Matthew Laflin Memorial Building
Life Span: 1895-Present
Location: Lincoln Park
Architect: Holabird & Roche
The Inter Ocean, October 1, 1894
OCTOBER has ever been a memorable month in the history of Chicago, nor was the last an exception to rule. Its closing day witnessed the opening of the Academy of Sciences, permanently located in the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building in Lincoln Park.
The building has been a familiar one to North Siders for the past few months, at least as it stood an empty shell upon the western border of the park. L:ast night for the first time every window was agleam with light, the doors were open, and on the clear air strains of music from a hidden orchestra floated out. A glimpse within revealed a stairway, outlined with potted plants, whose bright-hued blossoms found a charming contrast to ivory-tinted walls.
In the vestibule and entrance hall the reception committee, composed of the officers of the academy and the park commissioners, welcomed the guests. Those who could passed within the library, where the opening exercises were held; those who found no space to enter there sought the museum above or strolled along the galleries, making an early acquaintance with his honor, the mammoth, or the great land turtle worthy monuments to the survival of the fittest.
Guests and Speakers Welcomed.
The introductory address was made by C. M. Higginson, president of the board of trustees, who welcomed guests and speakers. His address was brief, but contained a full statement of the cost of the building and of the causes which led to is existence. In conclusion Mr. Higginson introduced Mr. Andrew Crawford, president of the Board of Park Commissioners, who responded for the board, giving first a short resume of the course of events in the history of the acaqdemy as they came under his personal observation. He paid, as did all the speakers of the evening, a high tribute to Mr. Laflin, who had made the event possible. He touched upon the objections offered to having the building stand where it does, and gave the reason why the present location was chosen. He said:
Time will determine whether of not the choice was a wise one.
Mr. Crawford offered some practical suggestions as to the manner in which the academy should be constructed, basing them on the principles of common sense and simplicity. He concluded by accepting the building in the name of the park commissioners.
Luther Laflin Mills.
Luther Laflin Mills spoke as the representative of Matthew Laflin. In his speech was embodied much that is historical in in regard to the academy.
The Memorial Building.
The building itself stands in Lincoln Park near North Clark and Center streets, and is, on the outside, rather more massive than beautiful. There was, as to the exterior, no attempt at ornamentation apart from the huge columns which guard the entrance. All the beauty is on the interior, yet even that is simply finished in ivory and gold tints. No committee supervised the decorative effects, and the result is the perfection of quiet taste. Practically the building is four stories, the basement being only half underground. That is occupied by the engine and work rooms. Above is the library, the vestibule, and the rooms set apart for the use of the commissioners. Above is the great room of the museum. In this the ceiling rises into a dome in which skylights are set, like jewels framed in gold. An upper gallery presents splendid possibilities for additional cases, which would be there now, if it were not for a little matter of there not being quite money enough forthcoming to furnish them.
Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1897
Mr. Laflin, who was greatly interested in science, provided the Chicago Academy of Sciences with its new home in Lincoln Park, at the foot of Center street. He conributed three-fourths of the cost of the structure, which was $100,000, the Board of Park Commissioners paying the rest.
Mr. Laflin with his two sons, George H. and Lycurgus, were immediately made patrons, the highest office which the academy can bestow on any individual. The officers of the academy feel that in all probability if Mr. Laflin had not come forward in 1892 with his offer of funds the academy would not now be doing its extensive work. In this connection it is recalled that the West Park Board had offered a $100,000 building if the academy would locate it in Garfield Park, but Lincoln Park, it is understood, was the choice of Mr. Laflin.
Mr. Laflin never entered the building, so largely erected through his generosity, and only on one or two occasions was driven by it. His age prevented an inspection of its contents and interior. Much of the aggressive work of the academy has been accomplished through the aid of the Laflin family, and friends of the academy confidently expect that Mr. Laflin has furthered remembered the institution which bears across the facade the words, “Matthew Laflin Memorial.”
