Ada Rumsey

George F. Rumsey House before the Fire; P. B. Greene, Stereograph, ca. 1871 (ichi-29595)

Ada Rumsey was one of the six of former mayor Julian Rumsey's ten children still living in the family's Huron Street home that was lost in the conflagration. This house was next door to that of her uncle, George Rumsey.  She later married Treat Campbell. Her memoir was prepared in 1924.

In the year 1871 in the city of Chicago, there lived the family of Julian Sidney and Martha Turner Rumsey, which consisted of themselves and their ten children: George, Amelia (Meme), Martha, Juliette, Julian, Ada, Turner, Theodora (Dora), Emily and Eliza (Lida). In the year 1849 Julian Rumsey had cleared away the trees to make Huron Street, and on the north side of that street, stretching from Cass Street to Rush Street, he and his brother George built their two houses. Julian's home was on the northeast corner of Huron and Cass Streets, the lot being somewhat larger than one quarter of the block. The house, which was of wood, had been added to from time to time and in 1871 was very comfortable and of ample size for this large family.

On October 9th, 1871, the family was distributed as follows: George was at Williams College in Massachusetts; Juliette was at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York; and Julian and Turner were at Racine College or School in Wisconsin. The rest were at home. There had been quite a big fire in Chicago on Saturday night; but it was Sunday night after evening church that the sky became red again in the southwest, and rumors of a big fire in that direction were circulated. Soon it was heard that the Fire Department had lost control of it; and as there had been a drought, and as a large part of Chicago consisted of wooden buildings, there was a good deal of alarm felt. The four younger children were in bed, Lida and I in one room, and Dora and Emily in another. The rest of the family was in the library with neighbors who were watching the fire with them from the windows.

My sleep must have been disturbed by the confusion downstairs, because I went to the top of the stairs and on learning what was causing the excitement, I called to ask Mother if I might come down. She told me I could but to put something around me. I had not been down long before she sent me to dress, and soon after the other three children came down dressed. I do not remember seeing father, and I think he must, even then, have gone over in town to see to his valuable papers, the fire being in the direction of his office.

The sky kept getting red and redder; the wind, already high, was increasing with the heat, and huge burning cinders were settling in every direction.

Our man, Christian Larson, put on the hose and endeavored to keep the house and grounds wet. We children helped, too, turning the hose on the dried leaves and flower beds as they would catch, and Christian working on the roof of the house to keep that from burning. Mother became very worried about Father, because it was after midnight; the fire was sweeping nearer; refugees loaded with goods were going north by our house; and altogether the circumstances were terrifying.

She sent my sister Meme and me around to Mr. Tinkham's house, corner of Erie and Pine Streets, to inquire if anything had been heard of Mr. Tinkham. He and Father were great friends, and I think they had gone over in town together. Mrs. Tinkham knew nothing of them. I remember being much impressed that we should be walking on the streets alone at that time. When we returned we found Mother making preparations to leave the house. We had heard the Court House bell ringing and ringing the alarm, never stopping until the whole structure had fallen; and as that building was directly across the street from Father's office we were more alarmed than ever at his non-appearance.

This Court House bell was afterwards recovered from the ruins; from it were made many tiny bells which were sold as souvenirs. We have one.

We hoped the river would prove a barrier to the flames, but this was not to be. Huge burning brands were carried by the wind, starting new fires in places. Some one came and asked us if we hadn't a key to St. James Church across the street. If we had we could all go into the Church and be safe. A key of the Church always hung by our front door, but luckily the advice was not taken. St. James burned and also the Holy Name Cathedral, into which it was said two or three people did go for safety.

Christian had harnessed our two little black ponies to a phaeton belonging to my older sisters, and into this was put a clothes basket filled with silver and linen with some other things gathered up by Mother and Sister Meme. Also in the carriage were put the portraits of Father, Mother, and Grandfather Turner, and one or two other paintings. In the meantime our neighbors, the Herbert Ayers, had left their house to go north and had taken our three children with them; Dora going with Mr. Ayer in his phaeton as far as Uncle Vol Turner's house; and Mrs. Ayer taking Emily and Lida north of the park to Mr. J. Hall Dow's house, where Father found them later.

