Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Scots of Chicago and the Palmer House Hilton

The Scots of Chicago met for the first time on December 2, 1845 to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day which occurs each year on November 30. If the date fell on Sunday, the Scots met the following week.  In modern times, the date has depended on hotel schedules. This year the 169th St. Andrew’s Day Dinner will be held on November 22 at the Palmer House Hilton on State Street.

St. Andrew has been the Patron Saint of Scotland from at least the 9th century. He is said to have died bound to an X shaped cross. That shape is now reflected in the Scottish flag, known as the Saltire. This year November 30 falls on Sunday so perhaps we should wear our kilt to church. It marks the beginning of Advent that lasts until midnight on Christmas Eve. Advent Sunday is the first of the four Sundays before December 25.

That first meeting in 1845 was held at the Lake House hotel. It was Chicago’s first important hotel, a three-story brick building between Rush and Kinzie. There was nothing between it and the shore of Lake Michigan, “excepting the great cotton wood trees that had sheltered the pioneer Kinzie house,” a Scot himself. The first official meeting was held January 26, 1846. It seems likely that a constitution was adopted by 1850 and a charter was obtained from the legislature in 1853.

The preamble said: “A sacred obligation to aid the unfortunate among our countrymen, or their families, who may, in pursuit of labor of business, have come here, and having deliberated on the most effective means to promote and compass these most desirable objects, we hereby form ourselves into a society bearing the name of the Illinois St. Andrew Society of Chicago.”   

The Scots of Chicago have met every year since 1845 in the best hotels that Chicago had to offer. Every Dinner is a story in itself. Until recent times, the event was prominent in the newspapers of Chicago, especially the Chicago Tribune. Some people call the event the “Dinner” or the “Feast” and it is both - but not to a Scottish food. The evening is a tribute to our history, to the thousands of Scots who have supported the work and the mission. Men and women who have given of their time and talents to fulfill our mission and preserve Scottish heritage in Chicago and surrounding areas.

Several years ago, I was able to buy a letter written by George Anderson, dated 22 November, 1847. He was writing to Mr. Samuel Dow in Rockford, Illinois looking for a piper to play at the St. Andrew’s dinner. “So, if you engage one send him on by Monday next and the Society will pay all his expenses. Get the best one.” The letter is part of the Scottish American Museum. A pipe band now always plays for this event.

Beginning in 1926, the Anniversary Dinner moved to the Stevens Hotel on Michigan Avenue, now called the Chicago Hilton. It was the largest hotel in the world at the time and was the dream of J. W. Stevens. He suffered a stroke the same year and Ernest, and his youngest son became the manager. (Ernest Stevens is the father of John Paul Stevens, Justice of the Supreme Court.) The Stevens’ family has an interesting history and I believe they are of a Scottish heritage but can’t prove it as I write this article. The Judge would know!

From 1926 until 1941, the Dinner was held at the Stevens now the Chicago Hilton. The government bought the hotel in 1942 for six million dollars to use in the housing of troops during the war.  The 97th Anniversary Dinner was moved to the Palmer House. It was the first time the Society held the event at the Palmer House and they returned during the war for 1942 and 1943. In 1944 as the war was winding down they returned to the Chicago Hilton for the next 50 years.

In 1942 the president was Alexander G. Shennan, OBE. The Board of Governors consisted of: Robert Black, Robert Falconer, James B. Forgan, James R. Glass, William Lister, James G. McMillan, William F. G. Ross, R. Douglas Stuart, William Sutherland and Albert L. Tossell.

Six committees were in charge of the organizing the Anniversary Dinner as they called the event. George C. Buik and R. Douglas Stuart were part of the Reception Committee. One of the speakers was Robert E. Lee Hill, past president of Rotary International. I don’t know the attendance. In 1943, the Anniversary Dinner was again held at the Palmer House and the Tribune reported that 1500 were in attendance. George C. Buik was chairman and the speakers were: Dr. Franklyn B. Snyder, president of Northwestern University and Air Vice Marshal MacNeece Foster.

The Palmer House is a famous and historic hotel. Click her for details about the 2014 Anniversary Dinner.

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

November 1 - Next meeting of the Scottish American History Club.
Charles Gonzalez and his father will be our special guests.
They visited France for the D-day celebrations this year.
Come see how the beaches have changed.
We will listen to John LeNoble as he tells the story of our flag
Beth Brown will play the piano and lead us in singing.
We will pledge our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

Meeting begins at 10:00 a.m. - Museum opens at 9:00 a.m.
Coffee and scones - no charge
Reservations are helpful. Call 708-447-5092 or 630-629-4516

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