—By Carol Lems-Dworkin
Mary Butler died in the room in which I sleep every night. And it is here that Henry Butler, according to the account of his grand niece, Christine Dodson, asked everyone to leave before closing the bedroom door to be alone with his wife as she left this world. The Butlers still live in the walls of my house.
Although many young people today have not heard the name Henry Butler, he was a powerful figure in early Evanston history, and a highly distinguished entrepreneur who managed to achieve the “American Dream” in spite of incredible odds. His parents were Cornelius Butler, of African American and Native American descent, and Barbara Blankenheim, of French and German descent, who was born in Germany around 1832.
They incorporated the business early and each held 50 shares
The History of Evanston, written by Harvey B. Hurd & Robert D. Sheppard in 1902, claims that the couple was married in Kenosha on March 13, 1851. Her parents later moved to Dubuque, Iowa. Cornelius and Barbara married and set up housekeeping on a large farm in Pleasant Prairie.
It is said that a total of 11 children resulted from their union – six girls and five boys, but the offspring listed in Census records actually total 12. Names given, though not necessarily in birth order are: Joseph, Emma, Elizabeth (later known as “Lizzie”) Sarah, Mary, Catherine, Frank, Henry, Theodore, Benjamin, Bessie and Charles.
The exact year in which Cornelius and Barbara moved to Evanston is recorded differently, and whether they all came to Evanston in one lump sum, depends on the source. It is possible that one or more of their older sons might have come earlier to Evanston on their own. In any event, the 1880 US Census shows the Butler family already installed in Evanston.
On the basis of one account, Henry Butler came to Evanston as a 17 year-old teenager, after performing years of heavy labor on the family’s farm. If true, that would have been in approximately 1877. Perhaps he came before the rest of his family, or perhaps this was one and the same year that the family made the major move together.
Still another version has Henry coming to Evanston when he was 22 years old, placing his arrival in 1882, whereas Cornelius and Barbara were already in Evanston two years before. On December 25, 1881, the Chicago Daily Tribune posted Henry’s marriage license, listing Henry as 21 and Mary Hager as 18. According to their marriage certificate, their wedding took place in Evanston, Illinois on January 5, 1882.
Accounts also differ as to exactly what work Henry did when he first came to Evanston. Although it is not specified exactly where he worked, Henry is said to have “tended horses” for the grand sum of $7 a month. His early interest in horses was understandable, however, and continued throughout much of his long life. His father’s large farm in Kenosha had been close to a racetrack, where Henry often spent his spare time observing, and perhaps interacting with, the magnificent, thoroughbred horses housed there.
Evanston directories reveal that from 1882 to 1887 Henry was a coachman for the H.C. Wicker family, at 126 Dempster. Mr. Wicker was Traffic Manager for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Moving from this position, in 1888 Henry became the butler and coachman for the John B. Kirk family at Ridge and Lake. Kirk was head of the well-known American Family Soap Company.
At the Kirk’s home was another employee, named Margaret Fisher, who later became an extremely important person in the lives of both Henry and Mary Butler. Born in Scotland, she entered one of Scotland’s fine hospitals at an early age, and became a registered nurse. After completing her training and living for a time with relatives in Canada, she then moved to the United States and settled in Evanston.
In 1982, I had the good fortune to be in touch by letter, and once by phone, with Margaret Fisher’s niece, D. Irene Heidenburg, of Pittsburgh PA. By then, Ms. Heidenburg was a retired public school teacher and administrator. But a great deal of what I learned about the early years of Margaret Fisher and the Butlers originates from the 7-page account she kindly wrote to me in her own handwriting.
According to Ms. Heidenburg, Margaret’s services as a nurse were much in demand when she came to Evanston, and she managed to save enough money from her professional work to be able to purchase her own home at 1311 Judson, where she lived from 1901 to 1948.
Margaret Fisher held a nursing position in the Fisk family home in 1888, at the same time that Henry Butler became the valet and coachman there. But she already had the idea of going into business. She became a friend to Henry Butler and his wife Mary, and she approached him about going into business with her. The plan was that she would put up her home and money to get started, and handle the finances and office business. Henry would handle the stable, horses, men, and see that trips were carried out properly.
According to Ms. Heidenberg’s hand-written letter, she explains their business partnership:
“As you can understand his education was nil, but his talent was great and he had the ability to learn, which he did in the business. They incorporated the business early and each held 50 shares. Mr. Butler’s name was given to the business because most people were prejudiced against women in business, and they feared it might be a pitfall before they even got started, especially in their line of business.
