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in his studies, but it was sports, not school, that thrilled him. He played
baseball and swam all summer, hunted in the nearby woods each fall, and
skated on the frozen Rock River in winter.
Charles thrived on the freedom that came with growing up but chafed
under the additional responsibilities. At age 16, at his parents™ urging, he
entered Dixon Business College but stayed only a year. “When I asked him
how he liked business college,” Myrtle Walgreen wrote in her autobiogra-
phy, “he just shrugged.”4 In his early years, indifference marked Walgreen™s
reaction to work in almost any form.
Fortunately, “Accuracy was a kind of passion with him,” Myrtle wrote,
so Walgreen was able to find work as a bookkeeper for the I. B. Country-
man General Store, Dixon™s largest. He performed passably well, but once
he recognized that his daily duties would hardly change before he died an
old man, he quit again. “He didn™t think it™d be too good to run a book-
keeping operation the rest of his life,” Chuck recalled.5
(Walgreen might have ditched the bookkeeping job, but he remem-
bered the lesson: If you don™t give your employees a chance to advance,
you™ll lose them. Providing its employees opportunity for growth based on
ability, not merely on longevity, has been a pillar of Walgreens™ policy to
the current day.)
Leaving the white-collar world for a job at the Henderson Shoe Factory
in town, Charles Walgreen soon learned that manual labor also had its
downsides, especially in 1889. As he toiled at one of the stitching ma-
chines one day, he caught his left middle finger in a sharp steel tool and
watched the contraption chop the top joint off. A local doctor named
D. H. Law treated the wound and told him he wasn™t even to hold a book
until it healed. But Charles was not about to put off his love of sports just

6 america™s corner s tore

because of a little finger injury. When Law caught him playing baseball
with his buddies the very next day, he scolded the young man. He then
asked Charles if he would like to work in a drugstore instead of the factory.6
“Charles did not care for the idea at all,” Myrtle recalled, simply because
he preferred playing baseball to any job you could name. But Dr. Law per-
sisted, asking Charles every day he saw him playing outside if he wanted to
reconsider his offer. Finally, albeit grudgingly, Charles agreed to take the
job that Dr. Law had set up at the biggest of Mr. David Horton™s five drug-
stores, which sold the “finest perfumes, pure drugs, medicines, toilet arti-
cles, shoulder braces, homeopathic remedies, cigars, soda water, and lamp
goods,” according to the ads in the local paper.
Not surprisingly, the work at Horton™s didn™t appeal much to Charles,
but the princely sum of four bucks a week was certainly attractive. More
important, however, unlike the factory, the drugstore offered the amiable
young man lots of social contact. Although Charles was initially ap-
prehensive about waiting on customers, he quickly discovered he
had a knack for it, the one part of the job he actually enjoyed. (Genu-
inely friendly customer service has also been a Walgreens™ hallmark from
the start.)
Like all of Walgreen™s jobs, however, this one would be short-lived, last-
ing only a year and a half. “One nasty winter day, [Mr. Horton] told me to
get the snow and ice off the front sidewalk while he was out to lunch,”
Charles recalled about 10 years later. “I thought he ought to have a porter
for such jobs when we were busy, but I really did intend to shovel the
snow.” After Walgreen™s boss left for lunch, a friend stopped by to chat,
which interested Walgreen far more than shoveling snow. The time flew
by, and Mr. Horton returned to find the snow and ice still stuck to the side-
walk and his clerk inside with the shovel in his hand, chatting up his
“I caught the look on his face,” Walgreen said, “and remembered the
ice fast enough to blurt out, ˜I™ve quit!™ Mr. Horton said I couldn™t quit; I
was fired!”7
Thus began the single greatest career in the pharmacy business.

from humble beginnings 7

sweet home chicago

Having been unceremoniously let go from a decent job by a decent man,
another 18-year-old might have felt guilty or dejected, but Charles
Walgreen took his untimely dismissal instead as a long-awaited invitation
to see the world beyond Dixon, Illinois. He borrowed a $20 bill from his
sister Clementine, who worked as a stenographer in the Dixon Circuit
Clerk™s office, then hopped on the Chicago and Northwestern railroad
line for Chicago.
His timing could not have been better. When he arrived at the
Northwestern station in the winter of 1893, the architects and organizers
were working furiously to put the final touches on the World™s Columbian
Exposition just a few blocks away in Jackson Park, on the city™s South Side,
in time for the May opening.
The stakes were enormous, for both the city and the country. Chicago™s
1893 fair followed Paris™s incredibly impressive 1889 World™s Fair”which
introduced the Eiffel Tower, among other attractions”and had to redeem
the United States for its embarrassing, half-baked displays in Paris.
Chicago also had to wow its countrymen to prove that it was no longer a
vulgar, Western outpost fit only for doomed cattle.
It is impossible to talk about the history of Walgreens without dis-
cussing the history of Chicago. The two have been intertwined since
Chicago™s eighty-sixth year and Walgreens™ first. Their personalities are
very similar. They share a hard-working, no-nonsense mindset, yet both
are utterly unafraid of great challenges.
For the company™s first 10 years or so, Walgreens was based almost en-
tirely in Chicago, and the values of that city and its people have stamped
the company, even as Walgreens has spread across the United States. In a
real sense, Walgreens remains a Chicago company that happens to have
outposts in 44 states in the country. As former chief executive officer
(CEO) Dan Jorndt said in 1981, when Walgreens had a mere 150 stores in
Chicagoland (compared to today™s 350-plus), “We know Chicago better
than anyone. This is our home, where it all started.”8

8 america™s corner s tore

Eastern capitals like Boston and New York were already major cities in
the seventeenth century, and even “Western” enclaves like New Orleans
or St. Louis were established outposts by the early nineteenth century. But
Chicago didn™t even exist on any map until well into the nineteenth cen-
tury. What this utterly forgettable landscape did have, however, was a
seemingly minor river running through it”and that made all the differ-
ence. Columbus left the Old World to find a passage to the Orient”and
failed. Lewis and Clark left the East Coast to find an easy waterway to the
Pacific Ocean”and failed. But when French missionary Jacques
Marquette and his traveling partner, explorer Louis Joliet, set out on the
last leg of their North American journey from the Great Lakes to find the
Mississippi River in September 1673, they succeeded. The answer to their
riddle was traveling the tiny Chicago River (Chicago being a bastardized
version of an Indian word for skunkweed, or wild onion, which covered
the river banks), followed by a short portage into the Des Plaines River,
which runs into the Illinois before joining the Mississippi.
Marquette and Joliet™s discovery went largely ignored for 157 years,
however, because it was too impractical to exploit. That changed dramat-
ically in 1830, when government planners working for the 12-year-old
state of Illinois decided to dig a canal between the Chicago and Des
Plaines rivers, ending the need for the troublesome portage, with two small
towns”Ottawa and Chicago”planned for either end of the canal.
In August 1833, settlers signed papers at the rustic”some reporters
called it rancid and wretched”Sauganah Hotel, incorporating the village
of Chicago as a town, with a standing population of 150 people.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Michigan City, Indiana, had a big head start
on the nascent hamlet; but after the pioneers finished cutting the canal be-
tween the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers, the clot in the waterway broke,
allowing easy travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. There
was now at least a reason to travel through this wasteland.
The town™s rapid growth was driven by sheer utility, a place where grain,
cattle, and immigrants came in and flour, meat, and migrants went out.
But in Chicago™s first decades, it still wasn™t much to look at. An early his-

from humble beginnings 9

torian reported the place suffered from “a most woe-begone appearance,
even as a frontier town of the lowest classes.”9
The townspeople built their homes, businesses, and even corduroy
roads out of the acres of virgin forests that Michigan™s lumber barons
logged and shipped to Chicago daily. There seemed no end to the raw
building materials the Great Lakes state could provide, but that would
prove to be a shortsighted solution at best.
On October 7, 1871, George Francis Train, who was “a popular lecturer
on moral themes,” according to Donald Miller, gave a speech in a Chicago
hall that went unrecorded, except for his final caveat: “This is the last
public address that will be delivered within these walls! A terrible calamity
is impending over the city of Chicago! More I cannot say; more I dare
not utter.”10
We will never know what Train knew or how he knew it; but 24 hours
after delivering those fateful words, he would be proven right beyond any-
one™s imagination, perhaps including his own.
On October 8, 1871 (two years before Charles Walgreen was born), at
about 9 P.M., Mrs. Patrick O™Leary™s cow knocked over the infamous lamp
in her barn on the West Side of the city, igniting some loose hay. By the
next morning, over 300 people had been killed, and almost a third of the
city™s 300,000 people were suddenly homeless, comprising the greatest sin-
gle disaster in the United States to that date. One witness said he thought
he was witnessing “the burning of the world.”11
The hyperbole was understandable. A modern reader looking at the
photos of Chicago that week is reminded of Hiroshima or Dresden, with
the landscape covered as far as the eye could see in rubble and smoldering
coals, with just a few chimneys and bewildered onlookers left standing. As
stunning as the event was, the recovery was even more incredible”and al-
most as fast”a testament to Chicago™s character.
Instead of feeling defeated, “Chicagoans were convinced they had sur-
vived a biblical test,” Miller wrote, “a terrible but purifying act that had
cleared the way for a vast regeneration that would transform their ruined
city into the master metropolis of America.”12 By the end of that horrible

10 america™s corner s tore

week, the resilient Chicagoans had already built 5,000 temporary struc-
tures and started 200 permanent ones, which inspired Chicago Tribune ed-
itor Joseph Medill to write, “In the midst of a calamity without parallel in
the world™s history, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that
And rise it did, perhaps like no other city in the world. In contrast to
Tokyo and Berlin, which lost much of their ancient charm during their
similarly massive rebuilding projects, Chicago had little of lasting value
to lose in the bargain. Chicago happily began to replace its seamier sides
in favor of stone buildings, planned streets, and an infrastructure built
to last.
This ability to adapt to sudden changes (which gerontologists tell us is
one of the most common traits of those who live to be 100 years old) plus
the capacity to surmount daunting obstacles and take on great challenges
with complete conviction have long been central to Chicago™s identity”
and, not coincidentally, Walgreens™, too. As recent chief executive officer
(CEO) Dan Jorndt wrote to his minions, “Don™t be afraid to bite off more
than you can chew: You™ll be amazed how big your mouth can get.”14 It™s
no accident that Walgreens has drawn its trademark resilience, grit, and
understated confidence from the city that gave it birth.
In addition to possessing more than a little moxie, Chicago had all the
raw materials it needed to fuel a roaring renaissance after the Great Fire,
including Lake Michigan™s endless supply of fresh water to the east,
Wisconsin™s vast acres of lumber to the north, the Midwest™s fertile fields
to the west and south, and the all-important shipping channels running
through it. By the time a young architect named Louis Sullivan took the
train from Philadelphia to Chicago in 1873, his new city was home to the
largest livestock, lumber, and grain markets in the world, with the biggest
rail system to distribute all of it around the country. As Sullivan noticed,
biggest was the most popular word in the Chicago lexicon. “I thought it all
magnificent and wild,” Sullivan said of Chicago at the end of the nine-
teenth century. “A crude extravaganza; an intoxicating rawness.”15
“No large city,” Miller wrote, “not even Peter the Great™s St. Petersburg,

from humble beginnings 11

had grown so fast, and nowhere else could be found such a combination of
wealth and squalor, beauty and ugliness, corruption and reform.”16
Chicago™s population skyrocketed from a mere 150 pioneers in 1833 to
over a million people in 1890, vaulting it past Philadelphia as the second-
biggest U.S. city. These people all had to live somewhere, of course; and
with property values soaring, architects like Sullivan and company de-
cided the only solution was to build higher.
To do so, however, Chicago™s new generation of architects had to figure
out ways to build on the region™s notoriously squishy soil and to get people
to the top floors comfortably. They solved the first problem by creating
their own artificial bedrock”a new technique”and the second by solic-
iting the help of Elisha Graves Otis. Contrary to popular belief, Otis did
not invent the elevator”it had already been around for some time when
Chicago started building skyward. But he invented something just as im-
portant: the mechanism for halting an elevator in free fall, without which
no architect would have dared to build higher. Because the new tall build-
ing transcended existing terminology, Chicagoans invented a new word
for it: skyscraper. The ground floors of skyscrapers would soon become
Walgreens™ preferred location for most of its early corner stores.
Less than two decades after the Great Fire wiped out a third of Chicago,
wrote Erik Larson in The Devil in the White City, “They had not merely re-
stored it; they had turned it into the nation™s leader in commerce, manu-
facturing, and architecture.” But, he added, “all the city™s wealth . . . had
failed to shake the widespread perception that Chicago was a secondary
city that preferred butchered hogs to Beethoven.”17
Like most perceptions, this one existed for a reason: It was true. Even
the soaring skyscrapers could not cover the coarse character of the frontier
town still bustling on the ground below. Near the end of the nineteenth
century, fully one-fifth of Chicago™s population depended on the stock-
yards, either directly or indirectly, for economic survival. John B.
Sherman™s monolithic Union Stockyards alone employed 25,000 workers,
who slaughtered some 14 million animals a year. (The horrific working
conditions and revolting practices of the stockyards were unforgettably


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