Recently, I took a trip with a fellow resident, Ty Cummings, to check out the Research Center at the Chicago History Museum, located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. It had come to my attention that they have some documents concerning Benton House, and I was shocked to find upon e-mailing the Center that they have, in fact, 22 boxes worth.
Most of those boxes are “locked” (meaning I'm not allowed to access them). However, I wanted to start with some of the earliest material available, and the first box, spanning from 1907-1937, was accessible.
We walked into the Research Center and approached the counter to sign in and request the box. When we told the woman we had come to investigate our historical workplace, the Benton House, she revealed that her parents had lived and worked here just after WWII. What an incredible coincidence!
After putting in our request for the box, we sat at a table. I was filled with anticipation. Once it was delivered to us on a cart wheeled out of an almost mysterious elevator, the few meager notebooks contained therein did not disappoint. The first thing I saw as I opened one, bound shut with nuts and bolts, were carefully handwritten 1913 board meeting minutes taken by none other than Katherine Benton – who would eventually be known as “Ma Benton” and would have the Benton House named after her. A couple of initial highlights:
“Miss Houghteling stated that the Chicago Public Library had opened a circulating branch at the House of Happiness; that they had sent an instructor to start the work and had give all necessary supplies free of cost to us; that our best books in sets had been kept for our bookcases. The old ones had been given to the children.”
“Ms. Pilsbry stated that she had written 81 letters of thanks and 159 postcards during the past year and it was decided to simplify the method of acknowledging small gifts.”
Besides meeting minutes, there were also various clippings from newspapers, playbills and invitations to fundraisers and plays.
There are many referring to the fund raising done to build Faurot Hall, a building that would be called the “House of Happiness” and would meet an ever-growing demand for more daycare in Bridgeport and would allow the Providence Day Nursery to create programming for older children as well. This would be the beginning of an ongoing expansion in the type and breadth of services that would be provided.
The biggest initiative to secure funds for the new building seems to have been a musical. It was an original comedy written by Miss Mary Hill entitled, “Dickens' Heroines as Suffragets.” (Mind you, this was before women could vote). I wish I could have seen it, because it sounds hilarious. I can only hope I'll soon find the script somewhere!
A clipping dated October 1915 provides some numbers relating Benton House's services:
“The Providence Day Nursery Committee wishes to make the following report this autumn: During the summer months of May, June, July and August, 5,396 days of care have been given to 98 individual children sent from 62 families.
When the books closed May 1st, barely $30.00 remained in the Maintenance Fund. The Garden Party given by Miss Houghteling in June brought in sufficient funds to carry the work through August and part of September, but the treasury will have to be refilled for the autumn months.
The Nursery is being largely financed on the small membership basis, which is an ideal way, for the small gifts from many people is not burdensome and a wide interest is stimulated in the institution.”
What's incredible to me is not the ways Benton House has changed, but the ways in which it has stayed the same. Peering back into our history, I recognize many of the same challenges and hopes we have now. I feel confident that not only unearthing, but understanding and compiling the details of our complex history will bring us wisdom in overcoming obstacles and fulfilling our mission.
Please continue to follow along as we continue this exciting and rewarding journey into our past! I will close with a fitting quote by a “CP Anderson, Bishop,” that I found at the end of an article (written upon the successful completion of Faurot Hall):
“I thank the children for building this beautiful Home and I am sure that other children will want to keep it going.”
Indeed, we do.