James Fitzgerald was born on 25 November 1868 in the village of Maple Park, about sixty miles due west of Chicago. He was the youngest living child and only son of Joseph Fitzgerald and Ellen Burke, Famine refugees from County Clare, Ireland.
James grew up in the village of Maple Park, where his father was a saloon keeper. In addition to attending school near home, James continued his education in Geneva, a town sixteen miles away.
James learned how to run a general store in Hutchinson, Kansas from his brother-in-law, John Clyne. James suggested to his son years later that Hutchinson was a backwater, as it could only be reached by stagecoach. The lack of a nearby railroad was significant for the time: it was either trains or beasts of burden.
James was probably in Hutchinson in the early 1890s. In 1885, when James was 17, John Clyne was running two dry-goods stores and living in Stafford, Kansas, forty-five miles west of Hutchinson. By 1895, James’ sister Mary was no longer living with John Clyne, and the couple were divorced by 1900: it’s hard to imagine James continuing to work for his brother-in-law after they separated.
Divorce is a significant, painful event today, and roughly 40% of first marriages end in divorce. But in 1900, the divorce rate was less than 0.1%. Mary’s divorce from John Clyne must have been an excruciating family crisis. James’ son wrote that his family never spoke to John’s brother, who ran also ran a general store in Maple Park, a town of just a few hundred people.
By 1900, James was back in Maple Park and had started his own general store in partnership with Frank Austin.
In June of 1901, James married another thirty-two-year-old, Theresa McGirr from Afton, a town just a few miles southwest of Maple Park. The wedding announcement in the Dekalb Daily Chronicle noted that “The groom is a clean-cut young man, one of Maple Park’s most successful tradesmen. He is as square as a brick in a business way and personally is as genial and pleasant a companion as one could wish for.”
Today, a couple marrying at 32 is mundane, and that’s four years younger than when both I and my father married. But in 1900, this was a surprisingly late age: the median marriage age for men in the United States was 26, while for women it was 22.
The couple had two children together: Nellie, born in 1902, and Joseph, in 1904. For an Irish Catholic family in a time before readily available contraception, this was a tiny family.
James’ father Joseph died of heart failure about five months before his son, also named Joseph, was born in 1904.
Theresa began experiencing a series of health problems probably after the birth of Joseph in 1904. They would have started with heartburn and a dull pain below her sternum, later compounded by some combination of nausea, vomiting, insomnia and low energy.
On 14 July 1916, Theresa died of a gastric ulcer, leaving James a widower at 47 with two children to raise, one eleven and the other fourteen.
Joseph wrote decades later that:
“It was hard to get a housekeeper, and the first one was a girl from the St. Charles Reformatory School for Girls. She did not turn out very well (she took my mother’s clothes) and it was a long time before we got an older woman, Mrs. Miller, and later Mrs. Clark. It was not an easy task for my father to raise two children, one in seventh grade—and my sister Nellie, two years older.”
If James had help from his family raising his children in the first few years after Theresa died, his mother—who lived across the corner from his store in a white, clapboard house—was the most likely candidate. James’ sisters and siblings-in-law all lived in different towns.
Judging by undated photos of James’ mother from the teens, she suffered from a stroke, so the relationship may have been reversed. Ellen died in 1919.
There’s no way I can summarize those memoirs, but as a family that enjoys a drink or three, I think it’s worth mentioning how the Dry movement benefited James’ business. Many towns adjacent to Maple Park banned the sale of alcohol before the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919. Unlike their neighbors, however, Maple Park stayed wet, and every Friday and Saturday night, James converted his dry goods store to a saloon, serving everyone from wet locals to people who had voted to ban alcohol in their own towns. It’s easy to imagine that the drinks James served on weekend nights helped lubricate the sale of his dry goods as well.
But the prosperity of the 1910s and early 1920s was short lived for James. His son wrote that, in addition to heart and eye problems that cropped up in 1923, the store lost money because of
“the decline of the small town: good roads encouraged the farmers to trade in DeKalb, Sycamore and Aurora.”
The “good roads” movement began to push for paved roads in the United States at the turn of the 1900s to replace the dirt tracks that turned to mud every spring, paralyzing commerce. Bicyclist groups started the lobbying for better roads, but between the new automobile industry and the oppressive monopoly powers of railroads, political momentum for a new transportation infrastructure began to snowball.
By 1920, the Lincoln Highway, which connected Manhattan and San Francisco, via Maple Park (amongst other places), was inaugurated. It was more of a marketing concept connecting existing, better maintained roads, but the stretch between Chicago and De Kalb, west of Maple Park, was hard paved road by then.
Why did this matter? Well, in a world of mud tracks, merchants in small towns throughout the United State were critical middlemen in commerce. Farmers would bring their goods via horse-, mule- or ox-drawn carts to the nearest town along a rail line, such as Maple Park, and exchange their produce for manufactured goods.
But why sell your produce to a small merchant in Maple Park when you could cut out the middleman via a few more miles of hard-paved road to the town of De Kalb, and earn a bit more money to boot?
Perhaps if James’ health hadn’t taken a decline at the same time, he could have kept his store going. But by 1923, his son, Joseph was forced to drop out of law school to help keep the business afloat. By 1926, Fitzgerald’s general store entered bankruptcy, and there was little money left after all the debts were clear.
James and his twenty-four-year-old son moved to Evanston to live with his daughter and son-in-law and infant grandson.
On 5 May 1929, a mild, cloudy Wednesday afternoon, James died sitting in a chair in his daughter’s home. His death certificate notes a heart attack, compounded by kidney failure. He was sixty-one, and his children twenty-seven and twenty-five.