Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago
Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868,Pages 97-104
One of the most eminent of the merchant philanthropists of the Northwest is he whose liistory we now undertake to write. Nor are there many among the noted in any branch of commerce whose life is more interesting as to incident, or more fruitful in lessons of profit for ambitious beginners in a mercantile career.
John V. Farwell is the son of Henry and Nancy Farwell, who, at the time of his birth, July 29, 1825, lived upon a farm in Steuben County, New York. They were plain and plodding people, but none in the State were their superiors in honesty and industry. They were persons, also, of candor and intelligence, and were held in uninterrupted esteem by their neighbors and acquaintances. With five children drawing upon the family exchequer, and nothing but the meagre profits of a small farm with which to honor their drafts, perseverance was indispensable, and hard toil inevitable.
According to a custom which prevails in agricultural communities, John V., who was the third born of the four brothers, as soon as he was sufficiently grown, spent his summers in manual labor, and his winters in the district school. Thus, did he educate both body and mind, until the thirteenth year of his age; the one acquired power of endurance, the other information, and both secured a discipline which was of the highest consequence in after lite. The foundations of enduring health were laid, and the essentials of a good education acquired. The boy grew vigorous and intelligent. He gave evidence, even at this early age, of that capacity for achievement for which he has since become distinguished. He was the projector and the prime worker in the erection of the first brick house in the county, and in similar enterprises he showed the grit which he possessed.
Thus thirteen years of his life passed away, and the mode of life followed in Steuben County, New York, was resumed in Ogle County, Illinois, whither the family removed in 1838. Here, however, hardships multiplied. The country was new, the farm an unbroken prairie. Agriculture was in its incipiency. It was “frontier life” of the most toilsome and wearisome description; none may realize how much so but those who have experienced it.
In 1841, at sixteen years of age, young Farwell entered the Mount Morris Seminary, and there finished his equipment in the way of education. If his wardrobe was not equal in quality to that of some of his schoolmates, he had brains, which, both in quantity and quality, were excelled by none, and equalled by few in the institution. He was poor in this world’s goods, but rich in those qualities and difficulties which render worldly possessions easy of acquisition. And this is the principal thing. The faculty by which riches are acquired is of more value by far than the riches themselves. The vicissitudes of commerce may give riches wings, in spite of the wisest efforts to retain them, but the talents by which they were secured have lost none of their virtut’ or vigor. Man is greater than his possessions.
The farmer’s boy was treated with contumely by the sons of the rich. They affected superiority over the lad in homespun who brought the odor of the fields to the school room. The white hand of luxury repelled the brown hand of toil. The aristocracy of clothes disdained association with the aristocracy of brains. For, in this case, as in many a similar one, the boy with the brown hands was the ranking boy of the school, and grew to be the best man that came out of it. Farwell was too spirited to be trodden on, and of too high a calibre to be easily excelled. The embryo snobs had their laugh for their pains. They soon quit their merriment and left off their sneers. Their supercilious glances rebounded from the target, and reacted upon those who flung them. Having received the appointment of editor of the Seminary paper, the “city boys” sought to entrap him by giving him to read pieces of composition that had been read before. Instead of doing so, however, he read those who contributed them such a lecture as “brought down the house” in applause, and carried mortification to the ranks of the juvenile aristocrats.
It was under such circumstances that the subject of this sketch made his resolve, and fixed upon his career, A few pebbles in the brook may change the direction of the stream. The most trifling events make destiny for men. The jeers of his school-fellows had much to do in fashioning the future of this farmer’s boy, with his quickness of wit and sturdiness of purpose. He could write well; he always knew his lessons; he had a high place in his class, and kept it. He was too poor to board in the institution; he boarded himself and by himself It was not easy to “make the two ends meet,” but he did it. And, with all his hardships and harassments, he used to walk among his school-fellows, thinking to himself how one day he would “buy them all,” as the phrase is, “without missing the money.” They might be content with an inheritance, he would transmit one. They might be satisfied to mope along a-hold of the apron strings; he would be leader and not follower, benefactor and not beneficiary.
He mastered the practical and elementary branches with his eye upon a life of business, and a will bent upon excelling in it. He learned bookkeeping and taught it. He was expert in figures and ready with the pencil, whether in mathematics or composition. He had considerable versatility of genius, and made it a point to so equip himself as to be equal to whatever might turn up in the way of employment when he should make his appearance on the stage of affairs.
And his heart was as good as his head was clear. At fourteen he became a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. While yet in his teens, and simply dreaming of what he would come to, full of manly pride that met the coxcomb’s disdain with a nobler disdain of his own, he had thoughts of doing good as well as getting gain.
