Friday, November 15, 2013


In my story for this blog about Horatio May, I included a newspaper clipping about his funeral.  It gave a list of pallbearers, and included on the list was W.D. Kerfoot.  A research "angel" who helps me with these writeups commented that Mr. Kerfoot had been involved with the Chicago Historical Society and he definitely wasn't a fan of one of her relatives by marriage a few generations back. "I think she irritated him no end." 

So that got me to wondering who W.D. Kerfoot was, and why he would be a pallbearer for Horatio May. Even though I was not familiar with the name W.D. Kerfoot, it turns out that he was quite a real estate magnate in Chicago at one time, but was mostly remembered for something he did after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.  Here's the story from the Chicago Tribune from October 16, 1871, less than one week after the fire was out:

Mr. W.D. Kerfoot

Chicago (Oct. 13) Dispatch to the Cincinnati Inquirer

To Mr. W.D. Kerfoot, real estate dealer, formerly of Cincinnati, belongs the credit of putting up the first building in the burnt district, at No. 89 Washington street, the site of his former block.  To-day his building of rough boards, covering an area of about twenty square yards, and one story high, is up, and the windows and doors are in.  Over the door appears the following legend:  "W.D. Kerfoot real estate dealer, No. 89 Washington street."  On another part of this building is painted, in rough characters this characteristic sentence: "Lost all but wife, children and energy."  On another place is painted "Kerfoot's Block," in large letters.

Mr. Kerfoot gives the following graphic account of his escape from the fire with his wife and children: "Being the owner of a horse and carriage which I used to go to and from my business, when I became satisfied that my house would soon be enveloped, I brought my horse and carriage before the house and placed my wife and children in it. There was then no room for me, so I mounted the back of the animal and acted as postillion.  While driving through the flame and smoke which enveloped us on all hands, I came across a gentleman who had his wife in a buggy and was between the thills hauling it himself.  I shouted to him to hitch his carriage on behind mine, which he did, and then got in beside his wife.  I then drove forward as fast as I could, for the flames were raging around us.  After proceeding a short distance another gentleman was found standing beside the street with a carriage waiting for a horse, which was not likely to come.  I directed him to fasten on behind the second carriage which he did, and in this way, we whipped (rest of the line illegible).    

So what else could I find out about this Chicago real estate man who refused to give up after losing everything?  Let's see.

William Dale Kerfoot was born April 16, 1837 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to George Barrett Kerfoot, MD (1808-1851) and Eliza, nee Reid (1805-1887).  William's father, George Barrett Kerfoot, M.D., was born in Dublin, Ireland, June 27, 1808.  He came to America with his parents in 1819, who settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.   

Eliza Reid Kerfoot, William's mother, was born in Pennsylvania in 1805. George and Eliza were married in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 5, 1829.  William had five siblings:  Ann Louisa (1831-1918), George Barrett (1834-1917), Eliza Reid (1839-????), Emma L. (1841-????) and Sweety H. (1847-1928).

William Kerfoot first came to Chicago in 1854 when he was seventeen years old, finding employment in the real estate offices of James H. Rees.  From 1856 to 1861 he attended St. James College, Hagerstown, Maryland - first as a student, but by the 1860 Census as a "Tutor of History."  St. James is a private boarding school under the auspices of the Episcopal Church.  The first headmaster of St. James was John Barrett Kerfoot, the uncle of William Kerfoot, who went on to become the first Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh.

Here's a photo of W.D. Kerfoot about the time he returned to Chicago in 1862:

W. D. Kerfoot

William Kerfoot returned to Chicago in 1862, entering the firm of Thomas B. Bryan as a clerk.  In 1865 he took time out of his busy schedule to court Miss Susan Cooper Ballinger Mooklar (1843-1918) of Covington, Kentucky, and married her in Chicago on May 30, 1865.

On the 1870 Census, Kerfoor lists his occupation as "real estate agent". He lists the value of his real estate at $10,000.00, and the value of his personal property at $5,000.00.  He and Susan have two domestic servants, and Susan's brother William, a tobacconist, was living with them as well.  Not bad for a man of thirty-three.

Here is an ad from the Chicago Daily Tribune of April 1, 1870 for the real estate firm of William D. Kerfoot, located at 89 Washington Street:

Then came the Great Chicago Fire on October 8-10, 1871.  Within a short time, William Kerfoot was wiped out.  The land he owned was still there, but the improvements were reduced to smoldering rubble.   From Industrial Chicago - The Commercial Interests: "At 10 o'clock on Monday morning, October 9, 1871, Lind's block stood alone among the a spirit in a shroud of smoke.  On Wednesday the 11th, a little frame office building suddenly sprung up on the curb line of Washington Street, outside the old building line of No. 89, and the same day the sign and bulletin boards were attached to the little building.  William Kerfoot realized that the economy of Chicago was basically sound, and that rebuilding would start right away.  He knew there was money to be made, and put himself right in the middle of it. Here is Kerfoot's ad from the Chicago Daily Tribune of October 17, 1871 just one week after the fire, announcing his reopening "at the old place".

From Industrial Chicago - The Commercial Interests:  "From that date to September 30, 1872, there were 7,140 real estate transfers recorded, the total value being $42,007,286.  At that time purchasers were compelled to rely upon the statements of agents and owners, as the county abstracts were destroyed and private abstract concerns charged prohibitory prices.  The name of W.D. Kerfoot was a magic one then and the little frame structure became the rendezvous of buyers and sellers.  (Kerfoot) collected all the plats, maps and documents possible to reinforce his personal knowledge of property, and became the medium through whom millions worth of property changed hands. The history of the rebuilding of the city is partly a history of Mr. Kerfoot; for his dealings with eastern investors, who flocked hither, were coextensive with local patrons."

