The History of Joliet – Chapter 20

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“The fatal result sent a shock wave to almost every household in the community.

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

Among the business barons who built Joliet, none walked taller than George WOODRUFF, the banker. He was just 24 years old when he arrived here in 1836.

Leaving his native New York to make a fortune in the west, he arrived in Chicago by boat. Since that boat went on to the small settlement here to deliver mail, WOODRUFF came to Joliet.

He liked what he saw in Joliet so he stayed for a lifetime.

In those early days, WOODRUFF opened a grocery and provision store, which he operated until 1841. Then he farmed in Plainfield for a couple of years. Deciding he was more of a merchant than farmer, he returned to Joliet and opened another store along with a grain elevator.

In 1857, he opened a bank with three partners, whom he bought out in 1861. His bank consisted mostly of a big iron safe brought here from New York. People trusted him and that iron safe with their money.

In 1864, the National Bank Act was passed and WOODRUFF was one of the first to charter under it as the First National Bank of Joliet. His son, Frederick, was the cashier. At about the same time, WOODRUFF‘s brother, Gilbert, chartered the First National Bank of Rockford.

While the city was growing with new businesses, so did the bank and WOODRUFF‘s fortune. He became a partner in a woolen mill, the Joliet Gas Light Co. and in grain elevators.

In describing WOODRUFF, W.W. STEVENS, a local historian, wrote, “He knew no such word as fail, but carried his business interests persistently and energetically, utilizing the means at hand and shaping conditions to his ends. The value of a man of enterprise of this character in a new locality can not be overestimated. His worth was widely acknowledged.”

But on the Thursday afternoon of Oct. 26, 1882, WOODRUFF was killed in a tragic accident. Earlier that afternoon, he had attended the funeral of a friend. While there, he met three other friends who were interested in the new grain elevator that WOODRUFF was building on the east side.

At about 5:30 p.m., the four men entered the first floor for a tour of the elevator, which was still under construction. As they examined the interior, WOODRUFF suddenly vanished. None of the other men saw him fall head first into an iron tank covered by loose boards. He fell nine feet.

When they pulled him out with a rope, he mumbled, “Raise me up, send for a doctor.”

Living for only about 20 minutes, the body was hauled in a carriage to his home, which quickly filled with “prominent gentlemen.”

The Joliet Signal and Joliet Republic newspapers described the news of his death spreading like a wild fire through the city.

“It’s hard to come to a realization of the fact that this noble man is indeed dead,” the Republic said.

“The fatal result sent a shock wave to almost every household in the community,” The Signal said.

Both newspapers were full of praise for WOODRUFF. His funeral service in the Universalist Church had four times as many persons standing outside as those who were seated inside.

“George WOODRUFF was one of God’s noble men; honest, true, a friend to the needy,” The Republic reported. “When such a man dies, the heavens weep in concord with the people… In business circles, his loss is more than can be reckoned. He was one of the keenest financiers in Illinois and under his control the First National stands at the front of the list of solid banking institutions in this city.”

The Signal added, “Starting in the world for himself early in life with only a good strong constitution and an honest determination to win a fortune, he became imbued with a kindly feeling for his fellow man in whatever stage of life or position in society he met him, a habit and point of character that followed him through life, led him on to prosperity and made him one of the most popular and respected men that Will County has ever claimed as a citizen.”

WOODRUFF was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, not far from the grave of George H. WOODRUFF, the local historian who wrote several books. Their names often got confused.

WOODRUFF‘s only son, Frederick, headed the First National Bank of Joliet until 1906, when his son, George WOODRUFF II, took over. Under the son and grandson, the WOODRUFF family built the WOODRUFF Hotel, the current bank building on Chicago Street and the WOODRUFF Building at Jefferson and Chicago streets.

George II eventually went on into the banking world of Chicago. He is the man who donated the land and built the park district’s WOODRUFF Golf Course.

George WOODRUFF‘s bank still stands in Joliet as a leading business of the community.

Published August 11, 2001