Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868, Pages 127-132
No brighter example of the success attendant on strict integrity of purpose, unswerving pertinacity, and untiring industry, unaided by the gifts of fortune or the advantages of early education, is afforded in the city of Chicago than that of Thomas Church, Esq., one of its oldest citizens and most reliable men. He began life poor, and, coming to this city while yet it was little better than a wilderness, has built up a fortune and an honorable name, by legitimate trading alone, avoiding the land speculations which formed the foundation of the wealth of so many of our now leading citizens.
Thomas Church was born November 8, 1801, in the town and county of Onondaga, New York. He was the eldest of a family of seven children, and was early brought under the rule of a stepfather, Thomas Yates. In early infancy, Mr. Church moved, with the family, to Marcellus, in the same county, where his stepfather kept a small distillery, and followed teaming in the proper season. When Thomas was twelve years of age, they moved to Benton, Ontario County. Here, the careful habits which have distinguished Mr. Church in his after-life began to show themselves. One of his first experiences in his new home was the earning of six and a quarter cents by a day’s labor at picking stones. The coin was carefully laid by, and formed the nucleus of his future savings. The stepfather then took a farm, but sold out at the end of a year; did the same thing next year, and, when Thomas was fourteen, moved to the Holland Purchase, in Genesee County—then on the very outskirts of civilization. Here they entered a log house, situated upon a cleared field of four acres, and denuded of timber six acres of dense woods per annum, for four consecutive years. During this time, Thomas went to school when lie could be spared in winter, but his opportunities were so limited that he made little progress in his book studies.
In the year 1821, when three months short of nineteen, he left home. A little difficulty occurred with a younger brother, about that inevitable treasure of an Eastern youth—the jack-knife—and the stepfather deciding against Thomas, he threw down his axe and jumped the bars, leaving home forever, at a moment’s warning, but not, however, without being prompted to do so by his father. He went to work for a man who kept a grist, an oil and a saw-mill, three miles from his old home. He was paid at the rate of one hundred and twenty dollars per year, as follows: Fifteen dollars in cash, fifteen dollars in an order on a dry goods store, and the balance, half in neat stock and half in grain, at barter price. In those days, a bushel of wheat was reckoned at fifty cents, or the value of a day’s work, whereas, it was impossible to realize over thirty-seven and a half cents for it in cash. His duties were onerous, but he soon gained the confidence of his employer, and went to the adjacent village and did the trading, thus gaining his first ideas of mercantile business. He was not so rapid a worker as some, but he had a wonderful faculty of continuity. In that first year he lost but five days, two of which were occupied in militia training, two in paying the road-tax, and one in getting his new clothes cut. These he made up, and fourteen days additional, by over-time. At the end of the year, he exchanged his barter for a small farm. Twelve months after that, he sold his land for cash, and at the end of two and a half years, he owned two hundred and twenty-seven dollars in money, a good suit of clothes and a loving wife. He married the object of his affections—Miss Rachel Warriner—in the autumn of 1823, and went to Chautauqua County, New York, where he took a thirty days’ refusal of a small farm, built a log house on it for himself and wife to live in, and then started for Buffalo, walking thirty miles, to fetch the effects needed to make his new home comfortable.
How little an event may change the tenor of a life! Mr. Church was detained in Buffalo by a heavy snow-storm, and passed the waiting hours in the store of a friend. The question flashed across his mind—”Why cannot I follow a business life, instead of being buried in the woods?” He asked the opinion of his wife, and then her consent to the change. She was quite willing. The young couple moved to Buffalo in February, 1824, and Mr. Church worked in company with a brother for a short time. Buffalo was then a village of two thousand five hundred inhabitants. The brothers chopped wood in payment for lumber, and succeeded, ere long, in erecting a house on Commercial street, near the head of the present canal, which was occupied by the newly-married couple. The place was still unfinished, when it was found that the little capital had dwindled down to fifteen dollars in cash. Fourteen of this was invested in a stock of goods. Mr. Church’s first trade was a failure; he sold three cents’ worth of goods, and gave change for a bad one dollar bill. It was a humiliating experience, but a valuable one; he never took bad money again. The first year netted him two hundred dollars, and satisfied him that he was on the right track. He staid in that store ten years, in which time the value of the lot had increased from one hundred and fifty dollars to four thousand dollars, he having helped to enhance it, by digging with his own hands that portion of the New York and Erie Canal where the bridge now stands. He was now worth two thousand five hundred dollars, and, having heard glowing predictions of the greatness of Chicago, he decided to make it the scene of his future labors. He arrived here June 2, 1834, in a boat, having come without a pilot from Mackinac. Chicago then contained but four hundred inhabitants, including the mixed bloods, besides two hundred soldiers in Fort Dearborn. His experience in the rise in value of property in Buffalo had induced him to determine to buy the land on which he should locate. Not being able to find a lot for sale on South Water street—then the only business street—he bought forty feet on what is now Lake street (Nos. 111 and 113), the street then not being laid out, except on paper. He erected a little dwelling, and moved in. During the autumn, he built a store, in size twenty by forty feet, and two and a half stories high—the first seen fronting on Lake street. He bought a raft of timber, and had it sawed , with the whip-saw. He went to Buffalo in the spring, and bought one thousand dollars’ worth of groceries and provisions. These he sold at good profits, and found plenty of patrons. He rented the second story of his store to James Whitlock, Registrar, and E. D. Taylor, United States Receiver, who opened a land office, and in the first two weeks sold over half a million dollars’ worth of real estate. That building was about the busiest in the place. The increase of trade soon demanded an extension, and the store was made one hundred and eighty-one feet deep, and filled with goods. The young merchant had almost unlimited credit in New York, and, being able to keep a full stock, offered advantages not to be found everywhere else. He was, however, nearly broken up; he put his name to a note for four thousand dollars for a Chicago house with which he did business, and was called upon to day it. The blow staggered him, but he pulled through, and flourished in the midst of the financial storm which caused the ruin of so many.
