Friday, March 25, 2016

SHE CALLED HER HOME "OAKTON VILLA" - Nancy Ann Dunning (Mrs. James S.) Kirk

I was browsing through the Chicago Tribune archives the other day looking for interesting stories that might end up as articles for this blog. In the course of doing that I came upon the following article from December 23, 1900:

I already knew from my Evanston history that Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston started out in "the old Kirk home."  In fact, here is a postcard from about the time of the sale, mis-labeled "St. Francis Hotel."  You do have to pay for your room, but I don't think anyone ever thought that St. Francis was a hotel.

But it was the last sentence of the article that caught my eye: "...the tragic death of Mrs. Kirk in the Windsor Hotel fire in New York last year left the place without an occupant." 

Although I have written about other tragic hotel fires in this blog, I was unfamiliar with the Windsor Hotel fire. What I found in my research was the story of a horrific hotel fire, but also of a daughter's devotion to her invalid mother in a story that reached from New York all the way back to Ridge Avenue in Evanston, Illinois, to an estate named "Oakton Villa."  I know that Major Mulford named his estate "Oakton" but I had never heard of "Oakton Villa".  Let's see what we can "dig up" about this story.

Mrs. James S. Kirk was born Nancy Ann Dunning in Ottawa, Canada (then called Bytown) on September 28, 1824, one of eleven children born to Abijah Dunning, Jr. (1768-1839), and Mary Ann, nee Henderson (1780-????).  She was educated in the private schools of the area and was considered one of the "Belles of the Dominion." When she was sixteen years old she met James S. Kirk (1818-1886), a clerk in one of the stores in the town, and after a one year courtship they were married in Ottawa on December 29, 1839. Kirk was 21 at the time of their marriage.

James Smith Kirk was born September 16, 1818 in Glasgow Scotland to Alexander Kirk and Margaret, nee Forrester.  Alexander Kirk was a shipbuilder on the River Clyde in Scotland.  When James was 6 months old, the family left Scotland and settled in Montreal, Canada. James Kirk graduated from the Montreal Academic Institute, and afterwards began the manufacture of soaps, candles and alkalies,  Later on, he was involved in the lumber business, overseeing the work in the woods and then the drive of the lumber down the river to Montreal.

Shortly after their marriage, the Kirks moved to Utica, NY where Kirk opened a soap and perfume manufacturing company.  Kirk's soap-making business prospered.

The 1840 US Census shows the Kirk family living in the 3rd Ward of Utica, New York.  The family consisted of (1) male under the age of 5; (1) male under the age of 30; and (1) female under the age of 20. James and Nancy Kirk are the adults, and the child is their firstborn son, James Alexander Kirk (1840-1907).  In all, James and Nancy Kirk had 11 children:

Children of James S. Kirk and Nancy Ann Dunning Kirk:

The 1850 US Census shows the Kirk family as still living in Utica, New York.  James Kirk listed his occupation as "Chandler."  In addition to James and Nancy, four of their children were living: James, John, Milton (listed as "William") and Ellen (listed as "Helen.")  In addition, they have two live-in servants.

In 1859 Kirk decided to take his business to the big city and moved his business to Chicago, but the 1860 US Census has the family still in Utica.

Sometime in the early 1860s, Kirk moved his family to Chicago.  The family took up residence on the North Side and Kirk's business continued to grow in his plant at No. 18 and 20 River Street - the original site of Fort Dearborn.

In 1867, Kirk set up a large new plant on North Water Street in Chicago. It was about that same time that James Kirk erected a beautiful home on the "High Ridge" in the Village of South Evanston on land that had previously belonged to Major Edward  Harris Mulford. Kirk spent $25,000 building his new homestead which his wife named "Oakton Villa," after "Oakton", the name Major Mulford bestowed on his 160 acre estate.

In the 1870s, the James S. Kirk Company continued to prosper.  His plant on North Water Street employed about 50 people and made nearly $600,000 worth of soap during the year.  The 1870 US Census showed James Kirk and his family living in their new home in South Evanston. James and Nancy were living with their children Milton, Wallace, Helen, Charles, Arthur and Edgar and four "domestic servants."  Kirk said he owned real estate worth $50,000 and personalty of $25,000.  Right above the Kirks on the census form is 76 year old Major Edward Mulford and his 75 year old wife Rebecca.  I would have loved to attend their Block Party!

