Monday, November 5, 2012

Celebrations in 1871 and 2012

The Chicago Fire occurred 141 years ago in 1871. The city was destroyed on October 8 and 9 and the banquet honoring St. Andrew was scheduled for November 30. The President of the Saint Andrew Society 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 event, but they did not.

Men who once were wealthy now found themselves with nothing. Everything they had owned was destroyed; only their spirit and integrity remained. The smell of smoke permeated everything, even to the clothes they wore. “Still, 120 guests managed to show their support...”

The Chicago Tribune, as it always did, carried the story. (Dec. 2, 1871, page 4). It began, “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’s 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. 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 McArthur spoke of charity and generosity but it must have been a quiet and subdued evening. The paper also goes on to report: “Before sitting down to meat, each member adorned himself with a sprig of heather, imported from Scotland for the occasion.”

Near the close, George Anderson was 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 16.

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

In 1871, the Society celebrated its twenty-fifth gathering. In 2012, we celebrate the 167th annual gathering to celebrate St. Andrew, the Patron Saint of Scotland. Chicago is now a vibrant city of skyscrapers; quite different from 1871. I wrote this article last year and run it again because I think it is an important story. Chicago did rise, and the Saint Andrew Society did continue, and the Ram’s Head will again be our honored guest. Our clothes will not smell of smoke and there will be ample food.

Each year the Society recognizes a Distinguished Citizen. This year it is Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University. He has built a program around molecular nanotechnology. Professor Stoddart was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was knighted by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2007. Mr. and Mrs. Bill McLeod will also be honored for their volunteer work. Anika Strolle, who spoke at our History Club meeting this past Saturday, will be officially welcomed as our Heather Queen. Good food, Highland dancers, Pipers and outstanding entertainers await you on November 16, 2012.

Click here for more information and to order tickets.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

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