Nicholas N. Perry

Written and submitted by John Cameron
Note: Nicholas is the brother of Theodore Perry


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From left to right: Hannah Brandow Perry Beach, Etta Lodema Kincaid, granddaughter of Nicholas N. Perry, Peter N. Perry, son of Nicholas N. Perry, Nicholas N. Perry, son of Hannah and brother of Theodore N Perry. Photo courtesy of John Cameron and Arlene Maher

 

The City of Chicago was born in a frenzy of speculation. Land fever had been brought on by plans for a canal linking Lake Michigan and the Chicago River to the Illinois River, connecting the great highway of the Mississippi with the Great Lakes.

A man-made waterway across the Chicago Portage had first been suggested by pioneering French explorer Louis Jolliet as earlier as 1673. After the War of 1812, the idea was revived, part of the same enthusiasm that led to in the construction of the Erie Canal at the other end of the Great Lakes chain. It took another two decades before the ambitious plan was realized.

As soon as surveyors had plotted its course in 1830, the canal's commissioners sought to finance the project by subdividing the adjacent land at the mouth of the Chicago River. The grid of streets they laid out still defines the downtown business district. The newly outlined property parcels were rapidly bought up, sold, and resold in quest of quick profits.

(Several years ago, I found myself running an errand that led me to the upper floors of the old Title & Trust Building. As I walked past the many offices of real estate attorneys, title agents and surveying firms, I felt that I had wandered into the primal capitalist heart of Chicago.)

Most of the speculators went bust in the Panic of 1837, and it was almost a decade later before the Illinois & Michigan Canal was opened to traffic. Yet the canal and the South Branch of the Chicago River it led into soon became the pulsing industrial artery of the brash young city, home to brickworks and lumber yards, warehouses and factories of all sorts.

It was a generation later that my great-great-great grandfather Nicholas N. Perry came to Chicago to work along this waterway. In 1864 he settled with his young family just north of the South Branch. For the next forty years Nicholas would live within walking distance of the river or the canal, working as a laborer, teamster, brickmaker and foreman. His two sons would also work at these same occupations in the area.

Etta Kincaid, his granddaughter and my great-grandmother, told of taking noontime meals to her grandfather as he worked along the canal. Packed in lard pails, they were often topped by a small pie. Etta couldn't always resist and would occasionally nibble on pieces of the crust along the way. Grandpa Perry called her his "pie thief".

The Perrys came to Chicago from Athens township in Greene County along the Hudson River in New York where Nicholas had been born February 27, 1834. The Perry name was of Scottish origin, and the family is said to have first come to nearby Albany in 1790. (I have a cousin in Dundee, Scotland with the last name of Perry. His mother was my Grandmother Cameron's older sister, but he is no known relation to my New York ancestors.)

Not surprisingly for a Hudson Valley family, Nicholas's mother and paternal grandmother were both of Dutch descent. He had a cousin named Jan Van Loon and is reported to have spoken Dutch with his brother as he worked along the canal. However his daughter, my great-great grandmother Susie, steadfastly insisted that she had no Dutch blood. (It is one of the ironies of ethnic snobbery that nineteenth century working class Chicago did not distinguish an Old Knickerbocker from Germans and other "inferiors" to the English-speaking races.)

I do not know how the Perrys traveled across country. By 1864 rail service was firmly established between the East Coast and Chicago, as well as less expensive water routes.

Nor do I know precisely why they came. Family tradition has it that Nicholas had a brother Cornelius, the Dutch speaker, who also lived in Chicago. Though Perry was not an uncommon surname, the only Cornelius Perry listed in the city directory at that time was the proprietor of Vinton & Perry and a resident of the St. Cloud Hotel. He seems unlikely to have been the subsequent co-worker of Nicholas along the canal.

The Civil War was in its fourth year when the Perrys arrived in Chicago. The conflict had already wrought profound changes on the city, catapulting it to preeminence as the gateway between the agriculture West and the densely settled, increasingly industrial East.