William and Susan found time to have a family in the midst of all this chaos.  They had eight children, but sadly, when William died in 1918 only three were still living.  Their children are:  William D. (1867-1877), George (1867-1908), Susan (????-1918), Margaret Dalton (1870-1948), Rev. Charles Stewart (1871-1945), Russell (1874-1876), Eliza Reed (1878-1917), and Ethel Mooklar (1884-1970).  

In looking through Chicago newspapers of this era, not more than a day or two goes by without some mention of William D. Kerfoot.  As one of the leading real estate men in Chicago, Kerfoot was involved with the Chicago Real Estate Board from its founding on January 11, 1883.  He was one of the original signers of the Articles of Association for the Board and in 1887 he was elected its President.   During Kerfoot's time as a member of the CREB he worked tirelessly for legislation standardizing Title and Policy work, the recording of deeds, and the Torrens System of transferring land titles.

Here's a drawing of the Kerfoot Building in Chicago in 1883, just twelve years after the Fire:

In 1883, a section of road in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood from 83rd to 85th street was named "Kerfoot Avenue", a name it retains to this day.

During this period from the 1880s onward, William Kerfoot branched out from being just a land developer to a builder, being responsible for approximately 1/3 of the residences built in what came to be known as the Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago on the west side of downtown.  Kerfoot built a mix of two- and three-flat apartment buildings and gable-topped brick "Kerfoot cottages" that to this day are often passed down from generation to generation and remain in a single family.  Here is an example of Kerfoot construction in Ukrainian Village:

While he was building houses for immigrants to Chicago, William Kerfoot also had a grand house built for himself.  At the beginning of this article I talked about the connections between Kerfoot and Horatio May.  For one thing, they were Astor Street neighbors.  Horatio and Anna May built their imposing house at 1443 N. Astor in 1891; William and Susan Kerfoot built theirs at 1425 N. Astor in 1895:

1425 N. Astor Street, Chicago

The May house was designed by architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee; the Kerfoot house was designed by architect John N. Tilton.

One of the first "modern" post-fire office buildings in Chicago, the Chicago Opera House, was conceived by W.D. Kerfoot, and the syndicate that developed it was organized by him:

Image courtesy

The lot on which the ten story structure stood is 107 feet on Washington street by 180 feet on Clark street.  The contract between the Chicago Opera House Company and the landlord, made in 1884, provided for an annual rental of $30,000.00 on a valuation of $500,000.00, and a proportionate rental on each revaluation of every five years.  The completion of this intricate deal, and the demolition of the previous building, The Tivoli, to make way for the new building was credited to Mr. Kerfoot.

Along with other Chicagoans of every station, William D. Kerfoot was intimately involved with the planning and execution of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1892-1893.  Here is a listing of officers of the Fair from the Chicago Daily News Almanac, and as you can see, Kerfoot's name is everywhere:

On May 16, 1899, W.D. Kerfoot was called again to wear another hat. Mayor Carter H. Harrison, Jr. named Kerfoot as Chicago City Controller, the very same job his friend Horatio May had held in 1891 for Mayor Hempstead Washburne.  After a short time in office, Kerfoot admitted that he did not like the job.  He told the Tribune on June 16, 1899, "I do not mind saying I do not like my present job.  The purely financial and commercial part of it, what I supposed constituted the major part of the work when I undertook it, is all right, but the many and petty intrigues which are constantly coming under my notice, I do not like at all."    

Those who were reading the Chicago Daily Tribune on August 4, 1899 were shocked to see the following article:

In the two years he held the office, W.D. Kerfoot revolutionized the City's finances as the Tribune reported in February of 1901, "Bookkeeping methods have been revolutionized.  The indebtedness of the city has been reduced by $2,000,000.00 without increasing the City's floating debts.  Bonds of the City have sold at a lower rate of interest than ever before.  Special assessment accounts have been looked into and unraveled, until in time, property-owners will receive rebated due to them.  After thirty years a correct balance of accounts in the office is being effected. Trust funds have been preserved intact, and, greatest of all the scheming and fighting, the loan sharks have been driven from City Hall."

As a member of the city government, Kerfoot was called on to represent Mayor Harrison at the memorial service for Queen Victoria at St. James Cathedral on February 2, 1901.  As a cradle Episcopalian and nephew of an Episcopal Bishop, Kerfoot was a good choice to represent the mayor.

Mayor Harrison was easily reelected in 1901, but W.D. Kerfoot announced that he would retire as City Controller on May 1, "on the advice of his physician."  Kerfoot had a taste of politics and he did not like the taste at all.

After May 1, 1901, William Kerfoot gladly returned to his real estate empire.  Here's an ad from the Chicago Daily Tribune of June 25, 1901:

Kerfoot did agree to help Mayor Harrison by serving on a committee to determine if high pressure water mains were appropriate to serve fire hydrants in the downtown area.  This was in 1903-1904.

William D. Kerfoot spent his remaining years doing what he liked.  He was called upon by the newspapers to give a real estate outlook on a regular basis.  He enjoyed the Union League Club, where he was a member.  He stayed active in affairs of the Chicago Real Estate Board. He was still involved in commercial real estate but he could "cherry pick" the deals he wanted to be involved in, like the new $1,000,000.00 International Harvester Building built on Michigan avenue in 1906.

The Chicago Daily Tribune of March 31, 1916 reported that W.D. Kerfoot was recovering from an illness connected to his falling on a slippery sidewalk the previous November.

William D. Kerfoot died on January 5, 1918 in his Astor street home at the age of eighty of arterio-sclerosis.  Here is his death certificate:

His obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of January 6, 1918:

He was buried in the family plot at Graceland Cemetery:

William D. Kerfoot, who was the living embodiment of Chicago's motto "I Will".  May he rest in peace.

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