The Elmwood Fall Festival: Then and Now

fair_sign 10.17When I was growing up in Elmwood in the 1940s and 50s, the first week of September was a special time. I argued with my parents that the school board should call off classes so kids could spend as much time as possible on the kiddie cars or merry-go-round. Besides, who wanted to diagram more sentences or fill in more workbooks? In the late 40s, I felt kids needed more time on the Ferris wheel or to work on our soap box derby racers which we ran down “hospital hill.”

When my class was over, I’d head to Central Park to watch the grease-smudged carnival workers putting the Ferris wheel together, piece by piece. I was always amazed about how easy it was for workers to erect a large tent for the American Legion Bingo games. Members of the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches served meals from lunch through dinner or when they ran out of food in their tents. On Saturday night, the last day of the festival, adults would hang around until at least 11 pm when one lucky kid pulled out the winning ticket for a new Nash Rambler or a Kaiser-Fraser automobile. Throughout the 40s and 50s the Elmwood American Legionnaires used the car raffle to buy new swings in West Park or to replace the plates in the diamond at Sweet Water Park.


Last week as I walked about Central Park I began to wonder when the Fall Festival began and who started it. Thank goodness for microfilms of the Gazette. A group of businessmen met in the Elmwood city council chambers in August 1890. Fred Jay, a local grocer and president of the school board, was named chairman. This “ball of fire” had stepped forward to head several community projects over the years so he was a good choice. After much discussion, Jay rose and spoke confidently, “I’ve heard enough. I’m going public.”

Let me paint a picture of what the town would have been like over 125 years ago: a population of about 2,000, dirt roads, no electricity, cisterns, outdoor toilets and no cars. Leisure activities were limited.

Three weeks after the first meeting, a second was held in Liberty Hall to organize. A number of farmers strongly supported the idea and said if “Elmwood fails to organize a fair association, all responsibility will be attached to the town.” A successful farmer in Trivoli Township said “Elmwood cannot afford to let this opportunity pass.” He was ready to invest $100 for four shares of stock.

The editor of the newspaper admitted that some naysayers were concerned that the fair would lose money, but he was a strong proponent. “This is a matter that will benefit us all alike…Elmwood must and will have a fair.”

During most of 1891, the newspaper promoted the inaugural fair, running Tuesday through Friday evening during the first full week of September 1891. According to the Gazette, “The first Annual Fair closed Friday evening. The crowd during the week was large – 5,000 being present Thursday. The exhibit was fine, the weather could not have been better, the racing was exciting, the premiums will be paid in full and all went away satisfied. The total receipts amounted to $2,000, enough to pay all the expenses and pay off indebtedness of $700.” This is the first mention that horse racing was the main attraction. The editor the next week said, “The racing was more satisfactory than any had ever seen at a local fair in this region.”

The description of the second annual fair clearly indicates that it was more than merely a horse race, including many exhibits of home grown or home made products like jellies, preserves, bread and cakes than a year earlier. Even the merchants began to showcase their goods: Charles Potts displayed his latest four-button suits, Edson Smith showed off the latest coal-burning cook stove, and Fred Jay promoted canned tomatoes from the local canning factory. The second year was more like a county fair.

The third fair, held in 1893, advertised cash premiums, and the Association was granted privileges to operate games of chance, the first reference to gambling.

During the fourth year of operation (1894) the cash premiums climbed from $3000 to $5000 and the price of admission from 25 to 35 cents per person. At the same time, the number of days of operation mushroomed. The grounds were used almost every week of the year when the weather was suitable. In addition, many of Elmwood’s acclaimed Fourth of July activities were moved from Central Park to the Grounds so horse racing became a big part of the festivities.

As the years went by, the Fair Grounds provided a venue for high school athletic competition for the area as well as a place where traveling circuses could perform. A well-known horseman, Mark Field, attended a fair and remarked, “While Peoria was tussling with Springfield for the State Fair, the sprightly town of Elmwood was industriously working up its own fair and so closely attended to its knitting that it has this year risen to the dignity of the Peoria county fair town.” (Elmwood Gazette, Sept. 20, 1894.)

Trouble surfaced in the March 28, 1901 issue of the paper: “It is whispered that the Elmwood fair this year will be run without any bar or gambling games of any kind – that even the pool sellers will be barred and the cigar spindle man will be cast into the outer darkness.”

By October 15, 1903, the newspaper covered an important meeting of the Elmwood Fair Association, reporting the fair will be discontinued and the land and buildings will be sold to the highest bidder.

Raymond Troth, an old timer, (1883-1960) remembered the downfall of the Elmwood Fair in his memoirs written in 1959. “The Elmwood Fair is an event of the past. It was very nice in its day and well patronized by the public and the community. The exhibits were excellent. Good harness racing was one of the major attractions…It was here I heard my first transcribed playing record. One had to listen through ear phones. I thought it was wonderful. The saloon finally got a foothold on the grounds, then gambling. Temperance people boycotted such doings and the fair fizzled out.”

Each day, when you drive north out of town, remember the appropriateness of the sign which reads “Fairground Acres,” probably the birth place of the Elmwood Fall Festival.

October 2018

Ringling Brothers in Princeville and Elmwood?

Circus photoIn 1889 the schedule for the Ringing Brothers and Van Amburgh’s Combined Circus and Menagerie was confined to Wisconsin and Illinois, moving from north to south, south to north. Leaving their headquarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin, on May 4, they performed in little towns 10 to 20 miles apart returning to end their season in Lodi, Wisconsin, October 15.

While crisscrossing the two states primarily in horse-drawn wagons (circus trains came a year later), the circus performed in 140 towns, which involved putting on 140 grand parades and 280 shows under the Big Top. That year, management tried an experiment: could they perform in a different community every day of the week, except Sunday, without falling behind the schedule or losing money?


The story begins in Central Illinois, first in Princeville on July 5 and one day later in Elmwood. Since both towns had almost identical populations (2,000), one would expect that the circus would attract a similar number of patrons from each town, but it didn’t. In Princeville the box office sold $200 worth of tickets from the afternoon show and $138.75 from the evening performance – quarters from children and half dollars from adults. Ringling Brothers had a profit of $207.90.

As the Princeville patrons headed back to their homes after the evening show was over, the circus staff of over 200 full- and part-time workers dismantled the Big Top about the size of a full-sized basketball court, took down the bleachers and folding chairs and began feeding and watering the animals: 110 horses and ponies, 1 giraffe, 3 elephants, 2 leopards, 1 American panther, 3 lions, 1 kangaroo, 1 hyena, a stork, and cages of both monkeys and birds. Without a public water system at that time, the workers relied on dug wells or creeks, a task that must have been overwhelming. The staff was in a big hurry that evening because it would take over two hours on dirt roads to reach Elmwood where they would perform the next day.

They had an enormous amount of work to finish before they would be ready for the next performance. Once done, the staff found spots in a wagon where they could sleep. When they reached Elmwood, they had to raise the Big Top in the dark, assemble several smaller tents where the performers would eat their meals (their hot breakfast was served at 6:30) and dress for the parade at 10 a.m. (Before World War I, the U. S. Army spent considerable time studying circus logistics, and adapted many of their methods while fighting the Axis powers in Europe. The key to the circus’ success was standardization.)

On July 6 in Elmwood (or any typical day the circus was open) the day started at 10 a.m. with a free parade that began at the Hurff farm north of town (the current site of Maple Lane Country Club) and travelled south down Magnolia Street for a mile on a dirt road to Central Park. Along the parade route little children sat on the grass beside the dirt road and were mesmerized by an elephant. In the business district where the merchants were busy, Fred Jay, the grocer, was peddling his wares, Potts’ Haberdashery was featuring a sale on Sunday- go- to- church straw hats, and the livery stable was full of horses ridden from Yates City, Oak Hill, Maquon, or Gilson. As the circus procession reached Central Park, the band climbed the steps to the ornate Victorian bandstand where the musicians broke into Yankee Doodle and the Battle of Hymn of the Republic followed by other pieces appropriate for the day. For a time, the jugglers and clowns with their monkeys circled the bandstand while youngsters and their parents were drawn to the cages of wild animals – the lions and tigers and the giraffe, animals that few, either adults or children, had ever seen before.

If the parade was a success, the little ones and their parents were awestruck by what they saw, the amazement continuing into the Big Top at 2 or 7 p.m. Before each show began, patrons could listen to a band concert or tour the menagerie, all included in the price of admission. The Ringmaster introduced the opening act, welcoming children of all ages to the first event – a colorful parade of animals, jugglers, and clowns. For two hours awestruck visitors watched aerialists swinging from one high wire to another, bareback riders galloping their horses around the rings at break neck speed, and silly clowns teasing members of the audience. The program ended with a rowdy version of the national anthem.

As the crowds were leaving the show, the Ringling management was checking the books: $806 in ticket sales, $227 in expenses, and $679 in profit. Meanwhile the grounds crew had started taking down the Big Top and loading their wagons for a leisurely ride to Canton where they would rest for one day (a Sunday) and perform on July 8.

On that one Saturday in 1889, people streamed into Elmwood from the countryside, eager to be awed. None left disappointed. The show was “acknowledged by all as superior to any one of its kind now traveling. This was magic. The viewers were separated from the performers, not only by the ring, but also by that indefinable barrier that divides the ordinary from the extraordinary….” “The circus has come and gone,” the Elmwood Gazette said. ”This circus will not be the last to visit our fair city, but it was our first… The press and the public have “pronounced that this is the largest and best circus and menagerie they have ever seen.”

Before Ringling Brothers went on to amaze the nation, they first amazed two small towns in Central Illinois. They came and went, but we remembered.


The author is indebted for background material on the Ringling Brothers Circus at the special collections and rare book room at Milner Library, Illinois State University, Normal, Ill. and the photo of a giraffe in a cage from the collection of Ivan Henry from

In writing this piece, the author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Arissa Huffcutt, the 2017 valedictorian of Elmwood High School in Elmwood, Illinois, currently completing her freshman year at Brigham Young University, studying neuroscience.

Chapter Two Elmwood, Illinois — July 4, 1900 Independence Day Celebration

Elmwood downtown 1880Since he played the clarinet in the American Band, Nelson Dean Jay, seventeen years old, took his place to the right of the conductor, sitting on a wooden folding chair beside Frank Shively, a skilled carpenter on his right, and Earl Runyon, a butcher on his left. Joking with his friends, Jay placed the music on his stand and opened his instrument case.

The musicians were located in Central Park on the second floor of the bandstand, covered with gingerbread, and shaded by tall elms for which the town was named. The park was surrounded by various merchants: Ellis Brothers’ Hardware and Tinware; the Palace Meat Market; Snyder’s Livery and Feed Stable; Turner’s Boot and Shoe Store; and Clinch, Schenck & Lott, Bankers.

The twenty-odd musicians were all dressed in black band uniforms and black hats; some teenagers, others gray-haired townspeople, who practiced twice a week in the city council chambers above the Neptune Fire Department. Practicing took a lot of time, but the members enjoyed performing for their friends and neighbors on special occasions or being invited to play in surrounding towns like Brimfield or Canton.

Central Park was filled with hundreds of people, waiting for the concert to begin.


Elmwood was a community of 2,000 situated in the central part of the state, twenty miles west of Peoria, a river town with more than 50,000 and twenty miles east of Galesburg, the railroad town with about 10,000. It was an area served by dirt roads. Local farmers raised hogs, cattle, corn, beans, and hay, and pulled wooden farm implements with teams of horses. Families lived hard lives, mostly worked with little pleasure. Unlike other small towns in the area, Elmwood wasn’t merely a farming community because it also had a coal mine, paper mill, canning factory, and other small businesses employing several hundred people. It had more than sixty retail merchants.

Most everyone was thrifty, saving their money, hoarding used paper grocery sacks and rolls of twine, and growing big vegetable gardens. Jay’s father once raised five acres of potatoes. Vacations were unheard of except for visiting relatives. No one had an automobile. In an 1899 newspaper, the sighting of an automobile that week in town made the news. At the turn of the century, the Jay family took occasional trips to see their relatives in Oklahoma and Kansas by train, but only once for a genuine vacation. A group of couples from town, including Jay’s parents, took a trip to Niagara Falls. Many folks lived within this 50-75 mile area all their lives without traveling even as much or as far away as the Jays. No one went to Florida in the winter or to Europe at the end of a successful career.

Although he had electricity in his home as early as 1890, the family didn’t yet have all the modern conveniences, and still had to rely on an outhouse behind their home. If they actually knew anyone who had a telephone to call, young Jay had to trudge five blocks to Quigley’s Drug Store to stand in line to use the only public phone in town. The high points of Jay’s life were Presbyterian Sunday School picnics in a cattle pasture along the Kickapoo Creek or taking bumpy train rides to Galesburg to shop at “The Big Department Store: O.T. Johnsons.”


As Jay waited for H.M. Kilpatrick, the full-time undertaker part time-conductor to raise his baton, the boy stared out at the large audience. Besides those seated on the park benches, dozens of couples strolled, hand in hand, on the wooden sidewalk – the men in white shirts, suspenders and straw hats, the women wearing long frilly dresses, large fluffy silk hats, and twirling light-colored parasols. Buggies circled Central Park, the riders going round and round, trying to catch a breeze or two, while listening to the American Band, a local favorite for more than 50 years.

The buzz of the crowd became silent when the conductor began with a rousing version of Sousa’s “Manhattan Beach.” The audience showed their obvious pleasure, tapping their feet and humming the melody. Peering out of the bandstand, Jay could see his grandmother, a widow, sitting beside his two sisters – Margretta, now fifteen, and Frances, his favorite, who was nine years old.

His grandfather, Nelson Dean Jay, had died five years before, having been first a Methodist and next a Presbyterian preacher, later a real estate developer, and finally a Democratic politician, twice representing Peoria County in the Illinois legislature. With her influential husband’s passing, Grandma Jay spent her time working in the church and taking care of her grandchildren.

As the applause for the Sousa number came to an end, Jay could hear a train just two blocks away on the C. B. & Q. tracks, heading west first for Yates City and later for Galesburg. Jay glanced at his watch. The engineer had better hurry.

The conductor whispered a few words to a horn player and turned the pages to “My Old Kentucky Home.” Since Elmwood was founded by New Englanders, the song was not a particular favorite with the audience, whose parents and grandparents had been members of the Underground Railroad. When the conductor raised his baton, the band began to play once again.


Across the street, Jay could see his Dad standing in front of his grocery store, wearing a white apron and a bow tie, his name emblazoned between the first and second floors of his store: “Fred D. Jay.” Nothing indicated that he sold groceries and some dry goods as well as served as the postmaster, when the Democrats were in control, and sold insurance when the Republicans were in the White House. Dean liked to work in the store, picking up mail from the trains at the depot, sweeping the floor or even stocking shelves. He loved to be around people.

Nelson Dean Jay Sr., who had only a few years of formal education, must have been very proud of his three boys; how many fathers could brag in 1900 that two of his three children had graduated from college? Fred, although he never went to college like his brothers, was a successful grocer who settled in Elmwood, one brother became a physician and the other an educator. Jay’s father, Fred, married Elizabeth “Lizzy” Buchanan who came to Illinois from Pennsylvania. She was a distant relative of the former President, and before her marriage she taught in a one- room country school.

Like most women of her day, Elizabeth Jay stood in the shadows of her husband and his career, but she was active in women’s activities in town. She was a member of the Elmwood Philosophical Society which met periodically to hear talks on “The American Poets” and “The English Language.” She sometimes entered flowers from her garden in competition at the Elmwood Fair and served as president of the Cemetery Improvement Society. She was recording secretary of the Elmwood Women’s Club which planted flowers in the parks and raised money for playground equipment. Soon after Fred and Liz were married, they built a modest home in 1888 on Magnolia Street, probably the nicest area in town, just a few blocks north of the business district. The houses on Magnolia came in irregular sizes, some quite large, others rather modest. The Jay property was modest, located between two larger homes. So the Jays were not wealthy, but lived in the same neighborhood, surrounded by leaders of the community.

Fred Jay was not only a successful businessman, but a mover and a shaker in town, belonging to many organizations and serving as an officer in several. A visitor called Fred “clever” for placing the post office in his grocery store, attracting people who wanted to buy stamps or mail letters, but who otherwise might not go to his store. Fred served on the local school board for eight years, worked on several committees in his church and participated in the Odd Fellow and Masonic lodges. He was a community promoter who often served as master of ceremonies at such activities as alumni banquets or Fourth of July celebrations.

Fred knew the value of supporting local businesses which provided jobs to his customers. When a local paper mill burned down, he signed a petition to encourage its return. Fred loved the American Band, and along with others, contributed money to keep the concerts going and to bring vaudeville acts to Elmwood. When money was needed to open another seam of coal at the Elmwood mine, Fred raised funds to help the mine operator. When the city installed its first fifteen street lights at a total cost of $500, he put his share in the hat, saying “The town couldn’t afford to grope about in the dark much longer.”


After the band began playing Mackie’s “Cracker Jack,” Jay, the seventeen year old high school senior, was daydreaming about what he might do for the rest of the day. He might watch the greased pig contest later that afternoon, but he couldn’t imagine what he would do with a pig if he caught it. When the temperature dropped, he hoped to ride in the three-mile bicycle race where the first prize was “Three dollars’ worth of goods from any store in Elmwood.” He could use the $3 for a new straw hat that he had seen in the window of Charles, Potts and Company, the haberdashers. He loved clothes. Unknown to him, years later, he would enjoy traveling each year to London where his tailor showed him the latest fashions in men’s clothing.

After eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and apple pie at the “Congo” (Congregational) Church, all for 25 cents, that evening he’d probably go see “Edison’s Kinetoscope and Concert Company.” As it was described on the poster: “Showing Edison’s very latest and up-to-date attractions. Canvas will be stretched in the Public Square where all can see Admiral Deweys [sic] Grand Reception in New York, the Heroic Charge of San Juan Hill; Spanish Bull Fight, and a score of other attractions including the JEFFRIES -SHARKEY FIGHT in full life motion.” They all sounded exciting, far from his experiences in a small town in central Illinois.

After seeing that silent show, he might daydream about the rest of his life. Would he ever see a bull fight in Spain? Would he ever go to Coney Island? What career would help him reach his dreams?

There were many reasons why Jay’s future might be bright. No one knew how bright, but he had good role models: a popular, well-respected grandfather and two successful uncles, one a physician and the other an educator. Jay’s father may not have been a college graduate, but he was a popular merchant who exposed his son to hard work and to the importance of being involved in the community. Jay had learned much just by watching his father.

As for the immediate future, Jay was debating between becoming a haberdasher, because he liked clothes, or going to college, because his family had greater aspirations for him. He had one year to decide.

— Karl K. Taylor, Copyright 2012

Writing, Just for the Heck of It

Dad Modern Woodmen

The author in his home office. Photo provided by The Modern Woodmen magazine.

It’s my daughter’s fault. She’s responsible for ruining my retirement. I’ve had no trips to Europe, few days to go fishing, and fewer days to sleep late. I spend my free time working at the computer.

You see, the story began when I caught Amy rifling through some papers on my desk. “What are these?” she asked.

“Nothing that would interest you. Just a bunch of stories about growing up in the fifties and sixties.”

A few days later she called, saying, “Dad, these are really interesting.  Others need to read them.”

“Amy, I don’t think anyone would look at them unless they came from Elmwood, Illinois.”

“Dad, your stories are universal. Most of Garrison Keillor’s audience has never been to Lake Woebegone or a place like it. Maybe no one will be attracted to Elmwood, sixty years ago, but I’ll set up a blog, and we’ll see what happens, just for the heck of it. Doesn’t take much time.  Doesn’t cost a dime.”


“I’m 78 years old, wise enough to know what will interest readers. She’s in her forties, still wet behind her ears.  What could she possibly know? And besides, what in the world is a blog?”

My stories began appearing on the blog for the first time about two years ago. Since Amy knows how to put them on the internet, she can monitor how many people read a story, but also where they reside, and how often they return to read another story. It’s exciting to see the numbers grow and satisfying to know how many people are interested in what I have to say. By the first of the month Amy and I are on the phone discussing the latest statistics: how many readers, from how many different places? What did they like—or dislike? If I don’t make my self-imposed deadline of one new story- a-month, I receive a call from my son: “Your readers are waiting. You can’t let them down.”


“Well,” you ask, “What do you write about that attracts an audience?” I’ve dealt with a range of subjects, everything from my yellow 2000 BMW convertible entitled “The Chick Car,” to tales about people who weren’t particularly important, but were to me. They did something for me or taught me something, or simply made life more enjoyable.  Unfortunately, they were gone before I thought about them as worthy subjects.

My audience fell in love with “Helen Hart Metz,” who taught me how to write, and they had great respect for “Miss Roma Shively, a Short Woman in a Tall World.” She was a “spinster” eighth grade teacher who felt students should spend more time learning about local history than memorizing the principal crops of Delaware. (Remember that stuff?) My audience identified with Don Gronewold, the full-time pharmacist and part-time mayor who grew up on a farm and walked two miles to a one-room school house in the forties. In Don’s case, we included a picture of him, standing behind his soda fountain, mixing a delicious chocolate shake. Lots of people identified with my story entitled “The Wednesday Night Drawing at the Palace Theater,” because they could remember when small town movie theaters had cash prizes for anyone who was present and whose name was drawn from a drum.

So, was Amy right? Did anyone care to read my short stories? In a little over two years, my blog has attracted more than 6,000 unique visitors who have come back multiple times. (Trust me, I don’t have that many friends and relatives.) The greatest number of views came from the United States (8,623), but we have had almost 200 from Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Ireland, Spain, New Zealand, France, Germany, U. S. Virgin Islands, Norway, Russia, and Italy as well as a smattering from 25 other countries across the world. Good stories can be universally relevant.

Why should you spend your retirement years sitting at a computer writing stories? I like to write for the “heck of it.” I find great pleasure in putting down stories that have been running around in my head for years, waiting to be told to my kids and grandkids, to friends and neighbors, even strangers.

It’s satisfying to know that I can explain what my mother was like or how hard my father worked running a grocery store for over thirty years in a small country town. If we don’t put these stories down, they will be gone when we are gone. My stories may not be about people who are famous, but most have stood out, in their own way, in the small towns where they lived, raised families, and made a living. They deserve to be remembered, and if we don’t preserve these precious moments from the past, who will?

Don’t worry about a blog if you aren’t tech savvy. Begin by describing a special memory for a member of your family and stick it in a birthday or Christmas card. Don’t worry about the spelling. You aren’t writing a theme for an English teacher. Then watch their faces. That’s your reward for writing a story for someone special — your readers. They won’t forget your effort, and may remember it for years.


** Originally printed in the October 2017 issue of The Modern Woodmen magazine

Chapter One Galesburg, Illinois – June 6, 1960 Graduation Day at Knox College

Graduation Photo

Dr. Sharvy Umbeck hands the author his bachelor’s degree from Knox College.

Since my last name began with a “T,” I was seated in the first chair of the “T’s.”

To my left was Steve Suzuki of Kobe, Japan, an economics major – no more than five feet tall – wearing wire-rimmed glasses. His face was broad, his smile wide. To my right was Glynne Thomas, a tall, slender woman from New Orleans, with a bright, unusually narrow forehead. She was African-American, one of only a handful in the class. All seniors, 150 of us were sitting on folding chairs, waiting for the 115th commencement exercises to begin on the Knox College campus in Galesburg, Illinois. Midway between Chicago and St. Louis, it was a railroad town, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy tracks running just a few blocks east and south of the campus, the Santa Fe just a few blocks north of the business district.

We were outside on the lawn, protected somewhat from the sun by a canopy of fairly tall maple trees, planted sometime in the 1950s, replacing the diseased elms which had shaded the tall, lanky politician who stood under a huge banner reading: “Knox College for Lincoln.” That was over 100 years before. On each side of the seniors were their parents and friends, some seated with legs crossed, others standing huddled in pairs, passing the time, waiting for the music to begin. This was a middle-aged, middle-income crowd.

The fathers, most gray, some bald, wore light blue two-button seersucker Haspel suits, white shoes, button down white shirts, striped ties, and white leather belts. They looked “preppy.” Some were seated, while others were standing to the sides, talking about the coming election in the fall. “We can’t have a President reporting to the Pope, can we?” said a gentleman from Chicago’s North Shore, answering his own question by the tone of his voice. Others were conversing casually with strangers, inhaling Marlboro or Kent cigarettes. “I’m going to miss Ike,” said another, flicking an ash on the wet grass. “Nothing like his Interstates to get around Chicago.”

The ladies in the audience — mothers and sisters, grandmothers and fiancées — looked fashionable in silk dresses, nylon hose, high heels, pill-box hats, and of course, white cotton gloves. Quiet, reserved, dignified, they were church-like in their demeanor.

In front and slightly above us was the platform party finding seats reserved for trustees, a couple of administrators, and three dignitaries who were to receive honorary degrees: Chesser Campbell, publisher of the Chicago Tribune; William Benton, chairman of the Encyclopedia Britannica; and Nelson Dean Jay, president, Morgan & Cie.

To the young, bright-eyed seniors, these three honorees looked very old – all in their sixties or seventies – their white hair standing out from the blackness of their robes. They donned their caps, alternately moving their tassels first to the right, then to the left, looking desperately for an authority on proper placement. Then, they sat down: Campbell on the left, Benton in the middle, and Jay on the right.

After the preliminaries, the Dean of the Faculty, Dr. Herman Muelder, a Midwestern historian of some note, introduced the first honoree with his usual scowl. “Nelson Dean Jay, a 1905 graduate of Knox and a faithful alumnus, we confer on you an honorary degree.” Muelder paused, once again, to push his black horn-rimmed glasses up his long nose, and glanced at his script, “for achievements in international commerce, finance and goodwill.” Muelder’s face was expressionless in contrast to the banker’s. Jay beamed.

In his late seventies, about six feet tall, a little thick around the middle, Nelson Dean Jay’s (NDJ’s) most distinguishing characteristics were his white hair, combed back on both sides, and that broad, friendly smile. He truly was “glad to meet you.” He could have been a twin for David McCullough, the famous American historian. In 1960, most people present had read the Tribune, checked something in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but had never heard of Nelson Dean Jay. Then and now, he is virtually unknown in the United States, his name almost forgotten, even at the college from which Jay himself had graduated in 1905.

On June 6, 1960, we seniors were thinking about our future, but Jay may well have been remembering moments from his past. There were certainly memorable ones.


Chaumont, France — June 23, 1918

NDJ, now a Lt. Colonel, was having dinner at the Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force with his friend, Col. Charles Dawes. They were not alone. They had been invited to hear how American soldiers would enter into battle, for the first time, in World War I. They were learning about an important point in history, the battle of Cantigny, from the Commander-in- Chief, General John Pershing, standing before them, looking at a large map, pointing to critical bridges, important highways.


     There was that day when the Jays bought their weekend retreat.

Fontainebleau, France–Sometime in 1922

Fontainebleau, a city of 35,000, is located 34 miles southeast of Paris. The city has been well-known for centuries for its large, scenic forest and for the historic Chateau, once belonging to the kings of France and often compared favorably to the Palace of Versailles. The Jay home was about a mile from the Chateau with paths leading to the forest where they rode their horses and where, centuries before, royalty went for fox hunts. The two-acre property, surrounded by a high stone wall, consisted of a three-story house built in the 18th century at the time of Napoleon, a gate house for the gardener and his wife, a garage, a stable for their horses and a pavilion for their guests.


     There was that time when he received this note of condolence from a friend:

New York City — January 1, 1929

My dear Mr. Jay,

Ever since the great tragedy which came into your lives last year I have wanted to write you a word of deep sympathy and human understanding. Thus far I have hesitated to intrude upon you with even such a message. On this New Year’s Day, however, my heart prompts me to tell you how truly Mrs. Rockefeller and I have sympathized with you and Mrs. Jay in your great loss, and how gladly we would have helped you bear this sorrow had that been possible…

That the New Year may bring to you and Mrs. Jay the fortitude with which to meet life’s sorrows and heart aches, and that peace may come to your aching hearts is my earnest wish…

(Letter from John D. Rockefeller, Knox College Archives)


     There was the time when Anne went back to the U.S., but Dean stayed in Europe, wondering if they would ever see each other again.

Paris, France — July 4, 1940

Dean Jay had been warned to leave France twice – once in Sept 1939 personally by Ambassador Bullitt when Britain and France declared war on Germany, and on June 12, 1940, by the American Embassy, when the French government began moving its operations out of the city to the south. Instead, Dean Jay decided to stay in Paris, moving most of the bank’s activities to Niort and helping the American Hospital prepare to care for the sick and wounded, first refugees, later soldiers.

Events occurred quickly. On June 12, Paris was surrounded by Panzer Divisions. On June 13, Paris was declared an Open City. On June 14, everyone was waiting for the arrival of Adolf Hitler, whose soldiers were confiscating buildings for their headquarters. Swastikas, red, black, and white, were flying all around the Place Vendome, even next door to NDJ’s office.

On July 4, Dean Jay was not celebrating Independence Day. He was confronted by a member of the Gestapo. “Heil Hitler!” His message to the banker was direct: “You are to report tomorrow to the Vice President of the Reichsbank. You are to bring a copy of all the investments. Authorities will call in a few days to examine all your safe deposit boxes in the presence of a German customs officer.”

“What are you looking for?” Jay asked.

“Gold, convertible currency, unset precious stones and securities.”


     There was the time when he was viewed as more than a banker, something like an elderly statesman.

Amsterdam, Holland — March 18, 1954

Prince Bernhard, the husband of the Queen of the Netherlands, looked particularly striking, wearing his trademark white carnation on the lapel of his colorful uniform. Twenty-eight years older than his host, Dean Jay looked distinguished, nearing the end of a long colorful career.

Bernhard’s motives for seeing Jay aren’t recorded. The Prince may have wanted to “look” the banker over, to verify what others had said about him, or recognizing what others knew, Bernhard may have come directly to the point.

“For the last two or three years, I have been meeting with some key people around the world.” While continuing to talk, the Prince removed a silver cigarette case from his coat pocket and opened it, removing a cigarette, tapping it against the case. He continued. “We began talking to people in Western Europe, as well as the United States. We met with the outgoing members of the Truman, even with some of the new Eisenhower administration.”

The first cigarette was followed by another. The Prince continued, “We are planning a meeting in Holland in May. I am authorized to invite you to that meeting. Jean Monnet says you are just the kind of man we need, someone with a balanced view of America and Europe. Will you join us?”


Galesburg, Illinois – June 6, 1960

Six years later, at the 115th graduation exercises at Knox College, I turned to Steve Suzuki, my classmate, seated next to me, and asked, “Who’s Nelson Dean Jay? Where did he come from? Why haven’t we heard about him before?” Fifty years later, I began answering those questions.

Karl K. Taylor Copyright 2012

Introduction: Lunch with Friends at 58 Avenue Foch

Avenue Foch is situated in one of the most elegant neighborhoods in Paris. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the street is filled with large stone apartment buildings, home for many of the leaders of the city, as well as the nation. In the good times between the wars, the mayor of Paris and the head of the American Hospital lived close by; during World War II, the Avenue housed ranking members of the Gestapo. For years, chauffeured limousines parked in front of 58 Avenue Foch, on the “sunny side” of the street, depositing their passengers on the sidewalk – men often dressed in Brooks Brothers’ suits and highly polished black wing-tipped shoes, their wives in the latest fashion of a French couturier. They had been invited to lunch.

Having left their cars, the guests walked past a high wrought iron fence leading to a glass entrance, where the concierge, a lady in a black dress and white apron, would peer through lace curtains before pressing a button, allowing the guests to enter through the impressive walnut doors. The guests walked down a wide, red-carpeted stairway to a hydraulic lift which rose, ever so slowly, to a single apartment covering the entire fourth floor. There the guests would ring for the butler, Maurice, who would unlock three more elaborate locks and escort them to a vast front hall, where they joined others for drinks and for the chance to meet their hosts: Nelson Dean Jay and his wife, Anne Augustine Jay.

Over fifty years ago, an invitation for lunch at this address was considered by Parisian society to be an honor, perhaps even an event, not just because Jay headed J.P. Morgan for Europe, but also because he and his wife attracted such interesting guests. They might have included a Russian pianist, a French banker, an American diplomat, the CEO of an international company, a British actress, an Italian painter, perhaps even someone from the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) or the CIA. Number 58 Avenue Foch was “the place to be.”

On the surface, Nelson Dean Jay (NDJ) is a peculiar subject for a biography. First, he is nearly forgotten. Second, he was a banker, a profession not known for attracting interesting people.

Jay has been dead for more than 40 years, and no biography has surfaced, just his Times obituary. His employer has forgotten his role in international banking. Although his name is attached to a classroom at his alma mater – “The Jay Recital Hall” – the college president didn’t recognize the significance of his name. A staff member at the school wanted to write his biography decades ago, but the book never materialized probably because Jay was not the sort of person to seek recognition. Even in his hometown, members of the American Legion, who decorate the graves of veterans with small flags on Memorial Day, have ignored his for nearly a half century, never realizing that he was the highest-ranking veteran of World War I buried in the cemetery and the only one honored by four nations for his service to the Allies. Except for very few people, the mention of his name – Nelson Dean Jay – brings a puzzled look.

Even when he was alive, his importance was often overlooked because he was an American who was better known in Europe than in the United States. In spite of spending his 35-year career in Europe, his name appeared in more than 200 articles in the New York papers, sometimes in the headlines. Nelson Dean Jay was not a man who sought public attention, but played such an important role in American and European affairs over his long life that he was frequently mentioned in the press. He was not a political leader or the head of the House of Morgan, but to study his life is to understand the twentieth century in a way that is not possible by considering the life of a head of state or a corporate head.

Never a leading man, figuratively speaking, Jay played a role in many of the most critical events in the last century – World War I, Paris in the Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Many Americans served in World War I, but Jay served on the Commander-in-Chief’s staff. He was not just employed by a bank, but was a partner in one of the most influential banks in the world. Some Americans spent a few weeks or a month in Paris during the Twenties, yet Jay spent the entire decade there, often mingling with members of the avant-garde: an acquaintance of Ernest Hemingway, one of America’s most famous authors of the twentieth century; a banker for Igor Stravinsky, the well-known composer of The Firebird; and a friend of Nadia Boulanger, the celebrated pianist and music teacher. Toward the end of his career, Jays’ expertise was sought by such people as Allan and John Foster Dulles (the head of the CIA and the Secretary of State, respectively), Jean Monnet (Father of the European Union), and David Rockefeller (an international banker).

Like her husband, Anne Jay was never a leading actress, but she was on the stage, figuratively speaking, playing a part in the drama. Unlike many women of her day, she didn’t fill a mere cameo role. She was a wife and mother, who directed a staff of servants, took her children to school, etc., but she was a participant in her husband’s success. She knew how to “work the crowd,” to follow her husband’s lead while entertaining their guests. Mrs. Jay was an active participant in conversations involving wives as well as their husbands. After three-hour luncheons at Avenue Foch, the Jays and their guests took coffee and brandy in the salon, trying to keep the men and women together, rather than separating them by sex. Anne was always disappointed when the men closed the library doors behind themselves to smoke cigars and discuss “important matters,” leaving her to discuss trivia with those who were perhaps not her intellectual equals. She was a modern woman, fifty or more years ahead of her time, wanting to know what was going on in a wider world beyond her home and her family.

Lunch with Friends is more than a modern version of a Horatio Alger story. A young man from a small town in Illinois graduated from a little known college in the Midwest, left for the big city to seek his fortune, and fell in love with a young woman from a socially prominent family from St. Louis. According to a member of the Jays, he “married up.” His career began by going door-to-door peddling pots and pans on the streets of Galesburg, Illinois, to selling bonds, first in Milwaukee and later in New York, to those with fortunes to invest. Helped by friends, Jay served his country at the highest level, bringing him to the attention of the House of Morgan, where he spent the rest of his career.

By modern standards, Dean and Anne would probably be called old-fashioned: they treated each other with love and respect, worked hard, told the truth, spoke softly, liked classical music, were totally without pretense, drove nothing more conspicuous than a Buick, and even went to church. Although Anne came from a large city and Dean from a small town, they shared similar 19th century Midwestern values: the closely-knit family, a respect for education, a love for gardening and animals, and the recognition that hard work was necessary for a happy, successful life. One is reminded of others who came from the Midwest and espoused those same values: Sam Walton and Dwight Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson and Henry Ford, Warren Buffett and Harry Truman.

As far as I have been able to determine, the Jays never took advantage of others, but Nelson, who wanted his sons to succeed so desperately, may have pushed them too hard, guiding them into careers which drove one away from the family and the other to a career in banking which he found boring. Nelson and Anne were obviously children of the 19th century, but they spent the bulk of their adult lives in the 20th. It was probably a simpler time for those who lived more provincial lives than the Jays, but it would probably not be accurate to say that Nelson and Anne lived in a slow, quiet time in Paris. After reading Lunch with Friends, the reader might consider whether the Jays could find as much success and happiness in the 21st century as they did in the last one – with their values, and society’s rules for playing the game. Their experiences, their relationship with friends, their roles in the heady atmosphere of the times, rendered their experiences meaningful and their story of uncommon value. This book traces their lives.

Preface: Lunch with Friends at 58 Avenue Foch

003Although I saw him once from a distance, I never knew Nelson Dean Jay.

Forty years after it appeared in the New York Times, I read his obituary, called the caretaker to verify that he was buried in the cemetery in Elmwood, Illinois, and went to see the grave site.

I never knew Anne Augustine Jay and have only seen pictures of her.

Another call to Galesburg, Illinois, made me aware that Knox College had useful material:  letters between college presidents and Jay, large professional photographs taken of him in a New York studio, and alumni news releases, going back to 1905, the year when Jay graduated from college.

A week later I dialed “Nelson Dean Jay” in Seattle, Washington, who responded, “I’m a great grandson. You need to talk to my great aunt who knows the whole story.” Thus I began a lengthy e-mail relationship with Cynthia who was in her 80s and shared wonderful stories about the Jays’ years in Paris.

Six months later, Cynthia invited me to Huntington, New York, on the north shore of Long Island to meet her and several of her children who had flown in from across the country. When asked if I were going to write a biography of their grandfather, I didn’t know how to respond.

After dinner, Cynthia invited me into her library, where we sat in wing-back chairs beside the fireplace. While she was reading aloud from a letter sent from Paris in 1920, she urged me to sort through a cardboard box filled with material from her attic…  I looked down at a large engraved invitation from General Charles De Gaulle, inviting the Jays to a luncheon for the new President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.  In the upper right hand corner someone had scribbled “accepted.”

Several months later, my wife and I flew to Bow, Washington, along the Pacific coast where  another grandson, George Jay,  stacked forty pounds of memorabilia on his dining room table and spent two days telling us stories about his grandparents.  By now, I was thinking seriously about writing a biography.

As I began visiting and corresponding with libraries, I found more and more to convince me there was a story to be told. At the National Archives in St. Louis I saw Jay’s war records beside those of his friend Charles Lindbergh.  I was awed with what I found at the McCormick Library at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois; reports typed on yellowed onion skin paper from General Charles Dawes to General John Pershing, concerning the weekly activities of Lt. Colonel Dean Jay.

I flew to New York City, spending several days at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library not far from Fifth Avenue, reading letters written between J.P. Morgan and Dean Jay during the Great Depression, some addressed to “Dear Dean,” and signed “Jack.”  At the Harvard University Library I read letters from other Morgan partners who were impressed by NDJ’s work.  I reviewed correspondence from additional academic libraries – the Dwight Morrow letters at Amherst College, and the Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh correspondence at Yale University.  The aviator and his wife were invited to stay in the Jay home in Fontainebleau to avoid the hordes of admirers.  I was convinced.

Along the way, I read some books on the time period, but the strength of this biography rests, however, on the primary sources, which have allowed me to describe, in some detail, the lives of two Americans whose acquaintances included the rich and famous, the important and the noteworthy, by virtue of his position as an international banker.  The family documents included hundreds of personal letters between Anne and Dean when they were apart, and their children while attending school or serving in World War II.  Anne’s cryptic notes and Dean’s journal were also helpful.  According to the family, Anne transferred notes from her calendar to four small spiral rimmed notebooks, indicating when, where, and with whom they had lunch or dinner from the early 1920s to her death in the 1970s.  After he retired, Dean compiled his thoughts in a journal, probably from memory, on his work at Morgan & Cie.

With this material, readers are able to glimpse inside the relationship between NDJ and important people as well as to visualize the details of family life.  Readers will enjoy Dean’s letter to Anne describing the celebrations in Paris when World War I ended, or when NDJ, like any ordinary father, reminded his teenage son to wear warm clothing when crossing the Atlantic. Other readers will be amused to hear Anne’s newsy comments to her family describing fashion or the lack of it in Paris in 1945, or her feelings about one of Ruth Draper’s dramatic performances or about a Berlin Philharmonic concert. In short, while Dean is talking about the problem of the German debt or rate of inflation, Anne is musing on the problems of running their household, raising their children, and planning their next dinner party. There is something here for those readers who are interested in his story as well as for those who are attracted to hers.

To help the reader grasp his position in time, I have inserted brief time-lines at the beginning of some chapters, putting the Jays in the foreground and projecting them against the historical background. At the end of the book, I have highlighted several special relationships, describing some people who were important to the Jays, but whose tales, however interesting, would detract from the narrative, including stories about Edward Stettinius, Sr., Ruth Draper, Betty Draper, and the Lindberghs.  Like other modern biographers, I have used a bit of non-fiction narrative to give Nelson and Anne the opportunity to speak for themselves.  Those moments are rare, and I make clear in the context when I am dealing with fact or using my imagination.


     But why did I write this biography?  Dean Jay and I came from Elmwood, Illinois; graduated from the same high school; and from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois:  Dean in 1905 and I in 1960.  I had heard about him from people in Elmwood over the years, and I went to school with several of his nieces and nephews.  His name was always mentioned with some degree of awe and respect – the hometown boy who had gone on to bigger and better things across the Atlantic, but few people knew much about him. After my retirement I decided to research his life, beginning with reading his obituary in the New York Times.

An obituary is not a biography; however, an obituary is about the most we can expect when we are gone. After examining the Jays’ lives, I had to decide whether an obituary was sufficient or not for the time they spent on this earth.  It was not.

Karl K. Taylor Copyright 2012