Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868, Pages 251-256
The gentleman whose name heads this sketch was one of the earliest settlers of Chicago, has been one of its most successful business men, and is now one of its wealthiest capitalists and property owners. He arrived here in the spring of 1833—thirty-four years ago—and has been a resident of the city ever since.
Silas B. Cobb, Esq., is a native of Montpelier, Vermont, having been born there January 23, 1812. His father was, at different times during Silas’ boyhood, a tanner, a farmer, and an inn-keeper—a hard- fisted, hard-working man, of the old style of tough and rough New Englanders. He gave his son, who was the youngest of a large family, but little opportunity for education. He was kept at work almost constantly, and was permitted to attend an ordinary country school, while living on a farm, only occasionally in the winter season, before his eighth year. The boy felt very restless under such treatment, and even at this day cannot but feel that his parent, without intending, or appreciating it, perhaps, did him a grievous wrong by depriving him of the means of securing an education, even if nothing more than such as the common schools of that day afforded. By his own perseverance, however, he succeeded in gaining sufficient knowledge, in and out of school, to answer all mere practical purposes. His trials and burdens were eventually increased by his father bringing home a second wife, with children of her own. Circumstances soon transpired, under the step-mother’s domestic administration, that made home almost unendurable to the boy. His father, however, some months afterwards sold the farm, and consented that Silas should learn a trade. Contrary to the boy’s wishes he was entered as an apprentice to a shoemaker. Soon becoming disgusted with that, he left his employer, and returned home. His father, severely reprimanding him, now insisted on his becoming a mason for a short time, but finding it utterly distasteful to him, again returned home. After another scolding, the father gave him permission to select a trade for himself, which he at once did, and was apprenticed to a harness- maker. He was now seventeen years of age. After serving one year, an incident occurred which showed the plucky disposition of the young man. His employer sold out his business, and the purchaser claimed the apprentice as a part of the purchase. Young Cobb indignantly protested against this transfer of himself, and emphatically declared that “in this case, at least, the nigger don’t go with the plantation.” The new employer, finding that the apprentice had rights which he was bound to respect, concluded to make a new bargain with him. No further interruption occurring, he steadily worked at his trade, and completely mastered it in its various branches. After his employer closed up business, the young man became his own master, and commenced to work as a journeyman, at Montpelier, South Hardwick, and other towns in that region. After nine months of hard labor, he succeeded in saving sixty dollars. Having attained his twenty-first year, he had a desire to “go West,” and seek his fortune. He joined a party who were coining to Illinois, under the leadership of Mr. Oliver Goss, of Montpelier, who had been “out West” and located on Government land in the vicinity of Chicago. His father, upon learning his intentions, refused to assist him, but with that resolute spirit which has always characterized his life, Silas determined to accompany the party as far as his money would take him. Purchasing only such articles of clothing as were indispensable, he bade “good-bye” to Montpelier, and on reaching the Hudson River, took passage on a line-boat on the Erie Canal. After some mishaps, and the loss of a part of his money, leaving only seven dollars in his purse, he succeeded in reaching Buffalo, where the schooner Atlanta was just ready to start for Chicago. The Captain of this vessel offered to take him to Chicago, as a deck passenger, for whatever sum of money he might have remaining after purchasing for himself necessary provisions and bedding for the trip. He bought a small ham, six loaves of bread, and sufficient cloth for a bed-tick. After getting the latter sewed into bag shape, he filled it with shavings, and used it as a bed on the deck. This primitive couch served him for two years after reaching the city. He handed over to the Captain four dollars, being every cent that remained of his capital, and the vessel sailed. The passage proved to be very stormy. The vessel reached Chicago on the 29th of May, 1833, after a tedious voyage of five weeks. All the passengers were shortly landed, but young Cobb was detained on board the schooner, by order of the Captain, who, in violation of his agreement before starting, claimed three dollars additional passage money of him. He was thus kept a prisoner for three days, the vessel being anchored some distance out in the lake, and probably would have been carried back to Buffalo, if a fellow-passenger, hearing of his trouble, had not kindly loaned him the required three dollars.
