Hail, route 66 roadies! Did you enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner? Tired of the leftovers yet? Perhaps you’re ready for some partridge or venison, for a change. Well, in honor of the holiday last week, we have a little Thanksgiving story to tell you – and it involves not a single Pilgrim or Indian, but it does cross paths with a few other prominent figures from Chicago’s early history. So gather around the fireplace now, folks, and get cozy – for here begins the tale of Mr. John B. Drake and his famous autumn game dinners.
A few weeks ago, we told you about the 1883 creation of North America’s official Standard Time system. That happened at a Chicago conference held in a hotel on Jackson Boulevard, long before that street became the original main path of Route 66. The hotel was the second Grand Pacific, gone for 31 years by the time Route 66 made its appearance, but it had a storied history. Its manager was John Burroughs Drake, founder of Chicago’s Drake hotel dynasty, and he became one of the city’s greatest hoteliers ever, setting a standard of style and luxury that many coveted but few could equal while he lived. Indeed, when Potter Palmer rebuilt the Palmer House after the Great Chicago Fire, he was competing against none other than John B. Drake for primacy in the hospitality trade. And nobody could beat Drake’s sumptuous game dinners.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning in 1855. It was the year of the Lager Beer Riot, caused by reform mayor Levi Boone when he attempted to enforce the Sunday saloon closing law and arrested a number of tavern owners – prompting a group of enraged Germans and Irish to march on the jail, demanding the return of their barkeepers. That was enough to keep local prohibitionists in check for another 60 years (Boone, however, was wisely dislodged in the next election). The prewar city was firmly abolitionist, and the Underground Railroad was quite active; two Protestant denominations had split congregations because their splinter groups thought the mother churches hadn’t supported abolition strongly enough.
Chicago was also having an enormous growth spurt, prompted by the opening of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the arrival of railroads. The first of these, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad, had been organized in 1848 by first mayor, city father and multipreneur William B. Ogden – who had also helped ensure the canal’s completion, designed the city’s first swing bridge (the first Dearborn Street Bridge), and been a silent partner and accountant for the city’s first brewery, Haas & Sulzer (later Lill & Diversey), among the five or six dozen other things he created or helped start during his 45-year tenure in Chicago. Oh, and Ogden also persuaded Cyrus McCormick to build his new reaper factory in Chicago and lent him the money, too, which made all those huge grain shipments possible (that Ogden guy really got around!).
The canal and railroad vastly increased grain shipments into the city and forwarding elsewhere and promoted other growth. Chicago grew from 20,000 residents in 1848 to 30,000 in 1850 – a 50 percent jump in two years. Over the next five years, barge traffic increased on the canal and rail lines quickly sprang out from Chicago in all directions; by 1855, ten trunk lines led into the city, with 96 trains a day arriving or leaving, and only two years later there would be an incredible 3,000 miles of railroad track connecting to Chicago, with 100 trains coming and going daily. By 1860, Chicago’s population would balloon to more than 112,000, an almost six-fold increase in just 12 years.
All this growth made Chicago very attractive to people looking for opportunities. One such person was the young John B. Drake. He arrived in 1855 and quickly became steward and part owner of the Tremont House, one of the city’s premier hotels (he had just enough saved then for a quarter interest; within 15 years, he owned the entire hotel). The Tremont House had opened in much less splendid fashion in 1833; but within a few years, it was operating at Lake and Dearborn out of a newer, more attractive building designed by John M. Van Osdel, Chicago’s first architect, whom Ogden had lured to the city to build his house and had decided to stay. As had thousands of others. How could John Drake do otherwise? So the year he arrived, Drake began a new Chicago tradition: his annual great game dinners, held at Thanksgiving.
These elaborate dinners were justly famous. Drake scoured the country for the best chefs, bakers and confectioners he could find and had them prepare menus that offered the choicest gourmet dishes from across the continent. A typical menu had more than 50 dishes, many with exotic ingredients. Entrees might include not only the usual wild game birds like ducks or geese but also saddle of black-tail deer, roast buffalo or boiled buffalo tongue, ragout of squirrel, braces of roast stuffed partridge, roast opossum, and broiled jack snipe. The inventive desserts were nearly beyond imagining. And of course, Drake served only the finest wines and other beverages to enhance the meal. It wasn’t long before these special dinners attracted an elite clientele (not surprising, as neither the ingredients nor the talented cooks who produced the dishes came cheap). The amiable Ogden and his friends, other Old Settlers who’d come to Chicago by 1840, would have been there – his brother Mahlon and brother-in-law Charles Butler, Gurdon S. Hubbard, Walter Newberry, Isaac Arnold, J. Young Scammon and others. The dinners were so eagerly anticipated that newspapers devoted four column inches to the menus and guest lists. They continued for 40 years, until Drake left the hotel business in 1895.
But wait, you’re thinking: wouldn’t Drake have missed a few years because of the Great Fire? No, he didn’t, because of an unexpected stroke of good fortune. Even amid the flames, it seems, there was opportunity.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 began late on a Sunday evening, October 9, and burned for a day and a half. All of the top hotels downtown were leveled – the Tremont House, Potter Palmer’s barely completed second Palmer House, the Lake House across the river, which had been built by Gurdon Hubbard, and the Grand Pacific Hotel, along with everything else in the central city. North of the river, only the water tower, pumping station (which had run dry) and Mahlon Ogden’s house were still standing south of North Avenue.
On Monday, while the fire was still sweeping across large swaths of the downtown and near north area, John Drake inspected the ruins of the Tremont House, which was a total loss. He had evacuated his guests and as much of his property as he could hours earlier. Drake headed southeast on foot to dodge the fire, which was headed north and northeast. He passed by Terrace Row, a block of connected townhouses along Michigan Avenue just north of Congress Street (where the Auditorium Building stands today). The fire was already consuming Terrace Row, where J. Young Scammon’s home sat at the corner, when Drake happened to notice the Michigan Avenue Hotel on the opposite side of Congress. It was still untouched.
Making a snap decision, Drake went in, found the hotel’s owner and offered him the thousand dollars he had in his pocket as a down payment to buy the hotel. The two quickly cut a deal – which was witnessed – and the owner accepted Drake’s cash, remarking that this building would be next to burn. The man must have thought Drake crazy and was eager to take his money. However, firemen and explosives men (whom Drake had seen working farther down Congress to curb the fire’s path) did their job well: aided by winds blowing in from the southwest, they kept the flames from straying back across Congress, and the hotel didn’t burn after all. Which was more than could be said for anything north of Congress on Michigan Avenue – on either side of the river.
When Drake came by a week later to pay the balance on his new purchase, the hotel owner reneged and wouldn’t close the sale. Drake left and came back with several big men, laid down his watch, and told the owner he had five minutes to seal the deal or he’d be thrown into the lake. Ten minutes later, Drake owned the hotel. He immediately renamed it the Tremont House after his lost enterprise and went to work.
So that’s how great game dinners got their start and became famous. But if they were so popular, you ask, why did they stop? Because a former partner of Marshall Field’s intervened and messed things up, that’s why. Which partner? You’ll have to read part two to find out! But we’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t Harry Selfridge – that guy liked to eat and have a good time, so he would’ve been there with bells on. Join us for part two, yes?
Your own Route 66 historian,