By Megan McKinney
William Wood-Prince in the Union Stock Yards, 1953.
House of Armour: The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties
During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible
Under the leadership of Frederick H. Prince, Armour & Company was able to respond to the sharp increase in demand for its products during World War II. But Prince was now in his mid-80s and wishing for a family member who could be groomed to take over his extensive properties. His remaining son, Frederick H. Jr., was an affable Virginia polo player, huntsman and gentleman farmer with no interest in participating his father’s business.
Frederick Prince Jr. during his Lafayette Escadrille days.
However, there was a distant cousin with whom Prince had great rapport, the St. Louis-born and Tuxedo Park-raised William Henry Wood. For many years, Fred had taken a fatherly interest in Billy Wood, and he had included the young cousin in summers and other holidays at his Massachusetts estate, as well as at the properties at Biarritz and Pau.
The two men — a half century apart in age — fox hunted and played polo together, and had been companions at baccarat, tennis and yachting. During these activities throughout the years, Fred had discussed business while the younger man carefully listened. Therefore, in 1944, when 30-year-old Billy was an artillery captain stationed at New Caledonia, Cousin Fred wrote him with a plan, which included adoption.
Billy Wood-Prince fox hunting.
The promising young banker, a product of Groton and Princeton, was an accomplished horseman and a world champion in squash. Although he had no experience in his benefactor’s meatpacking and stockyard interests, Prince determined that Billy possessed a natural aptitude that could be shaped to give him the skills to eventually administer the immense Prince empire. In exchange for agreeing to legal adoption and the addition of Prince to his surname, the newly christened William Wood-Prince — or Billy, as he was invariably known — became Fred Prince’s successor.
Billy was not the only Wood who became an instant Wood-Prince. In 1940, he had married Eleanor Edwards, a young Cincinnati-born widow who had been living in France with her French husband, Claude Barrelet, until his sudden death in the 1930s. After marrying 23-year-old Eleanor, Billy adopted her son, Alain, and eventually they would have two more sons, William Jr. and Alexander.
Eleanor Edwards Wood-Prince would become one of the great ladies of Chicago and Newport.
Wood-Prince, who was quick to state that he had never studied economics or commerce, recalled the many hours he spent with his older cousin at the various Prince estates as he was maturing: “I suppose whatever business judgment I may have was developed in those long talks with Cousin Fred. We used to ride together, and he would be talking about financial matters — even when I was too young to understand — and all of a sudden he would turn his horse and gallop back to the stables and phone the office to buy a railroad or sell one. He was thinking all the time.”
A small segment of the Central Manufacturing District, which was itself merely a portion of the vast Prince empire.
It developed that Prince’s judgment was as astute in identifying a successor as in financial affairs. In 1947, Billy became trustee of Prince’s Central Manufacturing District, and two years later, he was named president of his Union Stock Yard and Transit Co., which would develop into a conspicuously brilliant stroke.
Early in 1949, Lester Armour unexpectedly became a figure in the news. Forty-eight years previously he had been one of the two grandsons P.D. had so doted upon, and with whom the patriarch had been playing in the snow in January 1901 when he caught the fatal cold. And it was Lester, with his brother, Philip D. III, who had joined the two Lolitas in putting together money to save the Armour name when Ogden lost everything. After that, he slipped back into welcome anonymity. Then, in mid-January 1949, Lester’s name emerged publicly again when newspapers noted that his wife, the former Leola Stanton and mother of their five grown children, had left for Reno, then a customary destination for wives in unhappy marriages. After spending six weeks establishing Nevada residence at a nearby dude ranch, a discontented spouse could dissolve her union almost immediately, which is what Leola Armour did, charging mental cruelty and receiving a divorce with an undisclosed property settlement on February 24.
Inexperienced in the ways of the notorious Union Stock Yards, Billy Wood-Prince observed its problems from an original point of view. After watching the laborious unloading of a shipment of hogs, with workers goading the reluctant creatures down a cleated ramp with poles, prods and electric buzzers, he analyzed the difficulty and replaced the traditional ramp with steps specifically designed for the short-legged animals. Amazingly, from that day forward stockyard hogs danced happily down the stairway to their grisly fate. Wood-Prince followed by making similar low-tech changes but also in pouring $2 million into new technology, such as electronic weighing devices, which succeeded in moving his Union Stock Yards into the mid-20th century.