The war had closed the Mississippi to normal commerce, with devastating consequences for Chicago's major rivals, St. Louis and Cincinnati. It was in Chicago that the bounty of Western farms was transformed into hardtack and salt pork for much of the Union Army. It was Chicago, too, that served as a gathering point for the sons of those Western farmers as they were loaded into rail cars and sent off to southern battlefields.

At age 30, Nicholas was still young enough to have served in the war. However he was already supporting a large family. A year younger, his wife Rebecca had been born September 13, 1835 in Columbia County, NY where her family's name was Mambert. In addition, he brought two sons, six year-old Peter N. (Nicholas?) and two year-old Jacob M. (Mambert ?) along with my great-great grandmother Sarah Frances -- "Susie" -- born September 30, 1859. A second daughter, Jane Anna, was born in May of 1864. The first child of Nicholas and Rebecca, their daughter Helen, had died a toddler before Peter's birth.

The several members of the Perry family added to Chicago's swelling wartime population. Home to 109,000 residents when the federal census count was made in 1860, there were over 169,000 by 1864, nearly a sixty percent increase in just four years. War-related industrial growth had created plenty of jobs in the city's rail yards and riverside docks, supplying its agricultural hinterland as well as the military. The conflict firmly established Chicago's meat-packing supremacy; it also meant employment in constructing the rapidly growing new city itself.

The Perrys first appear in the Chicago municipal directory for 1864. Nicholas Perry is listed as brickmaker residing on Leonard Street near 22nd; then in 1865 on Walsh Street at the southeast corner of Brown, what would now be 20th Place and Sangamon Avenue. Joining the family that year was Nicholasís mother Hannah and her second husband James Beach.

The Perry family lived at that address for five years. In all probability their home was one of the small cottages still to be found in the neighborhood, an area that would be named after the Bohemian city of Pilsen by its later Czech residents. Most of these modest dwellings were the quickly constructed "balloon-frame" wooden structures that proliferated in the residential neighborhoods bordering the river (such as the one that housed Mrs. O'Leary not too far away on DeKoven Street.)

Chicago at that time was a wooden city. It was also the world's largest lumber market, and the wharves along the South Branch were piled high with white pine from the forests of Michigan and northern Wisconsin. The Perry home was only a few blocks from the "lumber district" that filled the northern bank of the river west of Halsted Street. Even today there remain a few lumberyards in the area.

More opportunely for Nicholas, the area was also home to several brickmaking operations. There was -- and still is -- a brickyard west of Halsted between 22nd and 23rd Streets, a short walk from his home on Walsh. As many as thirty such firms would line the South Bank by the early 1870s, clustered between Throop and the locks connecting the river with the I & M canal at Ashland.

Industry would continue expanding in this area, eventually including a huge coal-fired electric generating station south of 22nd Street. A spur line feeding into the power plant would displace Brown Street and its adjacent residences. Today anonymous walls of tired industrial buildings line the railroad track. On neighboring blocks ancient housing is interspersed with vacant lots, while the dilapidated brick structure of Walsh School (built in 1886) sat until very recently at the corner of 20th Place and Peoria. Across the street is the site of the Perry home, now the loading dock of a trucking facility.

By 1870 the Perrys had moved a few blocks away to Dexter Street, then the following year on to 22nd Street itself, just west of its busy intersection with Halsted. The census report published in 1871 lists Nicholas's occupation as a teamster with three males and four females residing in his household. This would have included himself, Peter and Jacob, along with Rebecca, Susie, Jane and a new addition, Elizabeth, who was born in 1868.

It was from 22nd Street that the Perrys witnessed the cataclysm of the Great Chicago Fire in October, 1871, a source of one of Grandma Susie's favorite stories. After the fire, she and other youngsters insisted on exploring the devastation first hand. While running through the burned out areas to the northeast, twelve year-old Susie stumbled into what remained of an outhouse -- the hole. It says a lot about Susie's scrappy character, as well as her lifelong love of adventure and fun, that she would love to repeat such an indelicate tale.

