Title: Biographical History of the American Irish in Chicago by Charles French
Location: Internet Archive Date 1897
The numerous contributions of the Irish during Chicago’s early history are the focus of this extensive volume. Historians and genealogists will find the searchable text beneficial and the emphasis here is on both individual accomplishments and a detailed accounting of their Irish heritage.
As an entry example, I have chosen John M. Smyth. For many, Smyth’s furniture store advertisement jingle still rings in our memory. But, Smyth’s contribution to early Chicago was also political, serving as an Alderman and Committeeman, and he was known for his honesty in a time when corruption was the norm.
Equally a manufacturer, merchant, and one identified with political and public affairs, John M. Smyth is justly regarded as a thoroughly representative man. Personally he unites an old country lineage with the development and energy characteristic of the new world.
The parents of the subject of this sketch, Michael K. Smyth and Bridget (McDonnell) Smyth, left Ireland for America in the summer of 1843, and John M. Smyth was born at sea on the 6th of July of that year. The family came from Balliua, County Mayo, where their people had long been settled, and where Mr. Michael K. Smyth was a surveyor. Their first residence on this side of the Atlantic was in Quebec, but later they removed to Montreal, in which city they lived for five years, settling in Chicago in 1848. In the now historic days when early Chicago was mapped out, Mr. Michael K. Smyth surveyed lands for that notable pioneer real estate owner, William B. Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago. Mr. Smyth, like many others in those early days, had his opportunities of becoming wealthy by the acquisition of laud, subsequently very valuable, but to be had then for comparatively trifling; considerations. For instance, he was offered once for certain services, the Erie square block of land between Kinzie and Michigan, Market and Franklin, afterwards easily worth $1,400,000, but which he declined to accept because it would have taken a year of labor and some slight cost to have leveled a high bank upon it, removed refuse and put generally into marketable shape. Meantime, while the elder Smyth was taking a hand in making the ground plan of the future World’s Fair City, young John M. was attending the renowned “Kinzie” school, known among the youth of that time as “Wilder’s” from the name of the principal, then responsible for shaping and developing the young ideas. Having completed school terms sufficiently well to equip himself with a sound general education, he started out in life on his own account, he chose the typographic art and that section of it represented in the composition rooms of a daily newspaper. Mr. Smyth was employed successively upon the early newspapers of Chicago: the “Morning Herald;” the Chicago “Democrat,” when the historic paper was owned by that representative citizen, Mayor Wentworth, “Long John,” and lastly on the “Press and Tribune,” now the “Tribune.”
Mr. Smyth, when in a leisure hour, likes nothing better than to dwell upon the details of the early newspaper life and business of Chicago; that epoch in Chicago when James W. Sheahan started “The Times” (Sheahan & Price), afterwards purchased by the Hon. Cyrus H. McCormick, and subsequently advanced to a conspicuous place in modern daily journalism by the distinguished editor, Wilbur F. Storey. But the comparatively unremunerative business of the printer and publisher did not satisfy John M. Smyth.
He embarked in business for himself in 1867, opening a furniture store at 92 West Madison Street. This was the beginning of the business that has since grown to such immense proportions and has made the name of its proprietor almost a household word in every part of the city. To accommodate his increasing business, he removed his establishment in 1880 to its present location, where he greatly extended and enlarged the operations of the establishment. The store was destroyed by fire in April, 1891, but Mr. Smyth immediately rebuilt on the same site, completing and occupying, by November 1st of the same year, the largest and handsomest business block on the West Side. It is a business which now embraces literally thousands of individual accounts, and the fair and just management of the great time credit department has deservedly won for John M. Smyth thousands upon thousands of friends and well wishers in Chicago.
Mr. Smyth was sent to the City Council in 1878, re-elected as Alderman until 1882, and has twice served as a Presidential Elector in the successful campaign for Garfield in 1880, and also upon the Blaine ticket. He managed the latter campaign, in Chicago and Cook County in 1884 and also the Republican campaigns of 1894 and 1896. Mayor Hempstead Washburne appointed him a member of the Library Board in 1892, and from that date until 1895 Mr. Smyth served the Library upon its Finance committee. In politics he has ever been a consistent Republican, and as member and chairman of the County Central Republican Committee, has always been active in that great political party.
With all this, he is much more of a family and domestic man than a political aspirant, and cares most to live simply within the conventional requirements of the responsible citizen. Mr. Smyth married June 14th, 1871, Miss Jane A. Hand, and [has] eight children. Three sons and five daughters, blessed a union which led to an exceptionally happy domestic life. The best exemplification of his energy and success as a Chicago business man, is found in the accomplishment of certainly the greatest business in his special direction ever known in the West.