ElginHistory.com - Elgin: Days Gone By - E. C. Alft
ElginHistory.com Home Page
Elgin: Days Gone By - Table of Contents

Chapter 9


Hanoverians from Winzlar

The Kingdom of Hanover on the northwest German plain was forcibly annexed by Prussia in 1866 during Bismarck's drive toward unification of the German states. Many who had endured the reactionary Hanover monarchy or who had patiently worked the poor soil, could not reconcile themselves to Prussian militarism. Migration to America, where they found both freedom and business opportunity, accelerated.

Among the flood of German immigrants to Elgin in the last half of the nineteenth century, the Hanoverians were by far the most numerous. By 1850 they were already of sufficient influence in the area to bestow the name of Hanover on the township adjoining Elgin to the east. Henry Bierman and William C. Heidemann, Hanoverians, were joint owners of one of the city's river mills in 1857. Bierman later became the first Germanborn resident to be elected to the Elgin City Council.

Immigrants from Hanover were to be found in a variety of occupations. F. William Seiger, a major building contractor, erected several public buildings and factories. The Rev. H.R~ Fruechtenicht was pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church, preaching regularly to the city's largest German-speaking congregation for more than forty years. August Scheele established Elgin's largest food store, the supermarket of its day. The offspring of Hanoverians were also prominent. Fred Fehrman, a merchant, was elected an alderman in 1875. One of his sons, Albert, became Mayor and another son, Emil, served as supervisor of Elgin Township for more than twenty years. Carl Parlasca, the director of Elgin's famed Song of Hiawatha pageant, was the son of a Hanoverian who was one of the city's first mail carriers.

In the southeast end of Elgin, bounded by Bluff City Boulevard, St. Charles Street, Hammond Avenue, and Cookane Avenue, is an area platted as the Winzlar Addition. The name is a reminder of the close ties which once existed between Elgin and a little Hanoverian village. Winzlar was a typical "dorf", or rural community. The farm homes were clustered in the village, which was surrounded by their fields. Cows were sheltered in barns along the main thoroughfare. The houses were constructed of brick, and some had Bible verses carved in stone above the front doors. Church seating was by class, with the wealthiest in front and poorest in back.

Among the Hanoverians who came to Elgin were several families from Winzlar. How these villagers found a "neue Heimat" in Illinois followed a typical immigration pattern. Younger members of the family would come over, establish themselves, and then write to friends about the advantages of living and working here.

For those eager to leave Winzlar, the chief guide was William Grote, who came toAmerica the sameyearthe Prussians grabbed Hanover. Sixteen years of age, he found employment as a farm hand in the rural area east of Elgin. The following year he was joined by his parents, and together they purchased a farm in Hanover Township, where the Lake Street Memorial Park is now located. In 1871 Grote moved to Elgin to open a general store with another Hanoverian. Subsequently he became a successful real estate developer (one of his subdivisions was the Winzlar Addition) and attracted several industries to Elgin, including the David C. Cook Publishing Company. In 1891 he was elected mayor, the first German-born citizen to hold this office.

Their way prepared by Grote and pushed by their dread of Prussian conscription, other young men would leave the village for Elgin. The Grotes were friends of the Ackemann family in Winzlar, and it was therefore no accident that William D. Ackemann, the son of an inn keeper, arrived about 1871. He was followed in a gradual progression by four brothers, two sisters, and their parents. "W.D." became a clerk in William Grote's store. In 1895 the Ackemann brothers opened a big new department store that became one of the largest in northern Illinois outside Chicago. They would proclaim in one of their store's advertisements that "those who left their native land, their high spirits reaching the Prussian influence, were naturally the most hardy, courageous and determined."

The stream of emigrants from Winzlar continued to flow. In 1890 Mr. and Mrs. August Wilkening arrived. Fred Hameister, who learned from an older brother of the harsh life that awaited draftees in the German army, stowed away on a ship for America at the age of seventeen. When he arrived in Elgin, William Grote found him a farm job. Fred's brothers, Henry and August, followed him with their families about 1891. Henry Bohner, a nephew of Harneisters, came over ten years later.