In the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Kirk sustained losses amounting to $250,000, but they led to the building of the factory, an imposing five-story structure with a 182-foot chimney. The whole plant was described by contemporaries as "the largest manufactory of its kind in America.

By 1880, the North Water Street plant was one of world's largest soap factories, with machinery driven by steam engines, a workforce of 250, and an annual output worth over $2 million.  Four of James and Nancy Kirk's sons joined their father in the family business:  James A., John B., Milton W and Wallace F.   Contemporaries described James Kirk as a “stern old churchman,”

The 1880 US Census shows James and Nancy Kirk and sons Charles, Arthur and Edgar living at Oakton Villa.  In addition there were a live-in cook, a ladies maid and a servant.  Their coachman lived adjacent to the Kirk home with his family (probably in a coach-house.)

Newspapers from June 17, 1886 carried the following note:

He was buried in the family plot at Rosehill Cemetery under this imposing monument:

James and Nancy Kirk had always been very supportive of Evanston charities in general and in Northwestern University in particular, and Nancy Kirk continued this after James' death.  In 1894 she established the Kirk Memorial Prize for Oratory at Northwestern.  It was valued at $100.00 and was awarded to the best speaker in the Senior Class each year.

It was mainly through the efforts of Nancy Kirk that Evanston Hospital was established giving Evanstonians quality local health care instead of having to travel to Chicago for access to a hospital.

After her husband's death, Nancy Kirk divided her time between Florida in the winter months and Oakton Villa during the summers.  Her son John and daughter Helen lived nearby and she enjoyed spending time with them and her twenty-five grandchildren.  She also enjoyed traveling, and that's what took her to New York in March of 1899 where she would meet an untimely death in the Windsor Hotel fire.

The Windsor Hotel fire took place on St. Patrick's Day - March 17, 1899. It was said to have been caused by careless discarding of a lit match which ignited some lace curtains in an open window. Before it was over, almost 90 people died (estimates vary), with numerous bodies landing on the pavement; some people fell when escape ropes burned their hands, while some jumped in preference to being burned alive.  The operator of the hotel, Warren F. Leland, was unable to identify his 20-year-old daughter, Helen, who had jumped from the 6th floor.

The Chicago Daily Tribune from March 18, 1899, tells the story of what happened to Nancy Kirk and her daughter Helen Kirk Haskin:

Her Daughter, Mrs. Haskin, Is with Her at the Last After a Vain Attempt to Save Her.

One of the most pathetic incidents of the fire was a deathbed parting in Bellevue Hospital between a devoted mother and a loving and heroic daughter.  The mother, Mrs. Nancy A. Kirk, widow of James B. Kirk of Chicago, feeble with seventy-six years and an invalid, was literally carried from the burning hotel by her daughter, Mrs. Charles G. Haskin, who bore her down the smoke-charged staircases from the fourth floor.

Leaving her mother to the care of two foremen, who carried the aged woman to the street, Mrs. Haskin ran back to her apartment to save some valuables.  She nearly lost her life, for the flames had spread rapidly, and it was with difficulty that she managed to find her way through the halls back to the lower floor.  She reached the street, where she sank half fainting.  Her hair was singed, her clothing scorched, and her arms badly burned.  She gasped, “Where is mother?  Thank God I got her out alive.”

The two firemen who had carried Mrs. Kirk to a place of shelter had called an ambulance surgeon to attend to the aged woman, who for years had been a sufferer from heart disease.  Mrs. Kirk was placed in the ambulance when her negro nurse, who had attended her for years and was devoted to her, dashed across the street.  She, too, had had a narrow escape from the doomed hotel.

Goes to the Hospital With Her.

“That lady is my good mistress,” screamed the girl.  Then as the driver was about to drive off, she cried, “I’ll go to the hospital with her.”  Without further ceremony she clambered into the seat beside him.

“Hurry up!  Drive!  Drive fast!” she begged.

The driver lashed his horse.  The maid clung to his arm.  Mrs. Haskin followed in a cab.  Her mother, still unconscious, was carried at once to a cot in Ward 12.  Mrs. Haskin, who was suffering intense pain from the burns on her arms, would not consent to treatment until she had seen her mother.  But all the medical skill of the hospital could not save Mrs. Kirk. Who even then was dying, although the surgeons did not tell the daughter so.  Hypodermic injections, in the hope that the aged woman’s heart might be stimulated, were administered, but the smoke and the excitement had done their work.

