Friday, September 30, 2016

The Bells Tolled for Jacob Wolford, Chicago Whiskey Man

Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”- John Donne

For years a carillon in Chicago’s Lincoln Park chimed the hours as a memorial to Jacob A. Wolford, a liquor dealer who was an important player in the Windy City’s effort to rebuild after the disastrous fire of 1871 and who, as a 40 year official of the Board of Trade, fostered Chicago’s rise to world recognition as a commercial power.  In addition to the ivy-covered clock tower, right, Wolford left behind an iconic whiskey bottle as his legacy.

The son of Joseph Wolford, Jacob was born in Baden, Germany, in 1845 and brought to the United States as an infant.  The family ultimately settled in Chicago where Wolford first appeared in the public record when he was 25 years old, living in Chicago’s First Ward, his occupation given as “saloon keeper.”  Indicative of either an inheritance or early business success, his net worth was set at the equivalent today of over $700,000.

The 1870 census form that contained that information also presents a puzzle.  Living with him was a Mary Wolford, her age given as 28, who had been born in New York, She presumably was Jacob’s wife.  Also resident was Joseph M. Wolford, 15, too old to be Jacob’s son and possibly a brother.  The household also included a Baden-born bartender named Krieg.  He likely worked in Wolford’s saloon, located at 123 Clark Street, a Chicago avenue known for its saloons and bars.
The following October saw the Great Chicago Fire, a conflagration that killed up to 300 persons, destroyed some 3.3 square miles of downtown Chicago, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.  Wolford’s Clark Street saloon was among the businesses consumed.  Opening a liquor store temporarily on Washington Street, Wolford moved quickly to rebuild, as did many of his fellow citizens.  To quote one observer:  "To a spectator it would seem, from the energy and the multitude employed, that nothing less than the eternal salvation of mankind depended upon having the entire district covered with six-story brick, or stone, or iron buildings before the anniversary of the fire….”

Within a year Wolford was back in business.  His establishment was included on a map published in 1872 that identified those structures that already had been restored.  Shown here, it is #25, a large building bounded by Clark and Dearborn Streets, running the length of Madison.  It is here that Wolford issued his proprietary brand, “Z-Whiskey” and sold it in a bottle with a stopper that had been invented by Hyman Frank of Pittsburgh and patented in August 1872.
Described in his patent application, Frank’s stopper, shown here, had a threaded end, a cylindrical part, a gasket and an overhanging top.  This was an era before the crown cap and other modern closures when better ways to seal a glass bottle tightly were being conjured up by a multitude of American inventors.  

Frank not only invented a stopper, he had to have a bottle with a neck that was suitably threaded to accept it.  Thus, on the same day he patented the stopper he also patented a tool for forming the mouths of bottles.
Once inventors of closures had won their patents, they looked around for a glass house to put their ideas into commerce.  Most were disappointed as companies opted to stay with existing methods.  Frank was more successful when the A. & D. H. Chambers Co. of Pittsburgh, whose mark is shown here, decided to use his invention for Wolford’s Z-Whiskey.   Thus an iconic bottle was born.
Applying for a passport in March of 1882, at the age of 35, Wolford was described as five feet, seven inches, in height, with a fair complexion, dark brown eyes, brown hair and a broad face.   On the application in his own handwriting he describes his wife, Mary, as being 21.  This seems hardly possible since in 1870 the census gave her age as 28.  To add to the mystery, she either died or otherwise had departed  sometime before 1886.  In that year Wolford married again.

This time his wife was part of Chicago’s elite.  She was Anna Mead Dennehy, the daughter of Charles Dennehy, a well-known successful liquor dealer and a political figure in the Windy City, elected at one point as city assessor. [See my post on the Dennehys, June 2014.]  Anna, born in Illinois in 1860, was fifteen years younger than her husband.

Whether it was her influence or the perceived difficulty of competing in the liquor trade with his father-in-law and brothers-in-law, about this time Wolford gave up his business and went to work in as a commercial merchant.  Possibly through the influence of Charles Dennehy, he also won a position on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT).  Shown here in its 1885 quarters, the Board was among the world’s first futures and options exchanges.  Much of the city’s commerce depended on forward contracts to sell and buy commodities. CBOT provided a centralized location where buyers and sellers could meet to negotiate and formalize contracts.  It has been credited with fostering Chicago’s dramatic rise as a major commercial and financial center.  Wolford was a mainstay there for 40 years.

Wolford’s business success and growing wealth eventually allowed the childless couple to move from more modest quarters to Chicago’s “Gold Coast,” where mansions lined Lake Shore Drive.  As Jacob aged, his eyesight began to fail, limiting the activities the couple could participate in together.  On their frequent vacations in New England, they found enjoyment in daily carillon concerts in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Wolford’s sight problems did not affect his pleasure in the music of the chimes.  Jacob died in Chicago in 1917, age 72, and Anna died nine years later.  In her will she left $50,000 to erect a bell tower like the one in Stockbridge as a memorial to her husband.

The gift — and perhaps Wolford’s standing in the community — spurred the Chicago Park Commission to add money and a seven-story tower was constructed in 1931 in Lincoln Park.  Built of brown and off-white brick, it featured working clocks on all four sides and a carillon.  For years 25 chimes pealed every fifteen minutes, attached to a keyboard that could be played manually or by a paper roll similar to those used in player pianos. 
Sadly, over the years malfunctions and thefts stopped the clocks and rendered the carillon silent.  In 1987, group of citizens working with city officials restored the tower to activity for a time.  It is now again “defunct,”  the bells still intact but without any workable playing mechanism.   Apparently still possible of another restoration, those bells may again toll in memory of Jacob Wolford, a whiskey man who played a significant role in Chicago’s commercial ascendancy.  

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