Though residents of Wilmette and the greater North Shore community may recognize the name “Gage” from the “Gage house” at 1134 Elmwood in Wilmette, or “Gage Street” in Hubbard Woods, they may not be as familiar with its significance in Wilmette history. John and Portia Gage, along with their sons, Asahel, Henry, and Augustus Neander, were early investors and developers of Wilmette. After John and Portia purchased 136 acres of land north of Elmwood Avenue in 1857, the Gage family actively worked to establish Wilmette as a place for settlement, as well as a geographical and commercial center for commerce. The family collaborated through frequent written correspondence to transform Wilmette from a rural forest to a suburban hub, connected to its surrounding villages by both railway and road. Though John and Portia never lived in Wilmette, their sons were prominent figures in the early village and raised their families here.

While John and Portia Gage were atypical in several respects, as members of the abolitionist and feminist movements and as prominent Spiritualists, Gage family letters and other documents depict a family that was representative of important patterns of 19th century political life, entrepreneurship, and settlement.

This online exhibit of items drawn from the Gage Collection has been made possible by the generous donation of family documents and photographs by two great-great-grandsons of John and Portia Gage: Stanley R. Gage of Ontario, Canada, and Donald S. Gage of Boulder, Colorado.  The Wilmette Historical Museum is deeply grateful to both of them for the many rare items they have contributed to that collection, and for sharing with us the history of their distinguished family. This exhibit is the work of Museum intern Katie Masciopinto, the 2016 winner of the Helen N. Morrow Fellowship.

john & portia gage wedding day

John and Portia’s Early Life

John Gage was born on August 12, 1802 in Litchfield, N.Y. to James Gage and Polly Drury Gage. Though his family derived from aristocratic English stock, Gage himself was born into modest means in a small log cabin in Herkimer County. 50 miles to the East (and 11 years later), John’s future wife, Portia Kellogg, was born in Manlius Square, N.Y. to Leonard Kellogg and Sally French Kellogg.

They married on October 4th 1830, in Watertown N.Y. Though they had fiercely different dispositions, Portia being as emotive as John was reserved, they shared the same philosophy. Both were ardent believers in racial, religious, and gender equality.

The paintings pictured were created to commemorate their wedding day, and reproduced in this 1946 greeting card from their grandson, Stanley K. Gage, whose parents were Henry and Mary Gage.

John Gage journal

Moving Westward: Early Settlers to Chicago

John and Portia Gage moved their young family to Chicago in 1836 to commence John’s new career as a flour miller. When they arrived on April 20th, 1836, Chicago was a “swamp” town of only 3,000 residents. Major commodities, such as flour, had to be shipped to Chicago from the East, driving prices skyward. In his own words, John Gage described his steam-powered flour mill, the first in Chicago, as “…a mighty good thing for the little village.” Flour was scarce, and selling for eighteen dollars a barrel in 1837. Upon opening his mill, the price of flour plummeted to five dollars a barrel by 1839.

This is the journal that John Gage kept between the years 1830 and 1841. Later entries contain the financial ledgers for sales at the flour mill, as evidenced by the written notation on the cover that says “In flour store” next to these dates.

This flour mill was the source of the Gage family’s wealth, enabling the real estate investment that would prove so crucial to the development of Wilmette.

Portia Gage with son Lyman

“An American Jean Valjean:” Prosperity and Sadness in Chicago

John Gage’s steam flour mill proved to be a very profitable venture, so much so that the press dubbed Gage an “American Jean Valjean (without the drawback of Victor Hugo’s hero’s early life).” Yet John and Portia experienced great sadness during their time in Chicago. Though they had four children while living in the city, only one survived infancy. Concerned about poor sanitation in the city, which he blamed for the deaths of several Gage children, John Gage retired from the business in 1846, moved to rural Gages Lake, and sold his share of the flour mill to his brother Jared, an early developer of Winnetka. Though John and Portia Gage only lived in Cook County for 10 years, they continued to impact the county through their investment and development of Wilmette land.

This photo depicts Portia Gage with son Lyman, who was born at Gages Lake in 1850, and died in 1852 in Chicago. John and Portia had eleven children, only five of whom survived into adulthood.

