Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868, Pages 105-110
Few of the mercantile interests of our city have attained to greater importance than that of hardware and iron, and none require the employment of more capital, or call for a more extended experience. The wholesale hardware merchants of this city have established Chicago as the headquarters of that business for the whole Northwest, as their brethren have made it the commercial emporium in all other regards. The pioneer in the exclusively wholesale line of this important branch of Chicago trade, and at present one of the largest dealers in the North-west, is William Blair, Esq., the senior partner of the firm of William Blair & Co.
Mr. Blair was born May 20, 1818, in Homer, Cortland County, New York. The family removed soon after to the adjoining town of Cortlandville, where he attended school until the age of fourteen. He then made an engagement with Mr. Oren North, who kept a stove and hardware establishment in that place, and became a member of his family, remaining Avith him a little more than four years, learning the business, and receiving the benefit of a good example and principles of the strictest integrity on the part of his employer, who was a j^rominent and highly esteemed citizen in the community.
Mr. Blair was but a little over eighteen years old when he set out to make a home in the great West. His employer had for some time been anxious to establish a business in this region, and in July, 1836, he sent out his protege to Joliet, then a new settlement, with instructions to open up a branch there, intending to follow him during the subsequent year. He gave Mr. Blair letters of introduction to the late Martin H. Demmond, and others of that place, and the young man soon found himself among friends. His good knowledge of business, correct deportment and rigid punctuality, produced a favorable impression on all with whom he became acquainted, and he was soon doing a thriving trade.
The next year was, however, a disastrous one; 1837 is yet remembered, all over the West, as the first of the series of financial storms which visit this region at ten-year intervals. Tlie revulsion was deemed by Mr. North a good and sufficient reason for abandoning his intention to settle in the West and throwing up his establishment here. But Mr. Blair was not discouraged; he had full faith in the future. With the aid of his brothers, Chauiicey B. and Lyman, he purchased the small stock of goods at Joliet, and continued the business there on his own account till 1842, when he decided to remove to Chicago.
We may mention, en passant, that his two brothers, Chauncey B. and Lyman, both now of this city, were at that time located in Michigan City, Indiana; the former removing there in 1835, and the latter in the spring of 1836. That city was then competing with Cliicago for tlie position of Queen of the Lakes, and for some years the brothers Blair remained there, largely engaged in the mercantile and shipping business. They however, eventually saw that the Garden City was rapidly becoming the focus of the West, and followed the star of empire around the bend of Lake Michigan. Chauncey B.is now the President of the Merchants’ National Bank of Chicago, and Lyman is a member of the extensive packing firm of Culbertson, Blair & Co., and also of the commission house of Blair, Densmore & Co.
About the first of August, 1842, William Blair opened a store in this city, locating on the corner of Dearborn and South Water streets. He at first confined himself to retailing, but dealers from the country came in to make purchases for replenishing their stocks. He was thus involuntarily led to undertake the wholesale business. His brother, Chauncey B., became interested with him in the spring of 1844. A considerable amount of capital was thus added to the business, and a large extension was made in the wholesale department. Iron being added to the stock, a removal to more commodious quarters, at No. 75 Lake street, was effected.
In the spring of 1846, Mr. Blair purchased the interest of his brother Chauncey, and took in, as partner, his brother-in-law, Mr. William E. Stimson, a young man of great promise and possessed of excellent traits of character, who had come here from Cortlandville a year previous. The firm of Blair & Stimson was abundantly prospered, but the health of the junior partner failing, he was obliged to give up business. In the autumn of 1849, he went to Florida for the benefit of his health, and spent the winter there, but without any permanent benefit; he died of consumption, in December, 1850, universally respected.
Another movement was necessitated in the spring of 1847, and the larger store. No. 103 Lake street, was entered on. Mr. Blair began to see that another extension would ere long be required, and resolved to occupy quarters of his own. He purchased the lot No.176 Lake street, in 1848, at $225 per foot, and erected a commodious brick building thereon, to which the business of the firm was transferred in the following year. After the death of his partner, Mr. Blair continued the business in his own name until the spring of 1853, when Mr. Claudius B. Nelson, his present partner, who had been with the house for several years, became interested in the business, which was thenceforward conducted under the firm name of William Blair & Co. During the last named interval, about 1851, Mr. Blair commenced to sell hardware at wholesale exclusively, his beiug the first exclusively wholesale hardware house in this city. In the spring of 1853, in connection with Mr. E. G. Hall, he established a separate iron store on South Water street, under the name of E. G. Hall & Co. In 1860, Mr. Blair withdrew from this firm, transferring his interest to the senior partner. Notwithstanding the fact that the house of Blair & Co. had given up the sale of bar iron, the business increased very largely. Still another removal was necessary, and Mr. Blair, in order to make room enough, for at least a few years in the future, rebuilt the marble front stores, Nos. 179 and 181 Randolph street, and the business was transferred to the present location in the autumn of 1865. In the spring of 1856, Mr. Oliver W. Belden, a young man of large experience, who had been brought up at the business in the East, and connected with the house for several years, was admitted as a partner in the firm.
