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Lake Magazine
Jul. 19, 2017 #11-199 LK1
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The wealthiest liveryman in Chicago came from Kankakee

By Jack Klasey

Leroy Payne's half-century-long career as a liveryman began and ended with a single horse and buggy. In between his modest beginning in Kankakee and his death in a small Michigan lumber town, Payne achieved both fame and fortune.

Payne came to the new town of Kankakee as a teenager sometime in the mid-1850s. His parents, Chauncey and Jerusha Payne, operated the Murray House, a hotel occupying a three-story brick building on the southeast corner of Court Street and Dearborn Avenue.

Sometime before 1860, young Leroy went into the livery business with a single horse and buggy. By 1865, the business had grown substantially; he erected a building on Dearborn Avenue, behind his parents' hotel, to house his livery and boarding stable. Payne and his wife, the former Clara Beebe, lived in an apartment above the stable until 1869. In that year, he sold the business to Henry C. McFall, and bought out the larger Muncey livery stable on Schuyler Avenue.

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire devastated the city 60 miles north of Kankakee. As the burned city rebuilt, many young men — including Leroy Payne — flocked there to seek their fortunes. Within a decade, Payne had achieved success, operating a large livery business on Michigan Avenue, just south of Adams Street.

A livery stable, in the day before the automobile, was the equivalent of today's Hertz Rent-A-Car: you could rent a horse, a team of horses or one of many types of wagon or carriage, by the hour or the day. It also offered taxi service, with a driver, at a flat rate for destinations such as train depots.

Payne's business was allied with the city's largest and most elegant hotel, the Palmer House. An 1881 Chicago Tribune article, under the headline "An Equine Palace," noted:

"Immediately opposite the southern entrance of the Exposition Building stands a noticeable edifice bearing the inscription, 'Leroy Payne — Palmer House Stables — Leroy Payne.' This is the title of an unwritten story of a friendless boy who, from his meager earnings, by dint of strictest economy, saved enough to buy his first team, and from that humble beginning has attained the distinction of being the designer and sole proprietor of the finest and best-appointed livery establishment on this continent."

To meet the needs of hotel guests and other customers, Payne's stable housed more than 200 horses, and a fleet of 100 vehicles. These ranged from "… forty first-class carriages of the latest style," to "one Tally-Ho coach, four or six horses as required, capable of accommodating forty persons comfortably." Payne employed 115 workers, including drivers, horse groomers and blacksmiths.

The business also offered boarding facilities for Chicago horse owners, both at the Michigan Avenue stable and at Payne's extensive "Horses Home" operation near Chebanse in southern Kankakee County.

At the height of Payne's career, during the 1880s, the Horses Home spread over about 1,000 acres one mile west of Chebanse. Most of the farm was in pasture or fields of grain for horse feed. Forty acres of the property, however, held a complex of buildings that included stabling for 500 horses, an enclosed one-quarter-mile exercise track, a grain elevator, feed mill, barns and housing for workers. An open-air one-half mile track surrounded a small artificial lake. All the buildings were supplied with electricity and piped-in water.

Some of the horses stabled at Chebanse were retired from Payne's livery operation, but most were thoroughbred pacers or trotters being trained for wealthy Midwestern horsemen. Horse owners and other visitors often arrived by train at the Chebanse IC station, then were conveyed by carriage to the Horses Home for guided tours.

Leroy Payne had become a rich man. By the 1890s, he owned — in addition to his livery business and the Horses Home — a number of valuable properties in downtown Chicago and a hotel in St. Louis. Unfortunately, before the decade was over, he became overextended financially and was forced into bankruptcy. Nearly 700 acres of the Horses Home property in Chebanse was sold to Henry Nordmeyer, whose descendants still farm there. The Chicago livery stable property eventually became, in 1904, the site of Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

After losing his fortune, Payne relocated to Blaney Junction, a small lumber mill town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he eked out a living with his single remaining horse and carriage. He died there in 1911, at the age of 70, and was buried in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.

Jack Klasey came to Kankakee County as a young Journal reporter in 1963, and quickly became “hooked” on local history. In 1968, he co-authored “Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County.” Now retired from a career in the publishing industry, he remains active in the history field as a volunteer and board member at the Kankakee County Museum. He can be contacted at jwklasey@comcast.net.​

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