In the spring of 1845, he left off his books and came to Chicago with exactly three dollars and twenty-five cents in his pocket, working his passage on a load of wheat. The road was a canal of mud. Driver and passenger frequently had to put their shoulders to the wheel, or their hands to the lever. They made their ninety-five miles in four days, without losing their temper or calling upon Hercules, who, if he w^ere a witness of the spectacle, must have wondered afterwards as he saw in the affluent merchant the youth who pryed the load of wheat out of the prairie mud. Reaching Chicago, he drifted into the City Clerk’s office and got employment at twelve dollars per month. He reported the proceedings of the Common Council at two dollars per report. His services were valuable. He could give a faithful transcript of the City Fathers’ doings, and make it readable withal. But he was too faithful for his own interest.
The sensitiveness of public bodies is proverbial. Common Councils are no exceptions to the general rule. No body of men are more averse to criticism, while there are none more open to it. They have enough sense of dignity to make themselves uncomfortable, and not enough to put them at their ease. They occupy an uncertain position as to consequence and rank, and seem to be aware of the fact, and are, therefore, naturally annoyed by it. The very uncertainty of their importance keeps them morbidly on guard lest their unimportance be made certain. The very gravity of such a body is provocative of mirth, while its affectation of wisdom is sure to be the thin disguise of amusing folly.
The Common Council that Mr. Farwell reported for was a Council of this sort. He tried to be grave with them, but could not. His sense of the ludicrous got the better of his prudence. He could not refrain from making the City Fathers read in the paper as they sounded in the chamber. He did so. And the case was one in which truth was more ludicrous than fiction. The town was entertained as it often is over the proceedings of those who sit in counsel over its streets and alleys. But what was fun to the town was mortification to the Councilmen, and decapitation to their reporter.
But before being spurned from the official presence of the City Fathers, Mr. Farwell engaged himself as book-keeper in the dry goods establishment of Messrs. Hamilton & White, at eight dollars per month, for one year, at the end of which time he was offered better wages and better prospects by the house of Messrs. Handin & Day, and thither he went, on a salary of two hundred and fifty dollars per annum. From there he went into the employ of Messrs. Wadsworth & Phelps, dry goods merchants, where his wages were six hundred dollars per annum.
And yet, small as was the first year’s salary in Chicago, one half of it went to the church of which Mr. Farwell was a member—an act of rare self-sacrifice, but as much the nature of the man as his eating or his sleeping. The leaven of benevolence was working within him. He felt the obligations of his consecration. He rose to a realization of his stewardship. He was not his own. What he had he held in trust. What he acquired he acquired for a purpose. He had an aim in earning. His means were to be means to an end. He had a high motive in wanting to be rich. He wanted to make money that he might make happiness with it. He would add to his own happiness by adding to that of his fellow beings. The two potent ideas, benevolence and acquisitiveness, were married within him, and lie felt lifted by their partnership into a grand ambition. With snch convictions and such aspirations, Mr. Farwell seized the handles of the plow of fortune, and never looked back until he had followed it to affluence.
His aptness for business was soon apparent. He had skill in trading, in managing and in planning, and energy adequate to the carrying out of his plans.
Besides this, he was one of the few who realized the possibilities of the Northwest, and fully foresaw the destiny of Chicago. While others conjectured, he was convinced; while others stood by, wondering whether to invest, he went forward and proved his faith by his works, and a great, high faith he had in this city and this section when he became a partner in the firm he had served as a salesman. His hand was felt upon the helm immediately, and his word had weight in the councils of the concern. That was in 1851, when the house did a business of about $100,000 per annum. Its business now foots up $10,000,000. The entire dry goods commerce of the city had a new impetus under the leadership of Mr. Farwell. For lead he did, with such boldness as to confound the wisdom of the wise in trade, and to make the most enterprising among them shake their heads in an admonitory fashion.
In 1856, through Mr. Farwell’s irresistible persistency, the wholesale mart on Wabash Avenue was built, now occupied by the firm of John V. Farwell & Co., which, after several changes, came to be the name of the firm in 1865. The enterprise was stoutly opposed by the oldest member of what was then the firm, and was set down by the longest heads in the city as a project that must bring its owners to ruin. But time has demonstrated the wisdom of the undertaking. It was to the wholesale dry goods cause of the Northwest what the memorable raid of Sherman was to the cause of the National Government. If it was daring to look forward to, it was grand to look back upon.
