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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
July 2002

John Williamson

Over time, we have written and talked a great deal about John Williamson.  He was president of the Society from 1909 to 1911, and dominated the first twenty years of our history in the 20th century. He was responsible for raising $50,000 to build the original Scottish Home in 1910. When the Home burned in 1917, he again raised the necessary funds, this time to build a "fireproof" building. An amount of $100,000 was raised within a period of two weeks. Most of you know that the old fence which still surrounds our property was given by the Williamson family in 1924 as a memorial to their father. The family also paid to have the first nurse on duty at the Scottish Home.

Like many other prominent Scots of his time, he first lived at 1441 Washington Boulevard, not far from Garfield Park where the statue of Robert Burns was placed in 1906. At the time of his death he lived at 2305 Commonwealth Avenue in Chicago. I have often wanted to drive by this residence, but have never found the time. If any of our readers live close, please let me know about the house.

I mention John Williamson again as the result of an e-mail from Ken Ellens who lives in Edgewater, New Jersey. I had not known of the Williamson's summer estate in Saugatuck, Michigan, until hearing from Mr. Ellens. We have since had several telephone conversations and an exchange of information by mail. I had also underestimated the personal wealth of John Williamson in his position as vice president of the People's Gas, Light and Coke Company. The wonderful office building where he worked is just south of the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue.

In the spring of 1912, the Comstock farm was sold to John Williamson for $100,000.  Six weeks later, lightning struck the mansion at 4:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The family barely escaped. Later John Williamson had the ashes sifted and recovered all his wife's diamonds.

The house he would build in its' place and the words used to describe the house, sound a great deal with the rebuilding of the Scottish Home. The house was to be a "fireproof" structure built with 12" thick masonry walls much like the present Scottish Home.

The Williamson's would use the house only two months during the summer and would ride the Interurban train from Chicago to the home they named Belvedere. Their home was the only private stop between Saugatuck and Holland, Michigan. Since both John Williamson and his wife were born in Scotland, one might be surprised that they used an Italian word to describe their summer home. The word means "beautiful view" and describes what could then e seen of Lake Michigan and the sand dunes. If there would be enough interest, it would make a great history tour.  Please let me know if you are interested. The Belvedere Inn has a website with pictures and more history.

belvederejuly02The summer home is now completely restored and is a bed and breakfast called ?The Belvedere Inn.? Ken Ellens lived in the mansion from 1963-1965 as a young boy with his family. He is presently researching its history and all the information here is reprinted with his permission. In the 1960's, the mansion was converted to a home for the elderly and continued to function as a foster care facility until 1995. This is interesting from a historical viewpoint because the mansion of Dr. John A. McGill, at 4938 S. Drexel Blvd., also once served as a nursing home. Both men were very involved in the construction and operation of the Scottish Home. Dr. McGill donated the land for the Home and John Williamson raised the money.

I have often wondered about the descendants of John Williamson and his wife Margaret. There were six children, so there must be grandchildren and great-grandchildren somewhere in the world. Five of the children are buried in the family plot at Rosehill. The sixth, Mrs. Frank Baackes, Jr., is not buried with the family. One of the daughters was Mrs. George H. Musselman who died in 1959. One of the sons, John Alexander, who was also president of the St. Andrew Society in 1931, died in 1952. I once called all the people named Baackes and Musselman in the Chicago phone book, but to no avail.

It is to be regretted that as a Society we have not found ways to engage the descendants of our members. Are all your children and grandchildren Life Members? As you read this, are you a member of the oldest charity in Illinois?

If not, call me at 708.408.5591, or send me an e-mail at wrethford@comcast.net

We Get A Lot of E-Mail

FROM KAREN DeVORE: ?I found your email address on a web page about a reunion you went to in Traer, Iowa. My grandmother was Esther Emma Wilson...All I know is they were orphaned and some family took them in and raised them but they kept their given name and surname. My grandmother used to tell us President Woodrow Wilson was an uncle or a cousin. I don?t remember which.? Note: Karen was given a phone number in Iowa to call.

FROM KEN ELLENS: ?I am researching John Williamson and learned of his affiliation with your organization via an Internet search. Mr. Williamson built the remarkable estate that I grew up on (it was his family?s summer home.) I am researching the estate?s history. Please see the website of the property: www.thebelvedereinn.com.? Note: Ken Ellens lives in Edgewater, NJ and we have had several conversations. He is also looking for information about Anna J. and Charles G. Comstock.

FROM LYNDA BYME: ?I read with interest your Society?s piece about a letter between George Calder and the Adamson Scot?s House and I was thrilled to know a little more about the family who lived at 15 Everett (Boston, MA). My mother was born in 1920 and lived at 22 Everett Street until she was about 12 years old. Apparently, Everett Street was one of the more prestigious addresses. During the ?20's the governor?s own home was directly next door to my grandparents. My grandmother inherited their house from her late husband, Mr. York who was a meat distributor and treasurer of Fanuiel Hall Market. Several years ago, I took my mother to the old neighborhood and to our amazement the old house was still standing. Across the street and a few doors down, I finally was shown where the ?bagpipe? family lived. ?As mom tells it, the bagpipe family are the ones who are responsible for her love of the pipes. Mom?s great grandparents were both of Scottish ancestry (Mackie and Burns), but her father hated the sound of bagpipes. When the family at 15 Everett Street would come out and practice on the porch for hours, mom would sit on her porch and listen. Papa would only applaud when they stopped! This family is warmly remembered and it has given my mother 82 years of memories, prompted her to trace her Scottish roots and provided incentive for three trips to Scotland. ?Thanks for including this Calder/Adamson letter on your website. You just never know what might add joy to someone?s day.? Lynda Byme lives in Wareham, Mass.