After the Great Fire there must have been plenty of work for a brickmaker, but these were still difficult years for the Perry family. Rebecca's health was poor and she gave birth to two more children, a son Everett born in 1873 and a daughter Henrietta born in 1876. There is no subsequent mention of these later children and they may have died at a young age.

With a sickly mother, "Fan" -- as Susie was called in her childhood -- had to take on many of the household chores. Her father built her a small stool so that she could reach the wash tub to do the family laundry.

Susie dropped out of school after fourth grade, always maintaining that was sufficient "book learnin'" for a young woman. However her grandmother educated her in cooking, teaching her many East Coast recipes: creamed cod, kippers, the New England baked beans with brown bread that I remember my grandmother making, the sizzling macaroni and cheese that I still like to serve my family.

The Perrys lived on 22nd Street for four years, then in 1875 moved south of the river to a home near 35th Street and Ashland. By then there was a brickyard operating few blocks away between 37th and 38th Streets, east of Ashland on the west bank of the South Fork. Two years later, the Perrys moved a half mile east and settled on Ullman (later Racine) Street, the western edge of the old neighborhood of Bridgeport.

It must have been a teeming community at the time. A mile due south lay the Union Stockyards, opened a decade earlier and already a world famous phenomenon. Ullman ran along the east side of the South Fork of the South Branch, the principle waterway and sewage outlet for the Stockyards. Filled with slaughterhouse waste and known to posterity as "Bubbly Creek", it was described by the City Boards of Health in 1874 as "a stagnant pool of abominations."

Even so, Ullman Street was densely settled with the same small worker's dwellings that still line many Bridgeport streets. The Perry's home, now numbered 3210 S. Racine, also remains -- a two-story frame cottage that has been covered with gray aluminum siding.

It was there Susie would spend her teenage years and where she used tell of slipping out the upstairs window to join with her brother at dances and other gatherings after her parents were asleep.

It was at one of these events that she met another new resident of Ullman Street, her future husband William Kincaid. He was employed at the Stockyards and was considerably older, though not quite twice her age as she would later claim. Still responsible for much of the housework, Susie kept her ripening romance with William from her parents.

They decided to marry in secret, perhaps because their first child, my great-grandmother Etta, was well on the way. The marriage on July 26, 1877 was performed by a Justice of the Peace and their license lists William's age as 29 and Susie's as 19. Never one to blink at stretching the truth, Susie had in fact not quite reached her 18th birthday.

When her parents were finally told, they -- as parents often do -- forgave the young couple and the newlyweds continued to live a few doors down on Ullman for several more years.

Susie's older brother Peter also married in 1877. His bride Laura was of English descent and described by my grandmother as "very plain looking but one of the sweetest and best people I had ever known." Both characterizations appear accurate in a photograph of her and Peter probably taken for their golden wedding anniversary half a century later.

The following year Peter was living nearby on Deering and working as a laborer. In December Laura gave birth to the first of their five children, Everett Henry. Two years later in 1880 the couple was living near the other Perrys on Ullman when their daughter Sarah Rebecca arrived. That year, too, Peter and Susie's younger brother Jacob appears separately in the city directory for the first time, listed as living with his parents on Ullman and employed as a laborer.

In 1881 the Perry clan moved back across the South Fork to 35th Street (then called Douglas Boulevard) west of Ashland, not far from where they had lived briefly during the mid-70s. Today this area is known as McKinley Park, but at that time was considered part of Brighton.

Originally settled in the 1850s, the Brighton community grew up around the intersection of the two plank roads Archer and Western Avenues, taking its name from the nearby race track. The area was close to, but blessedly upwind from, the industries along the canal and river as well as the Stockyards. By the 1880s horse car lines running along Archer reached as far as Ashland, and a residential neighborhood, dubbed "Mt. Pleasant" by its developers, was built to the south and west.

