William Henry Reid


Chicago's records contain the history of many self-made men but perhaps none appearing in this volume illustrates more forcibly or clearly the value of character and the strength of honorable purpose than does the life history of William H. Reid. He never assumed any special credit for what he accomplished, yet he passed the great majority of his fellows upon life's highway. A review of his life shows that he was observant, possessed a retentive memory, carefully analyzed conditions and by judging men and events in their due relative proportion learned to place a correct valuation upon his experiences. His birth occurred December 5, 1840. at

Mount Pleasant, Jefferson county, Ohio, his parents being William and Rachael (Mitchell) Reid. Writing some "Recollections" of his own life on his sixty-eighth birthday, he said: "I have been told that my parents received the news of the election of William Henry Harrison as president of the United States on the same day, but I do not recollect whether I heard of it then or not. Harrison was elected in November, but there was no telegraph in those days and the news did not reach Mount Pleasant until my birthday. I had two brothers. My older was born February 22—Washington's birthday—and my younger on the Fourth of July. I have always rather suspected that I was intended as a Christmas present but I got there a little ahead of time."

    William Reid was a wheelwright and wagon maker. It was the period when it was deemed wise to acquaint all boys with a trade and to develop in them habits of industry by utilizing their labors as assistants in the work in which the fathers engaged. William Henry Reid, therefore, spent his leisure hours, particularly his Saturdays, in helping his father about the shop, grinding paint, doing repair work and also some painting. The father was wise in that he did not allow such tasks to interfere with the boy's education, which was acquired in the public schools, but in vacation periods he was not left to a life of idleness. He worked on the roads to pay his father's road tax, hoed corn, aided in the harvest fields and did such other tasks as parental authority assigned to him. The breakfast hour was five a. m., dinner was served at eleven and supper at five p. m., the family retiring at the early hour of seven-thirty. It was a gala occasion when William H. Reid was allowed to sit up until nine o'clock. In those days, when threshing was to be done and crops gathered, neighbors assisted each other and the rule of helpfulness pervaded the community. There was little money in circulation, as farm products were traded for those things that must be purchased in the stores and most of the coin which Mr. Reid saw in his early boyhood was that which was in use in Mexico. While attending school in the winter of 1855 the boy was unjustly accused of complicity in violating certain rules. The teacher demanded an apology. This being refused, the lad was sent home, where he told his father that he had no apology to offer for a misdemeanor never committed. William Reid was a director of the school. Although desirous that his son should be reinstated he would not force matters, thinking that everything would ultimately adjust itself. He, therefore, gave William Henry permission to accompany to his home a friend who lived at Franklin, Ohio, thirty miles distant. This man had a country store and he agreed to pay young Reid six dollars a month for his services. Thus it was that the supposed temporary absence from school became a permanent one and marked the beginning of his business career. There he remained for two years, gaining a most practical knowledge of business as he traded merchandise for produce, butter, eggs, chickens, soap, honey and in fact anything produced on the farm. This brought him a wide acquaintance with the farmers and their families and he learned to judge of men, their worth and ability. The produce received at the store was taken to Wheeling, West Virginia, which was the nearest and most important market, and Mr. Reid frequently went upon those trips and thus gained broader views of life than could be obtained amid the environment of the country town in which he was working.

    Again, too, there was a tendency toward western emigration and in August, 1858, Mr. Reid arrived in Alton, Madison County, Illinois, where he secured employment as cashier in a mill and distillery, while a year or more later he obtained a situation in a bank. Work was not then specialized as it is now. He did not have one duty to perform but many. He had to build the fires, sweep the office, keep the books and act as paying and receiving teller. It was a formative period, however, in his life and he was fortunate in having at this time the association and friendship of the bank cashier, D. D. Ryrie, whom he afterward spoke of as "a fine man—just, generous, kindly, conservative and reliable." Then, too, Mr. Reid was in the impressionable age when the United States was fast writing its history. When he removed to Illinois there was but one railway line west of the Mississippi river—the Missouri Pacific. About that time gold was discovered on Pike's Peak and caused a general migration to that region. The questions which ultimately brought about the Civil war were also being strenuously discussed. It was a formative period not only in the history of the country but in the life of the young man.

