Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Springers of Chicago

Warren Springer, 1890s
Traveling back to 1890, the dark front hall of the Prairie Avenue mansion when the son walked out or was told to leave and never return. But evidently William hung around Chicago working as a streetcar conductor, ringing up fares paid by his millionaire father and stepmother as they rode in his car without speaking.

Then William “went out into the world for myself,” he later told a reporter.

While I had a good education, I found a few years later that if I intended to travel all the time I would have to have some sort of occupation where I could ‘catch on,’ as the saying is. From accounting I took up sign painting.

And that’s what William was doing in February 1912, painting signs in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the Capital City Advertising Company. Everyone called him Bill until the newspapers announced that his father had died and his stepmother had launched a nationwide search for the son to receive half of the $2 million estate. Incredulous, he heeded the call. 

“To begin at the beginning,” the new heir said, reflecting on his life story.

So literary!

He recalled constant quarreling with his father, Warren, who was very strict. “It appeared to me that he wanted to have all the fun, while I should tread the straight and narrow path,” William recounted.

The boy’s parents separated in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the 1870s. His mother promptly remarried. Warren off went to Chicago and made a fortune. First he built a machinery manufacturing plant but the Great Fire destroyed it in 1871. Soon after, Springer purchased land on Canal Street, along the Chicago River, for $50 per foot. He built a lumber mill that Chicagoans dubbed “Springer’s Folly” because of its location beyond the city’s original business district.

Warren ignored the ridicule and went on to build 13 more factories including a boot & shoe manufacturing plant and printing company, with offices and salesrooms located in the same building.

In 1893, he sold off his factories and began to invest full-time in Chicago real estate, becoming known as “the Father of the West Side.” 

Sometime during the 1880s, Warren Springer married Marguerite Maginness, an Ohio native. They would have a daughter, Frances.

Mrs. Springer became involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement in Chicago, pledging land on which an Industrial Arts League would be built. Her circle included the instigators Professor Oscar Lovell Triggs, Murray Schloss, and others who opposed capitalism and various social conventions. She also served as a Regent of the Daughters of the Revolution (a D.A.R. rival) and volunteered with several philanthropies.

Marguerite Warren Springer, 1890s
(newspaper sketch)

By February 8, 1912, when Warren Springer died, Professor Triggs had been fired by the University of Chicago and lived in California. But Marguerite made a big announcement. She planned to bring Triggs back to the city to help fulfill her late husband’s dream of a farm colony for the poor. On February 14, she told the Chicago Tribune:   

Mr. Springer experimented with agricultural schemes . . . He came to the conclusion that the cultivation of strawberries, raspberries, onions, sugar beets, and pickles would prove the most practical and profitable. He had the promise of a pickle manufacturer to establish a factory near the farm as soon as the colony was established.

The story was that Springer and Triggs had planned a colony which would provide "social betterment for the working classes." After Triggs’s dismissal, Warren begged his friend to start the community, Marguerite said, but Triggs was tired of the limelight and turned it down.

A few days after a story about the colony appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, Marguerite offered a reward to the finder of her disinherited stepson, William.

“It was Mr. Springer’s last wish that I should find his boy and try to give him the happiness of the home from which he has been barred too long.” Then she pledged to give William half of the $2 million estate.

If William received the $1 million, he disappeared with it. The colony never materialized. Marguerite, who claimed to be a physician although she never advanced beyond high school, flitted about Chicago and remarried briefly in 1916.

I thought the story would end here. But it turns out that Marguerite Warren Springer, even in the glare of high society, came in many shapes and sizes.


To be continued.

See also May 4, April 6, March 2 + 10, 2016 posts.

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