The Crane Family & Jerseyhurst Remembered

By Anne Morrissy

As origin myths go, the story of how the venerable Crane family — of the famous Chicago metalworks and plumbing fixture company — came to Lake Geneva is a charming one. It started with a horse.

According to a newspaper account in the Lake Geneva Regional News from the 1930s, it was the Harvard Club camp that drew Herbert P. “Bert” Crane, middle son of Richard Teller Crane, founder of the Crane Company, to Geneva Lake in the summer of 1879. But he had arrived at camp via train and livery, without his horse, and quickly found he was at a disadvantage; his friends had all come on horseback. So he wrote to his parents in the city and begged them to come up for a visit and bring his saddle horse (named Bill) with them, which was no easy trip in those days.

According to the story, RT Crane along with his wife and her sister (who would soon become the second Mrs. Crane) came up by surrey, driving the 90 miles while attempting to keep Bill hitched to their team as best they could. But Bill was no team horse, and he bucked wildly when hitched to the surrey, at one point almost tipping it over. In desperation, RT Crane cut Bill loose and expected him to disappear forever, but to his surprise, Bill followed the surrey all the way to the Harvard Club.

And once there, despite the rough journey, the Cranes immediately fell in love with Geneva Lake.

Historian John Notz, a retired attorney who splits his time between Chicago and Lake Geneva, has spent several years studying the Crane family, particularly RT Crane’s son Charles R. Crane, who was a prolific supporter of the arts and a well-connected businessman and political ambassador.  “There’s absolutely no evidence in the record to support that story,” he says. “But it’s a great story.”

What the record does support is that shortly after that first trip to Geneva Lake, RT Crane bought 23 acres of land on the north shore and began construction on a grand summer estate. There were a handful of country estates on the lake at that time, but almost all of them were close to the village of Lake Geneva because of the logistical problem of getting supplies to the construction sites. Crane’s property, adjacent to Elgin Club on the north shore and a significant distance from the train line in town, presented building challenges. According to a 1939 article in the Chicago Daily News about Crane’s lake property, “lumber and supplies had to be hauled up on the lake in an old schooner, the Fannie Allen” until “later a trail was cut through by Mr. Crane’s men to the old Kenosha-Beloit stagecoach road [currently Highway 50].”

The house Crane constructed on the property was ostentatious and enormous. According to the Daily News article, it contained 22 bedrooms and about a dozen more rooms for various social activities, including a large kitchen on the back of the home. The servants’ quarters were located in a separate cottage on the property and there was also a small hunting cabin to use when the house was closed up in the fall.

RT Crane was a self-made man who was proud of his working-class roots. He named the property Jerseyhurst after his home state of New Jersey.

RICHARD TELLER CRANE:  AN AGGRESSIVE FORCE

Richard Teller Crane was born in 1832 in Paterson, New Jersey (near the Passaic Falls) and went to work in a cotton mill at the age of 9. By the time he was 15, he had worked in a tobacco factory and then for a truck farmer before beginning an apprenticeship with a brass and bell foundry in Brooklyn, New York. From there, he transitioned to a machine shop in New York City and finally to a company that manufactured printing presses before finally moving west to Chicago at the age of 23. From these experiences, he developed a deep appreciation for on-the-job, vocational training and a general disdain for higher education and “book learning” that would inform his attitudes and his role in the community for the rest of his life.

He came to Chicago in 1855 to find his uncle, Martin Ryerson, who had established himself as a successful lumber dealer in the city. In a corner of his uncle’s lumberyard in Fulton Market, Crane went into business himself, establishing “RT Crane Brass and Bell Foundry.” The Industrial Revolution and the rapid expansion of the train lines in the Midwest ensured that there was constant demand for metalwork. The next year, Crane’s fledgling business was so successful that he sent for his brother to join him and in 1856, they moved the newly renamed “RT Crane & Brother” out of their uncle’s lumberyard. Over the next two decades, the Crane brothers continued to expand their company, eventually adding an iron foundry and a pipe mill and even the Crane Elevator Company to their products. By 1907, the Crane Company employed more than 6,000 men.

A newspaper profile from that year paints a portrait of the 75-year-old RT Crane: he is “thickset, sinewy and agile” and “stands out as an aggressive force.” Far from retired, Crane was still very active in the company, and the profile describes his “bullheadedness of purpose” but also presents a man who knows a majority of his 6,000 employees by first name. By all accounts, Crane could be difficult — Notz describes him as “hyperactive” — but he was a trailblazer in employee relations; he pioneered employee stock options and annual bonuses based on years of service. Longtime employee (and later president) of the Crane Company John B. Berryman described Crane as, “brusque and hard-boiled like many others who came up the hard way, from poverty to riches, but underneath he had a warm spot for the men in the shops.”

A history published by the Crane Company in 2004 claims that RT Crane was one of the first to introduce an eight-hour work day in his factories and also initiated a 5-cent lunch program with hot coffee and soup for his men. He provided free medical care for his workers and their families, and developed liberal profit sharing and pension plans “long before other employers even considered such ideas.” His generosity extended to his summer home in Lake Geneva: in 1905, he invited his branch house managers to Jerseyhurst to celebrate 50 years of the Crane Company.

