Kane County History: Aurora's William S. Hart, Cowboy Movie Star

Kane County History: Aurora’s William S. Hart, Cowboy Movie Star

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

William S. Hart was, in a way, the personification of a United States that moved from hardscrabble frontier civilization to flourishing industrial giant in the space of just a few generations.

Born about 1864 to immigrant parents in Newburgh, NY, on the Hudson River, Hart grew up poor and ill-educated in the upper Midwest, went off to Europe as a teenager to learn acting and spent a 25-year career on the American stage before moving to California in 1914 and reinventing himself as a cowboy hero and director of silent movies.

Decked out in Western finery for studio publicity photos, gazing with cool command over a pair of six-guns, Bill Hart became, in his 50s, an icon of the vanished American West which he loved so passionately and which he wanted to preserve for the future.

He died wealthy but alone in 1946.

Hart’s Early Years

William Surrey Hart was born to Nicholas Hart and Roseanna McCauley Hart on Dec. 6, about 1864 (accounts vary from 1862 to 1872, but ’64 seems likely).

Little Bill and his older sisters Mary Ellen and Frances followed the fortunes of their father, a miller whose lifelong dream was to start his own flour mill along some new and promising waterway.

A hot temper, a workplace accident that impaired his vision, and the necessity of feeding the hungry mouths at his ever-expanding table forced Nicholas into a sort of itinerance, moving from one small settlement to another, pushing farther into the agricultural frontier of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1870s and 1880s.

Within months of Bill’s birth, the Hart family moved west from New York, and took up residence in Oswego, IL. His father worked at the Parker Grist Mill located on the bank of the Fox River.

In his autobiography, My Life East and West, Hart wrote of some early memories of living along the swift-flowing river and his father’s strength and bravery in crossing it in a rowboat during the springtime ice break-up. Local residents later recalled the “round chunk of a boy” who would visit Mrs. Parker’s kitchen for fresh cookies.

His sister Frances was described as lively and quick-talking, like their father, but little Willie was “more deliberate, taking after his mother, and he was somewhat bashful.”

It was while working at the Parker Mill that Nicholas suffered an accident which may have impacted his career as a miller. He was an expert dresser of millstones, grinding the burrs to a proper finish.

One day, a miniscule steel particle from a grinding pick pierced his eye, and for two years thereafter he struggled with his health and with the family finances.

It was during this difficult period, probably about 1870, that some sort of misunderstanding arose with the mill owner, George Parker, and Nicholas moved the family to Montgomery and began work at the Hord Mill on the west bank of the river there.

They lived in a now-demolished house nearby. The mill still stands today, beautifully refurbished. It is called by its original name, Gray’s Mill.

Practically blind, Nicholas would have to be walked to and from work by his children.

The job in Montgomery did not last more than a few months, and Nicholas soon took a position at City Mills on Galena Street in Aurora. There, the Harts lived along the Fox River, near Clark Street and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy depot. His vision problems were now so great that Nicholas was let go after only a few weeks on the job.

The family spent a penniless Christmas in Aurora before Nicholas returned alone to New York seeking medical help. The family, now enlarged by the addition of another baby, Lotta, waited for his return.

Hart recalled in his autobiography “My mother used to tell us to mind her and be good children, because our father was not there to take care of us, and then she would read letters and cry a little.”

Hart also tells the story of how he and one of his sisters put their tongues on the iron bridge railing above the ice-jammed Fox.

“It took the entire police force of Aurora to get us loose,” he wrote. In another anecdote he described a child, probably himself, standing in the middle of a railroad track at the Aurora freight terminal, transfixed as a switch engine ponderously backed up nearly upon him, “his fat, little legs receiving from his child’s brain no impetus to move.” He was saved by the timely, “tiger-like sweep” of a switchman’s arm.

After five surgeries in New York City, Nicholas Hart returned to Aurora with sight restored.

Unable to work in the dusty environment of a grain mill while he recuperated, he took a job for a while as a night watchman at the Aurora Silverplate factory. But the dream of starting his own mill on the frontier had been renewed. The family soon was on the move again, this time to Iowa.

Moving Around The U.S.

Being so young, the boy Bill most likely did not attend school in the Fox Valley, and it is not certain if his older sisters did. In
fact, for many years schooling was hard to come by for the Hart children.

After Aurora they lived in increasingly smaller villages or on isolated farms, where no schools existed. This seemed to suit Bill Hart just fine, and he spent his time playing with local children.

In Wisconsin, the family came to know a number of Sioux, and Bill picked up some of their language as well as children’s games and tribal culture. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the American Indian and the American frontier.

It wasn’t until he was about 10 years old and still illiterate that his father taught him the rudiments of the alphabet and reading and sent him off to school in Orinoco, MN, where they were then living.

In those days, an active, sturdy boy with no book-learning was hardly a rarity. Despite his early scholastic deficits young Bill seemed to be a quick learner.

“I really believe I might have turned out to be a near-the-head-of-the-class pupil, so far as application goes,” Hart wrote later. Nonetheless, he vastly preferred the outdoor life, playing with his half-breed friends in the area, and occasionally working alongside men on nearby farms, where he dreamed of growing up to be “a cowpuncher.”

Dreams of pushing on to the great Western frontier, however, soon came to an end for both father and son. Never well off, the family struggled financially with Roseanna’s recurring health problems (two more sons were born, but neither lived long).

Despite hard work and energetic searching, Nicholas never found the river, or the town, or the situation where he could build his own mill and raise his son to follow in his footsteps. The entire family moved back East, first to their home town of Newburgh and then to New York City.

While Roseanna sought to regain her health, the children worked at odd jobs and Nicholas tried over and over to find a mill job. Bill shoveled snow, drove delivery wagons and did anything else that would pay him a few cents.

He soon learned that messenger boys could make a decent living in a busy town with few telephones. Tall and athletic, darting about the streets of New York, 17-year-old Bill became known as a sprinter and for a while was actually a professional athlete, running for the Cherry Diamond Track Team and traveling to meets in Philadelphia, Chicago and Montreal.

But the seeds of another career had been planted in New York and sprouted quickly.

An Actor Is Born

Delivering messages for hotels, the young man was sometimes paid with free theater passes. He loved what he saw on stage — colorful melodramas with clear-cut villains and heroines in distress.

He began to haunt the theaters and when he did not have a free pass, he would pay 10 or 15 cents for a top gallery seat.

Hart in “Ben Hur.”

“The stage idea just came,” Hart said in his autobiography. His mother was pessimistic about a career on the stage, but his father, whose own dream of a flour mill in the West seemed to be permanently on hold, encouraged Bill.

Nicholas Hart knew that “being a good ‘jawsmith’ ran in the family,” Hart wrote later, “but I was a boy only a short time removed from the prairies … a white Indian boy … all the ‘rough corners’ would have to be rubbed off and smoothed down by education and cultured surroundings.”

Following his father’s advice, Bill traveled to London, working on a cattle boat to pay his way. He visited all the galleries and
sights that were free and attended as much theater as he could afford.

“I would have been there every night,” he observed later, “but my top gallery bench cost me a sixpence …. I could get many raisins for a sixpence — and my tummy was astonishingly healthy!”

He then visited Paris, where he absorbed the French theater and also took fencing lessons in exchange for doing janitorial work.

Upon returning to New York, he contributed to his family’s support by working as a drug store cashier and post office clerk
and took acting lessons. He made his stage debut as Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in, of all places, his home town of Newburgh, in 1887. He was about 23 years old.

The life of an actor in the 1880s and 1890s was not for the faint of heart. Unscrupulous company managers, wages that were entirely dependent on ticket sales, exhausting travel and nonexistent job security made every day an adventure.

But young William Hart seemed to thrive, nonetheless. He was strong and athletic, confident in his ability to meet challenges, and slowly growing in theatrical skill. Because the reviews of the day were written in such stilted language, it is hard to tell exactly what place Hart occupied in the profession, but many complimentary things were said, and with every passing season he obtained larger and better parts.

From ‘Ben Hur’ To ‘The Virginian’

When his father died in 1895, Bill decided to take to the road as the star of his own repertory group. Although he showed a total profit of $2.60 for eight months of touring, Bill proved himself able to play leading parts, especially in The Man In The Iron Mask, with its dual leading role.

A year later, he was playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and getting good reviews around the country and in 1899 he became a smash success as Messala, the Roman nobleman in Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur which ran for two seasons in New York.

Now the carefree lad who learned to ride horses bareback on the Midwestern prairie was “racing” a horse and chariot on a
treadmill in front of the footlights in New York City, and earning money for it.

Despite those successes, his acting career also had many lulls and low points when Hart asked himself if perhaps he should give up his dream of the theater, much as his father had given up his dream of a mill. Very soon, however, things would come into focus for the young actor.

Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian appeared about that time, glorifying the American cowboy and the West. It was also the era of rough-riding President Theodore Roosevelt, and Americans were suddenly interested in learning more about the quickly-vanishing Western frontier.

In 1905, Hart played his first Western role on the stage — the role of Cash Hawkins, “a mean skunk”, in The Squaw Man. Bill seemed to grasp immediately that his vehicle for stardom had arrived.

He made sure the New York press understood that William S. Hart, born and raised on the American frontier, was the present-day embodiment of the Old West, and immediately the critics and audiences showed real enthusiasm for his work in the play.

The Squaw Man ran for 18 months, and a juggernaut was launched.

His next theatrical success was as the lead in an adaptation of The Virginian, which toured to great success for two years. In 1908, the show came to the Coulter Opera House in Aurora, and Hart took the opportunity to visit City Mills, where his father had once worked.

From Stage To Screen

William Hart’s career was about to take another turn. In 1913, while on tour with The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, he saw his first Western movie and a crusade was born in his soul.

Oil painting by James Montgomery Flagg — who also did the “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster art.

He thought the film was despicably inauthentic, and said that the sheriff looked like “a cross between a Wisconsin woodchopper and a Gloucester fisherman.”

He felt himself called to transmit his own vision of the American West — a land of moral purity and righteousness. Hart began watching as many movie Westerns as he could find, studying them and contemplating how he could make them better.

By the time his touring company arrived in Los Angeles, Hart was ready to make the leap. He contacted his old friend and sometime-roommate Thomas Ince, now a Hollywood producer and director, and talked him into collaborating on a film.

At the conclusion in New York of The Lonesome Pine tour, Hart turned down lucrative offers to do another play, bought himself a train ticket to go back to Los Angeles, and left the professional stage forever.

Hart with wife Winifred Westover. (All photos courtesy of Aurora Historical Society.)