Francesca Falk Miller.

Across the little space; the life of Dr. Louis Falk, as told to his great-grand daughter, Dorothy Cara Strong online

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Online LibraryFrancesca Falk MillerAcross the little space; the life of Dr. Louis Falk, as told to his great-grand daughter, Dorothy Cara Strong → online text (page 4 of 7)
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that pa.ssed, so loud and so near, that I went out into the street to
listen. The air was hot and smelled acrid, even though a strong wind
swept it along. To the west I could see a huge cloud — a pall — hang-
ing like a grey veil over the city, and as I listened, the advancing
murmur became a roar.

Many other people were on the side-walks, while drivers had
stopped their frightened horses to watch the unusual scene. There
were no telephones in those days, my Cara, and of course no radios,
We waited in restless groups talking together in frightened helpless-
ness, speculating on the terror that was so rapidly pressing down upon
us through the blackness of the night.

Then suddenly it came. Red and orange shot through the grey ;
smoke turned to flames ; the hot air stung at our throats and brought
tears to our eyes. Some woman screamed. Another shouted "Chi-
cago is burning up!" Panic was upon us. A terror that was born


of stark human fear. And then came that great rush of thousands
of feet as men and women thought of their loved ones and their own
safety. Some kept their heads ; others fought ; some were injured.

I ran to my home with a great fear pounding in my heart.

I found the family aroused and dressing frantically in whatever
they could lay their hands on. My step-mother delayed so long in
getting her little family out, that she left the place clad only in a
"wrapper" — as the tea-gown of that day was humbly called. My
brother John carried two bird-cages housing the pet canaries. I
later heard that the bottom fell out of one of these, allowing the poor
frightened bird to escape and to perish in the smoke, but the other
cage held and that historical canary lived another three years.

The mother and younger children fled to the North, hoping to
reach the shelter of Lincoln Park. But the fire was all around them
and the Avooden pavement blocks were burning in places, so that they
were obliged to turn back to the near-by Washington Square, where
other of our neighbors were huddled. Here my brother Rudolph
built a lean-to of boards for a covering and there the members of
my family watched the catastrophe about them with horror and
actual acute suffering. For there was no hope of escape just then.
There they had to remain until churches and houses were gutted and
nothing but grey ashes covered the place that once they called home.
Food there was none. One of the boys milked some cows they found
roaming in the streets, while another rescued preserves from out of a
cellar after the rest of the house had been destroyed. This last was
too sweet, and caused great discomfort. The cry was for water, as
the smoke was making people frantic with thirst. Everyone had
red, blood-shot eyes and swollen tongues. Children cried constantly
in mother's arms. Families were separated and many old people
died from exposure and lack of care. Cattle, horses, dogs, cats,
roamed the streets together, driven by a great common fear and

The old Ogden house stood in a block-square lot covering Whit-
ney, Oak, Clark and Dearborn. Great elms surrounded it. As the
fire crept nearer, several men of the family and neighbors whose own
homes were gone, tried to save it. The caretaker brought blankets
wrung out in cistern water, which were laid on the already smoking
roof, while others beat at the walls with wet sacks. But as the hours
passed and the people huddled in the square were actually suffering
from thirst, men threatened to fire the Ogden home deliberately if
the precious water was not given the pul)lic instead of being used
on the house.

It was out of an old cistern, Cara mia, and smelled to the skies,
l)ut oh, how good that water tasted to our parched throats ! We
drank it gratefully and my brothei's slept a little, cuddled together
in the lean-to with their mother.


Meanwhile, father had thought of his one great treasure in the
home. It was strange, my little one, that although the fire was all
about us that awful night, our house did not burn until the next day.
So when it was apparent that we would have time to return to it,
father decided to rescue our piano.

