One of the most common questions asked about Robert is: “Where did he get his money?” Robert accomplished what so many people have done for centuries—he inherited well!
His father, Samuel Waters Allerton (1828-1914), was born in New York, the ninth and last child in a poor family. By the 1850s, Samuel had traveled to central Illinois while trading livestock. In 1858 he met a young woman from Canton, Illinois – Pamilla Wigdon Thompson (1840-1880). They married in 1860 when she was 20 and he was 32.
In 1863, after having borrowed money to buy up almost every hog in Chicago to sell to the Union Army, Samuel found himself on the road to riches. That same year, Pamilla gave birth to their first child, Katherine (Kate) Reinette Allerton. On March 20, 1873, their only son, Robert Henry Allerton, was born.
During the ten years between his children’s births, Sam plunged even deeper into the livestock industry and also added banking to his list of ventures. While amassing a total of 78,000 acres of land between New Jersey and Nebraska, he helped organize the Chicago Union Stockyards and the First National Bank of Chicago (now known as Chase Bank).
In 1880, the children and Pamilla were stricken with scarlet fever. Pamilla died and the children’s hearing was severely impaired until the age of hearing aids.
Three years later, in 1883, Sam married Pamilla’s youngest sister, Agnes (1858-1924). The 30-year age difference may not have been a problem for Sam or Agnes, but Kate was only three years younger than her aunt and was never able to refer to her as “mother.” For Robert, however, Agnes was a stalwart friend and stepmother who instilled in him a love of gardening, music, literature, and the visual arts.
As much a philanthropist as Sam was a businessman, Agnes followed through on Sam’s 1895 proposal to Monticello Township that, if they would construct a suitable building for a town hall and library, his wife would help outfit it. After Agnes donated furnishings and 2,500 books to the new library in 1897, the building was named in honor of her.
At the time of his death on February 22, 1914, Sam still occupied a seat on the board of directors of the First National Bank of Chicago. A portrait of Sam, painted in 1901 by Ellen Emmet Rand, once graced the walls of the First National Bank, and currently hangs in a position of honor over the fireplace in the Mansion’s Grand Gallery.
The Allertons are said to be descended from Isaac Allerton, a wealthy member of the Mayflower pilgrims. Isaac was later kicked out of Plymouth Plantation for money misdeeds. Details on their genealogy can be found in Sam’s updated publication of A History of the Allerton Family in the United States 1585-1885, originally written by Walter S. Allerton.
In 1879, Sam Allerton, by then an important Chicago tycoon, purchased a grand Italianate mansion on Chicago’s south side at 1936 Prairie Avenue, where all the millionaires were making their homes at the time. The street was nicknamed “Millionaires’ Row” and “The Sunny Street that Held the Sifted Few” by many. Neighbors and friends included the families of merchant Marshall Field, engineer and industrialist George Pullman, meatpacker Philip Armour, and hardware manufacturer Adolphus Bartlett.
The largest lot on the street, the property was one of the first houses on the street that cost at least $100,000 (in 2010 funds, approximately $2.25 million). The property, complete with a 72-foot tower, also contained an enviable two-story barn and stable, along with a tower on both the house and the stable. Third richest man in Chicago, according to theChicago Tribune, Sam Allerton was known for keeping a wonderful stable full of horses and carriages. Up the street from them lived the family of Marshall Field, the richest man in Chicago according to the Chicago Tribune. Mrs. Field’s famous January 1, 1886 New Year’s party for 400 of their neighbors and her children’s favorite friends cost her approximately $75,000, the equivalent of $1.6 million in 2009 purchasing power.
In 1893, Sam ran for mayor of Chicago and came in a close second with 45% of the votes. Three years later, newly-elected President McKinley asked if he’d serve as Secretary of Agriculture, but he turned down the offer due to this age.
The Allerton’s house was torn down in 1915, after Sam’s death, to make way for the Hump Hairpin Factory. At that point, the address changed to 1918 Prairie Avenue. Because of the care given to Sam by a local doctor, Robert took the proceeds from the sale of the property and created the Dr. Howard R. Chislett Trust Fund, benefiting the doctor himself as well as Chicago’s Passavant (now Northwestern) Hospital. Condos now occupy the Allerton’s lots.
* * *
Toward the end of the 1880s, many Chicago millionaires wanted a summer home away from the city noise and dirt. They usually bought or built homes around Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Sam Allerton was no different. In 1883, he purchased – for $15,000 – a 26-acre property along the lake, complete with an eight-sided fishing lodge. His wife, Agnes, called it “The Folly,” and thus forevermore, the family continued to use that nickname when referring to their home.
When Sam bought the “The Folly,” he wanted to enlarge it, but it would have meant cutting down a favorite tree of his. Rather than do that, he first had the house moved and then enlarged. Later Sam purchased an extra 80 acres near the house for a vegetable and flower garden. Agnes won prizes for her flowers and instilled in Robert a love for nature.