Here, then, in a rude settlement of log huts, occupied by soldiers, half-breed Indians, and about thirty whites, young Cobb found himself, without a cent in his pocket. Chicago, at that time, was a miserable apology for a village, and the prospect of getting something to do was anything but flattering. James Kinzie was then the leading man of Chicago. Being in want of a carpenter to “boss a job” of building a hotel, he engaged Mr. Cobb. This was the first hotel, if, indeed, it was not the first house, constructed here of sawed lumber. Young Cobb, although conscious of his entire ignorance of the carpenters’ trade, under- took the task required of him. His wages were to be two dollars and seventy-five cents a day and board. The workmen whom he was to
superintend were rough Hoosiers. For three weeks he ” bossed the job,” without awakening any suspicion in the mind of Mr. Kinzie that he was not a practical carpenter. Fortunately, he found among the workmen one who understood his business, and promoted him to the office of assistant, requiring him to do the actual work of a “boss,” whilst young Cobb looked on, issued orders, hurried the workmen, and put on an air of “business.” In this way he got a great deal of work out of the men, and proved to be a valuable ” boss.” So long as he superintended it the job was well done. Another Yankee, however, soon appeared upon the scene, a real carpenter, who informed Mr. Kinzie that Cobb knew nothing of the trade, and secured the position of “boss” for himself. Mr. Kinzie, when he paid off and dismissed Cobb, expressed no dissatisfaction, however, at his conduct, feeling that he had well earned his money by driving the work, notwithstanding his ignorance of carpentry. During the three weeks he had worked he earned over forty dollars, and with this amount in his pocket he again found himself without employment. He had obtained a start, however, and after refunding to his friend the amount borrowed of him to satisfy the extortionate demand of the Captain, he set his wits to work to find ways and means in which to make himself useful and earn more money. He finally hit upon the idea of buying up the little stores and trinkets that immigrants from the East, who had begun to arrive numerously, brought with them for sale. With these purchases as his stock in trade, he became an auctioneer on a small scale, selling principally to Indians and half-breeds, and made the business quite profitable as far as it went. Adding, in this way, to the small capital already acquired, he soon gained sufficient funds to “launch out” further into business. He put up a frame building, the upper part of which he rented to a family as a dwelling, and in the lower part he opened a harness shop in company with Mr. Goss, who furnished a capital of thirty dollars for the purchase of stock. This was really the beginning of his subsequent career as a successful business man, and a man of wealth. With personal habits of strict temperance, economy and a close attention to business, he was prosperous in his undertakings, gained the respect and confidence of his fellow-citizens, and gradually increased his means and extended his sphere of operations. In one year afterwards he removed his harness shop into a larger place, after dissolv- ing partnership and paying Mr. Goss his original capital, and two hundred and fifty dollars besides. He was compelled to make this move for greater accommodations on account of his increasing business. He continued thus to prosper until 1848, when, selling out his establishment, he went into partnership with William Osborne, in the boot, shoe, leather and hide business. After three years of prosperity, he disposed of his interest therein, and retired from active business. From this time he turned his attention to making investments, economizing, and thus increasing the capital he had accumulated.
Mr. Cobb, during the years in which he was thus engaged in labor and trade, judiciously purchased, from time to time, real estate, in the central parts of the town, and from these outlays, made at times when property could be bought at merely nominal prices, has sprung the large personal fortune which he now enjoys—being one of the wealthiest of our local capitalists. Here is an example for the poor young men of the present day. Without any help but his own indomitable will and energy, never ashamed of any business or work that was not dishonorable, avoiding idleness, foolish expenditures, and extravagant or injurious habits, and walking in the paths of industry, integrity, and economy, the poor, friendless boy of 1833 is one of the leading and wealthiest men of our city in 1867. He could, if desired, write out for us an extensive catalogue of the names of those who commenced their career here about the same time as himself, or even subsequently, with far better prospects and advantages than he possessed, who, owing to their follies of life, either hastened to early graves, or, from lack of good judgment or habits, have grown prematurely old, in poverty. What some men call luck is, after all, but the result of individual industry, shrewdness, or ingenuity; while what we call “bad luck” results from a lack of those qualities of character.
In 1840, Mr. Cobb married Miss Maria Warren, the twin sister of Mrs. Jerome Beecher, of this city, and the daughter of the late Daniel Warren, Esq., of Warrenville, Du Page County, Illinois. The result of this union, which has proved a most happy one, was six children—one son, Walter Warren Cobb, the first-born, and five daughters, named, in the order of their birth, Mary Jane, Marie Louisa, Nora, Letta, and Bertha M. Of these, Mary Jane died in May, 1852, at seven years of age, and Letta in September, 1856, in the first year of her age. The rest of the children, with their mother, are now the fortunate and happy occupants of Mr. Cobb’s comfortable home on Michigan Avenue, where he enjoys the affections of as devoted and contented a family as dwells within the limits of Chicago.
Mr. Cobb has never had any taste for political or public life, and although he has frequently been solicited to run for office, has uniformly declined doing so. He has, however, accepted and successfully managed various private, personal and business trusts. In 1852, he was appointed executor of the large estate of the late Joseph Matteson, original proprietor of the Matteson House, and the sole guardian of his five children, which trust he held until 1866. In 1855, he was elected a Director of the Chicago Gaslight and Coke Company, and, a few years subsequently, the Managing Director of that institution. This position he still fills. He has also been a Director of the Chicago and Galena and the Beloit and Madison Railroad Companies, and a Director in one of our principal insurance companies.
Although approaching fifty-six years of age, he is yet “hale and hearty.” With his habits of temperance, cheerfulness and industry, he bids fair to enjoy the fruit of his labors for many years to come. As a citizen of this great Western metropolis, he takes an honest pride in her continued prosperity. He has materially contributed to this at various times. The finest business block on Lake street, and another on Dear- born street, bear his name—monuments to his enterprise. Similar ones are yet to grace our streets, which he has in contemplation and will no doubt live to bring to completion.
In summing up this brief but interesting sketch, we must not forget to call the attention of young men to a few facts which go to make it complete, and which have not been already named. Although Mr.Cobb has been so successful in life, yet he has never received one cent from his parents, nor did he ever hire more than six hundred dollars, and that for only sixty days, paying six per cent, per month. He never asked a man to join him in signing a note, and his faculty for work was such that he never employed a clerk or bookkeeper, excepting when in partnership with Osborne. His entire lawyer and doctor bills have not exceeded five hundred dollars, and, what may be looked upon as wonderful, he has not sued over three men in all his immense business transactions, and never was sued himself. For an example of what perseverance and sobriety, coupled with honesty and steadiness of purpose, will accomplish for a man, we need no better illustration than that which is given in this sketch. Let our young men study it and profit thereby.