Monday, May 6, 2019

Montgomery Ward fights to keep Chicago's lakefront “open, clear and free” and protect the Public Trust Doctrine.

Aaron Montgomery Ward is probably best remembered as the merchant who invented the mail order catalog sales business in 1872, just after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which enabled thousands of residents in young, rural American to obtain the latest merchandise with a “Cash-on-Delivery” policy. This unique idea of catalog sales helped the country to grow and prosper and made the Montgomery Ward Company one of the largest retail firms in the nation.

But lesser known, is the fact that Montgomery Ward fought to preserve Chicago’s “forever open, clear and free” lakefront park system, resulting in Chicago being one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Humble Beginnings, Great Aspirations, Tremendous Results
Aaron Montgomery Ward
Aaron Montgomery Ward was born on February 17, 1844, in Chatham, New York. Ward’s family moved to Niles, Michigan when he was 9, but life was never easy for the family. His father was a cobbler of modest means, and too often the family had difficulty making ends meet. Ward left home at age 14, and tried his hand at many trades, including making barrels, and as a stockboy at a general store in St. Joseph.

After moving to Chicago and working for Mashall Field for two years, he became a road salesman for a St. Louis wholesaler. It was when he was on the road, talking to struggling farmers that he hit on the idea of developing a mail-order catalog business, selling directly to rural customers for cash. Ward returned to Chicago, and published his first catalog on a one-page sheet in 1872, quickly seeing tremendous growth with his company. (Richard Warren Sears started a mail-order watch business in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1886, named "R.W. Sears Watch Company," the predecessor to Sears, Roebuck, and Company.)

Ward was known for standing behind his products. It was Montgomery Ward who coined the phrase “Satisfaction Guaranteed or your Money Back,” and it became the standard for retailers across the country. The company’s slogan “You Can’t Go Wrong When You Deal With Montgomery Ward” transformed him into a symbol of trustworthiness to millions in rural America. Ward was known for treating his customers like family, seeking their ideas on the type of products they would like listed in his catalog. He wrote countless personal letters, and received many warm responses, as well as sound advice, from his customers. By 1904, over 3 million catalogs weighing 4 pounds each were being sent to households all across America.

Montgomery Ward was also an extremely private man, avoiding the social scene, and shunning public attention. He was also very charitable, making many anonymous gifts of food and coal to the poor, insisting that he should receive no recognition whatsoever for his generosity.

Lakefront Preservation and the Makings of a Park
Chicago had long had a tradition of protecting its lakefront. In 1836, after the decommissioning of Fort Dearborn, citizens petitioned the federal government to set aside 20 acres of Fort Dearborn’s land for a public square. About that same time, Commissioners of proposed Illinois and Michigan Canal plotted lots near the new Canal, and wrote a proviso that land east of what became Michigan Avenue (to the Lake) and south of Randolph Street to 12th Street should remain “Public Ground – A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstructions whatever.” (The Private Rights in Public Lands; The Chicago Lakefront, Montgomery Ward, and the Public Trust Doctrine.)
The Chicago lakefront in the late 1850s as seen from the Illinois Central Station near Randolph Street. Note the railroad trestle between Lake Michigan and the basin which is lined with railcars on its west side.
Lake Park (today's Grant Park) “Rowhouses along Michigan Boulevard overlooking river and factories, looking north from Harrison Street, 1865.”
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, much of the debris from the ruins of the city was dumped along the lakefront at the Illinois Central railroad tracks, creating a new landfill. By 1890, the prime real estate was still a muddy mess, but “progress” in the name of new buildings, was being proposed by civic boosters for this site.
Mayor Cregier and the City Council wanted to build a civic center on the landfill, as well as a new city hall, a post office, a police station, a power plant, and stables for city garbage wagons and horses.

Montgomery Ward, who had just built his company’s stately headquarters building on the northwest side of Michigan and Madison Avenue, gazed out from his office at this expanse and saw the potential for a great city park, which had been ordained by the canal commissioners in 1836. He wound up spending the next 20 years, and a small fortune, fighting to preserve this land from commercial development.

The Fight for the Lakefront
Over the next 20 years, Ward took the city to court to prevent the construction of any buildings east of Michigan Avenue. His efforts to stop this unbridled development incurred the enmity of many civic leaders, businessmen, and politicians, as well as the Chicago Tribune, which saw his steadfast stance as an impediment to Chicago’s growth. He was called “stubborn... undemocratic... a persistent enemy of real parks... (and) a human icicle, shinning and shunned in all but the relations of business.”

Undaunted, Ward filed suit on four separate occasions in the Illinois State Supreme Court, and on all four occasions, he won, thereby preserving the open lakefront from Randolph St. south to 12th Street. Compromises, such as the Art Institute, were eventually constructed, but without question, his efforts saved Lake Park from private development and sprawl.

Ward always felt he was doing the city a favor with his steadfast struggle, and never understood why he was not appreciated for his vision and efforts. In 1909, he granted an interview to the Chicago Tribune, the only interview he ever gave in his life:

"Had I known in 1890 how long it would take me to preserve a park for the people against their will, I doubt I would have undertaken it. I think there is not another man in Chicago who would have spent the money I have spent in this fight with certainty that gratitude would be denied as interest... I fought for the poor people of Chicago... not the millionaires... Here is park frontage on the lake, comparing favorably with the Bay of Naples, which city officials would crowd with buildings, transforming the breathing spot for the poor into a showground of the educated rich. I do not think it is right."

Perhaps I may yet see the public appreciate my efforts. But I doubt it.

The toll of the fight and an accident (which broke his arm and shoulder blade) greatly weakened Montgomery Ward’s health. Shortly after a fall, which resulted in a broken hip, he developed pneumonia and died on December 7, 1913, at the age of 69.

Ironically, just as the great man was passing, the city awakened to his magnificent contribution. A letter to the Chicago Tribune by J.J. Wallace put it best:
Who shall set a value on his service? The present generation, I believe, hardly appreciates what has been given them, but those who come later, as they avail themselves of the breathing spot, will realize it.
The Montgomery Ward Gardens
For nearly a century there was no park named to honor this great civic leader. Through the efforts of Friends of the Parks on October 14, 1993, that section of Grant Park along Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Monroe Streets was officially named the Montgomery Ward Company, a bust and historical plaque placed at the site, stating:
Aaron Montgomery Ward had a vision for Chicago’s lakefront that set him apart from many of his contemporaries. For two decades (1890-1910) he fought tirelessly to preserve Chicago’s shoreline for recreational use and to assure that the city’s “front yard” would remain free of industry. Lake Park is his legacy to the city he loved... his gift to the future.
In 1999, the Ward Gardens and plaque were removed to make way for the construction of Millennium Park. In 2005, thanks to a grant from the Montgomery Ward Foundation, a new Montgomery Ward Gardens stands at the corner of Michigan Avenue and 11th St., a glorious part of his beloved lakefront park.

Today, these Gardens are a living tribute to Montgomery Ward: a man of vision and conviction, a selfless and tireless advocate for the people, and for parks.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Very well written, Neil. I sometimes wonder if people like Ward and Burnham would approve of what the area looks like today.


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