A Tribute at Glessner House
By Megan McKinney
We have the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire this month to remind us that our current pandemic is but one of many catastrophic eras Chicagoans have survived. On Friday, September 10, an event at Glessner House was possibly the earliest in the tributes Chicago institutions and media outlets have been paying to those who rebuilt the city with a courage and speed that was admired worldwide.
The more than 90 guests, who enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails in the Glessner House courtyard on the balmy evening, will long remember the tribute, but happily.
Dinner was served in the historic parlor at 1800 S. Prairie Avenue, as well as in the lovely dining room above, where many of the guests dined.
Another lively group celebrated the survival of courageous predecessors in the Coach House.
A lantern shaped dessert was made from antique cake molds similar to those Mrs. Glessner’s cook would have used in the late 19th century.
Among the evening’s stars were three generations of descendants of Mrs. O’Leary. June Nelson, shown with her husband Gary, is a great-great granddaughter of the now exonerated Mrs. O’Leary. With them was their daughter Kristine, and granddaughter Amelia.
The Nelsons brought a platter and flatware from “Big Jim O’Leary’s,” the saloon owned by Mrs. O’Leary’s son at 4183 South Halsted Street from the 1890s to the early 1920’s. They also produced early 20th century letters from a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, which discounted the guilt of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow.
A charming highlight of the evening was a supposed 1893 session between Catherine O’Leary—portrayed by Ellie of ElliePresents—and a reporter from another newspaper of the era, the Chicago Inter-Ocean.
According to Glessner House Executive Director and Curator Willam Tyre, “Although that interview never actually took place, it was all based on facts, most specifically that one of the original Fire reporters, Michael Ahern, later admitted to making up the story of the cow and lantern. Sadly, he didn’t admit that until 1911, long after Mrs. O’Leary was dead.”
For those unable to attend the September 10 tribute in person, Geoffrey Baer provided a virtual presentation on the Fire. The 75 remote guests received, in advance, special decorated cookies and custom-designed coasters based on the wrought iron grille on the front door.
A few of those who were able to be present September 10 are shown below.
Susan and Jack Tribbia
Marc Van Overbeke and John Smagner
Steven Bennett, Elaine Melotti Schmidt, David L Becker and Lisa Koenigsberg
Kathy Rice and Barry Sears
Tori Simms, David Hamel and Erica Meyer
Carleen and Jan Lorys
Christopher and Anne Bird with Jim and Mary Glerum
Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien
Author Photo: Robert F. Carl