FROM JAN HARAYDA: ?Dear Mr. Rethford, any chance you might be able to help with a research problem? I am a widely published journalist and novelist writing a memoir that deals partly with my great-grandfather, William Fraser, a Scottish stonemason in Chicago in the early decades of the 20th century. He was part of a gifted group of Scottish stonemasons who built Buckingham Fountain, Navy Pier and other landmarks of the era, possibly including the Art Institute.? Jan Harayda lives in Princeton, NJ and is looking for any additional information about the company that may have been involved in the construction.

FROM ALAN YOUNG: ?Thank you very much for the information provided on the St. Andrew?s Society website. I found the names of two of my relatives in the membership applications (1900-1967), i.e. John Dewar and his son Norman Dewar. There is an application from a third Dewar, John F. Dewar, a teacher of dancing, who is also mentioned in the October 1966 newsletter...? It would be interesting to know what brought John Dewar to Chicago. Perhaps it was something do with the White City, since he married Martha Weston, who was an American, in Chicago in 1893. ?My mother last visited her Dewar relatives in Chicago before WWII, and the families subsequently lost touch.? Alan Young lives in Toronto.

DAVE MURRAY: ?You were indeed correct, Mr. Rethford. Paddy Dollan was, at the time referred to, the Lord Provost of Glasgow and a colorful character he was. A white-haired man who wore his chains of office with pride.

At the time of the air-raids, people were advised to get ?doon the Dunny?; i.e. the lowest level of their tenements where the women ordinarily did their laundry. Rhar was where the families snuggled. In 1940, I was an ordinary seaman on the S. S. Caledonia. We carried whiskey to New York. and war supplies back to Glasgow. Lord Haw Haw, the Nazi broadcaster, would warn us that all the fish in the Atlantic would be drunk on our cargo. He would use the time of the Singer factory clock to validate the worth of his threat. He clearly had spies in the Clyde bank area where Singer was located.?

ERIK WAUTERS: ?On the battlefield of Steenkerke (Low Countries, now Belgium, at the very spot where the Scottish regiments fought on August 3, 1692, I found a heart-shaped brass stud, identical to the one on the belt worn by Mr. MacBean, as seen on the portrait (dated 1743) in the possession of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society. Would you be so kind to let me know if and how I can order a photograph of this portrait.? Erik Wauters lives in Meidert (Aaist) Belgium. The MacBean portrait hangs in the living room of the Scottish Home opposite the fire-place. It was a gift from Houston MacBean, former president of our Society and Marshall Field in Chicago.


In 1834, Miss Catherine Bayne, from Edinburgh, Scotland, opened a boarding school for girls in Chicago. The tuition was $3 unless the student wished to take embroidery and then the charge was $4. For oriental drawing and enamel painting the cost was $7. On September 15, 1835, Miss Bayne married William McCorristen. For six years she operated the school under her name, but in 1841, announced the opening of a school under her married name. After 1843, the McCorristen?s are not listed in the city directory. (p. 281)

In 1836, the Chicago Democrat announced that Miss Isabella Kay, of Edinburgh, Scotland, would start a ?select class? of young ladies in French. (p. 282)

In the winter of 1810, Robert Forsyth who was 13 years old, began to teach John H. Kinzie some of his store of knowledge. John Kinzie was then six years old. His textbook was a speller brought from Detroit to Chicago in a chest of tea. (p. 268)

A History of Chicago
by Bessie Louise Pierce
Volume 1

From the Editor

After writing the article about John Williamson, I had opportunity to visit the Chicago Public Library and found the death notice of his son, John A. Williamson. John Alexander was president of the St. Andrew Society in 1931. He died in 1952 at the age of 66 and is buried in the family plot at Rosehill. His home address was 2052 Lincoln Park West and like his father he worked for the People?s Gas, Light & Coke Company. His office address was 4643 Irving Park Rd. His wife was named Florenz. She died in 1954 and is also buried at Rosehill.

They had one son by the name of John. It is possible that John might still be alive, but he would be quite elderly. With such a common name, he might be difficult to trace. Would anyone like to take on this challenge?

There is another small mystery concerning John Alexander Williamson. If he was president of the Society in 1931, he is not mentioned in any of the board minutes. Our records are probably incomplete, but there was a board meeting held on March 12, 1931, at the Chicago Athletic Association and no mention is made of John A. Williamson. Neither does he appear to be a member of the board prior to 1931.

At this moment, I am not sure what all this means, but if you can shed some light on this subject, give me a call!


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