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


  1. My grandfather was the caretaker for Edellyn Farms, the winter home of the Wilsons. I have some great photos from the cattle auctions to the Wilson Family riding in a horse-drawn sleigh. Would copies of these be of interest to you?

  2. Yes, of course. Please write me at wrethford@comcast.net