1867 letter

Early Wilmette: Familial Collaboration and Correspondence

On May 27, 1857, John Gage purchased 136.73 acres of Wilmette land, north of Elmwood Avenue, including where Plaza del Lago now stands, from the widow Mary Dennis for $13,173. Even after John and Portia moved to Vineland, New Jersey in pursuit of a utopian society and a warmer climate in 1864, they were intimately involved with the development of their Wilmette land and installation of infrastructure through frequent correspondence with their three sons who lived in Wilmette: Asahel, Henry, and Augustus Neander.

In this 1867 letter, Asahel informs his father of the plans of early Wilmette developers, such as first Postmaster and Treasurer, Alexander McDaniel, for a railroad station in Wilmette and to parcel their land into residential lots: “Mr. McDaniel and some other parties that own the land around the crossing between there and you want to get a flag station there and divide their land into 5 acre lots and go to selling it to Chicago people for residence lots, and if the present state of affairs continue they will have no difficulty in doing that & in getting a good price for them.” Asahel has drawn a map on the left side of the letter of Gage holdings in relation to “Lake Shore Road,” the location of ditches, and the proposed Chicago & Northwest railroad line.

28-year-old Henry Gage

Henry Gage: Investor, Developer, and Settler

Though a portion of early Wilmette development was driven by wealthy investors who did not live in the immediate area, such as Yonkers magnate Henry Dingee, other developers, such as first Village President John G. Westerfield, Alexander McDaniel, and the Gage sons settled in Wilmette and started their families here. Henry H. Gage was the primary agent of his parent’s real estate. The efficiency of the United States Post Office in the late 19th century is evident by the constant stream of written correspondence between John, Portia, and their children. An exceptionally tight-knit family, Henry and his parents would often exchange more than one letter per day. In these letters, the personal and economic matters of day-to-day life was intertwined. Henry dictates such matters as his horror upon watching the encroaching fire destroy Gage family property during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, making swampland in Wilmette inhabitable for settlement by digging ditches, building plank roads, and ensuring the railroad stopped in Wilmette.

This portrait, circa 1870, depicts a 28-year-old Henry, five years out of the Union Army, seeking to establish himself with help from the Gage family network. As John Gage wrote to Henry in 1875, “I think the kindly feeling that binds us together is worth more and [is] safer financially than any insurance co’s policy in the world and it costs nothing but love and good will.”

Italianate depot

Steel & Plank in the Prairie: Gage Contribution to Early Wilmette Infrastructure

John Gage sought to connect his land holdings to the surrounding areas by expanding transportation routes. He was a passionate believer in the power and importance of the railroad. In his 1884 autobiography, John wrote, “I was a great friend to railroads…so I set myself at work to get some railroad extended through our beautiful prairies.” Recognizing the importance of a railway stop in Wilmette, the Gage family helped to convince the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to stop in Wilmette by contributing to the building of a depot that was donated to C&NW. Though this hastily built depot soon burned down, the Gages, along with several early Wilmette developers, soon donated money to build the 1874 depot. One reason that Wilmette Avenue runs a diagonal course is because the Gage family wanted to ensure that their land holdings would be closer to the new depot. For more information on the depot and how it got to its current location, please see the virtual exhibit on “The Depot Move.”

Pasted in a Gage family photo album, this cyanotype from the 1880s depicts the Italianate depot that the Gage family helped to build. One striking feature of the early depot is that it stood on the west side of the tracks. When a second track was later added, this obliged morning commuters to cross the tracks to board the train, onr of the complaints that led to the building of a new depot in 1897.

two young children running north towards Gage’s Pier circa 1900

The Legacy of Gage’s Pier: Early Wilmette Beach Erosion

Beach erosion along the lakefront was a serious problem for early settlers of Wilmette as strong storms and a substantial southerly current swept sand and silt away from the lake bank. Charles P. Westerfield, son of first Village President John G. Westerfield, recalled in a 1907 statement that the shoreline at Lake Avenue was 300 feet west of where the bank had been in 1857.

Henry Gage built a pier on his lakefront property near the intersection of Chestnut Avenue and Sheridan Road in 1874. This pier, forever after known as “Gage’s Pier,” along with two other piers Henry built north of this location, slowed beach erosion by diverting the southerly shore current.

Gage’s Pier remained a center of Wilmette social life throughout the early 19th century, and many longtime residents of Wilmette may remember remnants of the pier peeking out of the Langdon Park beachfront as late as 1999, when the Wilmette Park District pulled the last ruins of Gage’s Pier from the water.

