Monday, January 11, 2016

The Scots of Chicago Celebrate Robert Burns

As we approach the Birthday of Robert Burns on January 25, I find it interesting to look back and see how the Scottish population of Chicago celebrated this event. These stories have all been taken from the Chicago Daily Tribune and cover the period up to 1900. Not every event is listed and often several events were conducted at the same time by different Scottish organizations and clans.

1857 - 96th anniversary of birth of Robert Burns. The Chicago Highland Guard, “one of the most beautifully uniformed military companies, celebrated a Burns Anniversary Ball.” It was held at the German Hall, corner of Wells and Indiana. The Guard was presented with a beautiful silk flag by a number of female friends. It was painted by William Mackie. “A finely gilded Eagle, carved by Power & Farel of State Street, surrounds the flag staff. It is to be presented in front of the Briggs House."

1859 - In the afternoon there was a parade composed of the Saint Andrew Society’s Highland Guard and other military companies. In the evening an address by ex-Governor McComas, followed by a concert. “After this, comes the Banquet and Ball at the Tremont House, where beauty and mirth will predominate. Large deputations from the cities and towns along the lines of railways centering here are coming to join with the citizens of Chicago in the affair. It promises to be the most magnificent affair every gotten up in the West.” The paper reported that “tens of thousands waited along the streets.” The parade was delayed three hours by a ferocious snowstorm.

1860 - “The Sons of Auld Scotia gave their brilliant and attentive Caledonian Festival at the Briggs House in honor of the Birthday of Robert Burns.

1864 - A dinner was given for Colonel A. Raffin, of the 19th Illinois, at the Briggs House on January 25, 1864. About 30 attended. Present were Robert Hervey, Capt. James, John Alston, and other “whole-souled Scotchmen” who were there and participated. Colonel Raffin was home on a short furlough during the Civil war.

1866 - Robert Hervey, who was President of the Caledonia Club, gave a series of talks on the “Genius and Character of Robert Burns.” He had also been President of the Saint Andrew Society. Proceeds from the lecture were given to the benevolent fund of the Society.

1875 - The Caledonian Club of Chicago celebrated with a dance and supper. There were over 100 couples present. Pipe music was furnished by Neil McPhail and Joseph Cant. Nevins and Dean furnished the music for dancing. “The supper was a sumptuous repast and many toasts were drank...” It lasted until the early hours of the morning.

1889 - Gov. Thomas Moonlight of Wyoming Territory spoke at the Central Music Hall to honor Burns on his birthday. He was in Chicago at the invitation of the Burns Monument Association. There was also an event at Farwell Hall. Every available space was occupied and more than a thousand were turned away. The Rev. Robert McIntyre gave the address.

1890 - The Highland Association hired the biggest hall in Chicago to celebrate the birth of Robert Burns. “Well-to-do Scotchmen - and there are scores of them in Chicago - bought boxes for themselves and their families. Middle class Scotch men and Scotch women occupied the vast parquet. Thrifty Scotch men bought every seat in the balcony.” The orator was The Rev. Dr. Lorimer. Mayor Creigier was present and said to be a Scotchman.

1891 - The Auditorium was again filled to capacity for the celebration. (There is a long list of names present at the event listed in the paper.) The Honorable Benjamin Butterworth was the speaker. The organist was from Edinburgh and he also brought his choir A grand chorus of 300 voices sang Scottish songs and 250 girls and women took part in the Highland Fling. The event lasted two days and the Auditorium was filled for all performances.

1896 - “The birthday of Burns, the Scottish bard, is generally well honored in Chicago, where there are probably more Scottish national societies than in any other place on earth.”

1896 - “A dramatic and spectacular entertainment in honor of Robert Burns, under the auspices of the Scottish Assembly of Chicago, will be given in the Auditorium on Thursday, January 23, under the direction of Mrs. Cora Scott-Pond-Pope. Over 500 characters appear in the sketches.” Among the patrons were: Mr. And Mrs. Harry G. Selfridge.

1896 - The Chicago Scottish Club held a military and civic ball at Battery D the evening of January 24. The Mayor of Milwaukee attended. He was entertained by: Mayor Swift, Capt. A. F., Campbell, Comdr. William R. Kerr, Police Chief Alex. Ross, Dr. E. P. Murdock, and Mr. Wm. Hannerman. Special attention was given to the boxes occupied by Governor Altgeld and other visiting officials. “A luncheon will be served and Major-General Wesley Merritt will lead the grand march at 9.30 p.m.”

(The first class to graduate from Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL, had nine members. In that class was Jonathan Spillman who wrote the music for a song which became a classic, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” The words were by Robert Burns - the music by Jonathan Spillman.)

1896 - The Caledonian Society will honor Robert Burns at Steinway Hall, January 26, 1896. Robert T. Lincoln presiding and Wallace Bruce speaking. (Wallace Bruce was the Bard of Clan MacDonald and lived in Brooklyn, New York. He had also been the Ambassador to Scotland.) To the left of the stage was a bronze model of the statue of Burns now being cast in Edinburgh. “The Campbells Are Coming” was the best thing on the program, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. Clan leaders were marched down the aisle headed by the bagpipers. “Scottish patriotism manifested itself in applause which did not cease until an encore was given.”

Those who sat on the stage were: Robert T. Lincoln, Gen. J. A. MacArthur, T. B. Livingston, F. D. Todd, Hugh Shirlaw, Col. James A. Sexto, George Bain, Peter Brice and William Gardner.

As I said in the opening paragraph, this is only a sampling of events listed in the paper. In those early days of Chicago, the Scottish population was quite prominent. They were mayors, governors, entrepreneurs and successful business people. Chicago was indeed a Scottish city much like Lake Forest, Illinois. Not sure that any community or city in the USA can match either of these two.

Wayne Rethford, Past President
Illinois Saint Andrew Society


Nicht Wi Burns Annual Dinner: Saturday, January 23, 2016, at the Hilton Chicago/Oak Lawn, 9333 S. Cicero Avenue, Oak Lawn, Illinois. Beginning at 5:45 p.m., the Stockyards Kilty Pipe Band will play at 6:15 and the program begins at 6:30. Contact: Sally Johnson, 630.515.1997 or

Chicago Scots 18th Annual Burns Supper: Saturday, January 30, 2016, at the Union League Club, 65 W. Jackson, Chicago. Cocktails, dinner, toasts, music and dancing beginning at 6:00 p.m. Dinner seating, toasts and program at 7:30 p.m. Music and dancing at 10:00 p.m. For more information, please contact Carey Smith, Director of Programming, at 708.426.7149. (Sponsored by the Illinois Saint Andrew Society)

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