The Mortons: When It Rains It Pours




By Megan McKinney



Morton Salt’s origins were in a small 1848 Chicago agency that distributed salt shipped from eastern suppliers by way of the Erie Canal. Originally Richmond & Co., the business was E.I. Wheeler & Co. when 24-year-old Joy Morton invested $10,000 in savings to purchase an interest in the company.      

Joy’s 1879 acquisition of a portion of the business, and his subsequent 1885 ownership of its whole, coincided with the post-Civil War expansion of the city’s meatpacking industry, which preserved excess meat by packing it in salt. Another major benefit for Morton was a discovery of salt deposits in nearby Michigan, allowing the company to produce its own supply, without having to rely upon sources in the East.

After Wheeler’s death in 1895, Joy took his brother Mark in as vice president, and the firm became Joy Morton & Company. He also began acquiring additional salt companies while establishing further facilities in Kansas and Michigan. By 1910, when he incorporated the Morton Salt Company, it was recognized as North America’s largest independent supplier of salt.

There were elements of luck and timing in Joy Morton’s astonishing success; however, beneath it was a strong instinct for business, sprinkled with a heavy dose of the talent for promotion that ran in his family. An example is the design of his 1899 office building, calculated to reinforce a great deal about his personal image.

The Mortons descend from Richard Morton, who arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1625, and a maternal ancestor was Thomas Joy, designer and builder of the original “town house” in Boston.

By the mid-17th century the tradition of the town house was well entrenched in New England as a public building that combined meeting place, market and colonial government seat. However, Thomas Joy’s handsome construction was the first, and, although it was completed in 1658 and destroyed by fire in 1711, it was the most important public work developed in New England up to that time, and therefore notable.  


A conjectural drawing of the historic wood frame building by Thomas Joy.

Joy pounced upon this heritage by commissioning a replica of his ancestor’s Boston town house to be constructed as an office building for the company that bore his name. The striking 1899 building was conspicuously located at the end of his company’s large salt stores on Illinois Central Pier No. 1 by the mouth of the Chicago River. The architect, Jarvis Hunt, with his prominent Eastern artistic connections, also fit into the projection of a distinguished dynastic aura; he was the nephew of both New York architect Richard Morris Hunt and Boston painter William Morris Hunt.


Much has been said about the little girl under the outsized umbrella with its memorable slogan; however, it was not a mere adman’s concoction. The combination may have made Morton the nation’s most recognizable salt; yet, Morton Salt did pour when it rained, and it still does. Joy achieved this by adding magnesium carbonate (later replaced by calcium silicate) to the salt in 1911, creating a product that remains dry even in the dampest weather. Eventually, the company also developed iodized salt to provide iodine to the diet of those threatened with goiter.

There were many rich and genuine characteristics in Joy Morton’s personal makeup. In 1880, he had married Carrie Lake, member of another prominent Nebraska family and daughter of George B. Lake, who for many years was chief justice of Nebraska’s Supreme Court. Eight years later, the couple bought a parcel of land in Groveland Park on Chicago’s South Side. They built a creamy brick, Romanesque-style house on the lot, which had originally belonged to Senator Stephen A. Douglas.


Completed in 1888, Joy and Carrie’s house stood at the north edge of Groveland Park.

It was an idyllic site for the nature-loving Mortons, who raised their two children, Jean and Sterling, across from the leafy park and amid the broad lawns and sheltering elm trees of the charming neighborhood. The summer days Joy’s family spent in the cool breezes of their large shady yard evoked the tranquil property on which he had been raised outside Nebraska City.

The children rode ponies in the park and were driven by carriage to attend dancing classes at Bournique’s on nearby Prairie Avenue.


Young Sterling and Jean with their grandfather, Sterling Morton.

The Mortons were a warm, hospitable family, and during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, they entertained many distinguished guests, including President Grover Cleveland.  


Arbor Lodge.

The family was also traveling regularly both summer and winter to Nebraska for holidays at Arbor Lodge. Two days after Christmas in 1905, Joy was riding on the estate and, while leaping a ditch, was thrown from his horse and critically injured. Although he never left Arbor Lodge in the days following the accident, it was eight hours before he regained consciousness.

Following his recovery, another favorite sport was cruising a chartered yacht on Lake Michigan. He enjoyed it so completely that in June 1910, the Chicago Tribune announced, “The most important transfer that has been recorded in local yachting circles this season took place last week when Joy Morton purchased from Ogden T. McClure the steam yacht Sea Fox.”  

The Tribune went on to report that both owners were Chicago Yacht Club members. Ogden McClure was grandnephew of Chicago’s wealthy—but childless—first mayor, William B. Ogden, and son of famed publisher and bookseller A.C. McClurg.

