Contact 411: Helen Stewart Johnson

Gazette Article by Helen Weaver
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2011

I am an aspiring historical fiction writer looking for inspiration from people who led interesting lives in the Midwest around the turn of the century. Are you aware of any good examples in Winnetka?

(Winnetka had no shortage of fascinating families to pull from. Helen Weaver selected a great example as she tells the story of Helen Stewart Johnson.)

How many of us have spent a long weekend or a vacation curled up with a captivating family saga novel? Maybe Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits” or John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” or Colleen McCollough’s “The Thornbirds.” Like these classic novels, Winnetka had its own wealthy, cosmopolitan, influential multi-generational family: Lorenzo and Helen (Nellie) Stewart Johnson and their progeny. Soon after Nellie’s death in October 1933, a Chicago Tribune society writer exclaimed that the story of her life would provide “material for an enthralling family novel.” Like other great family sagas their story is filled with all the elements of good drama: adventure and romance, celebrity acquaintances, financial success, and personal tragedy.

Helen Stewart Johnson’s exciting story began even before she was born. Her father, General Hart L. Stewart, was a Black Hawk War veteran and Chicago’s first official postmaster. From 1828 to 1839 Gen. Stewart held a government contract to deliver the mail from Detroit to Cary Mission (now Niles, MI) first by horseback and later by stagecoach. From Cary Mission, soldiers carried the mail on foot to Fort Dearborn along the lake. By 1845, the city of Chicago had expanded beyond the confines of the Fort, and General Stewart was appointed Postmaster. The saga took a tragic turn when Nellie’s mother died right after giving birth to her in 1851.

Like many other wealthy American debutantes of the Gilded Age, Nellie was educated at Vassar and in Vienna and spoke four languages fluently. She even played a small part in Chicago’s most famous historical moment. During the fire in 1871, the Stewarts took in many fire “refugees” at their Prairie Avenue home.

In 1878, Nellie married Lorenzo M. Johnson, an engineer from New York, with her cousins Florence and Harriet Pullman participating as flower girls. Lorenzo went to work for the Pullman Palace Car Co. and they settled in Chicago. But they were not destined to live a sedate life in Chicago society. In January 1883, with four toddlers in tow, the family moved to Piedras Negras, Mexico, an adobe hamlet on the Rio Grande opposite Eagle Pass, Texas where Lorenzo worked to extend the Mexican International Railroad from 70 to over 900 miles over the next twenty years.

The family lived as luxurious a life as possible in the “wilds” of Mexico, and were often entertained by President Porfirio Diaz and his wife at the Castle of Chapultapec in Mexico City. Though the children loved their Mexican adventure, their parents felt they would benefit from living at least part of the year back in the United States. So in 1890, the Johnsons bought a large property along Lake Michigan that had been the home of William Garland (son of John Garland, one of Winnetka’s first settlers). They called their new home “Las Olas,” Spanish for “the waves.” The house, eventually being assigned the address of 701 Sheridan Road, was built in 1858 and until it was torn down in 2006, was one of the oldest houses in Winnetka.

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The property was slowly divided up, first with Nellie and Lorenzo’s daughter Dorothea and her husband George Massey building their own home at 705 Sheridan, and later by further subdivision until eight other homes were built around it and the house was no longer visible from Sheridan Road. Sometime after Lorenzo died in 1904, Nellie’s daughter Lesley and her husband, Ayres Boal, moved into Las Olas with Nellie, where they raised their four children. Later their son Stewart Boal and his wife Susan raised their own three children in Las Olas.

In the early 1890s, the family would arrive in their private railroad car, “Las Sabinas,” to spend summers in Winnetka. They were known as “the Mexican circus,” as they would bring multiple pets with them. Las Olas consisted of the main house, a gardener’s cottage, fruit orchards and an immense barn with its stock of horses, cows, pigs and chickens. After swims in the lake, the children hung their bathing suits to dry on the wrecked mast of the Lady Elgin that had washed up in  the ravines.

By 1939 Las Olas had been the setting for five family weddings as well as annual Christmas celebrations and many other dramatic, musical and sporting events. Like the classic fictional family sagas, their story was touched by personal tragedy. In 1926, Nellie and Lorenzo’s only son, Stewart, was killed in an automobile accident in Cairo where he was serving as a U.S. diplomat. His widow and their young daughter returned to Winnetka, and lived for many years across the street from Nellie on Sheridan Road.

Nellie herself was seriously injured in a buggy accident in the 1890s, and walked with a limp and considerable pain for the remaining thirty years of her life. Nellie and Lorenzo’s daughter Dorothea Johnson Massey was also killed in an auto accident in early 1941, which left her husband, George Massey, seriously injured.

Also as in the novels, the successive generations of the Johnson family played important roles in the history of Winnetka. Dorothea’s husband George B. Massey was active in village affairs and planned the original 4th of July and Memorial Day programs on the Village Green. Lesley’s husband, Ayres Boal, was recognized in the community for his work with the park district, his development of property both residential and commercial, and for his part in helping to establish the Community House. Granddaughter Henrietta Boal Moore was known for her community activism and work for peace and human rights. A 2009 Chicago Tribune obituary for Mrs. Moore states “she persuaded Martin Luther King to give a ground-breaking address on the Village Green.”

Another granddaughter, Phoebe Massey Ryerson, was the founder of the Winnetka Children’s Fair, hosting in her backyard a fundraising “fair” for the village children in 1945. One of Phoebe’s brothers, George B. Massey Jr., also played an influential role in the Village, running one of the first “Main Show” productions at the Children’s Fair (his own adaptation of Peter Pan in 1961), as well as starting a summer theater group for area high school students known as the “Summerset Players” that performed at the Community House in the 1960s.

Most of Nellie and Lorenzo’s descendants have moved on to distant locations now, though their family’s influence on our community is a story that will live on, just like the classic sagas we all love to read.

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