The latest donation from the Laflin family was a sum of money with which to publish a work on the glacial features of the Chicago region, entitled, The Pleistocene Features and Deposits of the Chicago Area,” by Frank Leverett of the United States Geographical Survey. The first copies of this book left the printer on the day of Mr. Laflin’s death.
The academy was opened to the public without price in October, 1894, and from January, 1895, to January, 1897, there have been 686,005 visitors. Since the present building has been open to the public, 816,695 persons have been admitted. Luther Laflin Mills represented the Laflin family on the occasion of the opening exercises Oct. 31, 1894, when he delivered an address.
View of the Museum from the Gallery.
Entrance Hall to the Museum.
Skeleton of Mammoth.
Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1995
Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1897
Matthew Laflin, who stood among the oldest and wealthiest citizens of Chicago, passed away at 4:30 p. m. yesterday at his residence, 2335 Michigan avenue at the advanced age of 93. He had been prostrated for a week, and though sitting up in a chair was almost too feeble to speak. When the end came it was painless. Death resulted from weakness, dropsy, and choking.
The arrangements for the funeral will not be completed until some time today, but the family thought last night it would probably take place at 10 a. m. tomorrow from the residence, the Rev. Dr. Franklin W. Flake officiating. Interment will be at Rosehill. The pallbearers will be Mr. Laflin’s four grandsons and Byron L. Smith and Luther Laflin Mills.
Those Who Survive Him.
Mr. Laflin was m,arried twice, and his second wife died four years ago, her children all passed away before her. The only children of the first wife were George H. Laflin, whose children are Arthur K. Laflin, Louis E. Laflin, and Mrs. E. P. Whiting, and Lycurgus Laflin, whose children are John P. Laflin and Albert S. Laflin.
At the time of the buggy accident that Mr. Laflin met with ten years ago he made a partial distribution of his property between his two sons, giving them, it is said, $1,000,000 each, and retaining $2,000,000 until his death. His property consists largely of real estate scattered all over the city, a large interest in the American Express company, and perhaps 1,000 shares in the Elgin Watch company.
Sketch of Matthew Laflin’s Life.
The story of Mr. Laflin’s life is the story of New England thrift and business sagacity grafted on Western energy, enterprise, and adventure. It is true that he did not have the humble origin or experience, the early privations of some men who have achieved great business success. But in the other hand not one in a thousand who have enjoyed his modest advantages have turned them to such excellent account. He had a fair start in life, it is true, but the wisdom, energy, and success with which he pushed his way along are a study for American youth.
Mr. Laflin was a typical Chicago man, and, indeed, there there is little doubt that he and a few other spirits like him were the real originators and fathers of Chicago daring and enterprise. His demise is also a historical event. He was at his death the earliest settler of Chicago then living, and the solitary living link that bound Chicago to Fort Dearborn. Not only so, but he was a Chicago man who never forgot his first love. Many of the people who attend old settlers’ meetings have to come fromn a great distance. But from the day that he took shelter under the roof of the old fort in his young manhood until he closed his long and eventful career Chicago was his home and the main scene of his business exploits.
In His Early Years.
His early life did not differ materially from that of the average New England boy, who is expected to contribute to his own support as soon as he be comes physically able to perform any kind of manual labor, and the most important part of his education is supposed to be his industrial training. While his facilities for obtaining an education were somewhat limited he attended school with reasonable regularity a portion of each year, from the time he became of school age until he was 16 years old, having spent some months at Stockbridge Academy. In his seventeenth year he attended school nine months at “Old Hadley,” where his education was completed, so far as it was to be obtained from professional instructors.
At the end of that time he entered the store of Laflin & Loomis at Lee, Mass., as a clerk, and remained there one year. The senior member of this firm was an elder brother of Mr. Laflin, while the junior member of the firm was Riley Loomis, father-in-law of John Wentworth, one of the most noted of the early settlers of Chicago.
Matthew Laflin, as a boy, was apt in business affairs, and gave evidence of a fitness for merchandising—particularly for the kind of traffic in vogue in those days—long before he began to trade for himself.