What follows may seem strange in your day, Cara mia, but in
'71 it was the exception — not the rule — to own such a fine instru-
ment as ours. It was a Hallett and Davis concert Grand, a very
large and beautiful piano made especially for Mr. Davis' daughter.
Twice it had been moved from our home to the Crosby Opera House
for concert performances at the earnest solicitation of W. W. Kimball,
local representative for Hallett and Davis.

Our parlor, as it was called in those days, was a very long room
— some seventy feet, divided by an arch — and covered with a
Brussels carpet. The piano was turned on its side and after the
carpet was ripped up and placed down the outside stairs, the great
instrument was allowed to slide down onto the side-walk. There it
was carried — or half-dragged — to the corner of Dearborn and Oak
Streets, with its rear leg facing a large brick house, where it was
covered with the carpet. Yet the terrific heat from that burning
house was intense enough to scorch the leg.

I anticipate your question, Cara mia. Yes, dear, the piano was
saved — probably the only one on the North-side to come through the
fire — but my father's hand was sadly crippled from the strain of
lifting the great instrument, for in some way the ligaments were
badly torn and he was never able to straighten those two fingers
again. Which ended his organ playing.

There was a terrific gale blowing all that night and the smoke
and heat were almost unbearable. John dug a hole by a tree in
order to breathe in some moisture from Mother Earth, l)ut he was not
successful, as the ground was dry and powdery. There had been no
rain for many weeks.

And so for two nights and two days, my family were out in the
fire-swept area, battling pitiful discomforts, and seeing their home
destroyed before their very eyes.

I was not with them that second day. Father and I remained
together at least until afternoon. I recall helping many neighbors
save a few pitiful belongings, in cases where the flames had not yet
reached their homes. The brick house near which our piano stood,
burned last, but was earliest vacated. I remember it well ; beauti-
fully furnished with large pier-glass mirrors reaching the floor. In-
side its walls I found temporary coolness and fresher air.

]\Ieanwhile I had remembered Dr. Collyer. I rushed to his home
next to the church, and found him busily carrying his books across
the little lawn into the church study. He looked up at me with a
brave, cheery smile.


"This big stone building will stand, Louis," — he said reassur-
ingly, "even if the roof should burn."

And so we worked together in that stifling heat, carrying arni-
fuls of books exquisitely bound and many famous pictures, in to
the cooler shelter of the old stone church. My own music, too, was
transferred from home to what we thought was safety. Music that
I had purchased so proudly in Leipzig; music autographed by my
famous teachers abroad. But alas for man's judgment and effort
against a power of destruction ! LTnity Church burned to a skeleton
of stones and greying ashes before the sun rose the next morning.

Gone were the books that Dr. Collyer prized so highly! Gone,
my cherished music. Gone, my beloved organ ! Gone was my home
on Oak Street, with the many intimate associations that are part
and parcel of family life. And gone was the greatest part of my
city — for Chicago was literally burned upon the pyre of its own
foundations that day and night of October — and I stood w^eeping,
unashamed, as I saw her perish before me!

But my family needed food and I knew of a friend who would
help us if I could reach him. This in mind, I turned hopefully to-
ward the south, crossing the bridge at Rush Street with the milling,
sweeping, wailing mass of humanity. Thousands Avere separated
from their loved ones. Men were carrying other men's children to
keep them from being crushed under foot. Here and there came a
hoi*se and wagon loaded with furniture and personal belongings, but
in most cases the frantic carried their own goods in their arms, or
threw it away altogether. An artist living at that time painted a
great picture of the fire, that he labelled "Rush Street Bridge." In
it he pictured his many friends, as they crossed from the North to
the South sides over the old bridge that morning. On this canvas,
Cara mia, he painted your great-grandfather, crowded in with the
mass of men and women about half-way over the span. This picture
hung in the old Relic House on North Clark Street for many years,
but when they tore that famous building down, the picture passed WlLjt/u_
into private hands unknown to me. Of course the artist did not see \jji^ J"
me on the bridge, my Cara, but he needed faces well-known to give . ,, -y
his painting realism and to create interest in his work.

