars were crowded with families and young people headed to the Chicago river. They carried picnic baskets and were dressed in their best. Awaiting the 7,000 people were five ships, including the S.S. Eastland. It was going to be a perfect day for a cruise on Lake Michigan and a picnic at Michigan City, Indiana.

The Eastland was tied up along the river between LaSalle and Clark streets. (This is across the street from the offices of Bill Campbell where our Board of Governors often meets.) It was to take on board 2,500 people but before everyone had boarded, the Eastland began to list. It finally capsized throwing many into the river and trapping hundreds below as a light rain began to fall.

More than 800 people died on that fateful morning. Most of the dead were taken to the Second Armory where Scots had often celebrated. (After the dedication of the Robert Burns statue in Garfield Park in 1906, a party was held at the Second Armory. Hundreds of Scots attended and danced until the break of day.) I am told that seven Scots died on the Eastland but I don’t presently have their names.

The armory building would later become part of Harpo Studios owned by Oprah Winfrey. Many now believe the studio is haunted. Staff “has reported hearing whispering voices, the laughter of children, sobbing sounds, old-time music, the clinking of glasses and the marching of many feet.” One apparition has been called the “Gray Lady.”

Across the Chicago River from the Eastland stood the Reid Murdoch building and it becomes the focus for this blog. It was built in 1913 as a food processing plant and very much according to the Burnham vision for Chicago river usage. In the center of the 400,000 square foot building is a three-story clock tower which faces the river. When the Eastland disaster occurred, the basement and first floor of the Reid-Murdoch building was used as a temporary hospital and morgue. The building is now the headquarters of Encyclopedia Britannica and was once used by the City as its traffic courts. Here is a look at the lives of these two men: Reid and Murdoch.

Simon Somerville Reid was born in Duffus, Scotland, in 1829 and came to America when he was 14 years old. Apparently his first stop was in Buffalo, New York. Later in the company of his new wife and Thomas Murdoch, he moved to Dubuque, Iowa. Here they sold provisions to wagon trains headed west. With the advent of trains and the decline of the wagon trains, they moved to Chicago and engaged in the food processing business. The company had several locations in Chicago.

Mr. Reid was an elder in the First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, IL. “He was a quiet, unostentatious businessman with a kindly heart and genial disposition, which won for him the respect of all with whom he came in contact.” Mr. Reid died February 13, 1892. He left a wife, three daughters and a son. They donated Reid Hall to Lake Forest College in 1892 and lived at the southwest corner of College and Sheridan Roads.

Thomas Murdoch was born in Forres, Scotland, in 1828 and came to America in 1851. (It is possible he knew Simon Reid in Scotland. David Forlow, who has done considerable research on both men tells me their home towns were less than 15 miles apart.) Mr. Murdoch first settled in Canada but moved in 1853 to Buffalo, New York. The next year, he moved to Dubuque, Iowa, with Simon Reid where they started a wholesale grocery business. By 1864, Murdoch is in Chicago and one of the founders of Reid, Murdoch and Fisher. By 1865, the business was known as Reid-Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch never married and lived mostly in hotels on the south side, especially the Lexington. He died at the Metropole hotel. (There is information that he owned a house in Lake Forest but I don’t have an address.) Mr. Murdoch was a founding member of the Art Institute and The Chicago Home For The Friendless.

I have yet to find an indication that either man was a member of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society, but there is evidence that Mr. Murdock was a supporter. He included the Society in his will but the major portion of his four million dollar estate went to family and the old Presbyterian hospital. He built a mansion at 2130 Prairie Avenue in Chicago and was a member of the Second Presbyterian church. (That mansion and many others, were demolished and the land used as parking lots for the 1933 World’s Fair. Sad!) Not sure why he built a house if he lived mostly in hotels. But, in 1914, his niece, Mrs. Julius B. Cone, lived in the house which had been designed by Henry Ives Cobb. (He also designed the mansion of Dr. John McGill at 4938 S. Drexel Blvd.) Mr. Murdoch died on December 25, 1909 and is buried in the Lake Forest Cemetery very close to his life-long friend Simon Reid.

In 1945, the Reid Murdoch & Co. was acquired by Consolidated Grocers Corporation for seven million dollars and the Reid Murdoch Division was changed to the Monarch Finer Foods.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

On Saturday, July 21, 2012, the Eastland Disaster Historical Society will have a public wreath-laying at noon on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle. More details are on their website.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Death by Firing Squad

The majority of Scottish people think with a clear, logical mind, but William Walker was a little different. Intelligent, educated, charismatic, he lost it all to a firing squad in Nicaragua.

William Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1824. His father, James, was the son of a Scottish immigrant. Mary, his mother, was a daughter of Lipscomb Norvell who was an officer in the Revolutionary War from Virginia. He was taken prisoner at Charleston. It is believed that Lipscomb Norvell was the first Revolutionary War officer buried in the Nashville City Cemetery. There is a branch of the Norvell family that is Scottish, but I don’t know about this Lipscomb Norvell.

William graduated from the University of Nashville, summa cum laude at the age of fourteen. He spent the next two years in Europe and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and other universities in Germany and Paris. Revolutions were occurring all across Europe in 1848 as people demanded more freedom and the right to rule themselves. Walker must have been influenced by the political thoughts of this time. Later, he received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and practiced briefly.

Medicine did not appear to interest him so he moved to New Orleans to study law and apparently did practice for a short time. But once again, he changed professions and became part owner of a newspaper, The New Orleans Crescent. By 1849, he was on the move again, this time to San Francisco where he was a journalist. He fought three duels in San Francisco and, while the reason is unknown, he was wounded in at least two duels. He was a restless soul looking for something that would satisfy.