For the rest of their life Nicholas and Rebecca would live in this triangle south of Archer that was bordered on the east by the South Fork and to the south by its sluggish west branch. They would be joined by the rest of their children; most of their grandchildren and several of their great grandchildren would be born there. The neighboring factories, including the still operative chewing gum plant built by William Wrigley, would be a source of income for their descendants eighty years later.

The Perry household, including Peter and Laura, was located at 1421 (now 1711 W.) 35th Street in 1881. Nicholas lived there for two more years; then Susie and William moved in. That year the older Perrys had joined Peter's family in living a block west at the corner of 35th and Beers (now Wood) Street.

Both father and sons worked as brickmakers, teamsters and laborers during those years. Rebecca had gradually recovered her health after her last pregnancies while her daughter-in-law Laura gave birth to Maude May in 1882 and Emily Frances in 1885, and then a son Matthew Robert in 1887. With their Kincaid cousins close to the same age and living nearby, it must have been a lively and tight knit community; indeed the ties between Peter and Susie's family would remain strong through several generations.

Susie's younger sister Jane took over her household duties after her marriage. By 1887 Jane had married Fred Hudson. The new son-in-law encouraged Nicholas to hang up his workman's overalls, at least temporarily. That year the firm of Hudson & Perry, grocers, was open for business at 1336 (now 1542 W.) 35th Street, just east of the Ashland intersection. Though long since been replaced by industrial property, this was probably a storefront with attached flats and it served as a residence for both the elder Perrys and the newly-wed Hudsons.

By the following year, however, Nicholas had returned to the brickyards, his occupation listed for the first time as foreman. Fred continued to operate the grocery store, and both lived at the 1336 35th Street address at least through 1894.

It was about that time that the only surviving photograph of Nicholas Perry was taken. Posed in a State Street studio, he wears a tie, vest and jacket, complete with a pocket handkerchief and pocket watch, a bushy beard sprouting from his chin offsetting his strong nose and his close-cropped, but still plentiful head of hair. For a man entering his seventh decade, he appears remarkably vigorous.

Seated across from him on a velvet plush chair in a long flower print dress is his mother, Grandma Beach, looking every bit her eighty-plus years. Standing behind them, also attired in a dress suit is the slim, mustachioed Peter, then in his mid-thirties, and to his left, in a dark dress with a clasp at the collar and her hair pulled back, is Nicholas' teen-aged granddaughter Etta Kincaid.

After that year Nicholas is no longer regularly listed in the city directory. At age sixty, it may be that he retired from the grinding labor of his trade. Yet in those days before union pensions and Social Security, Nicholas undoubtedly continued to work when able -- as late at as 1905 he would be employed as a (railroad?) switchman.

From the beginning of the new century there survives another "four generations" photographic ensemble. Again it includes Etta, as well as her two year-old daughter Ruth and her father William Kincaid. Seated in an ornate high-backed chair is Etta's grandmother, Rebecca Perry. She wears a dark, beaded dress with a necklace, and at age 65, the years of child-bearing and ill health have clearly left their mark.

Also taken in the same visit to the Hilles Studio in Bridgeport were portraits of Susie and Peter. At forty-one, Susie is slim enough to wear the same lace collared, ruffled bodice dress as her twenty-two year-old daughter Etta. Her hair pulled back in a bun except for a curly bang or two, she is a handsome woman with the same strong features as her father.

Her brother, too, retains his youthful wireyness, although his precisely combed hair is beginning to thin. With mustache and bow tie, Peter appears quite dapper in his three-piece striped suit, complete with his Odd Fellows lapel pin.

Rebecca would only live a few more years and died in 1903. Nicholas survived her by two years. After his wife's death, Nicholas lived with their younger son Jacob, first at 3626 S. Leavitt, and then at 3601 S. Western.

