Mr. Ward, Mr. Field and Mr. Merrick

I have set aside every Friday morning to do research on Montgomery Ward at the Chicago History Museum, which has a huge collection of Montgomery Ward materials.  And every Friday morning I come across something new and surprising.

Recently I was going over the folder of materials relating to Ward’s legal battles over the lakefront. The Montgomery Ward & Co. headquarters was located on Michigan Ave. at the time and Ward got sick of looking out his office window at the mess and allegedly turned to his lawyer George Merrick and said “Damn, do something about it.”

There ended up being three separate cases involving the lakefront.  It should be pointed out here that Ward was not the only adjacent property owner to object to the presence of various structures, but he was the one basically footing the bills.

What surprised me about the cases was how sarcastic Ward and his lawyer could be.  They obviously felt that the powers that be were engaging in sheer boondoggles designed to use public land for financial gain or to garner prestige.

After winning the first case, which involved a so-called armory hardly used for that purpose, Ward described what he saw out of his office window:

The city has permitted the erection on the lakefront of a couple of so-called public buildings which, by the city political gang, were allowed to be used for circuses, dog fights, and even ‘Hinky Dink’s’ [a corrupt alderman] fashionable social assemblages [Hinky Dink threw political fundraisers  that involved outrageous costumes and behavior]. . .all for more or less private gain. The Illinois Central had five tracts west of their lawful right of way and at times the city used the property as a dumping ground for refuse.

His view did not change as further issues came up, most famously his opposition to the erection of the Field Museum in Grant Park.  In this he was going up against Daniel Burnham’s plan for the lakefront, which thanks to Ward, was now a cleaned up desirable piece of real estate.  Plans were made for building not only the Field Museum, but also the Crerar Library, municipal buildings, a possible site for the Olympics in 1904 and more.

But whether it was Hinky Dink or Marshall Field, all these plans in Ward’s mind involved taking land away from the people of Chicago that was rightfully theirs.  In a press conference in which Ward’s lawyer spoke, Merrick was as sarcastic as Ward had been earlier.  Slamming his fist on the table, he said

It will not be built if we can help it.  Mr. Field wanted a monument, and being a poor man he couldn’t afford to pay for a site.  Now it is proposed to secure a site from the City of Chicago by violating a trust, and we don’t propose to stand for it; the Illinois Supreme Court will not stand for it, and it will not be built there if we can help it.

And it was not built there. Amusingly enough, as soon as the verdict came down in the Field Museum case, some obviously angry state representative introduced a bill to allow the Field Museum to be built on an island in Lake Michigan, with no consideration given to how people were to reach it.

Ward and Merrick went up directly against machine politics and many of the most influential and powerful people in the city and won.  That Ward would not play ball with them and did it successfully is not something that happens often in Chicago.


The Reticent A. Montgomery Ward





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.