Here is the strange part of his life. He decided to conquer the Mexican territories of Baja, California and Sonora. With an army of 45, he captured LaPaz, and declared himself to be the President of the new Republic of Lower California. He put his captured territory under the laws of Louisiana and moved his capital to Ensenada. A lack of supplies and resistance by the Mexican government forced him to retreat back to U.S. territory where he was put on trial for conducting an illegal war. It took eight minutes for the jury to find him innocent.

The Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story on January 10, 1854, about “president” Walker and a manifesto he had just released. “The document is a rich one, and causes a smile at its absurdity, though we feel indignant at its presumption.” What Walker was doing was called “filibustering,” which is an attempt by a privately funded military expedition “to take over countries at peace with the United States.” It obviously is a violation of the law. We now understand the word as a parliamentary procedure used in Congress which occasionally is also at war.

William Walker was still being moved by some ideology because his next attempt was to take over Nicaragua. This was before the Panama Canal was built and before a railroad was constructed across the land separating the Atlantic from the Pacific. Interestingly, Nicaragua had given the rights of transport across this strip of land to a company controlled by Cornelius Vanderbilt. The story gets rather complicated now because William Walker shows up with 300 “colonists.” His downfall came because he sought to take control of Vanderbilt’s company and he should never have tried that. After the third attempt to take Nicaragua, he was captured and put before a firing squad. He survived the first round from the firing squad and was finally killed with a single bullet to the head. You have to wonder what he could have accomplished in the field of medicine with a different mind set.

This intelligent, educated, charismatic Scottish American is buried in the Cementerio Viejo, in Trujillo.

(Walker’s exploits have been used in two movies: “Burn!” starring Marlon Brando (1969) and Alex Cox’s “Walker” in 1978. He is also mentioned in “Gone with the Wind”, Part V, Chapter 48.)

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
Scottish American History Club

August 4, 2012 - Scottish Home picnic. We will have the museum open from 10-2

Next week our blog will be about the Eastland disaster and a Scottish connection


Monday, July 2, 2012

Life, Fortune and Sacred Honor

Duncan Bruce in his book the “Mark of the Scots” says “At least twenty-one of the fifty-six men who risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in signing the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish ancestry, including two native Scots: John Witherspoon and James Wilson.”

James Thomson, creator of the Scottish American Hall of Fame lists only ten because that was the number the plaque would hold. His plan was to have a second plaque listing the remaining Americans of Scottish descent who signed the Declaration.

Here are the 21 names:

John Witherspoon, Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, George Read, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas McKean, George Ross, James Smith, George Walton, Stephen Hopkins, Edward Rutledge, Josiah Bartlett, Thomas Nelson, Jr., George Taylor, Joseph Hewes, William Hooper, Philip Livingston, Matthew Thornton, Lewis Morris, John Hart, and Abraham Clark.

Here is a short summary of ten who signed, perhaps we can get the remainder next year.

1.    Edward Rutledge was the youngest signer at age 26; Graduate of Oxford; Lawyer; Fought in several important battles during the war; Died in 1800 at the age of 50.

2.     John Witherspoon, born in Yester, Scotland; President of Princeton University; Lost a son in the battle of Germantown; 12 children; Lineally descended from John Knox.

3.     Philip Livingston was the grandson of David Livingston born in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, Scotland, the pioneer medical missionary to Africa; Promoter and fund raiser for the revolutionary army.

4.     George Ross, a Scottish-American whose nephew’s wife, Betsy Ross, made the first national flag.

5.     Matthew Thornton; Ulster Scot; Noted physician; Elected to Congress from New Hampshire; Appointed surgeon to the New Hampshire Militia troops; Married Hannah Jack; Five children.

6.     Thomas McKean; Great-grandfather was from Argyllshire, Scotland; Governor of Delaware; 11 children. During the war, he wrote, “hunted like a fox by the enemy, compelled to remove my family five times in three months....”

7.     George Read; Lawyer; elected to the first Continental Congress; Elected twice as Delaware State Senator under the new Constitution.

8.     James Wilson; Born in St. Andrew’s; Delegate from Pennsylvania; Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; Strongly advocated for independence.

9.       George Taylor; son of a clergyman; Ulster Scot; Delegate from Pennsylvania; Ironmaster and a working man (may be the only working man who signed;) Secured the first munitions contract for the continental army.

10.      Thomas Jefferson; Educated by Scots; American of Scottish heritage on his mother’s side; Duncan A. Bruce states that he was a descendant of a sister of King Robert I of Scotland; Died on the Fourth of July 1826.

The Declaration of Independence was printed by John Dunlap and was first read in public by Colonel John Nixon - both American Scots. Twenty-five generals and perhaps half the revolutionary army were Americans of Scottish descent.

Uncle Sam is the national personification of the United States. It is based on a real man, Samuel Wilson, whose parents sailed to America from Greenock, Scotland, and who has been officially recognized as the original Uncle Sam. In the War of 1812, he provided the army with beef and pork in barrels all prominently labeled “U.S.” “But it was jokingly said that the letters stood for “Uncle Sam.”  Soon, Uncle Sam was used as shorthand for the federal government.”

(I have often used the following the statement in speeches but never have been sure of the actual source. This quotation is taken from an article by Sarah Powell and published on the web site of Burke’s Peerage and Gentry. If anyone can find the original source, please let me know.)

 “If all else fails, I will retreat up the valley of Virginia, plant my flag on the Blue Ridge, rally around the Scotch-Irish (Ulster Scots) of that region and make my last stand for liberty amongst a people who will never submit to British tyranny whilst there is a man left to draw a trigger.”
                                                                       George Washington at Valley Forge

On this July 4th, let us be thankful for our freedoms and appreciate those who have sacrificed to make it all possible.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus