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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
July 2006


Thomas G. Nicholson

Thomas Nicholson was a builder in Chicago for at least fifty years. He is important in the history of the Saint Andrew Society because of his role in building the Scottish Home. Mr. Nicholson was a member of the Building Committee, and a picture of all the men on the Building Committee is in the Scottish American Museum.

He was born on December 14, 1847, on the estate of Sir Robert Sinclair at Thurso, Scotland. When he was older he began an apprenticeship as a stone cutter and when finished he emigrated to Portland, Maine, where he worked as a journeyman. He came to Chicago in 1869 and started his own construction business in 1873.

It is said that he built many of the principal buildings in Chicago and also in New Orleans. His specialty was building foundations and he was the first to complete caisson foundations in Chicago. His company was incorporated under the name of T. Nicholson & Sons Company, general contracting. Their capital stock was $150,000.00 and the other names mentioned in the Chicago Tribune are James S. Nicholson and Thomas G. Nicholson, who were probably his sons.

In 1901, T. Nicholson & Sons was demolishing the Central Music Hall located at Randolph and State streets.  The Central Music Hall had been a very popular place and many Scottish events had been held in the building. The sidewalk had been barricaded but May 22 was a rainy day and the workmen had lined up inside the barricaded area to receive their pay checks. The sidewalk gave way and Joseph Findlay, who was 32 years old and working in the basement, was killed. Four others were injured but all taken home by police ambulances after being examined by a physician.

The newspaper on April 17, 1903, reports that a contract has been let to T. Nicholson & Sons to construct the Standard office building at the northwest corner of Jackson and Michigan. The building is to be seventeen stories high, and will be known as the Railway Exchange, and will cost $2,000,000. They were unable to complete the building because of  wages demanded by organized labor. Unable to fulfill their contract, the company has gone into bankruptcy. Does anyone know if that building still exists?

A tribute to Mr. Nicholson stated he possessed many of the good characteristics of his race and performed all duties with credit. After his company was dissolved, he became Supervisor of Construction for the estate of Marshall Field. In 1914, he became the superintendent of construction for the Trustees of the new Field Museum of Natural History.

He died April 1, 1920 at his residence, 3104 Southport Avenue. The cause of death was pneumonia. At the time of his death he was survived by his widow, a son, Thomas G. Nicholson, and three daughters who are not named in his death announcement. His funeral was held in the chapel at Oakwoods Cemetery on the south side of Chicago. We have yet to visit his grave. Our Society has now lost all contact with his descendants.

Pictured:  Central Music Hall, pictured c. 1879, demolished 1901

More Wedding Stories

At our history and museum meeting in June, we looked at three weddings where at least one member was of Scottish descent. The couples were: Philip D. Armour, Jr. and Mary Lester; C.K.G. Billings and Blanche MacLeish; and Thomas J. Chalmers and Joan Pinkerton. It was difficult to keep the number to just three, because there were so many other prominent couples who married. Here is another story.

The date is July 23, 1891, and the Leland Hotel was the scene of a romantic marriage the day before. A few days before the ceremony Miss Jane Dalrymple, accompanied by her lifelong friend, Miss Rummy, had arrived from Scotland. Shortly thereafter, Alexander F. Hunter arrived from Una, Wyoming, where he was the manager of a large ranch and the wedding was arranged.

The love story started when they were both children in the town of Whithorn, Scotland. Alexander had emigrated to American to seek his fortune and Jane had remained faithful to the young Scot during all the years he had labored for her in the far West. After the ceremony the hotel clerk was asked to register off the individual names and then placed on the legend, Mr. Alexander Hunter and Mrs. Hunter. This story was reported in the Chicago Daily Tribune of July 23, 1891. Wouldn't you like to know the rest of the story?

Pictured:  Blanche MacLeish

Matrimonial Experience

The Lord Justice-Clerk of Braxfield was a man of few words and somewhat strong willed. In courting his second wife, his character is clearly shown. He said to Lizzie, "I'm looking for a wife, and I thought you just might be the person that would suit me. Let me have an answer, off or on, the morn, and nae mair about it." The next day Lizzie said yes and the wedding was held.

One day the butler tended his resignation because Mrs. Braxfield was always scolding him. The Judge exclaimed, "Lord, mon, ye've little to complain o'; ye may be thankful ye're nae married to her."

Not sure what the moral of this story is, but it was in the Chicago Tribune on March 30, 1861.

Horse Racing

Horse racing, what we now call harness racing, was once very big in Chicago. There was a large racetrack, on the south side near Washington Park, and it was the social center of Chicago during the racing season. It reminds one of the present day Kentucky Derby with beautiful horses and elegant couples dressed in their finest. Parasols and hats were all the fashion. Mr. Billings once bought his wife Joan (Pinkerton) a purple parasol from Paris and since she had no outfit to match, an entire new one was ordered for the weekend race. Ashland Avenue was apparently one of the routes taken and the newspaper described all the carriages much the way we might describe automobiles today.    

The Washington Park Racetrack was located at 61st and Cottage Grove Avenue and was dismantled in 1906. The property was then divided into lots and sold.c.k.g.billingsjul06

C. K. G. Billings not only owned race horses but drove the sulkies which were called wagons. He actually set a world's record: Driving Uhlan, a trotter, he set a world's record for wagon racing doing the mile in 1.58. By 1911, his horses had broken 41 world amateur records in harness racing. One of his horses, Omar Khayyam, won the Kentucky Derby in 1917. The horse was not a favorite to win with the odds being 18 to1. After the derby win, with no more worlds to conquer, he sold all of his horses.

Annette Inzinga was kind enough to send some information about another race horse named Bonnie Scotland. Annette recently visited the Belle Meade Plantation in Tennessee and came across the story of this horse. She reports that paintings of Bonnie Scotland adorn the walls of the entry hall, which is further embellished with an elegant cantilevered staircase to the second floor. When gambling was outlawed in the State of Tennessee, the Kentucky Derby was born. When gambling was outlawed in Illinois, the Washington Park Racetrack was destroyed.

There is considerable information about Bonnie Scotland on the Internet and one of the more interesting items is an Illinois connection. In June of 1869, the horse was sold at auction for $1,000 to the Glen Flora Farm of R. H. and C. C. Parks in Waukegan, Illinois. The horse died on February 1, 1880, at the age of 27. The skeleton was given to Vanderbilt University. This continues an odd tradition for descendants of a great horse named Queen Mary. Bonnie Scotland's half sister, Blink Bonny, is in the York City Museum in England and his half-brother Blinkhoolie, is at the National Stud in France. Nice story Annette. Thanks.

Scottish Home Gardens


The grounds of the Scottish Home have always been very important to the residents and members of the Society. We have written several times about the fruit trees and the vegetable gardens, which not only supplied food, but gave the residents something to occupy their time. During those earlier years, all the residents were ambulatory and there was no health care except on a limited basis.

A story appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1921 about the grounds of the Scottish Old People's Home in Riverside. It said: Summertime strollers who pass the grounds...are moved to comment on the wonderful beauty of the gardens therein. In that year the beauty comes from long years of experience in the gardens of English and Scottish nobility...

John Reid, a resident of the Home, was once the gardener for the Duke of Argyle and the Duke of Buccleuch. He  had come to America in 1890 and was now 92 years of age. He came from a long line of gardeners to nobility, dating almost back to the medieval period. Once when Queen Victoria was young, she had a poodle dog that ran away. John Reid found the dog and the queen gave him a shilling.

John Bell, another resident of the Home, was 87 years old and was a former manager of the estate of the Duchess of Athol. He once had tea with the duchess and Queen Victoria. King Edward was just a little boy then , he said. Mr. Bell was born in Dumfries, Scotland and for 35 years was a gardener at wealthy homes in Lake Forest. He had been a resident for two years and was the manager of the vegetable garden.

They re both good workers and real Scotchmen, said Mrs. Cora J. Cummings, superintendent of the home, as the reporter vainly tried to make them break their canny silence.

John Rauba is presently the gardener who continues the tradition of our beautiful grounds at the Scottish Home.

Pictured:  John Bell (at left) and John Reid.

Scottish-American Museum

The Illinois Saint Andrew Society is pleased to have on its property a museum housed in a beautiful room. The display cabinets were made in Green Bay, WI. and are of the finest quality. Among our collection is a book, "Recollections of a Busy Life" written by James B. Forgan, which was given to the museum and is displayed with pride.

James B. Forgan was president of our Society in 1916. He was a world-renowned banker and very prominent in the city of Chicago. He and his wife were dedicated supporters of the Scottish Home and its residents. Mr. Forgan established the endowment fund and was the first president to invite women to attend the St. Andrew's Day Banquet. Mr. Forgan wrote his autobiography in 1924. He assigned and transferred all the rights, title, interest and royalties to the Scottish Old People's Home.

Mary Ellen Forgan Farnham, a granddaughter, gave us a copy of his book in 1991. This book has recently been on loan to a distant relative and has now been returned to the museum. We are pleased to have this copy of Mr. Forgan's book. It is unclear how many books were sold, but the actual contract is in possession of the museum.

From the Editor

Thomas Carlyle said that "History is the essence of innumerable biographies." We are now in our 12th year of publishing this newsletter and the purpose has always been to keep alive the stories of our Scottish people. Some of our stories have been about the wealthy members of our Society, but others have been about the ordinary Scottish workers of Chicago. In Forest Home cemetery, along the Des Plaines river which often floods the area, is a marker that just says Mary Scott, born in Scotland, died in 1901. I often think about Mary Scott and who she might have been, and where she lived. There is no death notice or obituary in any of our local papers. But, each time I visit Forest Home, I also visit Mary Scott who wanted the world to always know the place of her birth.

Gus Noble, president of the Society, and I often visit cemeteries to find the graves of our leaders, and to somehow express appreciation for their work and contributions. It seems to mean something to both of us that is uplifting and important. On July 15, we have a tour planned for Graceland cemetery. An application and additional information is on page 3. As of this writing we have about 35 people who have signed up for the trip. We will visit the grave of the great, great grandson of Robert Burns who died of cholera in Chicago at the age of 5 months. To those of you who love the writings of Robert Burns, it should prove to be an emotional moment. We will lay a wreath and have a piper. You are invited to join us in Highland dress.

On June 15, my wife Mary and I drove to Lake Geneva and had lunch with Peter and Fran Georgeson, Robert Ploog and Nancy Black. It was nice to renew old friendships. Bob Ploog, a  life member,  was kind enough to give the museum the book "Lake Geneva, Newport of the West 1870-1920." So many Scots lived around the Lake that it is a treasure of information. Peter Georgeson donated one of the original Scot Forge tartan jackets. Many of you will remember that Peter often wore this jacket to Home Committee meetings and Board meetings. At one time, he owned 31 different tartan jackets. It was his and the companies trademark. It will also be a treasured gift to the museum. The statue of "Uncle Pete" at the Scottish Home was a gift from Scot Forge now located in Spring Grove, Illinois.


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