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:
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:
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:
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.