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Mini Biographies of Scots and Scots Descendants (F)
Fergus, Robert


ROBERT FERGUS, the historic printer of Chicago, and practically the pioneer of publishing, arrived in this city on Monday July 1, 1839, by the old-time side-wheel steamer “Anthony Wayne,” of the Buffalo & Chicago Line, commanded by Capt. Amos Pratt.  He was born August 4, 1815, in the Gallowgate of Glasgow, Scotland, the fifth and youngest son of John and Margaret Patterson (Aitken) Fergus.  Four miles northwest of Glasgow Cross, at the village of Maryhill, William Leckie presided over a small school.  To his charge Robert was committed.  After being grounded in the rudiments, he was sent, at the age of fourteen, to William Lindsay’s Commercial School, Brunswick Street, Glasgow, and a year later was apprenticed to Robert Hutchinson and George Brookman, proprietors of the University Printing Office, Villafield.  The firm also contained Alexander Fullerton, John Blackie and William Lang, the former two of whom were well known Scotch publishers, while Mr. Lang earned a very excellent reputation as a printer.   Three years after Robert began his apprenticeship the firm was dissolved, and he then was transferred to George Brookman, with whose son he worked at the case, and finished his apprenticeship.  It is with no little pride in recalling those days that Mr. Fergus remembers how he worked on Sir Walter Scott’s “Marmion,” “Lady of the Lake” and “Lay of the Last Ministrel,” about the time when the “Wizard of the North” was beginning to excite the wonder of the world.  He also helped to set up Sturm’s “Reflections” and Prof. F. Meadow’s French, Italian and Spanish dictionaries.  A regular apprenticeship to the printing business means, in Scotland, a thorough grounding in the craft of Caxton; and when Mr. Fergus set forth as a journeyman he possessed  a knowledge of his business such as qualified him to earn a good livelihood in any part of the civilized world.

In 1839, Mr. Fergus’ career in this country was decided by an accidental meeting with a young Englishman named Francis Metcalf, for whom he had formerly done certain favors.  Metcalf had just returned from Milwaukee, and he gave the young journeyman such a glowing account of the capabilities of the West, that on the 4th of May, 1839, Robert set sail from Glasgow on the paddle-wheel steamer “Commodore,” and passed the first iron steamer ever built on the Clyde, the “Royal Sovereign,” which was then on the stocks.  Four days later he set out across the Atlantic from Liverpool in the packet-ship “Orpheus” of the old Black Ball Line, arriving in New York June 1.  After calling on Rev. Orville Dewey, of the Unitarian Church of the Messiah, and presenting a letter of introduction, he started west.  Taking the steamer “New London” to Albany, he there transferred himself to the Erie Canal packet “William Hildreth,” which landed him in Buffalo seven days later.

In due course he arrived in Milwaukee on the side-wheel steamer “Illinois,” Capt. Charley Blake.  He vividly remembers how a scow came out of the river and took off passengers and freight.  The business arrangements proposed by Mr. Metcalf did not suit him, so he concluded to try something for himself.  He met Harrison Reed, editor and proprietor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, who offered him a half-interest in the paper for $800.  He did not buy, however, as friends advised him that the amount asked was more than the whole office was worth; and then Mr. Reed offered him the charge of the establishment at an annual salary of $520.  Mr. Fergus thought he could do still better in Chicago, and, in spite of the warnings he received of what he quaintly called “sure-death diseases,” he proceeded to this city, with which his name has ever since been associated.

In February, 1836, he married Margaret Whitehead Scott, in the Independent Relief Chapel (southeast corner of John and Cochrane Streets, Glasgow), of which Rev. William Anderson was then chaplain.  Margaret was eldest daughter of James Scott, a merchant weaver, and a burgess and freeman of the city of Glasgow, a position held in very great esteem by the “Glasgow bodies.” Mr. Fergus’ children are: George Harris, John Bowman, Walter Scott, Benjamin Franklin and Jessie Margaret, and it is worth observing how both his nationality and his love for his craft appear in the names of his sons.

It is difficult to say whether Mr. Fergus is a printer first and a Scotchman last, or a Scotchman first and printer last, for he appears to be just as devoted to his profession as he is to the literature and recollections of his native country.  Nothing delights him more than to meet a congenial friend, who can talk to him about Allan Ramsay’s “Gentle Shepherd,” and discuss the beauties of “Habbies Howe,” or the character of Patsy and Meg, the lovers whose presence has made that glen famous in Caledonian literature.  The poems of Robert Burns he has at his tongue’s end, the works of Walter Scott are as familiar to him as household words, and there are few of the older Scotch authors about whom he does not know something.  His library is very full and curious, and what of old-time local affairs can not be found on his book-shelves may be looked for in his vigorous and well-stored mind.  Excepting for a slight deafness, Mr. Fergus enjoys a stout and hearty health in spite of his weight of years, of which fifty-six (1895) have been spent in this city.


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