THE CRANES AT HOME:  FAMILY LIFE

RT Crane married Mary Josephine Prentice in 1857 and together they had nine children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. The eldest, Charles R. Crane, went to work in his father’s business when he was just 10 years old. After they built Jerseyhurst in 1879, RT and Mary sent three of their daughters to the Lake Geneva Seminary, a local girls’ boarding school, partly as an excuse to spend as much time as possible at the lake.

Tragically, Mary Crane passed away in 1885; she is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lake Geneva. Shortly thereafter, RT Crane married her sister Eliza. They were married until Eliza’s death in 1902 (she is also buried at Oak Hill.)  Crane’s third wife was significantly younger than he was, younger even than his youngest son, and this final marriage created tension among his adult children that continued after Crane’s death in 1912.

THE EVOLUTION OF JERSEYHURST

As his children grew up and married, RT Crane expanded the property at Jerseyhurst, buying up adjacent tracts of land until he owned nearly 100 acres and a quarter-mile of lakefront property. First he expanded and renovated the hunting cabin as a separate residence upon the marriage of his daughter Kate to AF Gartz in 1887 — that house was called Glen Mary. Two years later, he built two more homes on the property: the first was intended for Bert’s use and was called El Nido. Upon Bert’s death, the home transferred to his daughter Dorothy Crane Maxwell and her husband Augustus K. “Gus” Maxwell; it remained in that family until it was razed in 1991. The second, called Cloverbank, was used by Charles until his death in 1939.

Charles led a fascinating life; he traveled extensively and served several diplomatic positions under President Wilson, including a stint as U.S. Ambassador to China from 1920-1921, while simultaneously serving as president of Crane Company, a position he assumed upon his father’s death amid a challenge from his youngest brother. His adventures traveling the world were legendary in their own time — he visited Russia 23 times, sailed to Java when he was 21, crossed Siberia by train before passengers were even allowed, and lost 40 pounds during a difficult six-week trip across Turkey. These travels ultimately contributed one structure to the property in Lake Geneva. According to his most recent biographer, Charles purchased a Russian izba, a one-room peasant cottage of decorated wood, from the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1905, and moved it to Jerseyhurst where it was used as a tea house.

OTHER AMENITIES

The property also contained a boathouse, an extensive orchard and a grapery. Jerseyhurst guests ate exotic grapes grown on site and enjoyed pastries baked by the Cranes’ highly coveted French pastry chef. While at the lake, the family was active in the Lake Geneva Garden Club, the Lake Geneva Country Club and the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, and their yacht, called the Passaic, was a well-known sight on the lake. (The Passaic is one of the few yachts of this era still in private use on the lake. Today it is called the Matriark and is owned by the Gage family.)

One of the most notable aspects of the main house at Jerseyhurst was a set of four stained glass windows commissioned by RT Crane depicting scenes of Geneva Lake paired with lines from a poem by Wordsworth. They were placed in the main house at Jerseyhurst around the grand central stairwell until the house was disassembled in 1933, when they were re-set in a gazebo on the Maxwell property. Today they reside at the Geneva Lake Museum. (See sidebar.)

JERSEYHURST TODAY

Today, a portion of the original Jerseyhurst property is owned by Chicago businessman Dean Griffith and his family. Griffth’s father purchased the home originally built for Kate Crane Gartz, daughter of RT Crane and later owned by her son Bud Gartz. Notz commends the Griffiths for demonstrating a commitment to reassembling as much of the original property as possible and preserving and maintaining the natural landscaping. “The Griffiths have worked with some top professionals to remove any exotic plantings and restore the property to native plants and grasses,” he says, referencing a trend in landscape design that focuses on utilizing only plantings that are natural and original to the area where they are grown.

In the past two years, the Griffiths have also arranged to place two key parcels of the undeveloped Jerseyhurst land into conservation land trust easement with the Geneva Lake Conservancy, ensuring that it will never be subdivided or developed.

THE END OF AN ERA

Upon RT Crane’s death in 1912, relations among the Crane family became strained. RT’s much younger wife remarried almost immediately, raising speculation that she had been unfaithful during their marriage; the children took offense to her retention of Jerseyhurst and the house in Chicago under the circumstances. At the same time, Charles and his youngest brother, Richard T. Crane Jr., argued over who should take control of the company. According to Notz, the situation became so untenable that Charles ultimately hired Louis D. Brandeis to mediate the settlement of his father’s estate, but the tensions had taken their toll on the family relationships. “It must have been a difficult thing,” Notz says. “They really were an enclave within themselves and didn’t deal much with the outside world.”

The original 22-bedroom Jerseyhurst home was razed in 1933. Of the four original Crane residences, only Glen Mary still stands today. It has been significantly renovated and renamed Windwood. A duplicate of the estate’s original boat house still stands as well, and these two remaining structures stand as a monument to an era more than a century ago when Jerseyhurst represented the vacation aspirations of one of Chicago’s most prominent businessmen, Richard Teller Crane.

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