Switzerland & Midwest connections: First Settlers — The Sulzer Brothers

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

Among the first impactful settlers of Chicago were two brothers from Switzerland, Andrew and Conrad Sulzer. Andrew co-founded the first successful brewery in Chicago, and Conrad is recognized as the first recorded non-native settler in the area. Chicago in the 1830’s was an insignificant place in a wild yet promising land with a population of less than 4,000 people. Andrew and his partner William Haas laid the groundwork to Chicago’s ascent as a beer-drinking town. First-year production for the Haas & Sulzer English-style ale’s and porters was 600 barrels, at 31 gallons per barrel. Andrew Sulzer sold his interest in the brewery to William B. Ogden in 1836. The intrepid Ogden not only managed his growing business, but also served full time as Chicago’s first mayor. William Lill, an English immigrant later bought the brewery and with partner Michael Diversey renamed it Lill & Diversey. The brewery was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, never to reopen. In October of that year, the parched city suffering from a drought caught fire and burned for four days. The fire consumed the city, but stopped two miles south of Conrad’s property.

Conrad Sulzer enrolled at the Medical Surgical Institute of Zurich in 1823 at age 16, followed by graduate studies in Germany, before completing an apothecary apprenticeship in Winterthur. After arriving in Chicago in 1836 with his wife Christine, step daughter Caroline and their infant son Frederick, he purchased 100 acres of undeveloped land in 1837 at what is now the corner of Montrose and Clark in the Lake View/Ravenswood area. Four years earlier, a treaty was signed in Chicago between the United States and six thousand members of the so-called United Bands of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi, who surrendered their remaining claims to Illinois land of about 5 million acres and agreed to be relocated to reservations west of the Mississippi River by 1835. This they did in exchange for 5 million acres of land west of the Mississippi River and cash payments. Conrad made good use of the land, occupying himself “with a pretty considerable livestock and with horticulture”. This, he wrote 1851 to relatives in Switzerland, “harmonizes most with my inclination and which procured me, if not great riches, at least contentment and independence”. Andrew’s story ends the same year in another letter to an acquaintance in Winterthur, where Conrad mentions his late brother.

During his lifetime, Conrad Sulzer, in addition to being a gentlemen farmer, also served as collector of Ridgeville Township and assessor of Lake View Township. He died at age 67 on Christmas Eve in 1873. Earlier that year, a two-story brick building, topped by a fanciful cupola, was built and known as the Sulzer Street School. The structure stood at the corner of Sulzer and Paulina Streets. Sulzer Street was later renamed Montrose Avenue. A mansion built for Sulzer in the 1860s, remained in the Sulzer family until the 1950s, when it was donated to Trinity College. Trinity used the house until relocating to the northern suburbs in 1965. It was in later years owned for a while by actress Joan Cusack.

The Conrad Sulzer Regional Library located, on Lincoln Avenue, opened in 1985. In it, a plaque contains Conrad Sulzer’s words from a letter dated 1851, where he prophesied Chicago’s ascent to an important commercial center. Grace Sulzer established the Sulzer Family Foundation to ensure that civic, social and educational organizations continue to thrive and enrich the community founded by her grandfather. Conrad’s contribution to Chicago is continued to this day by his descendants through the Sulzer Family Foundation.

Many thanks to Julie Lynch from the Sulzer Library for her support with this story and allowing me to see historic records from the library. The Sulzer Regional Library, named in Conrad’s honor, is located at 4455 North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Additional thanks go to Geoff Johnson for his contributions to the story. Additional reading on the Sulzer family can be found in Richard Bjorklund’s publication “Pioneer Settler Conrad Sulzer”.

The author with a painting of Conrad Sulzer at the Sulzer Library. Image © Joerg Oberschmied
Julie Lynch from the Sulzer Library with some of the many historic documents about the Sulzer family. Image © Joerg Oberschmied
Sulzer’s prophetic words in 1851. Image © Joerg Oberschmied