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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
July 2000


John Williamson

John Williamson was born in Dundee, Scotland, September 2, 1852. His father was a captain in the English army. On January 1, 1874, he married Miss Margaret Munro, also of Dundee, Scotland, and in 1880 he brought his wife and three children to New York City. He found employment as a foreman for the Fulton Municipal Gas Company and while living in Brooklyn, he studied engineering by attending night school.

In 1886, John Williamson moved his family to Chicago and became employed by the People?s Light Gas & Coke Company. He remained with the company for 33 years. His first position was that of foreman, but he gradually rose to vice president (1914), and finally became a director of the company. Mr. Williamson retired in 1920 but retained his position as director.

He died at his home, 2305 Commonwealth Avenue, after a lingering illness of more than a year. He left a widow and five children: Margaret M. Williamson, Mrs. George H. Musselman, John A. Williamson, and Mrs. E. A. Baackes. Two children were deceased, Jermina (Mrs. Herbert F. Brisley) and Georgiana. The entire family is buried in Section 110, lot 137, of Rosehill Cemetery.

On April 1, 1922, the Board of Governors passed a resolution on the death of John Williamson. It said in part? ?RESOLVED, that we feel keenly the great loss which this Board and the Scottish Old People?s Home have sustained by the death of John Williamson. As a member of The Illinois Saint Andrew Society for 35 years and of this Board since 1909, Mr. Williamson has been the leader in all the charitable work of the Society and especially of that connected with the Scottish Old People?s Home.?

?Through his initiative and leadership, the Home at Riverside was built in 1910. When fire destroyed the building in 1917, Mr. Williamson was the one primarily responsible for its rebuilding as a fireproof structure at more than double the cost of the original. His devotion to the interests of the Home, his kindness to and consideration for the old people in it, and their loving regard for him were outstanding features of his exemplary and successful life. These traits of his character, along with his urbanity and good fellowship, made him the cherished companion of each and all of us, and it is as our true friend that we mourn his loss.?

The fence around the property was placed there by the family as a memorial to their father. The family also paid the salary of the first nurse who worked at the Home and in 1931, his son, John A. Williamson, was elected president of the Society. For more than 25 years, the Williamson family would cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner for all the residents. In our museum is a trophy presented to John Williamson by the Scottish community in 1910. He was indeed a man greatly loved by the Scottish people of Chicago.

Sad to say, the Society has lost all contact with the Williamson family or any of their descendants.

The John Greenlee Story

John Greenlee was born August 16, 1791 at Machrieg, Parish of Southend, Argyleshire, Scotland. In 1820, he married Helen Brown. John then leased a farm in Scotland, but a series of crop failures made it impossible for him to pay his rent in full. The agent sold his stock and farm implements at auction, and although the sale was sufficient to pay the balance of the rent, it did not cover the upkeep of the buildings and fences which the agent claimed was John?s responsibility.

The Armours, who were nephews of Mr. Greenlee, had a claim in Winnebago County, Illinois. They sent word for him to come to America and they also provided for the journey. When the Greenlee?s arrived at the boat to start their trip, they were met by the land steward who took Mr. Greenlee back to be imprisoned. He told his family to go to America, knowing that friends and relatives would take care of them. His wife at the time was 33 and they had six children, the youngest being two and the oldest fifteen.

John was able to escape from his guards, found a sailing vessel bound for America and was waiting on the pier to greet his family when they arrived in New York. In the spring of 1837, John Greenlee and his family came to the Armour claim and were the first Scotch settlers in Argyle, Illinois (Argyle is a few miles north of Rockford, IL.) In the summer of 1837 he took up a claim for himself on the west side of the Armour claim. During the winter, his family lived in Ottawa, Illinois, and he worked as a stone-mason on the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

Their early years in America were not easy ?threatened as they were, by packs of wild wolves and troubled by a lack of food.? Gradually, though, they were joined by more and more Scots so that by 1844 there were more than fifty-one charter members of the Willow Creek Presbyterian Church. A bust of John Greenlee is located in the present church, which was built in 1878.

John Greenlee was a founder and charter member of the Willow Creek Presbyterian Church. John Greenlee and Helen Brown had eight children, the first six of whom were born in Scotland.

The Pioneers of Winnebago and Boone Counties, Illinois,
Who Came Before 1841
Katherine e. Rowland, C.G.
Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, 1990


House Rules

Many years ago, the Scottish Home had some very strict rules and residents who consistently violated the rules were often dismissed. Residents were not to have visitors in their rooms, except under approved conditions by the superintendent. All visits were to take place in the reception areas. Residents of the opposite sex were never allowed to visit in the rooms. In fact, one couple was dismissed from the Home because they ?fell in love.? The couple married and moved to Naperville, Illinois.

Residents were not permitted to frequent saloons or places where intoxicating liquors were sold, or to visit places where games of chance were indulged in. ?Any infraction of this rule shall be visited with dismissal from the home.? Residents were also requested ?not to address minor employees.? We are not sure of the exact meaning of this rule, but any request for supplies or services were directed to the Superintendent.