“She called herself the bookkeeper but was far more than that. She was the silent partner who handled all financial, secretarial and office responsibilities, and for a period presided over two office girls.
“In the early years they secured the jobs of collecting the mail and taking the life boat to stations where there was a need. Bedside taxi service, hauling and moving pianos, they boarded horses for many people when they went on trips. As times progressed horses gave way to machines, and their business became one of taxi service, hauling and piano moving. When they became too old to work, they gave the business to four faithful employees, but these men unfortunately were unable to maintain it.”
I find it somewhat ironic that Margaret Fisher felt it necessary to try to hide her role in business because of prejudice against women, while there was such ongoing prejudice against people of color.
A different perspective on Henry Butler’s achievements is explained in History of Evanston:
“He was about seventeen years of age when he came to Evanston where he was employed for several years in various kinds of labor by prominent citizens of the place. In 1893 he started out on his own responsibility, establishing himself in the livery and teaming business, in which he has ever since been very successful. He now conducts two extensive livery barns, has about seventy teams in use, and employs forty men, besides an office force of four girls. He also operates large blacksmith and repair shops. His entire time is occupied in superintending this business, and his energy, diligence, close application and honorable methods have made the enterprise a prominent and signal success. With the exception of a tour of inspection which he made through the Western States, he has not been absent from home to any extent since coming to Evanston.”
On September 30, 1923, there appeared in the Chicago Defender an article about Henry, that featured his photo and highlighted his numerous accomplishments:
BUILT BUSINESS; QUITS AND GIVES IT TO WORKERS
Evanston Man Turns Cabs Over to Drivers; Began Work at $7 a Month
By Walter H. Jones
“While John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford engage in an old man’s race for the title of the world’s richest man, Henry Butler of Evanston, IL, decides he has enough of this world’s goods to keep him going comfortably and drops out of the golden fleece hunt to give you and me a chance.
“He went to Evanston from Kenosha, Wisconsin, his birthplace, some 32 years ago, started a cab company (horses in those days) and made it grow. This month he quit it all, gave the cabs to his drivers and told them to go to it. His fortune is counted in the hundreds of thousands…
. . .
Real Estate Owner
…“Mr. Butler has bought considerable real estate in the city, being the owner of the house on Judson Avenue in which Mr. Carson, of Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. resides. He is a regular donor to the Y.M.C.A. and other charitable organizations.
“The office of his building is at 1614 Maple Avenue, adjacent to the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad station. His employees, to whom he has turned over his business, will use this place as their headquarters, probably picking one of the older men as the head of the business in which they will all cooperate. Mr. Butler is aiding the men in starting their enterprise. When it is on its feet, he will turn to some of his other business.”
And so, after the many coincidences in my personal life, the next coincidence was not at all that surprising. The Evanston Preservation Commission decided on its own to investigate the history of the house I lived in. They discovered that it was built in 1908, and had belonged to, and been inhabited by, a distinguished Evanston pioneer – a self-made black entrepreneur named Henry Butler. It was not long after this that the house was designated an “Evanston Landmark.”
Six years later, in 1984, the same Commission also designated Henry Butler’s two-story, 8,000 square foot livery stable at 1024 Emerson Street to be an Evanston Landmark, qualifying because it exemplified “Historical Importance.”
The vote was 11-6 in favor of demolition
Built in 1909, the red brick of the livery stable was believed to have been hand-made and installed by students from Tuskegee Institute, a training ground for African Americans, established by Booker T. Washington, black philanthropist, educator and civil rights advocate. It is said that Henry Butler was an admirer of Washington and knew him personally.
Unfortunately, only five years after Butler’s livery stable was declared a landmark by the Preservation Commission, a majority of Evanston’s City Council members started an ever-mounting campaign to have it destroyed. The developer had rejected a compromise architectural plan, submitted by the Evanston Preservation Commission and the Preservation League of Evanston, that would have renovated, retained and incorporated the Butler livery stable into the proposed development.
Despite irate opposition by countless Evanston groups and prominent citizens, the Council continued to push its obsessive intention until December of 1989, when the ill-fated building finally received its official “death warrant.” The vote was 11-6 in favor of demolition.
The rationale for the razing was that it would make more room for the impending “Research Park,” a joint City/University entrepreneurial venture involving a 24-acre site near the Evanston downtown area. Six acres of the park were owned by Northwestern, six were leased by Charles A. Shaw (a development concern in Chicago and New York); and the remainder was owned by Evanston.
News of the plan even hit the New York Times of December 31, 1989:
“Northwestern and the city of Evanston are clearing more land, including a historic landmark, for a new phase in the development of a $400 million, 24-acre research park aimed at speeding technology to the marketplace and putting university and city land on the tax rolls.”