It took me two hours and a half to reach the "West side and
almost four to return, but I carried food for my family — the first
they had eaten in twenty-four hours. I had bread and sausages, given
to me by my good friend on Madison Street. What a pleasure to
see my younger brothers eat, and to know that we were at least
alive after our terrible experience !

All this time my eldest brother Theodore was living in Daven-
port, Iowa, where he and a cousin were running a newspaper. In
years since, I have often smiled over this, as the paper was a Demo-


cratic organ, while my entire family were staunch Republicans. Pos-
sibly that is why the enterprise failed.

The morning of the second day (Tuesday) mother was taken over
to the West side in safety. The night before had been bitterly cold
and with nature's strange irony it had rained. After fire had rav-
ished a city, relief came too late ! But now that the pavements were
cooling they could take their time in crossing to a safe part of
town. Theodore had come into Chicago, frantically trying to locate
us. Tuesday night he returned to Davenport with John and baby
Florenz, to care for them until our parents were settled in a home
once more.

But I was not with my family when they left Washington
Square. In some way we became separated that last night. AVith
others, I found my.self on the Lake front, carried there no doul)t
by the rush of the pushing crowds.

You wonder, Cara mia, why we did not all try to make the
shores of the lake, where fresh water might have been had? The
pavements were burning remember, and we Avere cut off on all sides.
Besides, to reach the shore in those da^^s meant walking over weeds
and uneven sands. It seemed very far away.

That second night I slept on the beach with thousands of other
homeless Chicagoans. The sand seemed soft to my tired body and I
fell asleep immediately from utter exhaustion and despair. Moving
crowds of people stumbled or stepped over me, but nothing dis-
turbed me that night. My world had burned up and there was no
need for me to awaken !

But with the late afternoon of the next day I opened my eyes
wearily, wondering where I was and how I got there. Slowly the
awful truth came home to me and I sat up at once and looked about.
Everywhere people were sitting or lying on the sand. Some were
in huddled groups; some alone like myself. Behind me to the west,
the fire still burned, but the wind had died dow^n and the smoke was
lifting. I figured that I was about opposite Washington Street and
that the fire was checked in the northern part of the city. I won-
dered how much of the town had escaped, and after talking to another
man sitting near me, found that nearly all of the South-side had been
saved. Little did I know, Cara mia, that your great-grandmother —
safe in her aunt's home at Michigan and Polk Street — had driven
down with her uncle that first morning to watch the conflagration
from the safe ( ?) vantage point of Adams Street and the Lake. How
little she knew that somewhere in that flaming furnace was the man
who some day would be her husband and coinjianion for fifty long
happy years.

After I had watched the crowds for awhile, I realized that I
was hungry. My neighbor directed me to a soup kitchen, where he


had already eaten. It was a long walk, past burned ])uildings and
sunken streets, but at last I reached it and was served with strong
])lack coffee and slices of unbuttered bread. This iinproin])tu res-
taurant was run by the good women of some little Mission church.
Soup, coffee, bread, and milk for babies was all they offered, but it
saved many lives that terrible week and gave new courage to many
a broken spirit. Fi-esh water was a luxury, for the city's water-mains
were destroyed. Men and women drank out of the lake and carried
tlie water away in buckets. Milk and beer and even a diluted cheap
wine commanded exorlntant prices. But fresh vcgetal)les and fruits
were coming in from the farms, as well as eggs and meat from the
markets, so that in a few days the business of feeding the city was
well organized. People were kindly, courteous and sympathetic to
one another, for a common disaster, my little one, brings out the best
in human nature.

One by one the members of my family drifted over to the West
side, beyond the burned area near the river, to reunite at the home
of my cousin. We slept all over the house and cleaned out the
pantry in no time. But good cheer was in the air, for we were all
together again and Chicago was already setting her face toward the
future. It was impossible to crush her courageous spirit. Every-
where little wooden signs sprung up, stating that here "so-and-so"
would re-build. Business-firms, such as Lyon and Healy, incor-
porated in 1856, churches, homes — building with new pride and
determination. It was impossible to remain discouraged in the face
of such faith.

