Paper, Polo, Rock and Ruin
The Creation of a Dynasty
In the 1920s and 1930s, what is now the bustling Chicago suburb of Oak Brook was entirely pastoral and private; the streets were gravel, the landscape lush and all of the buildings were white. The fields had been cleared for foxhunting, and meandering bridle paths cut within great oak forests. It was a serene enclave of polo on manicured lawns, skeet tournaments and foxhunting weekends — a tranquil, pastoral environment for the leisure activities classically enjoyed by the English aristocracy on their country estates. It was the fiefdom of the Oak Brook Butlers.
The sweep of the Butler story stretches from the arduous early days of paper making on the prairie, through the building of a new industry, and on to the creation of a seemingly blissful child-centered domestic life focused on vigorous outdoor activity. It continues in encounters with the temptations of wealth, multiple affairs and marriages, and the havoc created by a collision of the mid-century international jet-set with a social turmoil created by the Vietnam War. Ultimately, there are the tensions generated by a determination to impose a singular urban vision on the bucolic countryside and to sustain the purity of that dream.
The remarkable industry and conservatism of the early Butlers prepared a foundation for later bursts of flash and flair we associate with the name. However, in order to comprehend the recent Butler drama and spectacle, it is beneficial to know the players’ history and how a cautious, stable gene pool was enriched by a pair of marriages, encouraging visionary expansion in one field of endeavor after another — until the abrupt collapse of the 1980s.
The first of the Butlers arrived in this country in 1654, and, for generations after, the Anglo-Irish family made paper. In Connecticut, Asa and Simeon Butler produced the first letter paper used by the United States Senate, and, during the early 19th century, Zebediah Butler Jr. manufactured paper in Vermont. Zebediah’s son, Oliver Morris Butler, migrated to Illinois and first worked for and then went into partnership with B.T. Hunt, owner of a small mill on the Fox River west of Chicago.
Butler Paper Company.
Because Hunt was producing inferior paper one sheet at a time and hanging it over poles to dry, the energetic Oliver worked every day from 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. to increase production, continuing to use the same sluggish process. With improved output, the partners were able to acquire new equipment from Vermont and boost production to a ton of paper a day. They opened a Chicago warehouse and began manufacturing newsprint, which they delivered by wheelbarrow to the fledgling Chicago Daily Tribune.
Julius Wales Butler.
In 1848, Oliver’s brother, Julius Wales Butler, joined him in Chicago, and the brothers founded a paper business on Chicago’s State Street that carried Julius’ name and prevailed through warehouse fires and market downturns during the next half-century. When Julius died in 1912, the J.W. Butler Paper Company, by then a thriving nationwide business, went to his son, Frank Osgood Butler. Although the family would remain highly conservative for a time, its company was so successful that Frank was the first Butler heir who was occasionally able to step away from work to concentrate on leisure activities, including acquisition of land and pursuit of equestrian sport.
Frank Osgood Butler
Like Butlers who had preceded him, Frank was a taciturn man who continued the tradition of the generation’s firstborn male as family head. A frugal rich man, he was suspicious of people who might be after his money — but philanthropically generous. His manner was formal, aloof, and, although he drank whiskey occasionally, he only tolerated the parties his gregarious southern wife Fanny greatly enjoyed.
In 1898, he established what was to become the Butler seat, Oak Brook Farm, by systematically purchasing property along Salt Creek, 17 miles west of Chicago near Hinsdale. In 1908, he added to the gentleman’s estate he had been assembling by acquiring the adjoining Natoma Farm, a successful working dairy, which continued to operate for several decades.
He also acquired land in the American West, including several ranches in Wyoming and South Dakota, in addition to an inherited spread in Montana. Because the paper company functioned efficiently and needed little hands-on attention, Frank and Fanny traveled extensively within the United States. In 1924, they discovered the agreeable climate and resort-like atmosphere of Hot Springs, South Dakota, where they bought an estate at which they would spend part of each year for the next three decades.
In the early 1920s, as the ancient Tibetan sport of polo was gaining popularity in the United States, Frank and his son, Paul, developed such an avid fascination with the game that, in 1922, they founded the Oak Brook Polo Club. Frank took his passion West, establishing a polo pony-breeding ranch on 1,000 acres near Hot Springs and becoming a charter member of the Hot Springs Polo Club.
Although Frank spent most of his time at Oak Brook Farm or the Western ranches, Fanny, a passionate devotee of parties, divided much of her year between a house in Palm Beach and an apartment in Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel. Even her three-paragraph 1959 obituary commented that Mrs. Butler was “known as an avid partygoer and for her love of lavish costume parties.” Thus, in marrying this joyous, carefree woman, Frank had greatly expanded the reticent Butler genetic legacy, opening the story soon to unfold.
The Butlers of Oak Brook: Paper, Polo, Rock and Ruin, Megan McKinney’s series of eight articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next: Paul: The Hedonistic Perfectionist
Robert F. Carl