Living in Chicago for so many years, I of course have marveled at and enjoyed the miles of public park that line Lake Michigan. As I learned of Montgomery Ward’s role in helping to preserve the lakefront for public use, at the expense of his own fortune and the ire of fellow businessmen, I came to admire him. I could find no biography and learned that he revealed little of himself, preferring to remain out of the public spotlight and lead a very private life. Even his philanthropy was handled discretely by an individual hired for the purpose.
So, I have set out on the task of trying to write a more complete telling of his life and character than has previously appeared. I am helped by the fact that I am familiar with Niles, Michigan, where he grew up and where his parents and other relatives remained during their lifetimes, and have already come across articles in local newspapers that shed some light on him. I will dig more there as well as at the Chicago History Museum, which houses the majority of papers dealing with him and his company. It is not Montgomery Ward the company, however, in which I am interested, but Aaron Montgomery Ward the man.
I can think of no better way of introducing readers to Montgomery Ward the man than to compare the entry he prepared for the 4th edition of Who’s Who in America, published in 1906, with the entry written by fellow merchant Marshall Field. Individuals prepared their own entries in answer to various questions and so the entries truly reflect their personalities. Here is Field’s entry:
Field, Marshall, merchant; b. Conway, Mass., 1835; s. John and Fidelia (Nash) F.; spent boyhood on farm, studied at acad. until 1852; dry goods clerk, Pittsfield, Mass., 1852-6; in Chicago, 1856-60; junior partner, 1860-5, then senior partner in house, which became, 1865, Field, Palmer & Leiter’ Potter Palmer, retired, 1867, and Levi Z. Leiter, 1881, Mr. Field becoming head of Marshall Field & Co., now having the largest wholesale and retail dry goods business in the world. Founded, with gift of $1,000,000 the Field Columbian Museum of Chicago; gave land worth $450,000 to Univ of Chicago; Dir., U.S Steel Corp., dir. Pullman Co., Chicago & Northwestern Ry. Co., Rock Island & Pacific Ry. Co., Merchants’ Loan & Trust Co. Twice married: 2nd, London, September 5, 1905, Mrs. Della Spencer Caton of Chicago. Residence: 1905 Prairie Av., Chicago.
Ward’s entry is shorter and much more modest:
Ward, A. Montgomery, mcht; b. Chatham, N.J. 1844; s. Sylvester A. and Julia L.M. (Greene) W; g.g.s. Capt. Israel Montgomery Ward of Revolutionary fame; self-ed. and self-made; m. Chicago, 1872, Elizabeth J. Cobb; Founded firm of Montgomery Ward & Co., 1872, of which he has since been pres. Residence: The Kenwood. Office: Mich. Ave. and Madison St., Chicago.
It is the “self-ed. and self-made” which strikes me as so revealing. I have my work cut out for me in understanding and penetrating his life.