Among other lines of business with which he had become familiar by the time he grew to manhood was that of the manufacture and sale of gunpowder, his father having been quite extensively engaged in the manufacture and sale of that article. Earlier in life the elder Laflin had operated a woolen factory , but had abandoned this to engage in the powder business.
Starts Out for Himself.
When Matthew Laflin was ready to start out in the world on his own account he formed a partnership with Roland Laflin, an elder brother, for the sake of powder manufactured at his father’s mills. He himself took charge of the sales, which were made largely from wagons traveling through the country. The partnership with his brother was in existence one year. At the end of that time Mr. Laflin had saved money enough to enable him to purchase an interest in powder mills which had been established at Canton, Conn., and in which his brother-in-law—Norman Mills—had been interested. Upon the death of Mr. Mills, which occurred in 1825, Mr. Laflin purchased the estate’s interest in the Canton powder mills, and continued the business with Isaac Mills—the father of M. I. Mills, who was afterward widely known throughout the West as the founder of the Michigan stove works at Detroit and as Mayor of that city—as a partner.
Mr. Laflin retained his interest in the Canton powder works seven years, and during that time his trade and travels extended over a wide area of territory. In those days money was scarce and all commercial transactions were based largely upon an exchange of products. The farmer traded his products to the merchant, and the merchant, in turn traded them for the wares necessary to supply the needs of his country customers. In every trade of this character an effort was made by the dealer to get some portion of the consideration, which he received for his goods, in cash, but a good deal of manipulation was necessary usually to bring about satisfactory results. For instance, when Mr. Lasflin was selling powder from the wagon with which he made regular trips through the country, he at one time sold a bill of powder for which he received in payment a certain amount of cash and the balance of the amount due him in buttons. The buttons had to be loaded on the wagon and carried until a purchaser was found for them. In this instance Mr. Laflin soon discovered that there was a fairly good demand for buttons, and when he sold the lot he had on hand for a half cash payment he surprised the purchaser by informing him that he would take “the other half in buttons.”
Genius for “Barter.”
The experience of Mr. Laflin, as the story is told by some of his early associates, is fairly illustrative of the business methods and systems of “barter” in vogue in those days. Fir this kind of traffic he had a genius which built up for him a large and, as it was looked upon inn those days, very profitable trade.
In the winter season, when the powder trade trade did not require his attention, he interested himself to some extent in other kinds of trade—such as the purchase of furs and skins from the hunters, trappers, and country merchants—and on one occasion he traveled several months in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick selling “bark mills,” a patented device in crushing tanbark. During the months of the year he engaged in selling powder. Mr. Laflin made many long trips, driving through sparsely settled portions of the country and visiting all points where the construction of public works or other enterprises promised a profitable trade. His life during this period, as it has been ever since, was a busy one, and not altogether free from adventures of a somewhat thrilling character. On one occasion when he had driven into the Town of Dover, N. H., on a wagon loaded with twenty kegs of powder, a lighted coal of fire was by some means or other thrown into the wagon. Seeing that a terrific explosion was inevitable, Mr. Laflin acted promptly, and turning his horses on to a road leading to the Dover River, lashed them into a run and abandoned the outfit. This courages action saved the town from the worst effects of the explosion which followed, although one or two persons were killed as it was.
Starts Out for Himself.
While living in Canton, in 1827, Mr. Laflin was married to Miss Henrietta Hinman of Lee, Mass., who became the mother of his two sons and a daughter who died in infancy. At the end of a seven years’ business career in Canton he sold his interest in the powder mills to the Hazard Powder company and went to Saugerties, N. Y., where he engaged in the manufacture of axes. This enterprise proved a losing venture.
During the ten years he engaged in the powder business he made about $1,000 a year, which gave him at this time a fair working capital and enabled him to “reach out” to some extent, as he was desirous of doing. He had gained ground steadily in a financial way, and the loss of any portion of what he had accumulated was to him a novel experience. It was not strange, therefore, that he should soon have tired of his attempt to manufacture axes, and returned again to the powder business.
