The Prince of Wales Dazzles Lake Forest

The Prince of Wales Dazzles Lake Forest
Photo: History Center Lake Forest – Lake Bluf

October 13, 1924

Pictured Left to Right: Louis F. Swift, the Prince of Wales, and Captain Lascelles.

At 8:10 every morning, the special coach rolled passed while I waited on the platform for the outbound train. The vintage train car was a single level; its weighty chrome mellowed with age. A bold mustard-yellow stripe was unmistakable compared to the unimaginative commuter railcars that lead. 

The special train rolling through Lake Forest was reserved for the men who purchased the coach for their private use, attached to the standard commuter rail. Inside, CEOs and CFOs, attired in double-breasted suits, would read their Wall Street Journals and drink freshly-squeezed orange juice and freshly-brewed coffee. They ate a leisurely breakfast of bacon and eggs while private phone calls were made overseas. There, the markets were near closing for the day. 

Perfectly coiffed wives drove away in Range Rovers to greet the nannies and see the children off to school. Later, the ladies got on with the business of charity events and leisurely lunches. I, for one, appreciated such hard-earned success, ingenuity, and expedience — not necessarily in that order. 

Ahead of the special coach was the intrusive commotion of the morning commute — a new paradigm of the intrusive modern age. The average attire was khaki pants or sloppy jeans. De rigor were the oversized nylon backpacks as style was a paradigm of the past. The CFOs conducted business amid hushed whispers, a sign of respect. The regulars drowned in loud conversations, ring tones, notifications, and profanity. 

That was America; the “F” bomb a sign of the times.

The Prince of Wales’ Special Train

In 1924, the special train, operated by Canadian National Railways and hauled by a Northwestern locomotive, slipped through the town of Waukegan unnoticed. The reason for the unceremoniousness is unclear, although a scheduled stop was not on the day’s itinerary. Perhaps the locals did not care for royalty. 

The special train, consisting of eight black cars, did not slow down when passing through the lakefront city. The Prince of Wales did not appear on the rear platform. He did not wave to a dozen or so seemingly gloomy onlookers from his passenger window. The Waukegan station was eerily quiet that morning, with Captain Thomas Booth and two fellow policemen, Herbert Gillis and True Whittier, standing guard on the depot platform. 

An accident, of course, was always a risk, so every possible precaution was taken to prevent one from occurring. Officials at Northwestern Road assigned track walkers to the local yards to ensure the safety of those on board.

Instead, activity was centered south at the Lake Forest station on Western Avenue, more than one thousand local residents gathered, waiting for royalty to arrive. 

At 8:04 on the morning of October 13, the special train stopped. Young socialites and local girls — men, too — were too eager to catch a glimpse of the dashing prince. They crowded the platform shoulder to shoulder. They lined adjacent streets. Pretty young girls sat on the roofs of touring cars hoping for a better vantage point from which to observe the wildly popular heir to the British throne. 

Throngs of professional and amateur photographers crowded around, cumbersome cameras, by today’s standards, at the ready. 

Emerging onto the platform of the rear car — appropriately named “The Balmoral” — the Prince appeared, and Louis F. Swift quickly approached, eager to greet his guest — ready for the opportunity to be photographed with the heir. Reporters were eager to oblige. 

The reporters — always eager for a smile and wave — called out to David Windsor, who tipped his brown Fedora. Yet the smile was not forthcoming. In pain, he appeared grave. The incessant cheers increased. The Prince, polite, tipped his hat again and then again. 

Celebrity status attained, the cameramen and throngs of waiting residents parted ways, the Prince funneled through the crowd. Along the curb, three black Buicks were parked and waiting for the heir and his entourage. Whisked inside a waiting vehicle, the drivers — George Wenban, Henry Rose, and Maurice Fitzgerald — pulled away. Cameramen and a slew of Chicago detectives who would trail him until late into the afternoon. 

The Louis F. Swift Estate

The drive to the Swift estate — Westleigh — would be indirect and east. The Buicks wound through the quaint north suburban side streets for a quick tour of the wealthy enclave. There was a brief visit to the lake shore park followed by a serenad given by the young ladies of Ferry Hall, who gathered on the front steps of what is now a part of Lake Forest College to sing “We Are True to You.” 

And then west, passed the train station where Peter Kelly, a local blacksmith, had waited earlier, hoping to catch another glimpse of the prince. The former British Army soldier had seen the heir twice before. First, when he was chosen as one of the details for the 1911 coronation of David’s father, King George V. The second was when Mr. Kelly witnessed David Windsor’s christening in 1894. 

Photo: History Center Lake Forest – Lake Bluff

The original entrance to the former Westleigh estate no longer exists. The stone pillars and coach house flanked the private drive, long since demolished. Yet in 1924, through the grand entrance south of Onwentsia Club. A windmill stood near a pond. The windmill no longer remains, the pond now situated on the ground of a small estate, built when the Swift lands were subdivided in the decades following world wars. 