By this time houses were burning about us and our own house was on fire. The streets were filled with vehicles loaded with household goods, and with people staggering under big loads. Mother had waited for Father but was feeling that it would not be safe for us to stay much longer, when he appeared begrimed and tired. In his hand he carried a tin box of papers which he gave to Christian, who was just about to drive from the house with his load. Father said he did not know what was in the box, but it represented all the wealth he then possessed. So Christian drove off into the night with all that was left to us. The four other servants had left earlier.

Before leaving the house Father took down from the wall the picture of "Deerfield," rather a large canvas. It was the first painting he and Mother had felt able to buy. They had bought it in New York, and in it there was already centered a great deal of sentiment. A man was seen passing on Cass Street with no load. Father asked him if he would carry it north to a place of safety, saying he would give him half the money he had in his pocket. The man agreed and was given twenty-five dollars. He also disappeared into the night.

Father then remembered some little accumulation of interest on government bonds which he had given us children. He got this from the safe; and then he, Mother and Meme, Martha and I started north to our Uncle Voluntine Turner, who lived half a dozen blocks north on the corner of Dearborn Street and Lafayette Square, just south of Washington Park. It was a terrific struggle to get there, the hot wind almost knocking us down and the burning cinders falling about us. We were as terrified as were the other people fleeing north like ourselves. When we reached the Turner house, Father went to look for Dora, who had joined our cousins, the Towners, without letting the Turners know. She was found in a horse-car on North Clark Street with the Towners, and was brought back to the rest of us. We all went in Aunt Eliza Turner's carriage, Louis, the coachman driving, up through Lincoln Park to Mr. Joseph Stockton's house on Diversey Street.

After our departure from the Turner house, thieves entered it, and later some of the Turner furniture and papers were found in Washington Park, just opposite.

We saw many interesting sights in Lincoln Park. I remember in particular seeing some nuns marshaling a long line of little children from some orphan asylum that had been burned.

We found the Stockton house full of homeless people. All was excitement, and, somehow to lose one's home seemed easier when everyone else had undergone the same experience. All except the Mahlon Ogdens, who because of big empty spaces about them, and because as long as the water works stood, every part of their place had been kept wet, did save their house. Nevertheless, Mrs. Mahlon Ogden appeared in front of the Stockton house, sitting on top of a big load of household belongings. No cooking was done at the Stockton house for fear of fire, but cold food was distributed as far as it would go.

About noon, after Father had brought the two younger children from the Hall Dows, our parents decided to try to reach the North Western Station and to get the family to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. We started west in a carriage, through crowds of people and hundreds of loose horses which had been turned out of the horse-car stables. When we reached Mr. O. W. Potter's house near the rolling mills on the west side, the horses were too tired to go further.

In the meantime the fire was burning itself out; the lake on the east and the park on the north proving good barriers.

After resting at the Potter house, and as we could get no vehicle, we started to walk south to the North Western Station, corner Canal and Kinzie Streets.

Before long we succeeded in hiring an express wagon, on the floor of which we all sat, Father and Mother sitting at the end with their feet hanging out. Before we reached the station they divided their money. When we bade Father good-bye in the station he was wearing a horse blanket for an overcoat. He had neglected to save his own, and of course, there was no shop in which he could buy one.

The train was crowded with refugees, homeless, tired and hungry; even on the floors people were sitting and lying.

