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  • Who is Matthew Laflin?

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, founders, matthew laflin, laflin building

    Created: 11/24/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    Before the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum building was built, the Chicago Academy of Sciences made its home in the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building.

    Matthew Laflin portrait

    211 years ago, on December 16, 1803,  Matthew Laflin was born. Though he was born on the East Coast, he will always be recognized as a Chicago pioneer. His father was in the gunpowder business and Laflin followed in his footsteps. In fact, it was gunpowder that first brought him to Chicago. When construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal began in 1837, Laflin came west, eager to supply the Canal’s construction company with gunpowder. It was his first visit to the young city, but he recognized the potential it had. In the following two years, he established a western presence for the Saugerties Powder Works and took charge of all its western sales, establishing plants in and around the Chicago area.

    After selling his stock and severing ties with the gunpowder industry, Laflin turned his attention to real estate. He began purchasing land in and around the city. With the $900 he made by selling his gunpowder stock, he purchased nine acres of land, later selling it for $4,000. While he purchased land for hundreds of dollars, and sold it for thousands, he lived to see it worth millions.

    In addition to being a real estate tycoon, he helped establish the city’s first stockyards, aided in founding the Chicago Board of Trade, held a controlling interest in the city water works, and helped refinance the Elgin Watch Company.

    Matthew Laflin portrait

    While he was a pioneering influence in the city as a whole, we remember him for the generosity he showed the Chicago Academy of Sciences at a time when it was in need of some major financial help. In October of 1871, the Academy was dealt a crushing blow when its building and holdings were decimated in the Great Fire. The Academy worked to regroup, finally moving into the lakefront Interstate Exposition Building in 1885 (this building was later destroyed to make way for the Art Institute of Chicago). While this gave the Academy a public face, it was only a temporary solution, so the Academy’s Board of Trustees turned its attention to rebuilding.

    In October of 1892, Laflin gave the Academy the help it was looking for. Through his son George, Laflin offered to give the Academy $75,000 towards the construction of a new museum, on the condition that an agreement could be reached for the Lincoln Park Commissioners to provide the land and $25,000 to be used for completion. An agreement was made, and the new building’s keystone was laid in October of 1893. Upon its opening on October 31, 1894, the building was dedicated to Laflin.

    Matthew Laflin Memorial Building

    Although the Academy’s collections are no longer housed in the Laflin Memorial Building, the building remains an important part of our legacy, and symbolizes an important turning point in our history.

    For more information, check out the Magazine of Western History, Volume 14.

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  • Who are the Founders?

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    Tags: founding, founder's week, Chicago Academy of Sciences, kennicott, robert kennicott, laflin building, chicago fire

    Created: 1/10/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    In 1856 a group of like-minded men enthusiastic about the natural sciences began to meet in Chicago.  The original group consisted of Dr. James V.Z. Blaney, Dr. Nathan S. Davis, Sr., James W. Freer, C.A. Helmuth, Dr. Hosmer A. Johnson, Dr. Edmund Andrews, Henry Parker, J. Young Scammon, Dr. Franklin Scammon, Richard K. Swift, Joseph D. Webster, Eliphalet W. Blatchford, and Henry W. Zimmerman. The group began adding other names immediately to their list of members and formally became “The Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences” on January 13, 1857, “The Chicago Academy of Sciences” by 1859, and in 1999, “The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.” The dedication and labor of many people ensured that the Academy continued to serve the public throughout its 157 year history, and will continue to do so in the future. 

