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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

E.J. Lehmann

Ernst Johann Lehmann (1849-1900) from a photo taken about 1888. Chicago Tribune, January 7, 1900.

German immigrant, Ernst Johann Lehmann (1849-1900), was instrumental in developing one of the earliest department stores, and also for putting Lake Villa on the map.

As a young man, Lehmann opened a small jewelry store on Clark Street in Chicago. His ambition was to market affordable goods to the working class, selling items for less than other stores. In 1875, he was so successful that he moved his business into a larger building at State and Adams Streets and called it, The Fair Store. He named his store "The Fair" so that people knew they would be treated fairly.

"He was," according to the Chicago Tribune, "a shrewd business manager and gained a wide reputation by the cheapness of his goods and by his practical business methods." He sold items for less than other stores, making up for smaller profits by the sheer volume of sales.

In addition to jewelry, The Fair sold men's and women's clothing, hats, shoes, notions, and household goods. One building at a time, The Fair grew and by 1882, occupied every building along the north side of Adams between State and Dearborn Streets. That same year, Lehmann saw another of his ambitions realized. He brought the Wisconsin Central Railroad to the tiny north suburban community of Lake Villa to create a thriving resort town. By the early 1900s, 18 passenger trains a day arrived in Lake Villa.

The Lehmann family was very influential in the Lake Villa area. They built large estates and employed area residents. Their legacy lives on in area subdivisions and communities, most notably in the Lehmann Mansion. The mansion was built as a summer home for son, Edward John's family in 1912 by Charlie and Frank Hamlin of Lake Villa. In 2001, the mansion was purchased by the Village of Lake Villa. The Village of Lindenhurst was originally son, Ernst E.'s, 240-acre dairy farm known as Lindenhurst.

Lehmann advertised extensively, as seen in this circa 1880 ad. The Fair was the first department store to place a full-page advertisement in a Chicago newspaper.

In 1897, Lehmann built a $3 million modern store, said to be more than two times as large as the Bon Marché in Paris.

As his store expanded and fortunes increased, Lehmann's health deteriorated. In 1890, his wife, Augusta Handt, gained legal authority to commit him to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane in White Plains, New York. When he died in January 1900 many theorized that the pressures of his business enterprise and interest in the development of Lake Villa was too much for him.

The family continued to operate The Fair until 1925 when they sold it to chain store magnate S. S. Kresge.


Connie Hampton, SF Bay Biorecruiter said...

Thank you! This was a relative of mine and I never knew the details!

Anonymous said...

Do anyne know if E. J. was related to the B.B. amd Karl Lehmanns who were jewelry merchants in New Orleans at the turn of the century? - Ronne H.

D_Dretske said...

Hello Ronnie,

I asked a Lehmann family member about the possible connection to Lehmanns in New Orleans. He didn't know for certain, saying that it's possible, but the surname Lehmann is quite common in Germany.

Thanks for reading!


D_Dretske said...


Another Lehmann family member checked for any connection. He says there is not a B.B. or Karl Lehmann of New Orleans in their family tree.


Patty said...

I have a sideboard/buffet with a small brass nameplate which reads "The Fair" Adams State and Dearborn St. Chicago. I imagine it is from the early 1900 since the Department store was built at the spot in 1891.I paid 800.00 for it 20 years ago, which was alot! I wonder who is belonged to so many years ago!

warren said...

in 1947 they held peacock camp there. i was 12 years old i was the babby there that year and they use to teae me a bout the goast of Mrs woodworth.ITwas a beautiful place.

Unknown said...

In the early 1950's my father Raymond Lessman (German spelling Lessmann) was a Gardener at The Lehmann Mansion in Lake Villa,IL. My father came from Arcade, WI. with his new bride (my mother )Marcella. My father ENJOYED working for The Lehmann's. My father and mother built a home in Kenosha, WI. In the early 1960's AND EVER SINCE Dads lawn was as plush as a golf coarse. The soft and pristine blades of grass felt as soft as felt on my bare feet. Never ever did you ever see a dandelion or weed in Dad's Lawn. In early 2000 The Lehmann Mansion had a public Event and I brought Dad back to his former work place. Dad enjoyed revisiting this site. Now after the renovation of the Mansion Dad would be proud of how again the Mansion shines to it's original grandeur.

Tim H said...

From 1969 to 1971 my wife and I lived in a part of the Lehmann mansion in Lake Villa. Our section was as large as a 3-bedroom home and was only a minor part of the mansion. We were associated with the Central Baptist Children's Home which was located on the property next door that had belonged to Mr. Lehmann's daughter. Which Lehmann that was I do not know. But the mansion had a lovely rose garden and a very large yard. Also, a small cabin out back where my family and I would sometimes overnight. Small lake also went with the property. The yard was so big we could practice hitting golf balls on it.
Some day I will have to go back and visit the place.

Faithful Servant said...

My grandmother was a Handt and Mrs. Lehmann was her Aunt. She was so happy to be able to tour the remodeled mansion when it was refurbished and opened. She told the people giving her the tour about the place when she was growing up. She had many happy memories driving in her Aunt's Model T from Chicago to her estate in the summers. She said the roads were mud and it took all day to get there...I remember a photo of her with the car. My grandmother's father passed away before she was born, I believe he mined coal. Augusta took good care to help her sister (my grandmother's mother) cope in raising 13 children in the German area of downtown Chicago. Augusta died in the elevator of the home soon after it was installed, if I remember correctly...So sad.

Diana Dretske said...

Faithful Servant,
Thank you for sharing your family's story.
Your memory is correct, Augusta Lehmann died on November 16, 1918 from injuries in an elevator accident in her home in Chicago.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story! I lived a half block away from the mansion.