Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a five-part series on the Patten family. Please click here for part one; here are part three, part four and part five.
In 1898, James Patten was elected to the Evanston City Council. Almost immediately, he became embroiled in numerous conflicts with council members and city officials. Indeed, what seemed to mark his time on the council was a continuous lobbing of accusations – especially charges of mismanagement of funds and graft.
As head of the city’s finance committee, Patten ignited a firestorm when he proposed tapping the city’s water funds to fill a city deficit. “It will astonish you,” Patten said, “the many things the city ought to do, and cannot, for lack of funds. The parks are neglected, crossings are not maintained, other improvements must be made, and where are we to get the money? From the water fund.” (9)
Patten’s opponents charged that using the water fund for other uses violated the law. “The Hon. James Patten and his fellow aldermen and city officials regard themselves as higher authority on questions of law than the legislature or the courts,” one critic wrote at the time. (10)
Patten was widely seen as the most powerful member of the city council. Thomas Bates, Evanston’s mayor during the time Patten was on the council, acknowledged that much of the antagonism on the council stemmed from his own unwillingness to recognize Patten as “the political boss of Evanston.” (11)
After two years of service, Patten resigned from the council in “disgust,” as he said, with the current mayor’s “dirty politics.” (12)
But this was politics after all. Just days later, Patten announced his own bid for mayor. He won the election, beating out Bates, and was sworn in as mayor of Evanston. Soon after, he announced plans to build a palatial home on Ridge Avenue.
Northwestern University professor James Taft Hatfield had had about enough of such ostentatious displays of wealth in Evanston. In an address to the Modern Language Association, Hatfield discussed what he saw as the division in Evanston between “town and gown.”
Academics at the university, he argued, offered services which were of much greater use for the greater community than the “custards, highballs and ping-pong” of Evanston’s wealthiest citizens. “The smart set of the fashionable suburb worships at the shrine of dress and scorns the paths of learning,” he charged. “Instead of Ruskin or Browning the intellectual pablum of the suburb’s ‘400’ is to be found in the society columns of the newspapers and the social calendar.” (14)
Hatfield caused an uproar. While many of Evanston’s “smart set” began to rebut the professor’s charges, Mayor Patten issued his own response: “I think Professor Hatfield has dyspepsia.” (15)
That terse dismissal was classic Patten. At the time, however, he did have his mind occupied by less philosophical and more pecuniary concerns. A few months later, Patten was declared the “Oat King of the West” when it was revealed that he had spent the previous nine months working a “shrewd deal” to corner the oat market; the deal netted him a profit that was said to “run into seven figures” and drew national attention. (16)
Evanston institutions would benefit from Patten’s “May deal” and his many subsequent deals. (In 1908, for example, Patten cornered corn and netted a reported $2 million. (18) Among those who received large donations were Northwestern University and the Evanston Hospital. Both the university and hospital would receive large donations from the Pattens for many years.
Meanwhile, Patten was gaining a reputation as a fairly active, if not a bit dictatorial, mayor. He often ruled by decree: When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Evanston, Patten ordered all the schools closed until each student was vaccinated.
Northwestern University students, he ordered, also had to be vaccinated at once or else be excluded from classes indefinitely. (20) He also commanded several police officers to “stand guard” around Evanston residences where those afflicted with smallpox lived. (21)
When Newell C. Knight, a wealthy Chicago broker and Evanston resident, announced his desire to be appointed Evanston’s police chief, many were surprised.
“What will you do if you are made chief?” a reporter asked him. “Enforce the laws,” Knight answered. “That’s all that is necessary. We have laws enough but the trouble is that they are not enforced.” When asked if he would give up his job if appointed, he said, “Not at all. I should keep right on in the brokerage business.” (22)
Knight told Patten that he would not accept any salary if he were given the job. He was hired.
Knight, like Patten himself, was a so-called “reformer.” Both believed in enforcing temperance in the city and tackling the problem of vice in general. (Ever since he was a young man, as Patten later stated, “it was an absolute rule with me never to enter a saloon.” (23)
By his own admission, Knight only put in about two hours a day working as police chief; Patten also spent a sizable amount of time working in Chicago, but he occasionally staged very public acts performing his civic duty in Evanston.
For example, in order to try to arrest drivers who violated Evanston’s speed ordinance, Patten ordered two policemen to accompany him to Judson Avenue and Grove Street.
There, the three men set up a speed trap by stretching a cable across the street to act as a barrier to any “scorchers.” The policemen crouched behind a nearby pile of lumber while the mayor looked out for approaching machines.
Many came, but none drove above the limit. Instead, some cruised slowly past, with drivers lifting their hats in surprised greeting as they recognized the mayor of Evanston. After standing in the sun for three hours, Patten’s collar was reportedly “melted by perspiration.”