But father never recovered from his losses. It seemed as if he
could not make a new start. Pastor Hartman's church and school
had burned and was being re-built slowly. My brother Theodore
was now married and Rudolph and I grown men able to take care of
ourselves. So when the opportunity came, father accepted a position
in Sandusky, Ohio, and left Chicago never to return.

It was a sad departure, my Cara. I remember father packing
the pitifully few belongings left from the tire; the brave mother
with her little daughter clinging to her full skirts; and my two
youngest brothers. But a new home was soon begun in the Ohio city,
where father was utterly content to live until his death at a wonder-
ful old age. Several times I visited in Sandusky, usually to give a
big organ concert, and on these occasions my dear father and I
would go quietly into some German cafe, where, over our steins of
beer and our cheese sandwiches, we would go back to early days — in
Chicago— in Germany — talking — talking — on our favorite theme —

So the "Great Fire of '71" came and passed, bringing witli it
the greatest changes of my life.



1871 - 1874

UNION Park in 1871 was a green little square filled with splen-
did old trees, many colorful flower-beds and a small patch of
water, all of which was surrounded by a neat iron fence
elaborately scrolled. It also boasted a modest-sized Zoo, filled with
the smaller variety of wild animals. That my l)rother Florenz
had his finger bitten viciously by a raccoon prevented us from ever
forgetting the place, although I must admit he was teasing the ani-
mal. There were many curving graveled paths in Union Park, where
nurse-maids walked with their young charges by day and lovers
strolled by night. It was the West side's popular park in the 70 's —
for the land that became Garfield Park was far beyond the city limits
at that time.

Today, my Cara, the little square is only a breathing place in a
great western area, cut through with wide boulevards, where a mad
rush of automobiles hum day and night endlessly, and where the
city's unemployed sit in pathetic rows on old green park benches.

With the exodus of homeless citizens from the ])urned North
side, the territory around the cross streets of Washington and Ash-
land became the new center of fashionable Chicago for the following
twenty-five years. Prominent families built or bought homes and
joined the church and club life of that part of the city. Only the
World's Fair in 1893 was able to swing the procession southward
again and later to the north, from where the circle began.

The Carter Harrison home stood at the corner of Jackson and
Ashland surrounded by a large yard, where many a fashionable
"lawn-party" was given. A block further north at the corner of
Adams lived Allan Pinkerton, famous for his work during the Civil
War in the Secret Service Department and the head of a great de-
tective agency bearing his name. His ten children lived to hear their
father's name echoed 'round the world and in Chicago today lives
the most beloved of his family, Mrs. William J. Chalmers, who was
"Joan" to us, in those early West side days. General Fitz Simonds
was a neighbor of the Pinkertons, whose fine old house remained long


after the tide swung south. Dr. Ziegfeld, whose home had bunied
in the doAvn-town section, lived just around the corner on Adams
Street; a home that remained in the family and from which they
refused to move even to this day; for dear old ''Madam" Ziegfeld
only died this last year, in the 84th year of her age.

On Washington Street other families had established themselves
in fine new homes. The Arthur Farrars owned a square brick house
filled with costly object d'art from all parts of the world. They
drove a span of horses that was a joy to behold as they pranced down
the street with other horse-drawn vehicles in that day before the
automobile. But to the city-l)red children, their Jersey cow, kept in
the wide stable behind the house, was the greatest sight in the neigh-
borhood — next to a circus. Down the block w^ere other families of
note, names still familiar on the lips of Chicagoans living at the
present time.

Two Clubs sprang up in this new center; the Illinois on Ash-
land, and much later, the Ashland, on Washington near I^eavitt.

