Chicago Tribune, December 27, 1953
Wabash st, later to be designated as an avenue, was one of the first to be developed outside of the perimeter of Chicago, as drawn by the city’s founder, James Thompson, in 1830. It grew up in the unoccupied ground lying immediately east of the city’s eastern boundary, which was Old State rd., later State st.
On this open ground, circuses pitched their tents, and the Hoosiers made their encampments. Their fires blazed thru the prairie nights, beside their tethered horses and oxen and their Conestoga wagons. From these vehicles the people who used them were often called “stogas” and the word “stogie,” so it is recorded, was applied to a type of long black cigar which they liked.
Name “Hoosier” Is Born
How the “Hoosier” originated, and exactly how it was used, no one seems to know. Apparently it was first applied here to settlers coming in from the east, especially from Pennsylvania.
As Chicago speedily began its commercial expansion, the majority of those encamped at night between State st. and the marshes were no longer prospective settlers, but farmers from the Wabash river valley, bringing in to market their corn, wheat, beef or cattle, pigs, or pork. These also were called “Hoosiers,” and in time the name became restricted to Wabash valley people who trafficked in and out of Chicago.
With some caution it might be Stated that historically only Wabash valley people are entitled to the name Hoosier.
Wabash Logical Name
In any case, as a street appeared osi this stretch of ground, it was logical to call it Wabash. The name originally was that of a certain Chief Wapashaw of the Sioux Indians. North of the river it was for a long time named Cass from Lewis Cass who was the Democratic candidate for the Presidency in 1848 and defeated by Zachary Taylor.
Wabash was the first fashionable residence street in Chicago. It was called “Garden City,” possibly by a real estate agent, who in turn must have cribbed his slogan from the city seal. Few people today look at the device of Chicago, but it is urbs in horto, evidence of the abundance of trees and shrubbery around the new city.
After the Civil war, business began driving private houses out of the main stretch of Wabash as we learn from the impression made by the burning of the Burch block in 1868.
“Elegant” In 1893
The historian Everett Chamberlin, writing at the time of the Worlds Columbian Exposition 1893, reported that south of 22d st., Wabash av. “still remains an elegant residence thoroughfare.” By that time the main segment of the street had become specialized in the house hold furniture and musical instruments trade. The street then, according to Chamberlin, had “many store fronts made splendid by show windows of plate glass in unprecedented sizes.”
Monroe st., outside of the original city like Wabash, must in its first years have been entirely rural. It was said, somewhat later, to have been the place the town council had especially in mind in its ordinance of 1833, fining any one $2 for allowing a pig to run loose “without a yoke or a ring in its nose.” In 1842 it was forbidden to let pigs out on me streets under any circumstances.
Mansions on Monroe
In the 1840s, as some of the citizens were becoming affluent, a number of fine residences began to appear along Monroe st. They had plenty of ground around them, and most were really country houses. The style in vogue was a Chicago version of Palladian, with reminiscences of southern plantation mansions. Except in the largest houses, the gap between aspiration and achievement was sometimes startling.
Fashion did not favor Monroe st. for long. In 1850 Chicago’s first gas works were built there. near the corner of Market st. And, when Roger Plant arrived there, probably about 1857, the Street went definitely to the bad.
In a town which teemed with unusual characters this Roger Plant soon won himself the foremost place, and his reputation lived on for decades after he was gone.
Czar of Shanty Town
He was very close-mouthed about his early career, of which the only certain points were that he was a Yorkshire Englishman and that he had married Mrs. Plant in Liverpool. It was said of him that he had stood trial in England and been sentenced to transportation to Australia. Obviously he had escaped, and contrived to reach Chicago, a result fully satisfactory to Her British Majesty’s judges.
By 1858 he was proprietor of Roger’s Barracks, a colony of shanties which extended half-way down the block on either side of the “central two story building at the corner of Monroe and Wells sts.
A lone willow tree stood out side this building, and from it Plant named his whole establishment “Under the Willow.” All the window shades were a lurid blue, on which appeared in gilt the device. “Why Not?” When he got drunk, Plant used to douse his willow with a bucket-full of half-water, half-whisky.
Mighty Mite of a Man
Only a little over five feet tall and never weighing more than 100 pounds, Plant was a. perfect terror in any fight, skillfully wielding the pistol, knife, and bludgeon which he always carried, but by preference using his teeth. He could be beaten only by Mrs. Plant, who weighed over 250 pounds, and who used to pick him up, hold him at arm’s length and spank him.
This incongruous couple shared supervision of the multiple activities of their shanty town, said to comprise “virtually every sort of vice and criminality known to man.” Roger kept order in the saloon. He bossed the male thieves and was their fence.
Mother of 14 Children
Mrs. Plant’s province was “vice,” including enticing young girls into cubicles where they would be raped and then sold on the open market. Sometimes she took a hand in beating up the customers, stripping them, and throwing them into the alleys. In spite of all this, she bore 14 or 15 children, described as “adorable little angels who could pick a pocket almost before they could crawl.”
Among the Plant family’s more noted tenants was one Mary Hodges, who was so deft a shop lifter that she had to drive a cart into the “shopping district several times a week to bring back her plunder. Still another was Mary Brennan, characterized by The Tribune as an “audacious old sinner,” who had charge of the educational department of “Under the Willow.”
Assisted by two of her own daughters as prize pupils and tutors, Mary Brennan instructed the children of the settlement in pillaging counters, snatching purses, and picking pockets.
Roger Plant maintained the happiest financial and social relations with the authorities. His shrewdness, talents and attention to business gave his story an undeserved ending. In 1868, rich beyond his youthful dreams, he closed “Under the Willow,” bought himself a country house, and became a pattern of the good suburbanite citizen.
Site of Moody Tabernacle
In 1855 North’s circus, the first big-size one to come to Chicago, pitched its tent, seating 3,062 persons, on Monroe st. Previously circuses had been content with the mud flats of Wabash st. Later the Sinai congregation had its first temple on Monroe and in 1876 the evangelists Moody and Sankey built a tabernacle there which seated 8,000.
In the 1880’s Monroe st. had become a center of the printing trade, and in 1882 the Montauk building was erected on the north side of Monroe, just west of the corner of Dearborn st. This 10-story structure is one of three which have been named as having been the first skyscraper. On the controversial point of which really deserves the honor, light is cast by the architect Thomas E. Tallmadge in his “Architecture in Old Chicago.”
Predecessor of Skyscraper
Tallmadge called the Montauk an “elevator building,” which he defined as a high office-building of solid masonry construction.” Its architects, Burnham and Root, were deeply influenced by the new ideas brought to Chicago from Boston, and hence may be included in the trend sometimes known as the Boston-Chicago school of architecture. Tallmadge considered the Montauk a predecessor of the real skyscraper, but wrote that “what Chartres was to the Gothic cathedral, the Montauk block was to the high commercial building.” It used floating foundations” and it was functional before that word had be come a commonplace.
For the first real skyscraper skeleton construction, Tallmadge named the Home Insurance building, which was built in 1884, at the northeast corner of Adams and La Salle and designed by William LeBaron Jenney. It was torn down in 1931 to make room for the Field building, where a lobby plaque marks its site..