The year 1837 was one of his best. He had avoided land speculation, kept his means well in hand, and contracted no debts which he could not pay. It was the time of the Michigan “wild-cat” excitement, and soon the people began to be afraid of the money; they were willing to part with it, and trade was brisk. That year his cash sales amounted to over forty-one thousand dollars. In 1839 occurred the first fire in Chicago; the old Tremont House, with the block of which it formed a part, was burned down. Mr. Church narrowly escaped the loss of his buildings, and determined to avoid such dangers in future. He moved away his wooden structure, and erected two fine fire-proof brick stores, four stories high.
The same year, Mr. Church bought six lots on Lake and South Water streets and Michigan avenue, which, with his improvements, would amount to ten thousand dollars. They are now among the most valuable in the city.
In 1840, he took Mr. M. L. Satterlee into partnership. Their stock consisted of groceries, paints, oils, glass, nails, iron, and domestic dry goods. The next three years prices declined, and the firm, being unwilling to sell at a loss, did comparatively little business. In April, 1843, the partnership was dissolved, and Mr. Church closed up business, going into real estate, in which he was very successful. On closing up his mercantile business, he estimated the value of his property at thirty-seven thousand dollars.
Mr. Church, as a merchant, was careful and reliable. He always made it a rule not to obtain credit for more than half the amount of goods actually paid for in store, and thus had always two dollars with which to pay one. Even this limit was seldom reached. He was ever prompt in payment, and gained thus a reputation which was of as much value to him as double the amount of his capital.
Mr. Church was persuaded, about this time, to run for Mayor, asking the suffrages of the Whig party. He was beaten, and has often said, since, that he was glad of it. He was soon afterwards appointed City Assessor for the South Division, and retained the office for fourteen years. He has also been often appointed on special committees to assess damages and benefits by street improvements. He has been appointed a Commissioner for partitioning estates, for establishing dock lines, etc., and served ten years in the volunteer fire department. In 1855, the Chicago Firemen’s Insurance Company was founded, and Mr. Church was elected President, which position he has ever since retained. In 1862, he was elected President of the Chicago Mutual Life Insurance Company, but declined in favor of H. H. Magie, and was made Vice-President. He retained the office until the company was dissolved.
The last twenty-three years of his life have been spent in comparative retirement, attending only to the management of his property, and occasionally traveling. He has visited Washington—being there at the inauguration of President Lincoln—New Orleans, Minnesota, Montreal, and other places, ahvays in company with his wife. The crash of 1857, and the subsequent dull period, was felt by him, his property at one time depreciating one thousand dollars daily for one hundred days; but he was on too firm a basis to be injured by the financial storm. He never paid less than one hundred cents on the dollar, always paid his debts promptly, and never was party to a lawsuit which required an argument from his attorney.
Since Mr. Church retired from mercantile pursuits, his principal hobby has been the erection of brick stores. At the present writing he is the owner of no less than seventeen, which is more, we believe, than is owned by any other man in Chicago. In the changes of grade that our city has undergone from time to time, he has been compelled to raise thirteen of his stores, by screw power, from four to six feet. Two have been rebuilt, and only two remain on the original grade. Mr. Church has been twice married. His first wife (married 1823) died in April, 1839. She had borne him five children, the three eldest of whom died at an early age, The two youngest—daughters—survived. He married, November 5, 1839, Mrs. Rebecca Pruyne, widow of Senator Pruyne, of this State, who had one daughter. The three have since married George A. Ingalls, C. D. Kimbark, and E. Ingals, M. D.
Although Mr. Church has never troubled the Patent Office with an application for protection, yet his inventive genius has not been idle. With him, as with thousands of others, his own special wants demanding a certain end, his mind ruminated upon it until it was produced to his satisfaction. Being, as we have already stated, engaged for many years past in real estate transactions, and having much business to attend to day by day, he felt the want of a simple, and yet accurate, system of bookkeeping. This want lie has supplied perfectly, in the invention of a system which, whilst it is original with himself, yet is exceedingly simple and comprehensive. It enables him at a glance to see the state of his account with any one through a complicated list of transactions, and the liability to mistakes is comparatively removed. It is often the case that, by casting aside the scholastic routine of figuring out a sum, and coming down to a common sense way of doing it, the end is reached by a much simpler method. It is just so with this harmonious arrangement of Mr. Church’s, and we doubt not he has saved many a hard headache by adopting it.
Personally, Mr. Church is a very mild, unassuming man, exceedingly unobtrusive, and was quite bashful in his youth. He has been strictly temperate from an early age, and never made use of an oath. But, though quiet, he was always a doer, and a keen observer of men and things. When we take into account his small beginnings, and then remember that he is now in possession of a yearly income, from rents alone, of thirty-seven thousand dollars, we feel justified in pointing out to our young men a life so successful as this as worthy of all imitation.