Marshfield, December 1914: Frederick Upham plays Santa Claus in Chicago
By Kris Leonhardt
Frederick W. Upham began his life and business career in the city of Marshfield. The second son of William H. Upham and his second wife, Grace Mason, Fred gained his business education in the prosperous lumber company that began the city’s electric and water plants so many years ago.
Following his work with the Upham Manufacturing Company, Fred moved to Chicago to start the Fred W. Upham Lumber Company.
There Upham became a civic and industrial leader while building his business in the burgeoning city. He became active in politics, giving much time and energy to the Republican Party, where he served as the National Republican Committee’s treasurer for six years.
Similar to entering the lumber business, politics was a natural progression for Upham as his father had served as Wisconsin Republican Governor from 1895-1897.
As World War I began to bear down on the country, Chicago, at the time, was the sixth largest city in the United States with a population of approximately 2.4 million. With 70.3 miles of rail lines, the central business district attracted businessmen like Upham to the grimy but prosperous area.
Over the years Upham developed and became president and chairman of the Consumers’ Company, selling coal, ice, and building products at the Chicago location.
As December of 1914 rolled in, the promise of a cold, long winter came with it. The front page of the Chicago Heights Star depicted a Santa character at the helm of a cannon, loading ammunition in the form of snow, sleet, and all that winter held, asking if residents were ready for what was to come.
The city was filled with a charitable glow. Organizations large and small put on events of all types to help those less fortunate with the hard months to come.
As Upham stepped out into the city, he saw a place packed with immigrants struggling to survive the beginning months of another long, cold winter. Opening his heart and his business, Upham offered his fellow man a gift: free coal in 50-pound increments.
Crossing religious and political boundaries, the coal was offered to clergymen, rabbis, women’s clubs, charitable organizations, and local newspapers, with the only stipulation being that the organizations only take the coal as needed in immediately useable portions.
Once the 50 pounds were used, the requesting party could request an additional lot.
By targeting these organizations, Upham was able to reach the city’s poorest residents being sheltered during the winter months while also supporting the newspapers to successfully inform the public.
Perhaps encouraged by the request of Pope Benedict XV for a cease-fire from all World War I troops, Upham opened his coal yards during the entire winter, providing Chicago’s poorest with the resources needed to stay alive.
Weeks later soldiers on the Western Front would pause firing to cross into enemy territory to bid their “enemy” a Merry Christmas in their native language, singing carols and promoting good will.