Exterior view of Prince’s International Amphitheatre.
Also under his umbrella was the Prince-owned International Amphitheatre, adjacent to the Stock Yards, and Billy shrewdly spent another $3 million on enlarging and air-conditioning the facility. At the time, mammoth expanses suitable for political conventions, with temperature control and facilities for press and broadcast media, were rare.
The 1952 Democratic National Convention at Chicago’s International Amphitheatre.
So rare that, following the Wood-Prince modernization, both the Republicans and Democrats held their national conventions at his Amphitheatre in 1952, and it would become home to one or the other repeatedly over the next decade and a half. This was a studied move on Billy’s part; during each convention, he hosted the nation’s most influential men in his private dining facilities, where he talked with them not about politics but rather issues concerning stockyards and meatpacking.
Throughout much of this time, Wood-Prince was a director of Armour & Company and he continued to spend long periods consulting his adoptive father, usually on frequent trips to France; he was with Fred Prince at the older man’s death in Biarritz on February 2, 1953.
The descendants of P.D.’s brother Watson Armour and Texas maverick Shanghai Pierce were continuing to prosper. Riches from Shanghai’s huge spread, shared by Lacy Withers Armour and her sister, Mary Withers Runnells, had mushroomed when the initial oil strike was followed by others, revealing that the Pierce Ranch was sitting on top of one the great oil pools of Texas. Because both couples had Chicago connections — the Runnells with the Pullman Company, in which Clive followed his father as a top executive — they acquired estates in suburban Lake Forest, where they lived as neighbors, as they did at the Pierce Ranch.
The Laurance Armours’ Lake Forest estate was Two Gables, a Harry Lindeberg-designed mansion with grounds by Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen. After a 1928 fire, the Tudor-style house was renovated by the great architect of country estates David Adler and has remained a North Shore landmark. But it was the Jensen landscaping that would gain widespread notice six decades later, after the property was sold to Mr. T., the fearsome appearing star of television’s The A-Team. Mr. T. committed what The New York Times named “The Lake Forest Chainsaw Massacre” when he ripped out gardens and took a chainsaw to fell more than 100 of its stately oak trees.
Although the Withers sisters shared the same pool of friends, their interests were unalike. Lacy Armour’s chief concerns were in the management and preservation of the Pierce Ranch, as well as in oil exploration and production, leading her to become one of the first women in the nation to run her own oil operation.
Mary Runnells, who spent more than four decades as a widow following Clive’s early death in 1935, was one of the great hostesses of the era. After presiding over a mammoth Christmas Day party in Lake Forest, she flew each year to Casa Contenta, her Billy Baldwin-decorated house at Hobe Sound, to prepare for an annual New Year’s Eve dinner dance, assisted by her butler Edward Everett Tanner III, aka. Patrick Dennis, nephew of Auntie Mame.
Mary Runnells’ Billy Baldwin-decorated house, Casa Contenta.
Summer soirees were held under a tent in the circular driveway of her 18th century antique-filled Lake Forest house, and throughout the fall there were shooting parties at the Pierce Ranch. Mary was known from Santa Barbara to Bar Harbor for her ubiquitous red shoes, French couture replicas by New York’s Chez Ninon and the fine needlepoint she was typically working.
The relationship between the dissimilar Withers girls was cordial until the day both became fixed on the same piece of jewelry, launching a dispute that continued over weeks, months and eventually years. The argument became so heated that, in 1956, Shanghai’s fabulous ranch was split in two and its assets divided, with the Armours driving into the entrance of a portion still identified as the Pierce Ranch and members of Runnells’ family entering a mirror spread renamed the Runnells-Pierce Ranch. The division would continue into the 21st century, with grandsons of the sisters managing their respective properties separately but with skill and seriousness.
House of Armour: The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will conclude in Classic Chicago with next Sunday’s issue.
Next Week in Classic Chicago: The Finale
Robert F. Carl