Mayor William B. Ogden.

The 120-foot steamer was one of the best-known pleasure boats on the Great Lakes and part of the Chicago Yacht Club squadron; Joy’s first excursion in it was to Mackinac Island during the July 1910 annual race.

The Mortons were also selling the Groveland Park house at this time and moving to the country. Joy had purchased 2,000 acres near the western suburb of Lisle, 25 miles west of the city, which he christened Thornhill Farm, a name later to gain fame as the site of the Morton Arboretum. He commissioned the distinguished architectural firm Holabird & Roche to design an appropriate house to be his fine country estate.

As a gentleman farmer, Joy followed the family tradition of involvement in horticulture and experimentation with scientific husbandry. He raised  Yorkshire pigs, Holstein cattle and Dorset sheep. But always in his mind was the thought of leaving a tangible public legacy, and what could be more appropriate than trees in a grand form. It was a thought that was taking shape and beginning to gel in his mind at the time of the move.

The Morton house at Thornhill Farm in the early days.

But there was sadness at the Morton household. After some years as an invalid, Joy’s wife, Carrie, died in December 1915. During the final 17 years of her life, Carrie’s nurse and companion had been Margaret Gray, a registered nurse who became an entrenched member of the Morton household. Thirteen months after Carrie’s death, Margaret and Joy were married at the house of his daughter, Jean Cudahy; Joy’s son, Sterling II, and his wife, Preston, accompanied the couple on their honeymoon to China and Japan.

The thoughts of a public legacy had solidified by November 1921, when Joy announced he had given 419 of his Thornhill Farm acres to develop an arboretum rivaling “the finest in the world.” In making the announcement, the son of the founder of Arbor Day announced, “I shall endow the arboretum so that it always will be able to carry on the work planned for it. Work on the project has been going on for some time, and already 40,000 evergreens have been transplanted. I expect it to be open to the public inside of two years.”

Joy Morton.

Joy enlisted the guidance oCharles Sprague Sargent, director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, and he involved his now grown children, Jean and Sterling. To ensure “long-term continuity of leadership,” a total of seven family members and two Morton Salt executives were appointed to life terms on the board of trustees. By the end of Joy’s life, the Morton Arboretum would consist of 735 acres, and expansion would ultimately reach more than 1,700.

Charles Sprague Sargent. 

Joy immediately authorized Professor Sargent to begin acquiring books for the arboretum library; many important private English libraries were being dispersed after World War I, making the early 1920s an excellent time to secure fine volumes. These, combined with books from the family’s existing works, provided the basis for the library’s early collections.  

The original Morton Arboretum library.

By 1927, when Joy was 72, Morton Salt was marketing 600,000 tons of evaporated salt a year as well as 400,000 tons of rock salt from mines in New York, Michigan, Kansas, and Louisiana. In 1934, the company purchased the Canadian Salt Company Ltd., and West India Chemicals, a salt corporation in the Bahamas.     

With his genuine knack for business, Joy was involved in many companies in addition to serving as president and chairman of the Morton Salt Company board. And he was consistently responsible for many innovations introduced to the salt industry. But he was also president of the Morton Building Corporation and a director of the boards of Chicago and Alton Railroad Company, Western Cold Storage, Inc., the American Hominy Company, the Wyoming Central Irrigation Company, the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York, and the Continental and Commercial National Bank.

He served on the Chicago Plan Commission for more than 30 years and helped support the University of Chicago’s research on Native American culture in central Illinois as well as many community service organizations.

Joy Morton planting a tree, as he so often had since boyhood.

Joy’s life came to a conclusion in the spring of 1934. He had enjoyed robust health for many years, and had recently returned from two months in Phoenix, Arizona, and Hot Springs, Arkansas, spending most of the day of his death, May 10, at his Chicago office. He returned home to Thornhill Farm that evening complaining of fatigue and shortly collapsed of a fatal heart attack. He was 78.

Joy had lived to see his tangible legacy, Morton Arboretum, become a compelling attraction for the thousands who visited annually to view its 3,300 separate varieties of plants from throughout the world. The gardens incorporated features from such celebrated horticultural attractions as Kew Gardens outside London, the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and the Tervuren in Brussels.

When Joy’s widow, Margaret Gray Morton, died in 1940, the former nurse left more than $2 million to what is now Northwestern Memorial Hospital as well as other bequests including more than $100,000 to the arboretum.

Coming Up: Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series on The Mortons will continue next week with David Adler and the Cudahys.


The rear lawn of 275 Sussex Lane, Lake Forest.

Photo Credit:

Select images courtesy of the Sterling Morton Library

The Morton Arboretum.

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl