There is much to be said regarding why Friends of the Parks cares as deeply as we do about preserving and protecting Chicago’s lakefront, because it is an integral part of our origins, development, and current struggles today. This page is designed to give you background on the great A. Montgomery Ward and the historic fight to keep the lakefront “open, clear and free” and protect the Public Trust Doctrine.

“I think there is not another man in Chicago who would have spent the money I have spent in this fight with certainty that gratitude would be denied as interest…I fought for the poor people of Chicago…not the millionaires.”

– A. Montgomery Ward

A. Montgomery Ward

A. Montgomery Ward is probably best remembered as the merchant who invented the mail order catalogue sales business, which enabled thousands of residents in young, rural American to obtain the latest merchandise with a “Cash-on-Delivery” policy. This unique idea of catalogue sales helped the country to grow and prosper, and made the Montgomery Ward Company one of the largest retail firms in the nation.

Yet, A. Montgomery Ward is also known as the man who had the vision and courage to fight and preserve Chicago’s “forever open, clear and free” lakefront park system, thus making Chicago one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Why did this successful businessman engage in a thankless crusade that became the greatest struggle of his life? How did he persevere enduring severe criticism and vilification? To learn that, we must go back to his origins, and see how he came to put his permanent stamp on Chicago and its park system.

Humble Beginnings, Great Aspirations, Tremendous Results

Aaron Montgomery Ward was born on February 17, 1844 in Chatham, New York. Ward’s family moved to Niles, Michigan when he was 9, but life was never easy for the family. His father was a cobbler of modest means, and too often the family had difficulty making ends meet. Ward left home at age 14, and tried his hand at many trades, including making barrels, and as a stockboy at a general store in St. Joseph. After moving to Chicago and working for Mashall Field for two years, he became a road salesman for a St. Louis wholesaler. It was when he was on the road, talking to struggling farmers that he hit on the idea of developing a mail-order catalogue business, selling directly to rural customers for cash. Ward returned to Chicago, and published his first catalogue on a one-page sheet in 1872, quickly seeing his company grow tremendously.

Ward was known for standing behind his products. It was A. Montgomery Ward who coined the phrase “Satisfaction Guaranteed or your Money Back,” and it became the standard for retailers across the country. The company’s slogan “You Can’t Go Wrong When You Deal With Montgomery Ward” transformed him into a symbol of trustworthiness to millions in rural America. Ward was known for treating his customers like family, seeking their ideas on the type of products they would like listed in his catalogue. He wrote countless personal letters, and received many warm responses, as well as sound advice, from his clientele. By 1904, over 3 million catalogues weighing 4 pounds each were being sent to households all across America.

A. Montgomery Ward was also an extremely private man, avoiding the social scene, and shunning public attention. He was also very charitable, making many anonymous gifts of food and coal to the poor, insisting that he should receive no recognition whatsoever for his generosity.

Lakefront Preservation and the Makings of a Park

Chicago had long had a tradition of protecting its lakefront. In 1836, after the decommissioning of Fort Dearborn, citizens petitioned the federal government to set aside 20 acres of Fort Dearborn’s land for a public square. About that same time, Commissioners of the proposed Illinois and Michigan Canal plotted lots near the new Canal, and wrote a proviso that land east of what became Michigan Avenue (to the Lake) and south of Randolph Street to 12th Street should remain “Public Ground – A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or Other Obstruction whatever.”

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, much of the debris from the ruins of the city was dumped along the lakefront at the Illinois Central railroad tracks, creating new landfill. By 1890, the prime real estate was still a muddy mess, but “progress” in the name of new buildings, was being proposed by civic boosters for this site. Mayor Cregier and the City Council wanted to build a civic center on the landfill, as well as a new city hall, a post office, a police station, a power plant and stables for city garbage wagons and horses.

A. Montgomery Ward, who had just built his company’s stately headquarters building on the northwest side of Michigan and Madison Avenue, gazed out from his office at this expanse and saw the potential for a great city park, which had been ordained by the canal commissioners in 1836. He wound up spending the next 20 years, and a small fortune, fighting to preserve this land from commercial development.

The Fight for the Lakefront

Over the next 20 years, Ward took the city to court to prevent the construction of any buildings east of Michigan Avenue. His efforts to stop this unbridled development incurred the enmity of many civic leaders, businessmen and politicians, as well as the Chicago Tribune, which saw his steadfast stance as an impediment to Chicago’s growth. He was called “stubborn…undemocratic…a persistent enemy of real parks…(and) a human icicle, shinning and shunned in all but the relations of business.”

Undaunted, Ward filed suit on four separate occasions in the Illinois State Supreme Court, and on all four occasions, he won, thereby preserving the open lakefront from Randolph St. south to 12th St. Compromises, such as the Art Institute, were eventually constructed, but without question his efforts saved Grant Park from private development and sprawl.

Ward always felt he was doing the city a favor with his steadfast struggle, and never understood why he was not appreciated for his vision and efforts. In 1909, he granted an interview to the Chicago Tribune, the only interview he ever gave in his life:

Had I known in 1890 how long it would take me to preserve a park for the people against their will, I doubt I would have undertaken it. I think there is not another man in Chicago who would have spent the money I have spent in this fight with certainty that gratitude would be denied as interest…I fought for the poor people of Chicago…not the millionaires … Here is park frontage on the lake, comparing favorably with the Bay of Naples, which city officials would crowd with buildings, transforming the breathing spot for the poor into a showground of the educated rich. I do not think it is right.

Perhaps I may yet see the public appreciate my efforts. But I doubt it.

The toll of the fight, and an accident (which broke his arm and shoulder blade) greatly weakened A. Montgomery Ward’s health. Shortly after a fall, which resulted in a broken hip, he developed pneumonia and died on December 7, 1913 at the age of 69.

Ironically, just as the great man was passing, the city awakened to his magnificent contribution. A letter to the Chicago Tribune by J.J. Wallace put it best:

Who shall set a value on his service? The present generation, I believe, hardly appreciates what has been given them, but those who come later, as they avail themselves of the breathing spot, will realize it.

The A. Montgomery Ward Gardens

For nearly a century there was no park named to honor this great civic leader. Through the efforts of Friends of the Parks on October 14, 1993, that section of Grant Park along Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Monroe Streets was officially named the A. Montgomery Ward Company, a bust and historical plaque placed at the site, stating:

Aaron Montgomery Ward had a vision for Chicago’s lakefront that set him apart from many of his contemporaries. For two decades (1890-1910) he fought tirelessly to preserve Chicago’s shoreline for recreational use and to assure that the city’s “front yard” would remain free of industry. Grant Park is his legacy to the city he loved…his gift to the future.

In 1999, the Ward Gardens and plaque were removed to make way for the construction of Millennium Park. In 2005, thanks to a grant from the A. Montgomery Ward Foundation, a new A. Montgomery Ward Gardens stands at the corner of Michigan Avenue and 11th St., a glorious part of his beloved lakefront park.

Today, these Gardens are a living tribute to A. Montgomery Ward: a man of vision and conviction, a selfless and tireless advocate for the people, and for parks.