?Residents shall at all times be required to show proper respect to the superintendent and to the members of the Board of Governors, and to obey all rules and regulations. In their intercourse with each other, they shall be expected to maintain friendly relations and to cultivate a spirit of kindly consideration. The use of improper or violent language is strictly prohibited.?

Mother Burns

The following letter was written in November, 1920, by James B. Forgan. It was a fund raising letter on behalf of the Scottish Old People?s Home. As of this date, we have been unable to identify ?Mother Burns? in the records. We believe the name is an alias, however, we have every reason to believe the story is true.

Dear Friends:

I know a frail, white-haired widow who struggled for years against odds by keeping a boarding house for students. She has been a mother to many a homesick boy?had cheered him up when he was blue and waited for his board and rent money when he was broke. Her deep interest in the growth and activities of the university and her work among its boys and girls entitled her to a Ph.D. degree.?

??Mother burns? was a familiar figure on the campus. She knew every member of the faculty by name. She really belonged there herself as she was a charter member in the community when Doctor Harper started the University. She attended the religious services at Mandel Hall regularly. She had never missed a convocation or graduating exercise.?

?As years passed by, the widow?s strength waned and she became less able to serve the boys. When I met her she was having a hard time to keep a six-room flat rented although it was located within two blocks of the University. And yet she was cheerful and hopeful?at least to the world. She complained occasionally of headaches?I noticed those aches were most acute when her rent was due. In order to meet that she had to exist for days and days on a diet of tea and bread.?

?For years, Mother Burns had tried to gain admission into an Old People?s Home, but since she lacked money, friends and influence she got no encouragement. After many a weary mile of walking and a great deal of talking she finally did succeed in getting one or two persons interested in her behalf with the result that her case was taken up. She eventually was admitted to a Home.?

?At present there are thirty-six lovable old people being taken care of there. It has been costing over $40 a month for each person and it will probably be more hereafter. You have money?you have friends?you have influence. Will you not please put some of your money, friends and influence to work for our old people??

?Register your money, friends and influence with Alexander Robertson, Treasurer, The Continental Commercial National Bank of Chicago, 208 South LaSalle Street, Telephone Wabash 7000.?


John A. McGill, James B. Forgan, John Williamson, Alexander Robertson, Robert Stuart, Robert Somerville and A. W. Fulton.

Pictured:  James Berwick Forgan

1910 Contributions

Reading some old files recently, I came across the list of contributors for the original construction of the Scottish Home in 1910. The list contains some 250 names and the total contributions were about $26,000. Only 70 of those listed were members of the Society. Their goal was to raise $50,000. The largest contribution was $2500 from Dr. McGill and the smallest was one dollar from a number of people.

There are some very interesting names on the list. For instance, Gen. Frederick D. Grant, son of the President was a contributors. The meat packing Swift Family gave $500 and John Williamson gave one of the largest contributions at $2,000.

Those of you who live in Chicago may recognize the name of Samuel Insull who gave $100. He would later become the utility and traction magnate of Chicago. His electric business became our Commonwealth Edison Company and his traction company was responsible for constructing the ?L?, which designated the Loop in Chicago.

Insull?s company also built the Civic Opera Building on Wacker Drive. This is the same building where the Board of Governors of the Illinois St. Andrew Society meets monthly to transact business.

There is no indication that Insull was a Scot, but in 1881, he did become the private secretary to Thomas A. Edison. He lost his entire fortune in the Great Depression and died a broken old man on a Paris subway in 1938. The large collection of Samuel Insull Papers are housed in the archives of Loyola University of Chicago.

The numbers indicate that they were far short of reaching their fund-raising goal, but what they did not know at the time was that Thomas Murdock, a wealthy member of the Society, would soon die and leave $30,000 to the Scottish Old People?s Home. Another example of how God has watched over this work for 100 years and has supplied every need.

Pictured:  Dr. John A. McGill

From the Editor

We have dedicated another issue to the Scottish Home since our facility is celebrating its 100th birthday.

I must confess that we don?t know the exact date at this time, but it seems appropriate to begin our celebrations this year. There is some evidence that the rented house was obtained in 1900, but the first residents may not have been admitted until the next year. The original records were destroyed in the fire of 1917 and we have yet to find any other documentation. Some day in the near future, we hope to spend the day at the Chicago Historical Society and perhaps the old newspaper files will give us more information.

We are certain about the role this Home has played in the life of our organization. It has given the Society a reason for being and a way to fulfill its mission to "relieve the distressed.? We are grateful for every resident who has found a place of peace and safety at the Scottish Old People?s Home.

In looking back over our history, I am always amazed at the generosity of our Scottish people. It is not correct to label Scottish people as being stingy with their resources. Our people are, and have always been, extremely generous. Lastly, we must not forget our dedicated staff who work so hard to see that every need is met.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546