Only the oldest of the old timers still living in Brookfield remember actually knowing Willis A. Melville. To call him merely an interesting person would be doing him a great injustice. He appears to have lived such a full life, that one wonders how he accomplished all he did.
Willis Melville, son of John R. and Mary (nee Gallagher) Melville, saw his first day in the world when he was born on August 1, 1866. Or maybe it was August 1, 1867. Sources, even death notices in two local papers, don’t agree.
He was not born locally. Riverside was still only a concept, and the first land that would begin Brookfield was yet to be purchased, 20 years into the future. Chippewa Falls, Wis. was his birthplace, and later, in 1886, he graduated from high school in Madison.
After 1886 and until 1890, he went into the publishing and printing trade, sometimes acting as a “tramp printer,” accepting jobs wherever he could, traveling around, writing articles for newspapers, magazines and book companies, and sometimes setting type, inking and running the presses. Perhaps what inspired him to do this was that one of his greatest heroes, Mark Twain, had done the same sort of thing in his younger days.
Nothing of what Melville wrote during his tramp printer years or afterwards is currently known to exist, except for two pages of a short article, titled “Early History of Brookfield,” published in a 1924 McDonough and Company address directory book. He probably didn’t realize that by doing this he became the first writer of Brookfield’s published history.
Maybe he couldn’t make enough money at tramp printing, or maybe he tired of all the traveling and the uncertainty of finding work. So he decided to study law, throwing himself into it, body and soul. In 1892 he graduated from the Chicago College of Law at Lake Forest University, and went into law partnership, becoming the firm of Melville and Steadman, or Steadman and Melville, depending on who wanted first billing. In the first issue of the Grossdale Magnet, on April 14, 1894, the firm published a small ad simply stating they were attorneys, operating at a Chicago address.
Willis Melville became the attorney for Samuel E. Gross, Brookfield’s founder, and represented him on many occasions, concerning the openings of the subdivisions of Grossdale, East Grossdale (Hollywood) and West Grossdale (Congress Park.). Either as part of his fee, or just because he liked the area, Melville ended up acquiring land throughout the village.
Coming out to Grossdale in 1892, he quickly settled into one of the village’s first five constructed homes, on 3522 Park Ave. The building even today is easily noticed by its domed roof. Later on, in the 1920s, he built five more bungalows around it, calling it “the compound.”
Now he was ready to be married to Lillian Smith of Neilsville, Wis., on March 17, 1893. Or maybe it was March 20, 1893. Again, sources differ. Anyway, he seems to have been married sometime in March 1893.
Miss Smith was both a classmate and sweetheart of his at the Chicago College of Law, from where she also graduated as an attorney. After Willis Melville broke off with Steadman, he formed the firm of Melville, Stobbs and Melville, taking his wife into the law partnership, even before women were allowed to vote.
In 1894, the people of the village decided they needed a new school building, and Melville created the subscription list for the S.E. Gross School. Signers to the list put down their names opposite an amount of money they were to pay “on or before July 1, 1894.” The first donor on the list was W.E. Gross. The second was Willis Melville, for a sum of ten dollars, which was a fairly decent contribution for the time.
In the early 1890s, Melville built the two story limestone fronted Melville Hall in the 8800 block of Burlington Boulevard. The he rented it out to clubs and organizations needing a place to meet and hold dances. The first silent movies in the village were shown in this building during Thanksgiving time in 1907.
As Gross’s attorney, Melville found himself acting the part of literary defender in his client’s plagiarism suit. Back in the 1870s, Gross had written a play titled “The Merchant Prince of Cornville,” which he later took copies of to a number of theaters, hoping to have it produced.
In 1889, while seeing the Paris Exposition, he left a copy of his play at the St. Martin’s Theater. Around 1900, Gross charged that Edmond Rostand had taken his play, rewritten it a little, and then called it his own work.
Melville threw himself into the case, and by 1902 had won for Gross the token sum of $1 that Gross had asked for as damages. Rostand was discredited, but his play is still well known today, while Gross’s is not. Ever heard of “Cyrano De Bergerac”?
Even while practicing law and acting as Brookfield’s village attorney for a total of 18 years, Melville still had printer’s ink running through his veins, and at one time was owner of the Suburban Magnet newspaper in the early years of the 1900s.
The man’s family life was no less spectacular. On Sunday, Dec. 8, 1895, Grossdale’s first set of fraternal twins were born to Mr. and Mrs. Melville, named Jessie and Josephine. Mrs. Melville’s aunt, Dr. Sarah Ann Brown, delivered the twins at the house.
A short time later, the entire student body of Gross School (less than 100 pupils) were ushered to Park Avenue, to see the first twins in the village. They were baptized together at the Congregational Church, still located across the street from the S.E. Gross School. Just to keep things interesting, both Jessie and Josephine were married at the same double wedding ceremony, on the same day, in December 1920. Jessie married Frank Kinne, and Josephine married Homer Myers.
According to one account, Melville co-owned a baseball team in Chicago called the Normals around the turn of the century. It was a champion class city team that merged with another team to become the Chicago Cubs. Another account says he was manager of the Normals, although that would seem to be so time- and energy-consuming, it is difficult to see how he would have kept up his law practice and many other duties at the same time.
Why, this man was so well liked, that in 1901 when Grossdale almost had its name changed to Montauk, a petition for another name for the village was entered, and it was “Melville.”
A recently discovered article in the May 26, 1901 Chicago Tribune relates that Willis Melville almost secured a Carnegie library for Grossdale. Melville had met the Rev. J.N. Walker, of Springfield, a retired Baptist minister who just happened to be a personal friend of Andrew Carnegie’s.
“Grossdale Assured It Will get $3,599 for Library,” said the headline.
Melville was assured by Walker that the money would soon be coming, as long as certain conditions of Mr. Carnegie’s were met, such as the village appropriating $350 a year for the library’s operation, a site procured and 2,000 books obtained by subscription. However, the deal fell through for some reason and Brookfield’s library (still given by Carnegie) did not open until 1914.
Melville somehow found time to serve as magistrate and justice of the peace in the Proviso Township of Cook County for 41 years, 1892-1933. It was after that time that he became a member of the law firm of Melville, Samuels and Pretzel.
Melville, now more commonly known all around the village as simply “The Judge,” had a deep streak of philanthropy in him. Frequently he would donate his salary earned as village attorney to local causes.
Besides helping to support the Brookfield Health Center, Brookfield Kindergarten, Brookfield Boy Scouts, Congress Park Boy Scouts and the Brookfield Fire Department, he also bought street signs for the village, which sorely needed them.
They were put up on poles on street corners in the mid 1920s, identifying various avenues and boulevards. Sadly, they didn’t last more than a dozen years, when the “new” concrete obelisk posts took over, and survived into the early 1990s.
Children absolutely adored the thin-faced but smiling man. They kept a sharp lookout The Judge, who always bought a new Packard automobile every six years, and would be glad to give them rides in it.
When he was on the street, children would go up to him, and he would generously hand out nickels he kept on hand, just for that purpose. And you could really buy things for nickels in those days.
In his later years, The Judge would relate that he once worked with Mark Twain’s brother, Orion Clemens, doing printing work, and even met Mark Twain himself.
This may or may not have been true. Twain biographies do not state that Orion was still in the printing trade from the period of 1866-1890. Yet, Orion was always short of cash, needing loans from his famous older brother.
So it is not impossible that Orion might’ve taken a short printing job to raise some money and come into contact with young Willis. And besides, who would expect a judge to lie? Then again, he wasn’t exactly in court, but telling this on the streets of Brookfield.
It truly tickled him that whenever he visited Mark Twain’s birthplace, in Hannibal, Mo., other visitors would mistake him, by his white hair, for being his hero, Mark Twain.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also told the story that he’d once courted the famous 19th-century stage singer/actress, Lillian Russell, who was the daughter of the man who owned a printing company.
Supposedly Lillian would go around singing to the typesetters as they worked. Melville was one of them at the time. After Willis moved into his own downtown law office, Lillian becoming more famous all the time, would meet with him in his office, semi-secretly, so that her mother wouldn’t find out.
Well, either her mother did find out, or he met another Lillian he liked better, and married her instead. At least, that’s how the story goes. Was it true? Who knows?
But the years were beginning to tell on The Judge. In the 1930s, he walked a little slower, using his cane to support his bad leg. He and his wife began vacationing at their summer
Home in Chippewa Falls, The Judge’s birthplace, and at St. Petersburg, Fla., during the winter.
He’d been an active member of several organizations. The earliest local one he joined seems to have been the Brookfield Lodge 693 of the Odd Fellows, back in the 1890s, when it met in the Grossdale Pavilion on the corner of Brookfield and Prairie, before it burned in 1897.
He also had joined the Brookfield Kiwanis Club in 1927, its first year of existence. Kiwanians received a special treat each year from The Judge. Coming back from a fishing vacation at Chippewa Falls, The Judge would pack a muskie (or whatever fish he caught) in ice and have it shipped back for a club dinner.
He lived for the rest of his life in his one-story bungalow at 3526 Park Ave., were he died on Nov. 2, 1962 at the age 84 or 85, depending on when people thought he was born. He’d had illnesses before, but had always recovered. But this time, he had not. Two weeks before he had attended church and seemed fine.
Now all of Brookfield was stunned. Funeral arrangements were made by the Johnson Funeral Home, and it was said that on Wednesday, Nov. 5, never was there a longer funeral procession of cars than at The Judge’s last trip to Parkholm Cemetery in LaGrange.
A biography of The Judge written in 1936 stated that “Willis Melville is a good lawyer, well versed in the practice of his chosen profession, and admired by all for his honesty of purpose. Above all he has a great faculty of making many warm friends among the best people and keeping them.”
So much more could be said about the Judge, but I think this sum him up pretty well. Willis Melville. Once a man, now a legend.