Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Chicago Fire and The Celebration of St. Andrew's Day

One hundred forty years ago the Chicago Fire occurred and the Chicago History Museum now has an iPhone app that “combines a chronology of the fire and an analysis of the several ways in which it has entered historical memory.” You can get more information on their web site.

The City was destroyed on October 8, 1871 and the Society’s banquet honoring St. Andrew was scheduled for November 30. It was a very difficult time for the inhabitants of Chicago and some may have thought the annual dinner should have been cancelled. The President at the time was General John McArthur, a Civil War hero. The two vice-presidents were William Stewart and A. M. Thomson. Wm. M. Dale was the Treasurer with John Stewart serving as Secretary. These men could have cancelled the dinner, but they did not.

The evening of the dinner, men who once were wealthy now found themselves with nothing. Everything they owned was destroyed, only their spirit and integrity remained. Eight thousand Scottish families felt the terrible effects of their city being destroyed. The smell of smoke permeated the environment even to the clothes they wore. “Still, 120 guests managed to show their support...”

The Chicago Tribune, as it always had, carried the story. (Dec. 2, 1871, page 4). It begins: “We do not remember who it was who said that the Scotch were always leaving their native land, and always singing in her praise. The last part of the statement is undoubtedly true, and the first does not admit of much question. The land of the lake, mountain and heather is well remembered by her sons, no matter  what part of the world; like their own thistle down, chance may have blown them. The St. Andrew Society will hold their regular annual banquet at the Briggs House, and celebrate the occasion with becoming hilarity.”

The walls of the banquet room were bare. All pictures, signs and membership records had been lost when the Court House fell in flames. (They had been given permission to use a room in the court house for their meetings and all their possessions were stored there.) There is no mention of pipers, music or Highland dancers. In fact, it was almost like the first dinner held in 1845. The menu is not given - food was in short supply but there is mention of “hot scotch.” There were speeches and toasts as usual and General MacArthur spoke of charity and generosity but it must have been a quiet and subdued evening. The paper also reports: “Before sitting down to meat, each member adorned himself with a sprig of heather, imported from Scotland for the occasion.” A list of attendees is not given, so we don’t know who said Grace over the meal.

Near the close, George Anderson was again called upon to recite Tam O’Shanter. “He declined saying after the great calamity he had no heart to recite a poem abounding in such tender associations.” He did however present to the Society a ram’s head, “handsomely mounted, and ornamented with many Scottish devices.” The ram’s head is now the beloved mascot of the Society and will have a place of honor at the event this year scheduled for November 18. Click here for more information about the Annual Dinner.

The closing paragraph of the article reads: “After the customary toasts and responses, the assembly broke up, having spent a delightful evening.”

This annual dinner, originally held to celebrate the Patron Saint of Scotland, has never been cancelled.

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


1 comment:

  1. The Great Chicago Fire created opportunity for one hard working Scots immigrant. George Badenoch, my great,great grandfather and who has been given an account by this blog's author, was a blacksmith whose forge was spared by the fire. The rebuilding of Chicago put him to work and he was able to greatly expand his businesses. Like most immigrants, his hard work made it possible for his children to prosper in the New World.