    After a year in the bank Mr. Reid became secretary and treasurer of the Alton & St. Louis Packet Company, principally engaged in carrying passengers and freight for the Chicago & Alton Railroad to and from St. Louis, as Alton was the terminal of the road at that time. His duties included those of freight clerk, purser and such other work as would tend to enhance his usefulness to his employers. He was thus engaged when the Prince of Wales, afterward King Edward VII, made his tour of America, including a trip from Alton to St. Louis on the B. M. Runyan, a boat of the Alton & St. Louis Packet Company. It was a memorable occasion on account of the crowds which gathered to see the prince and do him honor. Mr. Reid was in the packet service just prior to the Civil war, when the Lincoln-Douglas debates were stirring the country and also during the period of hostilities when the company boats carried the arms and cartridges and all the military stores from the arsenal below St. Louis, for the state of Illinois, at the time Camp Jackson was established. Alton, being on the border, was the scene of many lively discussions, although the people on the whole were intensely loyal to the Union. With the building of the railroad through to St. Louis, in 1865, the packet company sold out and Mr. Reid became superintendent of the Merchants & Peoples line of steamers, running between St. Louis and New Orleans. He occupied the position for a year. His uncles, John J. and W. H. Mitchell, had taken the contract from the United States government for all river transportation of freight and soldiers from St. Louis to New Orleans. This they sublet to Edward Walsh and David White of St. Louis, and Mr. Reid's especial duty was to attend to the collecting from the government, for all shipments. In the following year his uncle contracted to deliver railroad iron from East St. Louis to Omaha, Nebraska, by water for the Credit Mobilier, which was then building the Union Pacific Railroad to Ogden. He attended to the details of the shipments, paying the freight from the iron mills in Pennsylvania to East St. Louis, reshipping by water to Omaha and drawing on the Credit Mobilier at its headquarters in New York. In 1867 he changed his business connections by embarking in the wholesale grocery trade at Alton as a member of the firm of R. Debow & Company. The two partners and a porter constituted the entire staff and Mr. Reid went upon the road as traveling representative of the house, covering the territory within a hundred miles. Their expense account was less than twenty five hundred dollars per annum and their yearly sales amounted to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Mr. Reid continued in the business until 1869, when he sold out and on the 1st of January, 1870, arrived in Chicago, where he maintained his residence until his death. After a few months spent in acquainting himself with the business situation of this city he became a partner of Peter Van Schaack and Robert Stevenson in the wholesale drug business under the firm name of Van Schaack, Stevenson & Reid, successors to E. P. Dwyer & Company. The senior partner was at the time a member of the firm of Burnham & Van Schaack and Mr. Stevenson was one of the partners of E. P. Dwyer & Company. The new firm began business in June, 1870, at 92 and 94 Lake street, opposite the old Tremont House, and enjoyed substantial success from the outset. In a manner they were fortunate at the time of the Chicago fire in that their insurance was placed with other than Chicago agencies. When they wished to insure they found that Chicago insurance men were carrying all they wished on that class of risks, hence Mr. Reid was obliged to place the insurance in outside companies. When the adjustment was reached they realized eighty-five per cent of the loss. Within thirty days after the fire the firm was doing business on Wabash avenue and Eighteenth street in an old frame church, where they remained until the Lake street store could be rebuilt. Not crippled by lack of funds and securing a large stock, they were soon on the highroad to fortune in the successful conduct of a wholesale drug establishment. The business continually grew and was conducted under the name of Van Schaack, Stevenson & Reid until 1879, when Mr. Reid disposed of his interests. The condition of his health caused him to withdrew from active business from that time until 1890. In the interim he made three trips to Europe. His health having greatly improved and feeling a strong desire to become again an active factor in business circles, he entered the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank as vice president, having served as one of its directors from 1882. From 1890 up to the time of his retirement in 1907, he was actively interested in the conduct of the bank, much of its success being attributable to his efforts. He was practically a superintendent of detail and was considered an ideal bank officer in that line. On him devolved the task of systematizing the work and managing the actual conduct of the business through the efforts of those whom he employed. The business of the bank was so conducted that it moved like clock work. In the employment of young men for positions in the bank he considered it a matter of vital importance that character should be a fundamental qualification. He believed that business honor in employees but reflected the example set them by bank officials. In speaking of this he said: "I may perhaps illustrate more clearly by quoting an editorial from the Springfield Republican. 'Of protective measures against dishonesty in moneyed institutions there should, of course, be no lack within the reasonable bounds of human ingenuity and effort, but after all has been done there must be large reliance upon simple individual honesty. All the bolts and bars and detective devices possible of application cannot prevent heavy dependence upon the normal human conscience which commands that "Thou shalt not steal." Preferable probably to obtrusive detective devises in the protection of a bank, which seems to place everybody within it under constant suspicion and accusation, would be a policy of cultivating in the force a sense of each one's responsibility and the trustfulness in which he is held. Conscience is still a necessary and paramount factor in our business life, and but for it we should go to pieces in short order.'"

    Much of Mr. Reid's business policy and belief is indicated in what he said in his "Recollections." Referring to his youth he wrote: "There is no limit to what a boy had to do in the days of my youth. The atmosphere in which we were brought up was such that it compelled the doing of things. There was virtue in the birch rod and the shorter catechism, and all through life there was emphasized the value of the old-fashioned virtues-—patience, prudence, perseverance, persistence and plodding. These virtues ought to be spelled with a capital P. They are too little realized and appreciated, especially by the youngsters. This plain tale is just to encourage someone, perhaps, to believe that there is something in the practical side of life and that it is within the reach of anybody who will pay the price—patient and strict attention to business and association with superior people, mentally and morally superior people."

