May is a time for Naperville residents to celebrate the town’s history as a part of Community Heritage Month. A group of residents recently went on a walking tour to learn about James Nichols, the man the downtown library is named after.
He was born in Germany in 1851. After immigrating to the Chicago area, his mother passed away. Other German families raised Nichols, but he suffered hardships, and was frequently abused.
“At 12 years of age he could not speak English,” said Karen Wickman, Adult Services Librarian at Nichols Libray. “The next six years were spent in hard work on farms, often cheated out of his rightful wages, hard study at night, a short winter term of school. By these bitter experiences he learned something of the ways of the world and how to look after himself.”
In 1876 Nichols came to North Central College as a student. After graduating, he returned to run their Commercial Course, teaching business classes.
“They had their offices set up as like an actual business office,” said Kim Butler, Archivist at North Central College.
While teaching at North Central, James wrote The Business Guide, intending to use it as a textbook.
“It was a phenomenal success and he actually ended up leaving the school to work on other business ventures,” said Wickman.
Those ventures included the Nichols Publishing Company, who printed Nichols’ business guide. The North Central alum hired many students to sell the books door to door.
“I just picture this little army of the students from the commercial course going out and selling safe business guide all over the U.S.” said Butler.
Throughout his life, Nichols battled with health complications and in 1895, at just 44 years old, he passed away. In his will, he left $10,000 to the city of Naperville for the creation of a public library.
“He didn’t want any boy or girl to be without books as he had been,” said Wickman.
Nichols’ publishing house, and his other business, The Naperville Lounge Factory, which later became Kroehler Manufacturing Company, both continued after his death.
“It’s a true American story,” said Butler. “He immigrated, he had difficulties, had adversities, and still managed to go to college, make something of himself, make a fortune.”
While the Naperville Public Library outgrew the building Nichols left them money for, his name remains on the downtown library for all to see.
When James Nichols died, he also bequeathed $10,000 to North Central College to build a gymnasium, but the building burned down in 1929.
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