Monday, April 2, 2012

James A. Patten, the Wheat King

James A. Patten was described as a plain, blunt, forceful man, who always spoke his mind. He was born May 8, 1852 at Freeland Corners, IL. (Someone may correct me, but I believe Freeland Corners is north of Somonauk, IL.) He was the son of Alexander and Agnes (Beveridge) Patten. He was educated in the local school and did some farming before moving to Chicago. On April 9, 1885, he married Amanda Louisa Buchanan. They had three children.

In 1878, James Patten and his brother George W. began to trade in grain and would soon dominate the market. In just a few years, James Patten would become known as the “wheat king” amid allegations that he had cornered the market. Later, he would trade in corn and cotton. In 1901, he held 4,000,000 bushels of corn which he had bought at $.38 and traded at $.41, making a profit of $100,000. In May 1905, he may have cornered the wheat market and as a result made millions of dollars.

Sometime after their marriage, Mr.and Mrs. Patten moved to Evanston, IL and built a large home which for many years was the showplace of the city. (In 1901, James Patten was elected mayor of Evanston.) Their home was located at 1426 Ridge Avenue and was built of “massive, rough-hewn limestone.” The architect was George Maher and the house contained twenty-two rooms, eight bathrooms, 15 fireplaces, a large ballroom and a stable that became a ten-car garage. The original cast was $500,000. When Mr. Patten died in 1928, the house was left to his widow. When Mrs. Patten died in 1935, the property was left to her two living children. They in turn gave the house and its contents to Northwestern University. Unable to use the property because of zoning restrictions, the University sold the house to wreckers for $65,000 and built nine single family homes on the property. The old iron fence may still be in place. Perhaps someone in Evanston can tell us.

A newspaper reporter talked about the thistle plant motif “which runs all over the Patten house, in stone, wood, brass, and even wallpaper . . . but this brambly botanical theme, hinting at the Scotch ancestry of the family, failed to give the needed graceful relief. The design, like the plant itself, is harsh and inedible.” The contents of the house were sold at an auction. On one Sunday afternoon, a reported 15,000 people visited the old house. Everything was sold, fine jewelry, china, glassware, silver and 114 oil paintings.

The Chicago Daily Tribune estimated Mr. Patten’s wealth at the time of his death to be more than $20 million, half of which would go to charity upon the death of his wife and the remainder to his two children. Northwestern University was not mentioned in the will but had already received more than two million dollars in gifts.  I could find no evidence that Mr. Patten was a member of the Illinois Saint Andrew’s Society but he was a contributor and once made a donation of $5,000 which was given to James B. Forgan and several others men who visited his office.

Mr. Patten owned considerable property in Chicago including the land at the northwest corner of Michigan and Monroe. This is the land on which the University Club now stands. I found this interesting since I was once a member of the club. Mr. Patten had purchased the property from the International Harvester Company in 1915 and the land was under lease for 108 years at an annual rental of $45,000. At the time of his gift, the land was valued at $1.5 million. The land and other items were placed with the Chicago Community Trust and the income was to be used for charitable purposes. I assume this trust is still in existence but you cannot determine the present value from their web site. During the Great Depression, the holdings in real estate and securities “shrank to only $2,000,000...”

Mrs. Patten died January 26, 1935, at Evanston Hospital. She was 76 years old and died of heart problems. The newspaper reports that her children, “John L. Patten of Evanston and Miami, FL. and Mrs. Agnes Patten Wilder of Santa Barbara, CA. were at her bedside when death came.” Also at the hospital were, a brother-in-law, Henry Patten, and a niece, Miss Ada Belle McCleery.

The funeral for Mr. Patten (1928) was held at the First Presbyterian church in Evanston and hundreds were in attendance. The a-cappella choir from Northwestern sang and three Presbyterian ministers conducted the service. The church had also received a gift of $50,000 from Mr. Patten. Mrs. Patten’s funeral (1935) was held in the old mansion in Evanston. Burial was at the Oak Mound cemetery in Somonouk, IL. The newspaper does not mention the place of burial for Mr. Patten but I would assume he is also at the Oak Mound cemetery.

More than 15 years ago one of our history tours was to the Somonouk area. We visited the old Presbyterian church which is still very active. They entertained us with their history and refreshments. We then visited the cemetery. The Scottish grandmother of Governor James Thompson is also buried in this cemetery. I don’t remember visiting the Patten’s grave probably because I didn’t yet know their history.

There is so much more to the story but this gives an insight into the life of one very successful Scot who like so many others did it with hard work and little formal education.

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

Note: The History Club meeting scheduled for April 7, 2012 is cancelled. Next meeting is May 5, 2012 and the June meeting is June 2, 2012.


  1. Freeland Corners is about 3 miles north of Somonauk. The Somonauk United Presbyterian Church is located at the intersection of Governor Beveridge Highway and Chicago Road. The Patten's gave the church an organ and their community room.

  2. Freeland Corners once had a Post Office. It was located north of Somonauk. I think it was, in fact, the original Somonauk. But when the railroad came through to the south, along what is today Route 34 (Ogden Avenue) the commerce moved south.

    I grew up a few miles from there and I remember my father talking about the Wheat King when I was young. He and/or his family donated the organ at the church and the stone fence around the cemetery.

    Thanks for the article. It brought back memories!

    Mary Fraser Hodson

  3. Patten was probably the character of Curtis Jadwin in Frank Norris' 1903 book, "The Pit", about a grain trader in Chicago who did manage to corner the wheat market in commodities contracts, but ended up penniless. (in the book). Of course back then investment was not a game for sissys and regulation was non-existent. Interestingly the book portrays the protagonist as a human sort of person, who manages to save the Illinois farmers from financial difficulties by driving the price of wheat up, although it unquestionably resulted in the ruin of many investors in the grain market.