Saturday, October 20, 2012

W. W. Kimball - Music For The Millions

When the administrator of the Scottish home wanted to buy a piano, she talked to James B. Forgan, President of the First National Bank in Chicago and a world renown banker from St.Andrew’s Scotland. He said, “She should talk to the Kimball piano people.” She did and they made an offer she couldn’t refuse

I am not sure that W. W. Kimball was of Scottish heritage. Most sources I found on the Internet spoke of the Kimballs as English. However, his full name was William Wallace Kimball which makes me a little suspicious. I also found several references which said that Kimball was a corruption of the name Campbell. I have yet to find any records that William Wallace Kimball was associated with any Scottish organization in Chicago. However, The Kimball Piano Company is part of the legacy that belongs to Chicago and so the blog.

Mr. Kimball was born March 22, 1828 in Rumford, Maine. His father’s name was David and his mother was Lucy Wheeler Kimball  He later moved to Decorah, Iowa (1853) where he sold insurance and real estate. He moved to Chicago in 1857 and traded his property in Iowa for four pianos. At the time Chicago had a population of 30,000 and he sold his four pianos from a second story office building. When the first four were sold, he ordered more from back East and thus the legacy began. He married Evaline M. Cone in 1865.

The great Chicago fire of 1871 wiped out all his assets, estimated to have been more than one hundred thousand dollars. But he was shortly in business again selling pianos out of his home at 611 Michigan Avenue. The basement was his salesroom, the billiard room the office. His barn was the shipping department. Nine years later, his company sold 12,000 pianos. In 1881, his company began the manufacture of organs and in a short time they were turning out 40 instruments a day. That number continued to increase and by 1890, they were producing 50 organs a day and 50 pianos a week and had a work force of 500 men including 50 to 60 family members.

The original Kimball piano factory was located at 26th and California. Destroyed by fire, a new factory was built in Melrose Park at Armitage and Cornell. “It was one of the largest manufacturing operations in the world with rail lines running through the facility dropping off raw materials and picking up finished pianos for shipment.” They were the largest piano manufacturer in the world from the late 1800s until the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1959, the company was acquired by The Jasper Corporation and they have continued using the Kimball name. Today, Kimball International is a global corporation involved in commercial office furniture and contract electronics.

The Kimball’s built their home on Prairie Avenue across the street from the Marshall Field mansion. Prairie Avenue, from 16th to 22nd Street was the “Fifth Avenue” of the Midwest. Nearly 20 millionaires once resided within a six-block area. They included people such as George Pullman, John J. Glessner, Samuel Allerton, and Philip Amour. George Pullman was the first to move into the area and the others followed. The Kimball house, located at 1801 South Prairie Avenue, still exists. It is built of Bedford limestone and has a sleek roof with an exterior of numerous large and small gables, balconies and iron-railed galleries. It is now occupied by the U.S. Soccer Federation and is not open to the public.  

Mr. Kimball died at home “after a lingering illness” on December 16, 1904. His funeral was held in his home and the Rev. William O. Waters followed the Episcopalian ritual. The honorary pallbearers included: Marshall Field, Robert T. Lincoln, Lambert Tree, Robert H. McCormick, Watson F. Blair, Charles H. Deere and J. J. Glessner. The active pallbearers were all employees of the company.

The total amount of his estate is not given in the newspapers but he left more than $2 million to his wife, Eva Kimball. They were no children. He made no charitable bequests. Mrs. Kimball died in 1921 of pneumonia and was described as “feeble minded.” She left her collection of paintings to the Art Institute valued at the time at more than one million dollars. Would someone familiar with the Art Institute tell me if there is still a gallery known as “The Mr. and Mrs. W. Kimball Room?” 

The Kimballs are buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois. The architects for their tomb was the well know firm of McKim, Mead and White. It was Stanford White’s final design before he was killed by Harry Kendall Thaw.

Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club

History Club meeting - November 3, 2012. Museum opens at 9 a.m. and the program begins at 10 a.m.
Our main speaker is Molly McNeil who will talk about her trip to Africa this past summer. We will also hear from Rosie Johnson and Anika Strolle. Reservations are helpful but not necessary. Call 708-447-5092.

1 comment:

  1. Theres a lot of farm style home furniture
    all-around however I am still trying to find a farm house type nest of tables
    - I'm now starting to think they do not exist!
    My webpage :: home furniture