It would seem that any connection between Chicago and the small Randolph County town of Prairie du Rocher would be a coincidence.
Yet, in the 1860s, fate brought the two places as close as they have ever been. It all started with a man named Uranus H. Crosby.
Crosby, a wealthy distiller, decided that, while 1860s Chicago had a lot of things, culture wasn’t one of them. To remedy this, he started construction of an opulent new opera house at the corner of Dearborn and Washington. He hired W.W. Boyington, notable Chicago architect to design the new building. When it opened in 1865, the final price tag was $600,000 ($7.62 million in today’s dollars) and it was the talk of the town.
The bloom fell quickly off of the rose, however, and in 1867, Crosby had some uncomfortable truths to confront. Building and operating Crosby’s Opera House proved to be costly and Crosby was flat broke. He took the difficult decision to dispose of the building and its art collection.
This would be no ordinary sale. It would be a nationwide lottery.
Crosby printed 210,000 tickets, each one bearing an image of the opera house. The building at 305 works of art were offered as prizes. The tickets went for $5.00 each and were completely sold out in the matter of a few weeks.
The drawing was held at the opera house in front of a capacity crowd. The winner of the opera house? It was one Abraham Hagermann Lee of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois.
News traveled slower in the 1860s, and there was no telegraph office in Prairie du Rocher. Word was sent to a law firm in St. Louis, which relayed the message to Belleville, from whence a messenger was sent on horseback to make the trek to Prairie du Rocher.
When the messenger arrived, Lee answered his door in his long nightshirt. According to the messenger, Lee seemed completely underwhelmed by this news. “I wish they had to swallow the opera house,” he supposedly remarked.
In a few days, Lee made the long trip to Chicago to meet with Crosby. Lee didn’t want anything to do with the opera house, so he offered to sell his claim back to Crosby. Crosby offered Lee $200,000, which he gladly accepted.
Lee immediately left to return home, while one gathers that Crosby couldn’t believe his luck. Even with the payout to Lee, he had netted $600,000 from the sale of lottery tickets and now he had his opera house back (at least until it was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871).
Back in Prairie du Rocher, Lee made plans to build a substantial house with his newly-found wealth. The house that he had built was impressive indeed, complete with mansard roof and all of the Italianate bric-a-brac that was becoming so popular at the dawn of the 1870s.
He wasn’t around very long to enjoy the house or his money. Lee died on a business trip in Cincinnati in 1869. The house was purchased by his business partner, F.W. Brickey. Brickey and Lee were partners in Prairie du Rocher’s only grist and flour mill. The house was thenceforth known as the Brickey House.
The Brickey Family lived in the house for decades, positioning it as a social center for the surrounding area’s local gentry. When F.W. Brickey died, he specified in his will that should none of his children want the house as their home, it should be given to a charitable organization. If no such organization wanted it, it should be left unoccupied or it should be dismantled.
In a reflection of bad luck that mirrors Lee’s good luck in building the house, none of Brickey’s children wanted the house. A charitable organization could not be found. It was then that the house was left unoccupied. It would remain so for most of the 20th Century, sitting as a decaying reminder of Lee’s good fortune and the architectural fashions of a bygone day.
On the evening of April 5, 1970, a fire was discovered in the old Brickey House. It was quickly engulfed and the house was completely immolated. Memories are all that now remain.
A story that started with a lottery ticket reached its final chapter in those flames. When we study the past, we search for stories that hide in plain sight. The story of Lee, Crosby, the opera house and all is just such a tale, waiting to be discovered anew by the curious observer.