A few minutes before Mrs. Kirk died, her daughter knelt at the bedside and took the mother in her arms.  While thus embraced Mrs. Kirk’s gaze rested on her daughter’s face.

“Do you know me, mother? I am Mary.  We are safe, mother.  You are getting good care and you will soon be on your feet.”

The mother passed away with the daughter’s arms around her.

An hour elapsed before Mrs. Haskin was sufficiently composed to permit of her burned arms being treated.

Intended to Return to Chicago.

Mrs. Kirk came east in the Christmas holidays, in the company of her daughter Mrs. Haskin.  They spent the remainder of the winter at Lakewood, N. J., and had intended returning to Chicago early this month, but Mrs. Kirk, at the suggestion of her friends in the East, decided to come to New York for a brief visit.  They registered at the Windsor Hotel principally because the late James S. Kirk had always spoken highly of the famous hostelry.

Not later than three weeks ago, Mrs. Kirk wrote to Milton W. Kirk, one of her sons, saying that she and her daughter were already preparing to go home and would probably start within two weeks.  Preparations were being made to renovate the family residence in Evanston for the reception of the mother. 

Mrs. Kirk’s body will be taken to Chicago in the morning on the Pennsylvania Limited, which leaves here at 9:45.

The funeral of Nancy Kirk was described in an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune of March 22, 1899:

The funeral of Mrs. James S. Kirk, a victim of the Windsor Hotel fire, was held in the afternoon from Oakton Villa, the family residence, 365 Ridge avenue, Evanston.  The services were conducted by the Rev. Nacy Magee Waters, pastor of Emmanuel Methodist Episcopal Church, assisted by the Rev. William Macafee of the First Church, of which Mrs. Kirk was a member.  The music was by the choir of Emmanuel Church.

Mr. Waters paid an eloquent tribute to the heroism of Mrs. Kirk and her daughter and to the loyal courage of other women at that fatal hour saying: “Read in the light of this terrible event.  I am proud of womanhood and our human nature, and I know God is.”

The honorary pallbearers were:  Dr. Henry Wade Rogers, Dr. Herbert W. Fisk, C. O. Boring, J. R. Hoagland, W. H. Jones, J. S. Gibbs, Harvey B. Hurd, and Horace A. Goodrich.

The active pallbearers were the heads of the different departments of the Kirk factory, as follows:  Phillip Walters, Forbes Munson, Morris Connors, George Schraeder, J. Pine, J. Oestman, and Henry Shenick.

Interment was at Rosehill, in the family lot, where Mr. Kirk is buried.

Monsignor Biermann from the nearby St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston bought the Kirk Homestead in late 1900 for $35,000.00.  The doors of the new Saint Francis Hospital opened on Jan. 1, 1901. Two patients were treated. By the end of the first year, 70 patients had been admitted. The five sisters who renovated the house into a 25-bed hospital performed all the nursing care and general maintenance of the property. More of the surrounding property was purchased as a farm, where cows and chickens supplied milk and eggs and vegetables were grown for hospital use.

As the number of patients grew, it became evident that more room was needed. In 1909, ground was broken for the central section of the permanent hospital and the cornerstone was laid. The new building was erected at a cost of $150,000 and dedicated on May 28, 1910. An enclosed passageway connected the new structure with the old Kirk house.

During the scarlet fever and diphtheria epidemics in 1914, the Kirk building became a contagious ward. As many as 40 patients at a time were cared for by the four sisters who took charge. For 12 months the building was in "isolation."  The old Kirk homestead was finally razed in 1928.

Of course I never met Mrs. Kirk, nor did I ever see the Kirk house - but I have many ties to St. Francis Hospital.  I was born there, as was my mother.  Both my mother and my father died at St. Francis.  Our roots are deep into the land that was once the Kirk Homestead.

Nancy Ann Dunning Kirk - South Evanston pioneer - beloved by all - may she rest in peace.

Special thanks to Mike Kelly for the research assistance.    

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Jim! I too was born at St. Francis, as was my father and many of his siblings, and a bunch of my first cousins. I do have a question though.

    In the paragraph just below the chart listing the Kirk children, it says "The 1850 US Census shows ... [i]n addition to James and Nancy, four of their children were living: James, John, Milton (listed as "William") and Helen."

    However, the chart just above that shows Helen as born in 1854. There is an Ellen, born 1849, died in 1850 - is that who you mean?