Associating himself with an elder brother, Luther Laflin, he started a powder manufactory at Saugerties, and at a later date the firm also came into possession of another mill in the immediate vicinity of that place. The business was rapidly extended not only in the Eastern but in the Western States.
The building of the Illinois and Michigan canal attracted Mr. Laflin’s attention when work was begun in 1837, and with a view to supplying powder which would be used along the line of the canal he made his first visit to the West, coming direct to Chicago. It was not his intention at that time to become a resident of Chicago, but a short stay here impressed upon him the fact that, young and unattractive as the place was, it was a town of great possibilities, and one which was likely to have a rapid and substantial growth.
The second winter that he spent here—that of 1838-’39—he lived in old Fort Dearborn, where he secured quarters for himself and family, which were more comfortable than anything to be obtained outside of the fort just at that time.
His Residences in Chicago.
An enumeration of Mr. Laflin’s subsequent places of residence will interest surviving old settlers. His first residence after leaving the fort was a frame building that stood on the west side of Wabash avenue midway between Madison and Washington streets. Some years later he purchased from the canal trustees a lot at the corner of Michigan avenue and Washington street, and, at the same time, a frame building in Grand Rapids, Mich., and moved the house, or the material of which it was built, to Chicago in the sail vessels of that period and erected it on this lot as his family residence. This building he subsequently moved to a lot on the west side of Wabash avenue, just south of Twelfth street, where he resided in it again. While living there he erected on the lot he abandoned at Michigan avenue and Washington street the first block of brick buildings ever built in this city. This was in the year 1850. There were six tenants and he removed his residence to the corner one. This block was destroyed by the great fire, and Mr. Laflin, after residing for a year with his son George, purchased of W. F. Coolbaugh, the banker, tenement 6 in Park row. The block of which Park row is the north boundary was originally bought and subdivided by Mr. Laflin and Joseph Johnston.
For many years before and after Mr. Laflin removed to Park row it had been one of the most stylish residence localities in the city. On the Michigan avenue corner stood the residence of Charles G. Wicker. At the corner next to the lake resided John Ayers. Next door to him was the residence of Sylvester Sexton, the wealthy contractor. One of the buildings was for a long time the home of John Van Arman, another of James M. Walker, and another of General John A. Logan.
Powder Business in Chicago.
At Chicago, Mr. Laflin took charge of the Western sales of the Saugerties powder works, establishing, in the course of time, magazines at Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Springfield, Ill., and Janesville, Wis.
All of these depots were under Mr. Laflin’s supervision and management, and within the next few years a vast amount of gunpowder was sent into the West and distributed through his agencies. In the year 1840 Solomon A. Smith—afterward a leading banker of Chicago—was admitted to a partnership, and the business was continued under the name of Laflin & Smith, and afterward—until consolidated with the Smith & Rand company—under the name of Laflin, Smith & Boles.
In 1849 Mr. Laflin sold out his interest in the powder works and severed his connection with the powder business. The plant which he established at Saugerties, however, became at a later date a part of the greatest, if not the greatest powder manufacturing concern in the world. The works, established by Mr. Laflin at Saugerties were in the later years consolidated with the Smith & Rand powder works at Kingston, N. Y., and thus formed the great corporation known as the Laflin-Rand Powder company.
Great Faith in Chicago’s Future.
Having some means at his command when he came to Chicago, Mr. Laflin began making purchases of real estate in and about town. In traveling about the country from time to time, looking after his powder agencies, he noted the rapid growth and development of the territory tributary to Chicago, and was impressed with the fact that farms were being made more quickly in the Western States than they have ever been before in any part of the United States. This rapid growth of the agricultural interests, Mr. Laflin thought, must produce a corresponding growth of the chief city of this wonderfully fertile region.
