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Elgin: Days Gone By - Table of Contents

Chapter 5


Memorial Day

In the early years, Civil War veterans enrolled in the Grand Army of the Republic were in charge of the Memorial Day ceremonies. There is no record of the city's first observance, but the second, in 1869, was fully reported in the Gazette:

"At half-past one, the soldiers commenced assembling at the G.A.R. Hall; the fire-bell rang out its quick, clear notes for the assembling of the Fire Department; the bands made their appearance on the Square; the flags were run at half-mast. . ." Led by the watch factory band, the parade column moved up Chicago Street to the cemetery on Channing Street. "Over the gate at the entrance to the grounds," continued the Gazette's account, "was extended an arch decorated with evergreens and adorned by a flag that was woven through it in manifold circles ... and on the face of this beautiful arch was inscribed, 'Our brave dead-living, we praised them; dead, we honor them.' "

A little girl robed in white, a mourning sash around her waist, was stationed at each soldier's grave. As the column passed, she placed a wreath upon the grave and then fell into line and moved on with the procession. Participants and spectators then gathered at the speaker's stand, where they heard a glee club selection, a prayer, and an address by a clergyman.

The next year the township appropriated $3,000 for the erection of a monument by a Chicago sculptor: It was almost completed when it was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871. A 10cal marble cutter, Arwin E. Price, built the monument after the original design, and the shaft was placed in the cemetery and dedicated on Memorial Day in 1876. Twenty-seven feet high the monument was surmounted by an eagle wrought out of a cube of marble. On one of the marble bases is a scroll of oak and laurel surrounding the inscription, "Elgin's Tribute to Her Fallen Soldier.

Memorial Day observances were later moved to the new Uff City Cemetery, where a hilltop Soldiers Reserve was dedicated in 1892. On the hillsides around the reserve are graves of veterans of the Civil War the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and 11, Korea, an'~ Vietnam. Two 30-pound Parrott guns, which had seen service in the Civil War, were obtained from the Rock Island arsenal and were placed there in 1897. A galvanized steel flag staff constructed by the American Tower and Tank Company, predecessor of Elgin Sweeper, was erected in 1912. The flag is flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day.

The most recent addition to the Soldiers Reserve is the anchor from the destroyer USS Aaron Ward, moved from the Navy Club's quarters on North State Street in 1971. The ship was on picket duty off Okinawa on May 3, 1945, when it was attacked by Japanese suicide planes. Five of them crashed into the Aaron Ward, turning the once trim vessel into a floating junk pile. Fires raging above and below deck, the engine room flooded, all controls gone, dead and dying men everywhere, the destroyer managed to limp to a repair station. One of those killed in action was a South Elgin seaman, Laverne H. Schroeder.

When describing the scattering of flowers over the graves on that Memorial Day in 1869, the Gazette was confident that "the memory of those who sleep beneath them will never fade, but grow brighter with the passing years." As early as 1896, however, the remaining members of the 52nd Illinois felt compelled in a resolution to "regret the tendency to make Memorial Day largely a holiday instead of a day of sacred memories."

The Last Leaf

John Dumser was raised on a small farm just to the east of Elgin and attended Elgin Academy. His early teens were filled with accounts of the Civil War then ravaging the country. He longed to join the army, and his chance came early in 1864. The battle-hardened 52nd Illinois, with many Elgin area enlistments, was furloughed home, and recruits were needed to fill its depleted ranks. The boy trudged to Geneva in the snow, forged his father's name to enlistment papers, and was mustered in on February 23, 1864, at the age of 16. The next day John Dumser and the 52nd boarded a train for the front. In a series of engagements-Snake Creek Gap, Resaca, Rome Cross Roads, Kenesaw Mountain, Nickajack Creek, Decatur-they fought their way to Atlanta and then marched with Sherman to the sea.

At the time of his discharge after Appomattox, Private Dumser was not yet 18. Returning home, the young veteran got a job at the new watch factory, married, and joined the Grand Army of the Republic. The G.A.R. promoted Memorial Day to honor the memory of fallen comrades. In its early years, while Union veterans were still numerous, the observance had a semi-religious character. Hundreds of veterans in blue uniforms turned out for the annual parade. In the natural amphitheater at the rear of the cemetery, a wooden platform was erected and decorated with patriotic bunting. The roll call of those who had died the preceding year was read to the sound of muffled drums, and all present joined in singing the old war songs.

When John Dumser became Elgin's post commander in 1896, he also joined the regimental association of the 52nd Illinois, which held annual reunions to recall their comradeship in arms. Dumser left for California in 1901, but he returned to his home town on more than a dozen occasions. At each visit there were fewer old comrades to greet him. At the last meeting of the 52nd in 1923, only nine members were present. The once youthful soldier, now grown old, remained active in the G.A.R. and outlived all the members of Post No. 49. Finally in 1942, Private Dumser, the former Elgin farm boy, was elected national commander of the G.A.R. This was a position once coveted by many famed officers, but the organization was now only a remnant of what it had once been. In 1949, the year of the G.A.R.'s last national encampment, John S. Dumser died at the age of 102, the last of Elgin's men in blue.

The Old Reb

Men from the North and South fought in an awful struggle9 the American Civil War, that lasted four long years. They fell Under fire, suffered horrendous wounds, and succumbed to Whoid, dysentery, and pneumonia in the camps. Those who 8urvived would never forget what they had endured.

Enlistments from Elgin had served in battles at Shiloh, Chickamauga, Stones River, Missionary Ridge, and Atlanta. LOC411 companies in the 127th Illinois Infantry had sustained especially heavy casualties. One of their engagements was a fortified Confederate position called Arkansas Post, and one of the southern defenders of this stronghold was William Creighton.

The Old Reb and G.A.R. members

After the war Creighton arrived in Elgin as a contractor to erect the telegraph lines for the Chicago & Pacific, which reached the city in 1873. He was later placed in charge of the railroad's wires frorn Chicago to Savanna and made this city his home. The former Confederate lived in Elgin through times when feelings were still bitter about the rebellion and those who sought to divide the country. Memorial Day orators reminded the living of Northern heroism, and the cemetery on Channing Street echoed with the old war songs.

There were no parades and tributes for the Lost Cause that Creighton had defended, no wreaths laid by the Daughters of the Confederacy, no roll calls for the departed men in gray. The passing years softened attitudes toward a former enemy, but Will Creighton remained known as "the Southerner." Small boys passing his home would taunt him with calls of "Old Reb! Old Reb!"

In 1913, 50 years after the battle of Arkansas Post, an aged Union veteran, James DePew, was crossing the tracks in an Elgin railroad yard. Hard of hearing and dim of sight, DePew was unaware of approaching freight cars. Onlookers shouted unheeded warnings, and some turned their heads, expecting him to be crushed to death. Bounding to the tracks, Will Creighton, then 72, seized DePew by the shoulder, swung him clear of the cars, and then dodged away, narrowly missing being hit.

At the next Memorial Day the old Union soldiers, most of them white haired and some leaning on canes for support, once again lined up for the annual parade. Leading their line of march, head erect, dressed in a gray uniform, and flanked by a special guard of honor, was William Robertson Creighton, the Old Reb.


Historian Bruce Catton once described some aged veterans of the Civil War be had known during his youth in Michigan as "grave, dignified, and thoughtful, with ... a general air of being pillars of the community." Similar figures once lived in Elgin, too, and among the most striking was the "Maje."

For more than half a century, Major George D. Sherman was a familiar personage around town. He was brought West by pioneering parents, Henry and Jeanette Sherman, in the fall of 1838. They took up residence on a farm claim west of Elgin, and George attended classes in the original building of what is now the Illinois Park School. Later, when his family moved into town, he attended the Academy and was a member of the local militia, the Continentals.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, George Sherman enlisted as a sergeant with other Elgin volunteers in Company A Of the 36th Illinois. Called the Fox River Regiment, it was one of the state's most battle-scarred fighting units, receiving its baptism of fire at Pea Ridge and suffering heavy casualties in the battles of Perryville and Stones River. Sherman, who soon rose to the rank of major, escaped getting hit, although his horse was shot from under him as be re-formed lines during the retreat from Chickamauga. He was cited for bravery in the assault on the Confederate entrenchments on the crest of Missionary Ridge and had won the praise of General Phil Sheridan. When he returned to Elgin a hero, townspeople presented him with an ornamental sword.

After the death of his father, who had prospered with the rise in value of his lands and had been one of the initial investors in the watch company, the Maje was a man of considerable means. He was commander of GAR Post No. 49 for five years. He also was one of the organizers of the prestigious Century Club, whose plush quarters overlooked Fountain Square, and the Country Club. He was active in Masonic orders and was in demand as a banquet toastmaster and for addresses at patriotic observances and reunions of the 36th. Hundreds of children heard the Maje when he talked at the various schools about the meaning of Memorial Day. To celebrate Dewey's victory at Manila Bay, it was Major Sherman who fired 150 rounds from his six-pounder.

The passing years added a pince-nez and an extended white mustache to his military bearing, and he attracted attention in any gathering. Gruff in manner and abrupt in speech, he was also kind-hearted and generous, giving freely to charities without ostentation.

He enjoyed a wide circle of friends who were amazed and amused---convulsed in laughter may be a more appropriate description of their reaction-when they learned in 1916 that the Maje was being sued for breach of promise. Most residents considered the whole affair an uproarious joke, and the Maje simply refused to consider it at all.

The plaintiff, Loretta Montanye, was a handsome, if somewhat unbalanced, widow who was said to be the first woman in Elgin to wear a split skirt. She claimed that the Maje, then in his seventies, had been a constant caller at her home on Prairie Street during the years 1909-1912, had proposed marriage, and then had broken her heart by breaking his word. She asked for $25,000 in damages, a huge sum in a day when a good new car cost less than $1,200 and a substantial house would be built for $4,000.

Loretta bitterly complained that she had to employ out-of-town counsel because no Elgin attorney was willing to represent her. The case was dismissed after the trial opened because the suit was based on an alleged promise of marriage in 1909 but the plaintiff introduced evidence referring to a different date. She said that Major Sherman had proposed so often, she had made a mistake and sued him using the date of the promise she liked best.

A.B. Spurling and George D. Sherman

At the second trial, delayed until 1917, the Maje appeared for his last battle, neatly dressed with a diamond sparkling in a red tie and ignored her presence and tears.  A number of witnesses were called by both sides, and their testimony was reported in fascinating detail on the front pages of both Elgin dailies. The Maje titillated their readers by admitting gifts of a bracelet, tickets to the road races, and a picture of September Morn, accompanied by a note reading, "the girl certainly needs clothing," but he denied proposing marriage, and the jury quickly agreed. The Maje emerged unscathed, just as be had going up the slopes of Missionary Ridge.

The General

Andrew Barclay Spurling led an adventurous life, surviving perils at sea and on the battlefield, and became a very wealthy man. His luck ran out in Elgin.

Born in Maine, Spurling went to sea at the age of 15. Three years later he set off for the California gold fields, lost his health in the mines, and then became a cowboy. He later returned to the sea as captain of a merchant vessel until the Civil War, when he enlisted as a cavalry trooper. A series of rapid promotions for gallant conduct led to the rank of brigadier. General Spurling later received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic action at Evergreen, Alabama.

When peace came he returned to the sea. Surviving a shipwreck, Spurling settled in Maine and was elected sheriff of Hancock County. Later service with the U.S. Interior, Justice, and Postal departments took him to Chicago, where he speculated in real estate. In 1878, Spurling was one of three investors who put up $50,000 dollars each to form the Chicago Rawhide Manufacturing Company, which made leather belting for running machinery. The following year, when the firm was incorporated, he was elected its president.

His interest in Elgin real estate led him to this city, where a friend, Mayor Vincent S. Lovell, put him in charge of the police. Spurling enforced the law without favoritism, on one occasion ordering the arrest of his own son for disorderly conduct. Saloons had to obey the closing hours, even if the proprietor was a friend of an alderman. Although one local paper declared him the "most efficient marshal Elgin has ever had," the City Council, sensitive to the liquor interests, refused to renew his appointment. Mayor Lovell resigned his office in protest.

Of independent means, Spurling put up a brick flat and carriage house and erected a large home overlooking the river at what is now 1045 N. Spring Street. He kept a string of trotting horses at the east end of Driving Park, made plans to build the city's first skyscraper, and formed a syndicate to develop an industrial center. Called Midway, it was to be built on what was then farmland between Elgin and South Elgin.

The five-story Spurling Block, Elgin's first steel-framed building, was under construction in 1892-93. The site, at the northwest corner of Spring and DuPage Streets, had underground springs and sandy subsoil. W. Wright Abell, the architect, surmounted this problem, but a strike at the Carnegie works delayed the arrival of the structural steel.

The cost of the building and lot, about $105,000, and his borrowing for the Midway venture put Spurling heavily in debt when the Panic of '93 ended the real estate boom and brought hard times. The huge building could not be filled with tenants when many businesses were failing. Creditors pushed the foreclosure of the project as well as the Midway venture, and Spurling lost his fortune, including his stock holdings in Chicago Rawhide.

Unsuccessful in an 1894 campaign for sheriff of Kane County, he returned to Chicago. There he spent his final days with failing eyesight, living in reduced circumstances on a $50 a month government pension.

In 1950, the firm he helped to found, Chicago Rawhide, put one of its plants in Elgin. Few, if any, remembered that General Andrew Spurling had been the company's president or that he had won the Medal of Honor.

Foes and Comrades

Memorial Day in 1940 dawned bright and warm for the annual parade. The marching units assembled in the vicinity of the G.A.R. Hall and Gifford Park, but for the first time in its long history, no Civil War veteran would participate. The last of the men in blue had passed away, and a vacant back seat of the Grand Army of the Republic car marked the loss.

There was something else different about the traditional observance that year- that group forming bebind the Veterans of Foreign Wars and just ahead of the American Legion. Look at their flag blazoned with a black maltese cross. Why, they were German veterans of the World War!

These "Alte Kameraden", old comrades, had fought for the Kaiser and the Vaterland in 1914-1918. After the war, they had left the hyper-inflation and poverty of postwar Germany to find a "neue Heimat" in Elgin.

They organized in 1935 under the sponsorship of the American Legion. No one could join who was not a naturalized U.S. citizen. Elgin's mayor, who had served in France with the A-E.F., was an honorary member. The "Vereinigung Alter Kameraden" had more than 50 members who wore navy blue uniforms and visored caps. They pledged lasting friendship with old foes and, having experienced the horrors of war, were united with them in a search for peace. Their "Liederbuch" contained, among the old German songs, "The Star Spangled Banner", "America", and "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here".

Typical of these German veterans was one of their commanders, Richard Korte, a native of A] sace. He was called up at the age of 17 and had served on the Russian and Italian fronts. Still a young man when he arrived in Elgin in 1923, he was employed at the watch factory for 30 years. Here be learned English at 10 cents a lesson, married, struggled with his family through the Depression, and lived most of his life as an American.

The aggressions of Hitler's Reich and the activities of the German-American Bund, a Nazi front, were an embarrassment to the "Alten Kameraden." They affirmed in a resolution that they had no allegiance to any government or country except their adopted land. In reference to the swastika, they emphasized that their society never unfurled any emblem other than the American flag and its own banner. They were opposed to Communism, Nazism, Fascism, or any organization that advocated "ideas" that were in opposition to true American citizenship.

When the United States was plunged into World War II, the German veterans dissolved their organization. Karl, Fritz, Oskar, August, Otto, Gustav, Claus, and all the other Elgin Kameraden are no longer with us. On Memorial Day we can share their dream of peace, and today's veterans may recall that they, too, "hatt'einen Kameraden," had a comrade.


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