The business of the house, as now conducted, is a very extensive one, ramifying over nearly the whole West, and taking in a wide range of activity as well as country. From the time when the completion of our railroad lines to the Mississippi enabled our merchants to send out goods, which had always before that been bought in St. Louis or in the Atlantic! cities, the dealers of the Northwestern States have looked to Chicago for their supplies of hardware, and a large per centage of them have become accustomed to look on Mr. Blair as the representative of that business for this city. The extent of the connection may be judged from the fact, that the business of the house during the past two years has averaged over a million of dollars, and this amount of transactions is managed with as much ease as the winding of a watch, the perfection of method having been reached, both in arrangement of goods and distribution of effort. The business of the establishment is a perfect unity. It has ever been the aim of the firm to inculcate correct business principles in their clerks and other employes, that they may be fitted to fill responsible positions, if required, elsewhere. While insisting on a strict fulfilment of duties, Mr. Blair has always endeavored to secure good personal behavior, and it is one of the printed rules of the store that “each clerk is earnestly desired to attend Divine service on the Sabbath, as well as to abstain from the use of all intoxicating drinks.”
It is worthy of remark, that though Mr. Blair has passed through at least two financial storms, the firms with which he has been connected have never paid less than one hundred cents on the dollar, or asked their creditors to take loss. Next to unfailing attention to business, this success is ascribable to that too rare phase of mercantile integrity which made it a rule never to speculate with the money of creditors. Mr. Blair purchased real estate for use, and to some extent for investment, but never would permit his regular mercantile business to be interfered with by real estate or other speculations.
Mr. Blair has never sought public honor, but his purse has always been open to the calls of charity and science, and his well known business acumen has been largely recognized. He has thus been very actively engaged in many movements having for their object the advancement of the interests, or the amelioration of the sufferings of society. He has been at different times a member of the Boards of Directors of the Young Men’s Association, the Protestant Orphan Asylum, the Chicago Historical Society, the Board of Trade, Vice President of the Home for the Friend- less for several years, and is now one of the Directors of the Merchants’ National Bank of Chicago, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company, of NewYork. Since the year 1859, he has been a member of the Second Presbyterian Church society Rev. R. W. Patterson, D. D., Pastor.
When the war for the suppression of the rebellion broke out, Mr. Blair gave his active aid towards the fitting out of our volunteers, and getting troops into the field. He had two nephews in the volunteer service—both, at different periods, in the employ of the firm, and members of his own family. One, Captain L. B. Crosby, of the Eighty-seventh Indiana Regiment, was severely wonnded at the battle of Chickamauga; the other, Adjutant J. S. Ballard, of the Second Board of Trade Regiment, died at Murfreesboro’, in 1863, from the effects of exposure while in the service.
On the first of November, 1865, Mr. Blair sailed, with his family, for Europe, where he spent nearly a year, visiting England, Scotland, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Prussia, and the smaller German States along the Rhine, passing more or less time in each, and inspecting, with much interest, the ancient and modern architecture of those countries, their art collections, museums, libraries, public parks, etc., and gathering much valuable information with regard to the habits and characteristics of the peoples of the Old World. While in England he visited the manufacturing districts of Birmingham and Sheffield; at the latter place going over some of the celebrated file and cutlery works of manufacturing firms with which his house sustains business relations. He returned home in October, 1866.
From an address delivered by W. H. Gibbs, before the Literary Association of Blandford, Massachusetts, in September, 1850, on the history of that town, we gather the facts that the family originated in Scotland, where many of the old stock yet remain. In 1720, David Blair, with his family of eleven children, arrived at Boston, whence, in a few months, they removed to Worcester, Massachusetts, which became their home. Robert Blair, the great-grandfather of the subject of this sketch, and one of the sons of David, afterwards moved to Blandford, Hampden County, where other members of the family settled at a later period. He purchased five hundred acres of land, a place known as “The Gore” tract. Here he built a log house and began to clear the land, in the midst of what was till then an unbroken forest, save by a foot path which led to the nearest fort, about two miles distant. He was subsequently chosen deacon of the Presbyterian Church there, and served many years in that capacity. Rufus, a son of Robert, was born in Blandford, and resided there until death; his son, Samuel, was also born in Blandford, removing to Chenango County, New York, in 1812, and two years later, to Cortland County, in the same State, where his son William was born,
Mr. Blair was married in June, 1854, to Miss Seymour, a daughter of Mr. John Seymour, of Lyme ,Ohio. Two sons have been born to them.
The eldest, Willie, a bright lad, died in December, 1861, not quite six years of age. Edward, the remaining son, is living, and is now about ten years old. The family reside on Michigan Avenue. The husband and father is a man of quiet demeanor, affable carriage, full information, frank in statement, charitable in the imputation of motives, but having a nice sense of honor in business transactions, his first words being of the same tenor as the last. His private character is most exemplary, and in point of business integrity, the record of none stands higher than that of William Blair.