    Mr. Reid was married twice. He first wedded Miss Eleanor Irwin. They were married in 1868 and were separated by the death of the wife in 1888. On the 21st of November, 1889, Mr. Reid married Miss Caroline Whittlesey, a daughter of the Rev. M. K. and Susan (Camp) Whittlesey, the former of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the latter of Farmington, Connecticut. Mrs. Reid's father was a graduate of Yale College, class of 1844, and of Andover Theological Seminary in 1848. On removing westward he spent one year in Iowa. He was installed pastor at Ottawa, Illinois, in 1849.

    Mr. Reid was a supporter of the democratic party. He was a member of the Second Presbyterian church. His chief recreation was horseback riding and while at his winter home in the Ozarks he rode much and well. He was strongly domestic in his tastes, finding his greatest pleasure at his own 'fireside. He was particularly fond of music and literature, and was a life member of the Chicago Art Institute. A man of strong convictions, he always stood by what he said and his position on any important question was never an equivocal one. As prosperity came to him, making possible his assistance to others, he repeatedly extended help to those in whom he became interested or to whom fate had seemed unkind. On one occasion he wrote to a friend: "My object in life is to help somebody else, and to help youngsters. I believe it is the very best of help and of investments." He was always ready to speak an encouraging word to a young man or to render substantial assistance if he deemed such a course wise. Soon after the death of his first wife, Monticello Seminary at Godfrey, Illinois, one of the oldest schools for girls in America, was destroyed by fire. Mr. Reid assisted in its rebuilding, giving a beautiful memorial chapel. A few years later he added a wing to the main structure, the principal floor being a music hall, the second story being utilized for students' practice rooms and the third story for bedrooms. Subsequently he was instrumental in the boring of an artesian well and the erection of a fountain. Mr. Reid gave to Wheaton College, at Wheaton, Illinois, their Industrial Building and to Washington and Lee University of Lexington, Virginia, a building for a similar purpose. He assisted in erecting one of the new buildings at the Chicago Presbyterian Hospital and a free room which he finished and furnished there bears the name Avarana (rest). The W. H. Reid high school of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was named in honor of Mr. Beid for the reason that when the finances of the town were at so low an ebb as to make the closing of the schools a dire necessity, he paid the expenses of the public schools for a year. Like many another self-made man of limited education he was ever willing to send a boy or girl to school. If scholarships which he sustained were already in use he cheerfully paid the extra tuition. He did not believe, however, in that indiscriminate giving which would rob the young man of self-dependence and self-reliance. His rule of conduct is perhaps best expressed in the words of Max Ehrmann, which, under the title of "A Prayer," was found among Mr. Reid's papers. It reads, "Let me do my work each day, and if the darkened hours of despair overcome me, may I not forget the strength that comforted me in the desolation of other times. May I still remember the bright hours that found me walking over the silent hills of my childhood, or dreaming on the margin of the quiet river when a light glowed within me, and I promised my early God to have courage amid the tempests of the changing years. Spare me from bitterness and from the sharp passions of unguarded moments. May I not forget that poverty and riches are of the spirit. Though the world know me not, may my thoughts and actions be such as shall keep me friendly with myself. Lift my eyes from the earth and let me not forget the uses of the stars. Forbid that I should judge others, lest I condemn myself. Let me not follow the clamor of the world but walk calmly in my path. Give me a few friends who will love me for what I am, and keep ever burning before my vagrant steps the kindly light of hope. And, though age and infirmity overtake me and I come not within sight of the castle of my dreams, teach me still to be thankful for life, and for time's olden memories that are good and sweet, and may the evening's twilight find me gentle still." With such ideals before him toward which he was constantly striving, with such ennobling thoughts in his heart, William Henry Reid lived a life that became a potent influence for good in the lives of all with whom he was associated.

    In November, 1907, Mr. Reid retired from active business and his time was given to a search for health in which he visited Europe in 1908, 1909 and 1910. He died September 12, 1910, at his country home, Whittlesey Place, at Ottawa, Illinois, just a month after his return from Europe, and was buried in the Ottawa avenue cemetery of Ottawa, Illinois. Mr. Reid's Chicago residence was at what is now 2013 Prairie avenue, and is situated on ground that he purchased previous to the Chicago fire, at a time when that locality gave no intimation of becoming one of the most aristocratic residential sections of the city. While this may be said to have been his principal home, yet he maintained two country houses, "Avarana," in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, and Whittlesey Place, at Ottawa, Illinois.

Chicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth,
Volume 4 By Josiah Seymour Currey Published 1912
The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company


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