“This is rather disappointing,” Patten said after they failed to arrest any speeders. “I think I have picked out a bad corner. We’ll try it again some other time at a better place.” (24)
Meanwhile, animosity in the Evanston City Council continued. And many grew frustrated with Patten himself.
During a meeting at City Hall, council members passed a resolution to arrest a resident for failing to seek a building permit for an addition he constructed to his furniture store at 721 Custer Ave.
Patten opposed the resolution and announced: “I shall instruct the chief of police, who is my appointee, not to comply with this resolution … I think the chief of police will obey my instructions.” (25)
“I am sorry the mayor has made that statement,” one of the council members said, “and to follow out such a course of action would be violating his oath of office.” Patten’s response: “I am ready to be impeached.” (26)
Ultimately, Patten did indeed instruct Chief Knight to defy the resolution. The situation began to spiral, with several council members refusing to attend meetings. Soon a call went out to fire Knight.
Many charged the chief with failing to execute his duties. His critics said he worked only 15 minutes a day and was solely focused on eliminating the sale of alcohol in Evanston, a goal that Patten said was the highest priority for his job.
Knight countered his critics’ charges saying that the attacks against him were “prompted by malice and by interests hurt by my blind pig crusade.” A defender of Knight wrote that in taking on his position as police chief, he gave “up club life, forgets about golf, rises at unseemly hours, and for all this sacrifice asserts he receives only abuse.” (28)
The arguments continued. And finally, after serving for nine months as Evanston Police Chief, Knight resigned. (29) But only after Patten himself turned against him. When the police chief ordered a festival held at Evanston’s Boat Club to shut down since it included slot machines and “other games of chance,” the mayor overruled him. (30)
In 1903, Patten’s term in office ended and he did not seek reelection. Some might have considered him somewhat retired. In fact, he had taken to sleeping in a tent outside of his mansion on Ridge Avenue.
“It’s simply great,” Patten told a reporter. “I’ve heard a whole lot about this simple life business, but I never thought anything about it until the weather got hot and I decided to sleep out on the veranda. I slept there a couple of nights and then went for the tent.
“Since then I’ve been sleeping the sleep of the just and I don’t intend to sleep in the house as long as weather permits.” (31) Patten noted that each night he always had his bulldog with him so that he could “repulse intruders.” (32) His new habit quickly caught on in Evanston and a number of tents soon appeared on the lawns of homes all over the city. (33)
Patten may have taken to the “simple” life, but he was still busy speculating. And, after making many more highly profitable deals, he would make one deal that would earn him international fame and infamy.
9. “Evanston Needs Cash,” The Inter-Ocean, March 14, 1900.
10. “Non-Partisan Fund Juggling,” The Inter-Ocean, March 15, 1900.
11. “Mayor Bates Answers Attack,” Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1901.
12. “Evanston Alderman to Quit,” Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1901.
13. “C. Paxton Cody Made a Splendid Address,” Erie Times-News, February 10, 1906.
14. “Town and Gown Feud at Evanston,” The Inter-Ocean, March 23, 1902.
15. “Holds Evanston Society to Scorn,” Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1902.
16. “Oat King of the West,” Unionville Pantagraph, June 24, 1902; “James A. Patten Dies at 76,” New York Times, December 9, 1928.
17. “James A Patten Building Mansion, The Inter-Ocean, December 25, 1901.
18. “$150,000 for New ‘Gym,’ ” Fort Worth Telegram, May 30, 1908.
19. Estelle Frances Ward, The Story of Northwestern University (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co, 1924), 250.
20. “Vaccination or Vacation,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1902.
21. “Smallpox in Evanston May Close All Public Places,” Chicago Tribune, November 14, 1902.
22. “Banker Would Be a Policeman,” The Inter-Ocean, April 21, 1901.
23. James A. Patten and Boyden Sparkes, In the Wheat Pit, 1927, 11. Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post.
24. “Hunting Autos With a Rope,” Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1902.
25. “Evanston Mayor Defies Council,” Chicago Tribune, December 31, 1901.
26. “Evanston Mayor Defies Council,” Chicago Tribune, December 31, 1901.
27. “Attempt to Eject Evanston Chief,” The Inter-Ocean, January 2, 1902.
28. “Knight Turns on Critics,” Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1902.
29. “Chief Knight Leaves Office Today,” The Inter-Ocean, February 28, 1902.
30. “ ‘Midway’ Show Stirs Evanston,” Chicago Tribune, February 9, 1902.
31. “Bitten by Simple Life Microbe, Ex-Mayor Patten Takes to Tent,” The Inter-Ocean, July 24, 1909.
32. “Bitten by Simple Life Microbe, Ex-Mayor Patten Takes to Tent,” The Inter-Ocean, July 24, 1909.
33. “Outdoor Sleeping Fad in Chicago,” Evening Star, August 24, 1906.