The Times described the livery stable as having belonged to Henry Butler, “a black business leader who developed a thriving business at the turn of the century.” It also referred to a 90-day moratorium on demolition that had expired.
The Vice-President for Institutional Relations at Northwestern University who was Chairman of Research Park, Inc., remarked that the project, which he first conceived of five years earlier, was the first in the nation in which “a university and municipality contributed land to be jointly governed.” He added that there were “seven buildings, including four with residences, remaining to be bought and razed.”
The Chairman reluctantly conceded at the time that part of the façade of the Butler building would be retained, but added that the livery stable “would not fit into the master plan of the park at all and would be razed and replaced.”
On December 6, 1989, the Chicago Tribune published an article headed, “Evanston set to raze land mark.” It mentioned the long list of residents who spoke for or against the demolition. They quoted Bennett Johnson, of the Evanston NAACP:
“What Henry Butler stood for represents the soul of the black community and the spirit of free enterprise in this country…The black community will look at this research park as a black mark, as an attack on its integrity.”
Ald. Marjorie Collins was also quoted, but in favor of demolition:
“This is not an exquisite building. It is not a magnificent building. The historic value of this building and the memory of Henry Butler have to be memorialized in the way they deserve.”
Ald. Jon Nelson added that planning for a Butler memorial had “already begun,” but Ald. Betty Burns Paden assailed the building’s loss, saying,
“Black people have been tricked and conned with plaques and statues for years. A statue that attracts pigeons is not the same thing as Henry Butler’s building.”
Ironically, the Research Park never fully materialized and eventually, the idea was abandoned. To this day Evanston awaits the promised memorial that was never built. At the time of this writing, nearly 20 years later, the site where the Butler building once stood is now a vacant lot.
Shortly after the livery stable was demolished, I was also able to meet with a blood relative of Henry Butler. Christine Dodson was the great, great granddaughter of Cornelius Butler, and simultaneously Henry Butler’s grandniece. Her mother, Flora, was the only daughter of Mary, Henry Butler’s sister. Mary Butler, who originally bore the same name as Henry Butler’s wife, died at the very young age of 22.
In December of 1991, I was able to arrange for Christine to be videotaped as she came to my home, and observed and commented on both the outside and inside of the building she had not been in since her “Aunt Mary” died, some 50 years before.
In his older years, Henry lived with a niece, referred to in his death notice as “Mrs. William John Russell.” According to Christine, neither she nor her husband was “blood relatives,” but Henry was very fond of both of them. Henry, who lived to be the oldest Butler sibling, died in December 1956 at the age of 97 in Evanston’s former Community Hospital and is buried in Rosehill Cemetery.
Hurd and Sheppard, in History of Evanston, also give some keen insights into Henry’s character:
“To all charitable and benevolent enterprises in Evanston, he has always been a liberal contributor. He has led a life of exceptional purity, having never made use of tobacco or intoxicants, nor indulged in profane language. His strict observance of correct rules of living have enabled him to endure the strain of long and strenuous exertion in building up his extensive business, with no impairment of mental or physical faculties, and his upright and honorable dealings have gained for him, in an especial degree, the confidence and esteem of his fellow citizens. Mr. Butler is regarded as one of the most useful and exemplary members of the community.”
Sources: This article (edited for length) first appeared in the original printed Shorefront Journal, Vol 8 No 4, 2008. Files, images and related records located at the Evanston History Center, Evanston Public Library, Kenosha County Historical Society, the Shorefront Legacy Center. and Ancestry.com. Additional images and photographs from Christine Dodson and Richard Flewell. Additional notes, letters, video interviews and files from the private collection of Carol Lems-Dworkin.
Clippings from the Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 25, 1881; Chicago Defender: September 30, 1923; New York Times, December 31, 1989; The Evanston Review (many obituaries and articles.), Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1989.
Books include: Buchbinder-Green, Barbara J. Evanston: A Pictorial History. St. Louis, Missouri, L: G. Bradley Publishers, Inc., 1989; Hurd, Harvey B., and Robert D. Sheppard, eds. History of Evanston. (Munselle Publishing Company, 1906) Salem, Massachusetts: Higgins Book Company, 1997.; Robinson, Morris (Dino). Through the Eyes of Us: The experiences of lives and history shared by Evanston’s African-American Community. First Edition, Evanston: Robinson Group Ltd., 1998.; Records of Evanston Preservation Commission meetings on July 19, 1988, between July 25 and Dec. 19, 1989, Jan. 16, 1990 and Feb. 20, 1990.