We know of the wonderful careers and lives of so many of our alumni, but there are those few from long ago whom, only by chance, do we hear of or remember today. Just such a chance came my way while reading the class of 1855 alumni news in the November 1915 Bulletin of Kimball Union Academy. There, I saw an announcement that a Mrs. Sprague had given Yale University a building for their School of Music as a memorial gift to her late husband, Albert Arnold Sprague. The building, I read, would contain a library, lecture and practice rooms, and a concert hall.
Curious to know more, I found in the KUA General Catalogue 1813-1930 that Sprague, class of 1855, had been born in 1835 in East Randolph, VT, attended Kimball Union for three years, graduated in 1855 and from Yale in 1859, was a merchant in Chicago, married Nancy Atwood and died in 1915. In his KUA file, there was a small note card and nothing more. The typed card listed four substantial gifts given in 1915 by the Sprague Family to hospitals, the Art Institute of Chicago, a Children’s Orphan Asylum, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra pension fund. These gifts totaled “$415, 000 plus the building for Yale School of Music.” Someone added in pencil “Largest whole sale grocery in world. Personal estate 3, million.”
I soon learned a great deal more about Sprague and his family on the internet. He had spent his early life on his families’ farm in Vermont. His parents, knowing the value of an education, had sent their two sons and a daughter to KUA. Their younger son Otho, class of 1858, attended KUA for four years, 1854-1857, and their daughter Caroline, class of 1857, attended for three years, 1854-1856. Albert, the eldest, enrolled in the Classical Department at KUA and at Yale, but, due to ill health, was advised to give up his “cherished ambition of becoming a member of the bar” and to return to the “outdoor life” on the family farm which he did for three years. According to one newspaper, “… like many another New England young man, he heard and heeded the call of the west and became a factor in the business circles of Chicago in the spring of 1862.” With a little money from his father, he entered the wholesale grocery business; he knew with the emerging railways, trade would be good. He joined Z.B. Stetson in organizing the firm of Sprague & Stetson, “the new venture proved profitable from the beginning, its profits being used to secure an enlarged stock and thus meet the growing demands of the trade.” Stetson retired the following year and Ezra J. Warner, another Vermonter and a Middlebury College graduate, took his place. Sprague’s brother Otho joined the company in 1864 having recovered his health after his service as a Sergeant in the 8th Vermont Volunteers during the Civil War.
The company, now called Sprague, Warner and Co., suffered considerable damage in the great fire of 1871, but, having recovered, became known not only as the oldest, but as the leading wholesale grocery business in Chicago for over 48 years amassing a small fortune; the company had grossed over 14 million dollars by 1915. Both brothers were highly thought of in their approach to business as they had the “strictest commercial ethics” and were also highly regarded by their loyal employees.
Outside of business, they were involved in many civic and business endeavors as well as the cultural life of the city. Albert was a Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Telephone Company, the Edison Electric Light Company and the Northern Trust Company. He was a trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Orphan Asylum, the Presbyterian Hospital, the Rush Medical College and the Relief and Aid Society. Otho, who had early in his career worked in a general store in Vermont, became “one of the foremost builders of the Chicago’s commercial interests. He was a founder and patron of The Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra … a director of the Pullman Company, Elgin National Watch Company and the Southern California Railway Company.”
The Sprague brothers married two sisters from Royalton, VT; Otho married Nancy’s youngest sister Lucia. The Atwood family, who also were farmers, included nine sons and three daughters. Their father, who was interested in public and political affairs having served a term in the Vermont legislature and various local offices, was also the choirmaster at their church. Nancy wrote of her family, “The Atwoods will be remembered as a musical family. … Our home was never without music. It was our pastime, and there never was a day without a concert. Whether quartettes, trios, or solos, we never lacked performers, for we all sang. Most of my brothers played stringed instruments, in a self-taught and probably faulty manner, but the spirit of music was in them all and pervaded the home … . The music of our home circle is one of my dearest memories … we all sang and there were many of us.”
It was said, “Albert Sprague believed that music was life’s single most beautiful adornment.” Thus, it is not surprising that Nancy Sprague’s memorial to her husband would be one of music.