    The men who strived to establish the Academy in the early years faced many obstacles almost from the beginning. The financial “Panic of 1857” turned many of the promised financial subscriptions into useless bits of paper. Two fires impacted the collections, the first on June 7, 1866 in their rented spaces that decimated over half of the collection and then again during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 that destroyed the Academy’s building and almost all of its holdings. A second financial panic effected the economy from 1873-1879, that hampered efforts to raise funds to pay off debt incurred to rebuild after the fire. When the Academy rebuilt their structure after the Great Chicago Fire, they also paid to erect an additional structure for business purposes designed to generate income for the Academy through the rents to be charged, but business expansion did not return aggressively to the area, so few were interested in the property and the Academy ultimately went into foreclosure. In spite of these early challenges, the Academy’s members and trustees never lost their dedication to establishing a permanent museum of the natural sciences and finally succeeded in 1894 with the completion of the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building which served the Academy until 1994. Here is a brief overview of just a few of the individuals who helped bring about this outcome.

    Photo of Edmund Andrew
    Edmund Andrews

    It was in the offices of the Dr. Edmund Andrews (1824-1904) that the original members began meeting in 1856. Dr. Andrews was a practicing surgeon and also a teacher of anatomy and helped to form the Chicago Medical College. He developed and maintained an avid interest in geology, particularly in glacial history, publishing some of his findings in the Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. At the formalization of the Academy in 1857, Dr. Andrews was appointed the first Curator of the Academy and held that position until Robert Kennicott took over in 1863. Later he served as President of the Board of Trustees for a number of terms, the longest from 1883-1891.

    Robert Kennicott
    Robert Kennicott

    Robert Kennicott (1835-1866) was encouraged from an early age to learn about nature from first-hand experience. He began his more formal training when his father sent him to study with Dr. Jared Kirtland, a well known and respected naturalist. Through this connection, Kennicott met Spencer Fullerton Baird, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian, and in 1853 moved to Washington, D.C. to assist and collect for that institution. Kennicott’s participation in an exploratory expedition into northwestern Canada that was funded by the Hudson Bay Company, the Smithsonian, and individual Chicago patrons, provided the final spark for the impetus to find and open the museum to the public on January 1, 1865, since the Academy would have access to a sizeable collection almost immediately.

    George Walker
    George Walker

    George C. Walker (1835-1905) was a benefactor and life-time member of the Academy. He served on the Board of Trustees as Secretary and President as well as numerous terms as Treasurer. He owned various companies but the bulk of his wealth was made in local real estate. Walker became friends with Robert Kennicott and adopted the passion for the creation of a museum heralded by the latter. Walker committed the funding necessary to ship the specimens intended for the Academy and collected by Kennicott in his 1859 expedition to the Yukon and Arctic tundra from Washington, D.C. to Chicago. He then became the chairman of a ten man committee formed in February 1864 whose sole purposes was to obtain the money necessary to make cases and obtain the space necessary to display the collection. 

    Jacob Velie
    Jacob Velie

    Dr. Jacob W. Velie (1829-1908) trained as doctor in Hammondsport, New York, worked as a dentist in Rock Hill, IL, and a druggist in Bath, NY. During this time, he was an active naturalist, developing his own collection and participating in expeditions. For example, in 1864 he worked for five months with Dr. C.C. Parry, the noted botanist, in the Rocky Mountains. He became associated with the Academy in 1870 when he became assistant curator under Dr. William Stimpson. After the Great Chicago Fire, Dr. Velie and Dr. Stimpson traveled to Florida, Cuba and the Yucatan on a collecting trip of which many specimens were donated to the Academy, helping to start the rebuilding of the collections. Velie served as curator for the Academy until 1893, constantly adding to the Academy’s collections during that time. 

    Matthew Laflin
    Matthew Laflin

    Matthew Laflin (1803-1897) was a prominent Chicago businessman.  He built the Bull’s Head Tavern (then at Madison and Ogden) which became the city’s first stockyard as it provided pens for the cattle drivers.  It was through his son George Laflin that Matthew Laflin offered $75,000 to the Academy if an agreement could be reached with the Lincoln Park Commissioners to provide the land to build the structure and an additional $25,000 toward its completion.  An agreement was reached and the work began in 1893 with the final completion in 1894.

    Laflin Building
    Laflin Building

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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