The old Brown school on Warren and Wood Streets probal)ly
housed more youngsters that became the prominent men and women
of our city today, than any other l)uilding of learning. They still
hold alumni reunions.

But without doubt the churches were the social centers of that
period, for in those days whole families attended and were frankly
proud of the fact. The Church of the Epiphany stood at Ashland
and Adams; a beautiful building facing west. Down at the bias
intersection of Ogden Avenue w^as the Third Presbyterian with Dr.
Witherow as pastor, while across Union Park rose the fancy twin
tui-rets of Zion Temple, the Jewish Synagogue — of which I will speak
later. But it is the Union Park Congregational Church at the inter-
section of Ashland and Washington — still standing unchanged by
the passing of the years — of which I wish to tell you, my Cara, for
this dear old building was the center of my home life for over a
quarter of a century.

Almost immediately following the fire I was offered the position
of organist at this church, which I gladly accepted and held for
twenty-seven busy, long, years. Of course, Cara mia, the Chicago
iMusical College went right on in spite of the great catastrophe, so
that your great-grandfather did not have to make a new start as so
many did. But in "Old Union Park" — as the church was affection-
ately known in later years — I made lasting friendships that bound
me closely to this locality; friendships only second to those in my
musical world. It was there I met, loved, and married your great-
grandmother ; there that our only daughter came into the home ; there
my greatest success was attained. So altogether it was probably the
happiest twenty-seven years of my life. The church's congregation
has changed with the passing of time and rapid growth of the city,


but like an immortal guardian of the past, it rises sublime over the
disintegration of the park it faces, with its one slender spire point-
ing heavenward, as if calling to all men to witness the everlasting
service to the needs of mankind and the faith of its forefathers.

On October 3rd, 1872— one short year after the great fire — a
fine Testimonial Concert was given for me at Union Park Congre-
gational Church. This was a very popular type of concert in the
latter part of the last century, and was considered a high mark of
recognition and honor. Dr. Ziegfeld and all my college ''cronies"
attended as well as the entire neighborhood, so that we had a packed
church and splendid press notices.

Dr. C. D. Helmer, formerly of Milwaukee, was the minister of
Union Park. He was a great organizer and fine preacher, but better
still, a gentle soul who lived his profession with sincerity and sim-
plicity. He died all too soon and probably no other clergyman of
this city was mourned by his congregation as was this beloved pastor.
But I am running ahead of my story.

My brother Theodore lived just around the corner from the
church in a charming cottage. He had recently married Julia
Dumser. Their home was filled Avith an atmosphere of contentment,
love and simple living, and it was a constant joy that I was welcomed
into the circle for it always reminded me of another home so long
ago, with my own dear mother as the guardian spirit. Theo never
let me feel crowded out, even when the babies began to come. They
had seven fine children, Cara mia ; six boys and one girl.

I have said that a promise to our mother had caused Theodore
to study for the ministry, but not wholeheartedly. All his life his
desire was to give all of his time to art, his favorite line being de-
signing, illustrating, and the most delicate pen and ink illumining.
Although he was an ordained pastor of the Lutheran faith, he fol-
lowed his favorite vocation for over forty years, owning a most suc-
cessful printing establishment — first on the West and later on the
North side of the city. He put out the catalogues for the Chicago
Musical College for manj^ years, also music of the local composers
and most of the concert programs. All hand illumining he did

In 1873 the Inter-State Industrial Exposition was held in Chi-
cago, in a building considered enormous at that time. (Length, 800
feet; width, 260, and oval dome 160 feet long.) I wrote the ''Grand
Exposition March" for the occasion, dedicating it to "Potter Palmer
Esq." — who was president of the exposition — and my brother Theo
illustrated and published the work.

(Twenty years later came the World's Fair, and after sixty
years, A Century of Progress.)







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Online LibraryFrancesca Falk MillerAcross the little space; the life of Dr. Louis Falk, as told to his great-grand daughter, Dorothy Cara Strong → online text (page 4 of 7)