In this image, two young children running north towards Gage’s Pier circa 1900, with the two other piers Henry Gage built visible in the background.

lakefront mansion at 1401 Sheridan Road

A Stately Mansion by the Lake: The Henry Gage House

Henry built this stately lakefront mansion at 1401 Sheridan Road for his young family in 1875 (pictured circa 1880’s). Henry communicated with his father as a business partner, and frequently asked for guidance as how to precede with the building of the house. Henry understood the value of his father’s land holdings, and persuaded him not to sell any lakefront property in an 1875 letter. As Henry wrote, “I believe inside of ten years a good house lot on the lake shore south of Glencoe will be hard to get.”

Henry on the portico of his home with his wife, Mary Ballard Gage, and their four children

A Full House: Henry at Home

In this circa 1892 image, Henry stands on the portico of his home with his wife, Mary Ballard Gage, and their four children (from left to right), Edward, Stanley, Lloyd, and Portia, named after Portia Kellogg Gage. (The big dog is Queen; the little one is Tommy.) It is understandable why Henry chose to name his daughter Portia, after his mother. The letters between Henry and his mother portray a loving and often light-hearted relationship. Henry teased her on her 60th birthday, “I shant call you the Old Woman till you turn 90.” Henry’s daughter would one day have a daughter of her own, also named Portia.

Edward, Henry, Portia, and Mary inside their home

The Power of the Pen: 19th Century Domesticity & News Networks

Edward, Henry, Portia, and Mary (from left to right) pose for a domestic scene inside the grand interiors of their home circa 1892. Though Henry is reading a book in this image, he also avidly read the newspaper. The letters between Henry and his parents are testament to the extensive communication networks spanning the country in the late 19th century, as both parties were aware of local, regional, and national affairs. After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Henry refrained from discussing the particulars of the fire, writing to his father: “All the suffering of citizens here you can read in the papers so I will strike out on our own a/c (accord).”

Stanley K. Gage plays the violin while Edward B. Gage plays the piano at home circa 1895

The Gage Family Archivist: Stanley K. Gage

Stanley K. Gage plays the violin while Edward B. Gage plays the piano at home circa 1895. The Gage family archive would not be accessible if not for the foresight of Stanley K. Gage, who saved many family letters and documents.

his Lake Shore Tavern restaraunt advertised its new "Torando Tavern" slogan quickly after the storm

Illustrious Estate to “Tornado Tavern:” The Evolution of 1401 Sheridan Road

Near present-day Langdon Park and Plaza Del Lago, Henry built his home on the tract of land known as No Man’s Land both before and after the family lived in the house. Neither part of Wilmette or Kenilworth, the mansion soon evolved into a fixture of the area. After becoming the Lake Shore Terrace Restaurant, the house was severely damaged by the 1920 Palm Sunday Tornado, gaining the nickname “Tornado Tavern” in the 1920’s before becoming “Harrison’s White Chicken Tavern” in the 1930’s. The home was razed in 1944.

This Lake Shore Tavern restaurant advertised its new “Tornado Tavern” slogan quickly after the storm, as this 1920 photograph suggests. The sign reads, “Tornado Tavern Is Doing Business as Ever Come In.”

abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth

A “Beacon” for Equality: The Gages in New Jersey

By the time that John and Portia were developing their Wilmette land holdings in partnership with their sons in the 1870’s, they had been living in Vineland, New Jersey since 1864. Vineland was designed as a utopian “temperance town” due to its prohibition of alcohol and promotion of progressive politics.

According to the press, John and Portia’s home in Vineland became a beacon for radical and independent thought. John and Portia hosted guests such as Frederick Douglas, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Victoria Woodhull at their Vineland residence. One such visitor, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, is pictured in a Gage Family photo album (ca. 1890-1910) in the Museum’s collection. Portia’s sister-in-law, suffragist Frances Dana Barker Gage, nationally known as “Aunt Fanny,” organized the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention where Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in 1851.

Jared Gage in Union uniform

Protest at the Polls: Portia as a Suffragette

On November 19, 1868, Portia Gage, along with 171 fellow women’s rights activists, attempted to cast ballots in the Presidential Election. Though their ballots were not counted, this symbolic gesture sparked similar protest across the country. An article appeared in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel in November 1869 reported the “pathetic story” of a Mrs. Portia Gage, who, “…after her son was starved to death in a rebel prison, went to the polls and desired to vote in his place.”

