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Lake Forest Country Places: Farwell House

Lake Forest Country Places XIII:

John V. Farwell House, 888 East Deerpath

One of a series of articles by Arthur Miller, Archivist and Librarian for Special Collections at Lake Forest College, originally published in the Lake Forest Journal, 1994-1997; some have been replaced or updated.

Returning to the Farwell family allows me to correct some errors in fact made earlier in the year about the Charles B. Farwell family history. The biggest error was confusion over the sources of the fortune the Farwell brothers, Charles and John, built beginning in the 1850s. In particular, oil was never discovered on the XIT Ranch in Texas, though leases were sold for exploration. Rather, John Farwell essentially invented the large-scale wholesale dry-goods trade to the West, according to the article about his life in Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago (Chicago: Wilson & St. Clair, 1868), pp. 97-104. These aren't the exact words in the article, but they explain how John V. Farwell and his wife, Emerette Cooley Farwell, came to build Lake Forest's first "'baronial'"-styled (according to Arpee) mansion, in 1869.

The tall three-story house -- on the north side of Deerpath near the junction with Mayflower -- still stands, though less brashly than in the Gilded Age when the tower over the front entry porch rose another story above the third floor, surmounted by a mansard roof with Gothic gables on all four sides. The lake and shoreline views from the vantage point of the little windows in that tower room must have been spectacular. A large reproduction of a photo showing the facade in its original state, credited to the collection of late Brooks Smith of Lake Forest, is found in Michael Ebner's Creating the North Shore (1988), p. 31.

But to turn back to correcting errors in the Farwell history -- first, one son grew up at "Fairlawn," Walter who was born in 1863, according to Mrs. James O. (Lucia) Heyworth of Lake Forest; and Rose, born in 1870, was the youngest daughter, not Grace who was born in 1867. Charles Farwell, Jr., born in 1853, died in infancy. The full-length portrait in the library of Glen Rowan, according to Mrs. Heyworth, is of Anna, born 1860, not of Rose as is painted prominently on the background, lower left. Indeed, the chin line of the subject much more closely resembles photos of Anna in her memoir, A Musician and His Wife, than it does those of Rose in the same book. Grace's first husband was Dudley Winston, not Farwell Winston. According to The Hand-Book of Chicago Biography, ed. by John J. Flinn (Chicago: Standard Guide, 1893), Dudley was the son of Maria Dudley Winston and Frederick Winston. Frederick Winston had a distinguished legal career in Chicago, where he began practicing law in the 1850s in partnership with Norman B. Judd, who in 1860 nominated Lincoln for the presidency at the Republican Convention and later was ambassador to Prussia, then becoming Germany under Bismarck. Frederick Winston himself was President Grover Cleveland's ambassador to Persia.

Concerning Mrs. McGann and the house she built in 1920, Mrs. Heyworth isn't aware of there being examples of her mother's landscape painting in the Art Institute, as I recalled. Also, by her recollection the skylight originally lit the main hall, not a third-floor painter's studio.

But resuming my account of John V. Farwell and his house, the 1868 biographical sketch is unequivocal about Mr. Farwell's crucial role in Chicago's rise: "he was one of the few who realized the possibilities of the Northwest, and fully foresaw the destiny of Chicago.... [W]hile others stood by, wondering whether to invest, he went forward...." He pushed for a new warehouse of unprecedented scale in 1856, when the railroads where heading north and west, and "[h]e was stoutly opposed by the oldest member of ...the firm, and [it] was set down by the longest heads in the city as a project that must bring its owners to ruin." This storage capacity gave the firm an advantage in provisioning troops during the war, between 1861 and 1865, just as it prepared it to lead in the thrust west immediately after the war. The Transcontinental Railroad Act, passed in 1862 along with the Homestead Act, provided Chicago with a straight shot west toward the Pacific and then distributed people along it, as customers for J. V. Farwell & Co.

Farwell is often recalled as the head of the firm that gave Marshall Field, another "go-getter," his start. But Marshall Field & Company is known today as a retail firm, which now is far from the wholesale business which was at the heart of Chicago's rise. The railroad west -- according to historian William Cronon's 1991 book, Nature's Metropolis -- gave Chicago a vast, inland empire unprecedented in world history. With eastern, western, and southern lines all converging at Chicago and with goods and passengers transferring there to other lines, the city's trade leverage would have made a Venetian Doge green with envy during the Renaissance, for example. John Farwell was the very first, apparently, to grasp this possibility, even before the rails had gotten much farther west than Oak Park or Aurora!

The Civil War not only was a great milestone in the history of democracy, but with railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln's leadership, it assured one immense, united market for Chicago -- west and south; for the east -- New York and Boston -- Chicago became the gatekeeper, as well as the rulemaker in Washington from 1861 through 1877 when Grant's second term ended. This power, envisioned and seized by the Chicago group between 1855 and 1865, created an economic engine which would drive Chicago at full throttle through World War II, or for nearly a century.

Farwell also was a philanthropic leader of great vision, supporting the evangelist Dwight Moody from the 1850s and launching the YMCA movement through participating in construction of its first building in the world, in Chicago. It was while he was with Moody in England in 1867 that he must have met Leonard Double, a "contractor" he brought back to Lake Forest and who constructed his house, the first in this country of hand poured concrete, according to Arpee.

Both of the Farwell brothers' origins had been modest. Indeed, the writer of the 1868 biographical sketch refers to their parents as "plain and plodding people," even though honest and industrious, when John V. was born in New York state in 1825. But from the start John showed uncommon resources as "the prime worker in the erection of the first brick house" in the county after the family had moved by wagon to Mt. Morris, Illinois. Thus this agricultural couple and their youngsters joined the New England diaspora to the Illinois country. But soon the two brothers had relocated to Chicago, where quickly they became innovative leaders -- John in commerce and Charles in politics.

That "plain and plodding" man and wife were grandparents to a brilliant array of grandchildren and further descendants -- among whom are numbered several mayors of Lake Forest (most recently Kent Chandler and Frank Farwell), as well as others who have distinguished themselves in the worlds of business, civic leadership, philanthropy, art, and culture. Today, too, the John V. and Emerette Cooley Farwell house stands where it has for a century and a quarter, though some merciful early-twentieth century architect removed the harshly arriviste busy-ness of the original facade. Today it sits at the head of Mayflower Road, the image of established respectability in subtle tones and of subdued architectural gesture.

(I wish to express grateful thanks to Mrs. Heyworth for offering information correcting errors in my two C. B. Farwell family articles earlier this year and for looking at this article in draft form.)

Arthur Miller

November 1, 1995