The men who build a commerce are to be honored with those who found a commonwealth. Commerce is the corner-stone of the commonwealth. First ships, then schools; first trade in corn, then in books. What are dwelling houses without warehouses? But for commerce there had been no Chicago. Once a commercial capital, and Chicago became a seat of learning and of literature, a market for knowledge as well as for breadstuffs and dry goods. This is the metropolis which the man of this sketch helped mightily to build, by his enterprise, and then to adorn with his philanthropy. And such men have a fame which Chicago will never let die. Their renown is indissoluble linked with hers. And as we ramble through this buzzing and busy dry goods hive on the Avenue with its hundred men and its piles of fabrics from every part of the commercial world, we cannot but feel a thrill of pride in the man who founded and builded it all. But we have a livelier and a nobler satisfaction when we contemplate this man as “the servant who was found faithful” to his stewardship, as well as the merchant who was found equal to every exigency. Prosperity did not quench the ardor of his convictions, deaden his sensibilities, nor blunt his moral sense. When poverty departed it did not carry conscience away with it; when riches came they did not bring penuriousness along, but openhandedness instead. The merchant had an end beyond his merchandise, the tradesman was not content with trade. Affluence was made no excuse for self-indulgence. The miserable cupidity which brings a man to his knees before the golden calf was had in scornful detestation. The groveling avarice which makes a business man a slave to his business was equally despised. The love of Christ constrained the love of money. The love of God induced the love of man, and the love of man was shown by deeds and devices for his amelioration and elevation. Mr. Farwell increased in philanthropy as he increased in moans for exercising it. The world that lieth in wickedness, and the church which is as a net to save it, are the objects of his alert solicitude and unremitting liberality.
In 1856, he started the Illinois Street Mission, now known and felt as a missionary enterprise of prodigious power in this community. It was designed especially to reach saloon boys, but it rapidly grew into proportions that embraced all classes of outcast children, and from feeble beginnings, it has expanded into a church of three hundred members, and a Sunday school of nine hundred persons. For ten years, ending last year, Mr. Farwell was the Superintendent of the Mission, for the building of which he has paid about $10,000, and $1,000 per annum for current expenses. And it is no more sectarian than its founder, but, like him, it is simply and broadly Christian. The preaching of its pulpit ends with the proclamation of the gospel, its labor of love is confined to the compelling them to “come in,” leaving them, after they are in, to their own consciences as to the disputed questions in theology and metaphysics. Among Mr. Farwell’s good works are his labors in behalf of the prisoners at the Bridewell, where he has been in the habit of holding religious services on Sunday, ever since 1858; and where he has been the means, through this temperance appeals and “lay preaching,” of reclaiming some of the most obdurate, and of saving several men of noble parts and fine education.
During our civil Avar, Mr. Farwell’s Christian philanthropy and patriotic zeal were conspicuous and telling. He was one of the prime movers in raising the Board of Trade Regiment, as well as the $40,000 which its equipment and shipment cost. In the furnishing of men and money for the national army he was always foremost. He made no conditions in giving or doing, whether good report or evil report was the fate of the Administration, whether its measures met his approval or not, and whether prosperity or adversity befel the national cause, he was always ready, nay, anxious to do and to give for its preservation and advancement. He contributed liberally to the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, especially the latter, to which he gave much time, money and labor, exerting himself continually for the succor of those who fell, as well as for the support of those who stood in the day of battle.
In the Young Men’s Christian Association of Chicago, Mr. Farwell has always shown a deep interest, and for its noble work an enthusiastic love. To him, perhaps, more than to any one man is it indebted for its present prosperous and promising condition, and the magnificent edifice which it now occupies. The ground upon which this building stands was sold to the Association by Mr. Farwell for $30,000 less than its market value, and the cost of it was taken out in stock.
The progressive and enterprising spirit for which Mr. Farwell is eminent in the domain of commerce he carries into the religious and philanthropic projects to which he devotes himself. He believes in forward movements, in giving the enemy no rest, in carrying the war against Satan into Satan’s country, in action at all events and under all circumstances. He believes the way to raise money for public purposes is to show the necessity for it, and then to make a raid for it upon those who have it. He has learned by experience that the bold may win in the good as well as in the bad cause, and that there is no more reason for timidity in religious than in secular affairs. With such a spirit in the leadership of the city’s reform movements and the cause of Christ’s Church, aggression is certain, and stagnation out of the question.
Mr. Farwell is now in his forty-third year, and although he had privations to encounter, and hardness to endure in the early years of his life, he is passing its meridian with unabated enthusiasm and unimpaired physical vigor. He is rather under medium size, compact and snug. His step is quick and elastic, his eye is kindly and lively, and his countenance throughout is strongly expressive of the energy of will, the purity of purpose, and the benevolence of disposition which we have seen to be his dominant characteristics.
And now, if this necessarily scanty outline of his career and imperfect analysis of his character shall induce a single one of the youth of tlie city to emulate his example, the writer will feel happiness in the assurance that his labor has not been in vain.
Mr. Farwell passed away on August 20, 1908, and his company’s name was purchased by Carson, Pirie & Scott in 1926.
Inter Ocean, January 21, 1906
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