On arriving at Lake Geneva, we went to Mrs. Tamlin's house, the present public library, where we and the George Sturgis family had spent the summer previous. In the bank at Lake Geneva there were, fortunately, a few hundred dollars credited to Father, left from the summer expenses. We had this for our immediate use, and the townspeople helped to make articles to replenish our wardrobe. None of us had any change of clothing. Lida had on her night drawers under her dress. She was only six years of age and her dress was of black alapaca trimmed with blue alapaca. To her the tragedy of the fire was that the overskirt had been left behind to burn. She also cried because her best shoes, which she had on, were too tight to button.

After a few weeks in Lake Geneva, we moved to Geneva, Illinois, as a place nearer Chicago; but soon Father objected to that short daily trip.

We took a house on Indiana Avenue just south of Eighteenth Street; and later a house on Dearborn Avenue, where we remained till our house was rebuilt on the ruins at the corner of Huron and Cass Streets (in 1874).

When Father left us at the station on our departure for Lake Geneva, he had to begin life over again with a family of ten children. The first thing was to find a place to stay. He went south, around the fire, to the house of Mr. John de Koven on Michigan Avenue near Twelfth Street. Here my brother George found him and the two had beds on the floor as did many other homeless men. George had heard of the fire in Williamstown and had started at once for Chicago, bringing with him loaves of bread and huge candles. The latter were of great value as up to that time the occupants of the de Koven house had used small Christmas tree candles belonging to Louise as their only light.

Some time passed before Christian Larson and Father found each other. Christian had gone to the prairie outside of Chicago where huge camps of tents had been set up and where destitute people had been cared for by relief agencies. Unfortunately small pox and other sickness broke out there, and these people were kept in quarantine a long time. As soon as he was permitted, Christian found Father and delivered to him all the things with which he had been entrusted. Besides these, he had in his possession the picture of Deerfield, which had been given to the strange man. Christian had met him wandering on the prairie and had recognized the picture. He was able to prove to the man that he was its proper guardian, and the man was only too glad to be relieved of it. In the tin box, which Father had brought from his office the night of the fire, were receipts showing that "Rumsey Brothers" had held $60,000.00 worth of grain in an elevator. This was insured in good companies and with this proof the money was collected. Also the insurance for our house was held by an English Company and so was paid. Many American Insurance Companies were made bankrupt by the fire and were unable to meet their obligations.

Among other things found in the ruins of our house was Father's watch. While preparing for bed before he knew of the fire, he had put the watch under his pillow and had then forgotten it. When found, the hands were melted into the face at the hour when the heat became too intense for the works to run any longer. This was at 1:15 A. M. The blackened watch and chain are still preserved, but the hands have broken off.

The fountain in our garden had contained speckled trout and in the back yard, we had kept chickens. These, of course, had been burned as well as barrels of apples and potatoes brought from Lake Genera some weeks earlier.

Father was soon able to restore our fortunes. He was elected County Treasurer, which carried a good salary with it. He was also President of the Corn Exchange Bank, and his own business of buying and selling grain on the Board of Trade as Commission Merchant was resumed. He and his brother had inherited this business from their uncle, George S. Dole; with his partner, Walter Newberry (Founder Of the Library) he had shipped the first grain from Chicago. These grain receipts were in Father's possession but were burned in our house. My Mother said she was glad her Father, John B. Turner, had not lived to see the destruction of the city, with whose early days he was much identified. He had built the first railroad out of Chicago, the one going to Galena, and he was its President. This railroad was later merged into the North Western Railroad. He also built the horse railroad on the north side. Before rebuilding our Huron Street house, the house on the East Shore Of Lake Geneva was built for summer use; which was occupied until Father's death in 1886. The Ralph Ishams lived there after us. The Chicago house was built in the year 1874. It was a large brick house; there was a room for dancing on the third floor and in every way it was noted for its hospitality. This remained the family home through all the fluctuations of marriages and deaths till the year 1922, when it was sold to Mr. Cyrus McCormick, our next door neighbor. Business surrounded it at that time, and those of the family that had kept together were spending the winters in California and the summers in Fairfield, Connecticut. It was found that the family could make no more use of it; so the place was left, after occupying it for seventy-three years.