Farwells 1: A Gathering of Giants


By Megan McKinney


John V. Farwell.


According to the Newberry Library, the Lake Forest Farwells descend from one of the most historic families in the world for which there is accurate and valid documentation. Richard Farwell of Yorkshire gained distinction during the reign of Edward I. And Henry Farwell, who founded the family’s American branch in the 17th century, was one of the earliest settlers of Concord, Massachusetts, which incorporated in 1635.



Henry and Nancy Farwell of Painted Post, New York.


Two hundred years later, another Henry Farwell and his wife, Nancy, were raising five children in Painted Post, Steuben County, New York. Although industrious and honest, they were—in contrast to their vibrant ancestors and descendants—a simple couple whose living was made by farming. Yet, theirs was a warm, close-knit family guided by a strong Methodist faith that stayed with the children throughout their lives. Two of the boys, John Villiers and Charles Benjamin, were wholesome, rough-and-tumble youngsters who would be unusually close throughout their lives. John, two years younger than his brother, was missing a finger, because he had dared Charlie to cut it off—and Charlie did.

The boys’ lives were transformed in 1838 when their parents took them by covered wagon out to the Rock River near Dixon, Illinois, a long journey marred by the tragic death, en route, of a little sister. The grieving family eventually settled on the Illinois farm, building both a new life and the first brick house in Ogle County, with the boys—especially John—participating in its construction. The sturdy new home would also serve as a Sunday meetinghouse for the Farwells and their devout neighbors.


 The first brick house in Ogle County.


In 1844, Charlie, who had been regularly delivering wheat to Chicago markets, moved to the city permanently. A year later, with the three dollars and seventy-five cents his father had given him, 20-year-old John, also a hand on a load of wheat, joined him there.

Chicago was in its infancy; it had been incorporated as a city in 1837, eight years prior to John’s appearance and nearly two decades before the pivotal mid-century arrival of the other Chicago giants. However, the hum had begun; in two years, Cyrus McCormick would be turning out reapers from his factory on the north bank of the river, soon to be followed by the arrival of Farwell peers, Potter Palmer, Levi Leiter and Marshall Field. And, in 1859, mechanical wizard George Pullman would be raising entire blocks of buildings up and out of the notorious Chicago mud, Palace Cars, a mere gleam in his inventive eye. Though young, the Chicago of 1845 was a thrilling city on the cusp of greatness, attracting the men who would make it great, with the promise of magnificent times to follow.

After a short stint working for the city government, John found a job in the dry goods business and soon joined the firm that would become Cooley, Wadsworth & Co. Apart from his remarkable industry and business foresight, the most fundamental element in John’s personality throughout his life was a deep religious conviction. Characteristically, during his first year of work, he contributed half his salary to the church.


Abigail Gates Taylor Farwell.


Following a painfully brief marriage to Abigail Gates Taylor, who died after giving birth to a girl, John followed a variation on the classic tradition by marrying the boss’ sister, Emeret Cooley.


Emeret Cooley Farwell.


After their Hartford, Connecticut marriage, John brought Emeret back to Chicago to live in the Tremont House for a short time before moving to a two-story red brick house on the south side of Madison Street between Clark and LaSalle Streets. The newlyweds were joined there by little Abby Farwell, John’s toddler daughter who had been living with relatives.



John V. and Emeret Farwell’s first house in the midst of today’s Loop.


In later years, Abby would remember an idyllic childhood in what was then a lovely residential neighborhood. Her father’s importance was growing; everyone knew him or who he was, and they invariably referred to him as John V. Abby quoted hearing various people say, “John V., will help us,” or “Go to John V., he’ll know how to get you out of this hole.” She recalled seeing a “well-dressed and sober” man pass on the street, and hearing the comment, “That’s John V.’s work; if it had not been for him, [that man] would be in the gutter yet.”



Little Abby Farwell, loose in the Loop at age four.


In those innocent times, Abby was able to explore the area without adult supervision while playing with neighborhood children. The closest among these was a little red-haired boy whose parent lived on LaSalle Street, between Washington and Randolph, a fashionable block opposite the courthouse. Abby and the little boy played on the courthouse grounds “by the hour” and sometimes ventured for mischief inside the great building.

The child’s father was banker Solomon A. Smith, a founder of Merchants Savings, Loan & Trust Co., later Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust, and the little red-haired boy was Byron L. Smith, a banker-to-be, who in 1889, with $1 million entrusted by such giants as Philip D. Armour, Marshall Field and Martin Ryerson, would found the Northern Trust Co.


cooley-farwell-coCooley,  Farwell & Co.

In 1862, John V.’s business became Cooley, Farwell & Co. and, three years after, John V. Farwell & Co. While building a company that would become one of the leading businesses in the nation, the fair-minded, spiritually centered John mentored future dry goods tycoons Levi Z. Leiter, Harlow N. Higinbotham and the frugal Marshall Field, who saved half his $400 annual salary by sleeping on a pallet in the store at night.

Typically, Chicago’s dry goods companies incorporated wholesale and retail arms; however, John focused on the wholesale level—and on a very large scale—selling not only to retailers but also to smaller wholesale companies. In 1870, the firm’s annual sales were almost $10 million, and, by 1883, they had reached $20 million.



Charles B. Farwell.


Charles, a lawyer, entered politics, holding Cook County offices, as well as national elected positions, until he was voted U.S. senator from Illinois in 1887; along the way, he had also become his brother’s partner in the dry goods business. Although John never ran for office, he participated wholeheartedly in pro bono activities, including an appointment by President Ulysses S. Grant to the commission to study Indian affairs. He also headed the Chicago branch of the United States Christian Commission during the Civil War and helped build the First Methodist Church of Chicago.



375 Wabash Ave.


When he arrived in Chicago, John V. had been captivated by the pastoral charm of residential life in what is now the center of the business district. He was charmed by white frame houses, set away from the street under shade trees within wide gardens. Children could roam freely throughout the area, as Abby would, and every morning the cows of neighborhood families were led out together to spend the day grazing in nearby fields before traipsing home in the evening. As soon as he could afford to, he supervised the building of a house at 375 Wabash Ave.—eight blocks south of John V. Farwell & Co.—and he moved to it with his young family. But, with the passing of years and encroachment of commerce, the district was losing the bucolic quality that had attracted him and John was eager to explore new territory. He was not alone.

The Farwells of Lake Forest, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.

Next Sunday: Pioneers of Utopia

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl