Facts and Events
Most of what is known about James Lawrence Nichols comes from the autobiography he dictated to his wife, Elizabeth Barnard Nichols, upon his death bed, as well as the obituary that appeared in the local newspaper, the Naperville Clarion. He told his wife:
"I was born in Coburg, Germany, as near as I can learn. I do not know whether Coburg is a province or a town. My first recollections were in a little stone cottage. I can hardly remember it. I remember there were some very nice plum trees, and my mother used to go out and work in the fields. But in the course of time another man came along and she was married, and they sold out what they had."
Nichols, his mother, and stepfather crossed the ocean in a ship, landed in New York,and went up the Hudson River to a broom farm. After time, they earned enough money to take a train from Albany to Chicago. From Chicago, they went to La Moille, west of Mendota, where his mother knew some people. In the course of about a year, his mother got sick and died in childbirth. He was taken in by a German family at the request of his mother before she died. He described them as "poor and brutal people."
He left them and went from family to family. He suffered a great deal of hardship and was frequently abused by drunken and cruel people and cheated out of the wages he had earned.
Elizabeth Nichols wrote:
"At twelve years of age he could not speak English. 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. By intense application he managed to master the English language and acquired enough education to secure a certificate to teach a country district school when he was eighteen. In the attempt to blot out the memories of those sad childhood days, Mr. Nichols deliberately shed all traces of his German birth. When I knew him he had intentionally forgotten the German language, since it had so happened that all his worse persecutors had been of his native tongue. He had anglicized his name and adopted very appropriately as his namesake that old American naval hero, James Lawrence, who refused to "give up the ship." This was the only evidence of bitterness towards his early tormentors he ever exhibited, always rather calling to mind in loving gratitude the one or two motherly women who were "good to him!" From this time forward his star of hope had risen, and the lines of his life fell into pleasanter places. Having saved some money he entered a classical seminary in Paw Paw, Illinois, and attended there five years, keeping up expenses by teaching and canvassing for books." 
James Nichols arrived at North Western College in Naperville (now known as North Central College) in 1876 and graduated in 1880. He went to school in Nebraska for a year, then returned and taught for one year in a public school, then worked as a professor in North Western's Commercial Department for eight years.
While he was teaching, he wrote the book "The Business Guide," intending to use it as a textbook for his classes. The book was first published in 1886 and sold three million copies by 1917. It was a phenomenal success, and he ended up leaving teaching to work on his publishing company.
While he was a professor, he also met his future wife, Elizabeth Barnard, in one of his classes. Elizabeth was the daughter of one of the area's pioneers, Algernon S. Barnard. She later recalled:
"I was but thirteen when I entered old North-Western from a nearby farm home, as Naperville did not at that time boast of a High School. But we did have the college and its influence has always meant much to the young people of this community. So it happened that I spent seven years here in the preparatory department, a three years German course, and graduated in what was then called the Latin Scientific course. When I attended college Professor Nichols was a very popular bachelor member of the faculty. Popular not only with the men students, but with the young ladies as well! And when on my graduation day our engagement was announced, I was, at least in my own estimation, quite an object of envy among the girls!!! We were married the following year." 
Marriage and Family
James and Elizabeth were married for nine years and had three children: Grace, James II, and Laura. In the early 1890s Mr. and Mrs. Nichols built a French provincial mansion at 320 E. Chicago Ave.