He therefore, staked out—metaphorically speaking—metes and bounds for Chicago which were far beyond those by people who had taken a less comprehensive view of the situation. While investors were hesitating, as a rule, about getting away from the established business center, he was purchasing outlying lands, and some of these investments turned out to be enormously profitable. For instance, when he finally closed out his interests in the Saugerties ax factory—which, as already stated, had been a losing enterprise—he received for it about a $900. With this money he bought nine acres of Chicago land, from the sale of which he finally realized over $400,000.
Pioneer ‘Bus Line and Stock-Yards.
In 1849 he went far beyond the improved portion of the city, in what is now the West Side, and purchased in all about 100 acres of land, which he subdivided and at once began to improve. On the site now occupied by the Washingtonian Home he erected a three-story frame building which he called the Bull’s Head Hotel, and which he designed to make a resort for the stockmen who gathered from time to time in Chicago. In connection with this enterprise he also established the first omnibus line in Chicago. The purpose of this was to carry the stockmen back and forth between the Bull’s Head Hotel and the market, which was then located on State street, and it had much to do with building up Mr. Laflin’s “West Side” interests.
After his retirement from the powder business in 1849 Mr. Laflin gave his attention largely to operating in real estate and improving his property which he acquired. His operations were extensive and immensely profitable. At one time he owned 140 acres of land within the city limits. Wherever he saw an opportunity for profitable investment he aimed to take advantage of it, and if he needed more money than he had in hand he borrowed it. This be never had any difficulty in doing, because he always made it a point to maintain his credit, whatever temporary inconvenience or loss it might occasion him.
Soon after he came to Chicago, in addition to the other enterprises in which he engaged, he became interested with others in Chicago’s first system of city water works. A corporation was regularly chartered and first built a small reservoir near the lake shore, into which water was pumped from the lake, a flouring mill located in the same neighborhood furnishing the power for pumping purposes. From the reservoir a system of wood pipes supplied water to the different portions of the city. Mr. Laflin obtained a controlling interest in the water works and operated them for thirteen years, or until the present system of water works was put intio operation.
He was also one of the men chiefly instrumental in building up the Elgin watch works. He became connected with this corporation soon after its organization, and contributed largely to its resources while it was struggling to gain a foothold in the manufacturing world.
Another of his great enterprises outside of Chicago was the building up, in great part, of Waukesha. In 1874 he bought a farm in Waukesha and soon afterwards began an extensive system of improvements. He built the noted Fountain Spring House, which burned down in 1879, and which he at once replaced with a much larger and better equipped hotel. This was thrown open for the reception if guests in 1880, and for ten years has been one of the most noted summer resorts of the West.
Mr. Laflin’s Second Marriage.
Mr. Laflin’s first wife died soon after he began business at Saugerties, and he married for his second wife Miss Catherine King of Westfield, Mass., since deceased. His two sons, George H. and Lycurgus Laflin, grew up in this city and have all their lives been identified with its interests.
As a man of affairs Mr. Laflin was notably kind and indulgent to his employés and after he abandoned the role of master he never lost sight of the whereabouts or condition of a few of his old employés of former days.
Several years ago, when the Laflin family employed a great many men, it happened that one employé in particular became a distinct feature of the firm. It happened on a certain occasion that an idea existed that the firm did not have any extra amount of funds. As a matter of fact this was not the case, but the old employé in question seemed to think that the future of the firm depended a great deal upon his individual expectations, and acting under these impulses went to a savings bank, where he had deposited a few hundred dollars, and drew all belonging to him, and coming to one of the members of the Laflin firm, tendered him the whole lot. It is hardly necessary to state that the act of the employé was appreciated.
Mr. Laflin was a man of marvelous physical constitution, which he inherited from a long line of ancestors, few of whom died under 90 years of age. One of his sisters lived to be 103 years old, and Mr. Laflin had boasted that he meant to live at least 104 years. When he was 83 he received injuries which would have killed any ordinary man, but from which he speedily recovered. Since that time he had three attacks of pneumonia, but to the astonishment of his physicians pulled through every time. On his nineteenth birthday he was bright and cheerful as a man of 40.