The Sentinel was referring to John and Portia’s son, Jared Dana Gage, who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Captured during the Battle of Atlanta and sent to Andersonville Prison, Jared never recovered from the malnourishment and disease he was subjected to as a prisoner of war. Though he returned home in 1865, he died in 1868.

While John and Portia’s four surviving sons held little interest in politics, Jared Gage shared his parents’ radicalism and passion for equality, hence Portia’s desire to vote in commemorance of him. This picture of Jared in Union uniform, appeared in an 1899 Gage Family photo album.

John and Portia surrounded by their four surviving children

Séances and Sitting for Spirit Pictures: The Gages & Spiritualism

Both John and Portia Gage were members of the Spiritualist movement. Spiritualists believed that the spirits of the dead could be contacted, and that they in turn communicated with humans. The Gages belonged to several “spirit circles,” where spiritualists held séances and conferred with mediums. Portia was especially intrigued by the idea of spirit photography, and encouraged her children to sit for “spirit pictures.” Both were also advocates for greater religious freedom; John was President of the National Liberal League, one of the first organizations dedicated to the separation of church and state.

Lent poignancy by the deaths of seven of their children, Spiritualism, and the desire to contact members of the family who had passed away, played an important role in both of their lives. In a 1894 letter after John and Asahel’s death, Portia mentions still setting a place for them at the dining table: “I rather think they were there but we could not see them.”

In this photo, John and Portia sit surrounded by their four surviving children (from left), Henry, Augustus Neander, John Porcius, and Asahel, in 1890, four months before John’s death.

1893 picture of Portia and her grandchildren

“Never Stray Far From the Straight Line:” The Gage Grandchildren

After John’s death, Portia visited Wilmette often and continued to guide and instruct her grandchildren through frequent correspondence. Always an advocate for temperance, Portia encouraged her grandchildren “never to stray very far from the straight line,” and shared her views on education, politics, and science with them. Portia remained active in the women’s rights movement until her death in 1903. In an 1895 letter to grandson Stanley K. Gage (pictured far right, second row), Portia wrote of her “pertinent disavowal” to any arguments against women’s suffrage.

This 1893 picture of Portia and her grandchildren (near the corner of 12th Street and Elmwood Avenue) was given to Portia as a gift from grandson John S. Gage (pictured far left, second row). The affection between grandmother and grandson is evident by the tongue-and-cheek address John inscribed on the back of the image: “These are principally grandchildren of yours, though a few outsiders are in the ranks. I do not believe the photograph’s likenesses are especially good but the individuality of each is strikingly correct. Don’t you think?”

Photos in 1880 part of a stereoscopic slide, a popular medium in the nineteenth century

1134 Elmwood Avenue

In 1873, Asahel Gage and his wife, Helen, hired architect Theodore Vigo Wadskier, a Danish immigrant who had designed a number of Chicago buildings, to design their home at 1134 Elmwood Avenue. Ashael’s cousins, brothers Horace and Edwin Drury, built the impressive Italianate showplace. Owing to ill health, Asahel Gage moved his family back East in 1879 to be near his parents in Vineland, New Jersey. After he died in 1893, his widow returned to Wilmette with her son, John Shepard Gage, and lived in the house until her death in 1934. After the war, the house passed out of the Gage family, but the careful stewardship of subsequent owners has preserved its unique character. 1134 Elmwood was declared a local historical landmark in 1989; it is known locally as, simply, “the Gage house.” The house was featured on the Wilmette Historical Society’s annual housewalk in 2014.

These photos, from about 1880, are part of a stereoscopic slide, a popular medium in the nineteenth century; when viewed through a steroscope, the image looks three-dimensional.

Several Gage family members - 1933

The Next Generation: The Legacy of the Gage Family in Wilmette

John and Portia Gage established a legacy of service and community that was upheld by their descendants. Asahel Gage was elected Alderman of Wilmette in 1875, while his wife, Helen Shepard Gage, served as President of the Women’s Club of Wilmette in 1896 and 1897, and again in 1899 and 1900. Stanley K. Gage was President of the Old Settlers of Wilmette from 1934 to 1935. In 1933, several Gage family members (pictured), many of them John and Portia’s grandchildren, gathered at Stanley’s home at 932 Elmwood Avenue.