The Swift estate was grand, of course, but nowhere near the opulence of its East Coast counterparts. The Chicago suburb was more subdued. More English. A little worn around the edges, like a treasured Oriental rug. 

Serving as hostess was Countess Minotto, Louis F. Swift’s sister, Ida May, who married Count James Minotto, an Italian nobleman, eight years earlier. I can only imagine the formal greeting that must have taken place as three rich, black Buicks pulled to a stop before the original Colonial wing of the grand residence.

Soon after his arrival, he would have been led to the breakfast room. Four strong footmen, carrying silver platters, ushered in a bounty of Swift bacon and eggs. The royal guest in town “to show the appreciation of the British government for the enormous quantities of meat products sent to the British Empire throughout the war by the Chicago Stock Yards.” Those were the Prince’s precise words. 

Seated to the right of the Prince was Countess Minotto, with Mrs. E. Swift on his left. Present, too, were General Cotter, Major Metcalf, Captain Lascelles, Sir Walter Peacock, and Mr. Richards of Washington, D.C. The occasion, it was reported, was meant for immediate members of the Swift family. 

But socialites are clever girls, two in particular: “Libbie” Chase and an unnamed dark-eyed friend in a riding habit. 

“I know,” Libbie told a reporter later on, “because I was sitting under a table in the room where no outsiders were supposed to be. And I wasn’t the only girl who had crept past the rows of vigilant guards just to get one good close-up of Eddie. Two of Lake Forest’s most aristocratic damsels were right at my heels.

“Hiding in the butler pantry, they peered through the small window pane of glass, peeking through a small pane of glass in the door at the royal party. 

“Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David took a husky bit of toast and o-o-oh! I dodged the head butler who was bearing out a covered silver salver. ‘Isn’t he just darling!’ And then we had to duck back again behind another door for the august gentleman with the silver salver who returned with a silver basket full of flowing red apples. From the lace insertions of the table cloth, which mercifully draped my hiding place, I got a good look at the hope of England. He sat in the middle of the long table, with Louis Swift at his right. 

“The Countess Minotto, tall and shy, was lofty in a soft rose sports costume. She sat near him. There was a muffled murmur of voices with the Prince’s low but hearty laugh and gave to talk occasionally. He spoke about the nice sunshiny morning and also said something about his trip down from Canada. He seemed a trifle shy.

“All too soon the moments slipped by and finally the breakfast was ended. The party rose, his royal highness last, and moved toward the hall at their left and from there toward the spacious terrace outside, which overlooked thousands of acres of Skokie Valley farm land. I picked an auspicious moment and departed like wine, running into the debutantes who were also escaping. I ran out around the north side of the house and was just passing a moment in the shelter of the terrace wall to apply a little much needed powder to my nose when there was a slight commotion and the Prince, Mr. Swift, and the Prince’s aides walked by.

“I’d dropped my powder puff in the excitement. I looked at him and he looked at me. He paused a fraction of a second and then walked on with his host to the marble swimming pool in the greenhouse just north of the house itself. And I know I just looked awful, too. 

“I noticed as he went across the lawn that he showed a decided limp in his right leg. He was in a blue-gray suit with blue shirt and still collar. 

“The sun came out and his blonde hair took on the golden tinge so many talk about. A little white dog (a wire-haired terrier puppy) was paying on the lawn and he whistled to it and he walked back to the house. It scampered up to him and barked delightfully as Countess Minotto tried to put it through some tricks. 

“Then the shining big limousine with a British and American flag on its radiator drove up. The Prince led the way into the house again and immediately afterward the party came out with hats and coats and sped away toward Chicago.

“And I, the little Cinderella whose fairy godmother with her lucky wand had protected me thus far, turned around sadly and went out too.”

The Prince of Wales had strolled the grounds where my own children and their cousins played. The apples served that morning must have been picked from the trees that still line Foster Place, the road the estate once known as Westleigh was named after. 

I’d witnessed ripe fruit harvested with a cushioned basket; attached to an extendable rod. Hundreds would be brought in for pies and tarts. The bruised and the diseased would be left for the deer to graze. 

The pair of blooded goats, nibbling leaves beneath a tree that morning and which the Prince was reported to have admired, were a charming anecdote to this tale. The peacocks Mr. Swift sent a postcard home about may or may not have roamed the grounds.  

“Want to see peacocks like this on your place” Louis F. Swift wrote on a postcard home to the Everett Stock Farm manager, William Sneddon. “Home in October,” he added before signing off. 

The estate was abundant — self-sustaining but for meat. That was reserved for trips to Alaska and salmon fishing. Month-long vacations bearing sweet salmon sticks and filets to be grilled on warm summer days on the same terrace the Prince of Wales once stood on, looking out over a long stretch of lawn. The deer and pheasant would be hunted for in Wisconsin or Southern Illinois. The cattle, of course, belonged to the Swifts and were found at the stockyards where the Prince, that October morning in 1924, was soon heading. 

For further reading on Everett Stock Farm, please visit the History Center of Lake Forest – Lake Bluff.

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