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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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)
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
Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
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