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 America 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 that Montgomery Ward fought to preserve Chicago's "forever open, clear and free" lakefront park system, making Chicago one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Humble Beginnings, Great Aspirations, Tremendous Results
Aaron Montgomery Ward
Aaron Montgomery Ward was born in Chatham, New York, on February 17, 1844. Ward's family moved to Niles, Michigan, when he was 9, but life was always challenging. 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 Street  Joseph.

After moving to Chicago and working for Mashall Field for two years, he became a road salesman for a St. Louis wholesaler. When he was on the road, talking to struggling farmers, 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. Montgomery Ward coined the phrase "Satisfaction Guaranteed or your Money Back," which became the standard for retailers nationwide. 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 and 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 extremely private, 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 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 the 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. pdf)
The Chicago lakefront in the late 1850s was seen from the Illinois Central Station near Randolph Street. Note the railroad trestle between Lake Michigan and the basin, 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 city's ruins 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, 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 spent 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, politicians, and 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 business relations."

Undaunted, Ward filed suit four times in the Illinois State Supreme Court. Ward won all four cases, preserving the open lakefront from Randolph Street 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."

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) significantly weakened Montgomery Ward's health. Shortly after a fall resulting in a broken hip, he developed pneumonia and died on December 7, 1913, at 69.

Ironically, just as the great man died, 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, no park was 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 were 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 stood at the corner of Michigan Avenue and 11th Street , 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 parks of Chicago.

The Obama Presidential Centers' Ability to Thwart Wards Plan.
The Chicago City Council unanimously approved the new proposals for the Obama Presidential Center on October 31, 2018. The center was met with some opposition from residents, City and State Republicans [1], who believed that it would damage Jackson Park and negate Montgomery Wards "forever open, clear and free." 

The benefits to the deteriorating community won out. The Obama Presidential Center cost was estimated at $700 million to build and would revitalize the community. Construction on the Obama Presidential Center was completed in August 2021. The center is expected to open in 2025.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Illinois State Congress Republicans had many complaints about the building of the Obama Presidential Center. Some of their complaints, racially and partisan motivated, included:

Project costs were estimated to be $700 million [a]. Republicans argued that this was too much money to spend on a presidential library, especially considering that the Obamas had already received a $10 million book deal and were likely to earn millions more from speaking engagements and other ventures.

The project's location was on the South Side of Chicago. Republicans argued that this was not a good location for a presidential library, as it was not easily accessible to tourists and would not generate much economic activity. They said of project's design was too modern and would not fit in with the surrounding neighborhood.

The fact that the project was not open to public bidding, which Republicans said, gave the Obama Foundation an unfair advantage.

In addition to these specific complaints, Republicans argued that building a presidential library for a Democrat, particularly one they believed was not a natural-born American. They felt "No Drama Obama" had been a divisive figure in American politics and would not be a neutral and objective representation of his presidency. 

Republicans also argued that the center would be a waste of taxpayer money and that it would not be worth the cost, and that the Obama Presidential Center would be a partisan monument that would only serve to further divide the country.

[a] The 2023 cost estimate for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago is $830 million. This includes the cost of construction, exhibits, and operating costs for the first year.

Here is a breakdown of the costs: 
Construction: $700 million
Exhibits: $90 million
Operating costs: $40 million

The Obama Foundation has raised about $700 million of the $830 million needed to fund the center. The remaining $130 million is expected to be raised through donations and fundraising.


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


The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is RATED PG-13. Please comment accordingly. Advertisements, spammers and scammers will be removed.