Friday, September 19, 2014

James S. Kirk and Company

James S. Kirk was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1818. His father was a prominent shipbuilder and engineer but they soon moved to Ottawa, Canada where James attended school and grew to manhood. Working in a nearby store was Mary Ann Dunning, 16 years old, and considered one of the bells of the Dominion. Before a year had passed they were married and moved to Utica, New York where he served one year as mayor.

The marriage would produce 11 children but only eight would survive, seven sons and one daughter. They are: James A., John B., William M., Wallace F., Arthur S., Edgar W., Charles S., and Helen Kirk.

The young couple moved to Utica, New York in 1839 where James engaged in the soap making business. They moved to Chicago in 1859 and located their plant on the site of Old Fort Dearborn. Their soap and candle factory burned in 1867 and was a total loss. Instead of rebuilding on that site they moved across the Chicago River immediately south of the Tribune Tower. They again lost everything in the Great Fire of 1871 with losses amounting to $250,000. Like most of the others, they rebuilt.

Their new plant was an imposing structure five stories high with a basement. Standing next to it was a chimney that reached 182 feet and inscribed on it were the words KIRK. (On the Internet you can find a picture of the plant and the chimney and a river full of boats and commercial traffic.) To the north of their plant was a railroad spur that connected to all the major lines running out of Chicago. They had the railroads and the river to distribute their products across the United States and to many foreign countries. It was once described as “the largest manufactory of its kind in America.”

Their advertising was somewhat unusual. Here is an example:

F stands for foolish
  Young people and old
Who often times use
   Nasty soaps that are sold.

All seven sons were connected to the James S. Kirk Company. The business prospered, and by 1925 sales amounted to $5 million annually. The plant was producing 70,000,000 pounds of soap. However, there was trouble on the horizon. The giant chimney was producing smoke, so the City Council passed several anti-smoke ordinances which were apparently difficult to enforce. The more serious problem was the expansion of Michigan Avenue across the Chicago river. Part of the Kirk plant was in the way.

The city offered to give them 150 feet of property east of the plant, build them a new building, move all the equipment and give the company $100,000. A good offer but it was rejected. The property was then condemned and a jury trial was held. The county court awarded $448,000. The Kirk family never opposed the expansion of Michigan Avenue, in fact they thought it was necessary. They only wanted a fair price for their property. A new plant was built at 1232 W. North Avenue but was sold to Proctor & Gamble in 1930.

When the Michigan Avenue plant was destroyed, the property was placed into a land trust. In one article it appeared that William Wrigley, Jr. once owned the land but I suspect it may now be owned by the Tribune Corporation. Anyone know? Not that it matters, of course, just interesting.

Walter R. Kirk, grandson of the founder, started his own company called the Kirk Soap Company. He died in 1964. Kirk soap is still being sold on the Internet. The company is located in Erlanger, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati. Their web site says:  “In 1996, Kirk’s Natural Product Corporation acquired Kirk Coco Hard Water Soap from Proctor & Gamble and Kirk returns to its native home.” They trace their Coca Castile Soap back to 1839. I was unable to determine what happened to the Kirk Soap Company started by Walter R. Kirk unless this is the company.

Mr. James S. Kirk died in 1886. He had once been a trustee of Northwestern University. He is buried along with other family members at Rosehill in Chicago. His wife, Mary Ann Dunning Kirk, died of injuries sustained in a fire at the Windsor Hotel in New York City in 1899. She had been saved from the burning building by Helen, her only daughter. Mrs. Kirk had 25 grandchildren. She is buried beside her husband. Helen Kirk was the wife of Charles Geer Haskins. She died July 17, 1940.

On November 9, 1929, the giant smokestack was felled by dynamite and brought about the end of an era. It had stood on historic ground because the first home in Chicago was erected here opposite the old fort. It was occupied by Scotsman John Kenzie in 1804. The Lake House Hotel was somewhere in the immediate vicinity. Scottish men first gathered at the Lake House to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day in 1845. An event that will be repeated this year on November 22 at the Palmer House. (Click here for details)

Like the Badenoch family, the Kirk’s spread across the country. I saw mention of California, Indiana, Utah, Illinois and Washington, D.C. Perhaps some family member will contact us with more family information.   

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

Upcoming Events:

Saturday, October 4 - The History Club will view a one hour video about “The Scots of Lake Forest.” This is the culmination of a three year project led by David Forlow, myself, and the help of many others. Photography and editing is by Steve Douglass. Narrations by Jack Crombie. This project was made possible by the generosity of June Steele and the Halverson Fund.

Saturday, November 1 - Charles Gonzalez and his father visit France on D-Day.

No meeting in December