Jacob had not married and continued to work as laborer and brickmaker. Through the mid-1890s he lived at various addresses in Bridgeport; thereafter at several locations in Brighton. Not unlike many single young working men, Jacob had a fondness for the bottle, with tragic consequences. While drinking heavily he would commit suicide -- reportedly over a failed romance -- although this must not have been long after his father's death.

Though he, too was said to have had a youthful weakness for alcohol, Peter's later life turned out much more happily. Taking up the carpentry trade, he and Laura continued to live in the Brighton neighborhood throughout the first decade of the century. Then they made a dramatic relocation -- to the distant Lake County village of Deerfield. There they moved into a newly-built frame and shingle bungalow at 820 Rosemary Terrace. Though modestly-sized, it was complete with brick pillars on the porch, a large brick fireplace and a garage.

Located ten miles from Chicago's northern boundary, it was three times that distance from the South Side. In the 1920s the new home became a favorite destination for city relatives out motoring through the "country". It was then a quiet retreat from the urban hustle and bustle.

Peter and Laura would live out their life in that house. They would celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary there in 1927, which was observed by a rededication of their vows before several of the original wedding party including best man William Kincaid. Their daughter Sarah (Sadie) and her husband Edwin Beckman also lived in Deerfield, and they would later occupy the parents home until their deaths in the 1960s.

Sadie Beckman inherited much of the Perry grit. In her mid-eighties she would still scrub the kitchen floor, repot her household plants, remember the details of birth dates from a century before, and correspond in a strong, firm handwriting.

Today the Deerfield bungalow stands amidst the hurly-burly of this upscale suburb. Painted a redwood color and surrounded by tall trees, it is otherwise hardly changed from the old photos with the Model T parked in the driveway. Even the original garage, with its decorative white trim, still sits there at the end of the long, narrow side drive.

Jane and Fred had left the old neighborhood several years before Peter and Laura did. Fred had given up the store and worked as a clerk downtown. By 1903 they had moved south to the Englewood neighborhood, as would Susie and William Kincaid and most of their children over the following decade.

After her husband's death in 1929 "Grandma Susie", as she was now universally called, would live at her children's homes on the South Side, first with Etta and then with her son Ed. She would lead a busy life, enmeshed in social gatherings of the Rebekah Lodge (the female counterpart to the Odd Fellows fraternal order.) Her great-grandchildren would delight in her sparkle and fun-loving nature, as well as a feisty will that had been forged in the working class streets where she had been raised.

My mother remembered Susie reading romance magazines and eating ice cream in bed, taking on the neighborhood bully with threats and a clenched fist, insisting that her age was still 39 and claiming that any loud beep from a car horn "must be my fella!" Some of this spunk is evident in a 1930s photo of Susie taken at an Englewood studio. White-haired, spectacled and considerably stockier, she still has the strong mouth and nose of her younger days.

Her energy was much appreciated, especially after a fractured hip and Parkinson's disease disabled Etta. Susie was often called on to help nurse sick children and take care of other household needs at times of child-birth and illness-related emergencies among the families of her grandchildren.

Her lodge activities remained a central part of her life with their card parties, big summer picnics and late evening meetings. But by the end of the Second World War, her age began to take its toll. Her mind slipping into senility, she left her son's southside home and moved to the Old Folks' Home operated by the Rebekahs and Odd Fellows in Mattoon, Illinois in April, 1947. Though outwardly in good health, she wouldn't last much longer. She made the long train trip back to Chicago for her daughter's funeral that fall, but passed away herself just six months later on April 8, 1948.

She is buried next to her husband and several of her children at Fairmount Cemetery off Archer Avenue in southwest suburban Willow Springs. Her unmarked grave sits on a bluff that looks down, appropriately, upon the Illinois & Michigan canal.


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