Augusta Wilharm came to Elgin in 1902 with the senior HenryAckemanns, who were returning to America after visiting Winzlar. When Augie Hameister was visiting his home town in 1914, war broke out. To keep his nephew, Henry Wilharm, out of probable service with the German Army, Augie brought him to Elgin. Henry Wilharm, Augusta's brother, found work on farms in Hanover Township, and in 1921 began a long career as acarpenter-contractor. Henry and Augusta Wilbarm's parents, brothers, and sisters came to Elgin in the 1920s.

What was once the Kingdom of Hanover now forms a major portion of Neidersachsen, one of the states in modern Germany. Dozens of Elgin households today can trace their ancestry to the little dorf of Winzlar, its buildings essentially unchanged since its sons and daughters left to contribute their talents to the growth of an American city.

English Watchmakers

The displacement of American workers by foreign competition is a contemporary problem and challenge. In days gone by, American industrial progress caused unemployment elsewhere in the world. Some of the jobless came to Elgin.

When England was a leading exporter of hand-finished precision watches in the middle of the nineteenth century, skilled craftsmen in several shops would make a watch, then take it apart and distribute the parts to workers' homes in Coventry and the surrounding countryside to have them duplicated. When the parts were returned, they were hand-fitted and assembled.

English watchmaking suffered from competition with American mass producing factories at Waltham, Massachusetts, and Elgin. American watches were cheaper because their interchangeable parts were made by machines which eliminated the need for skilled craftsmen. One Coventry emigrant, John Baxter, found his way to Elgin as early as 1868. Others followed, attracted by higher wages. Listed in the 1870 census for Elgin were 42 English employees at the watch factory-more than all the Swiss, Germans, and Scandinavians combined. A visitor from England in the late 1870s spoke with some of them: "The Coventry men say they are very busy, and are doing very well, but amidst all their prosperity they still retain very warm recollections of their native city. It is their opinion, however, that unless Coventry and the other watchmaking towns in England bestir themselves by the introduction of machinery, America will very soon run us out of every market in the world."

English watch manufacturers either would not or could not adapt, and their production declined. Beginning in the early 1880s, there was a heavy migration to Waltham and Elgin. By the end of the decade there were more than two dozen men and women from Coventry at the Elgin benches in addition to others from Prescot, Clerkenwell, and other watchmaking towns.

The Atlantic crossing was often a family affair. The Adkins brothers were joined by their brother-in-law, Tom Darlison. Joe Burbury came with his brother-in-law, Albert Riley. Joe's son Larry, rose to the position of production superintendent. Three sons and three daughters of Samuel Horne were employed by the big plant on National Street. Alfred Dorrington was there for 44 years; his son Alfred P. Dorrington, completed 45 years before retirement.

Some of the Coventry people joined the Episcopal church, the American offspring of the Church of England. Others became active in the Salvation Army or adhered to "dissenting" groups. One of these, dispensing with pastors and concentrating on Bible study, was formed in 1882. It is now known as the Park Manor Bible Chapel. There were enough English watchmakers in town in 1891 to form Elgin Lodge 339 of the American Order of the Sons of St. George, and Coventry men played for Elgin's cricket club.

Most of the Coventry emigrants were or became watch workers. An exception was Emmie U. Ellis, a member of a watchmaking family, who arrived in 1890. She became principal of McKinley School and then joined the faculty of Elgin High School as an English teacher. "She was famous among us for her English enunciation," recalled one of her former students, "and it was keen to hear her crisply clipped 'guzebriz'and'strahbriz'." Ellis Middle School is named in her honor.

Coventry people came to America from England long after the Mayflower. What they found was not a wilderness along a rock-bound coast but a flourishing inland city whose leading industry they helped to advance.

Jewish Clothiers

For centuries, European Jews were generally barred from owning or cultivating the soil. One of the occupations open to them was tailoring. When they came to America, they continued to ply the needle and later distributed the ready-to-wear garments their compatriots were assembling in the New York and Chicago garment districts.

A popular song once expressed their identification with the clothing industry. An older generation will remember singing:

My name is Solomon Levi
And my store's on Salem Street;
That's where to buy your coats and vests
And everything else that's neat.
Jewish tailoring shops and clothing stores were once prevalent in downtown Elgin, on the east side of Douglas from Chicago Street north to Kimball. The quality and prices of their merchandise varied among the firms, but the unusual longevity of those businesses in a highly competitive field is an indication of customer satisfaction.Elgin's pioneer Jewish residents were German-born clothiers. Leopold Adler and his brother, Joseph, commenced their trade here about 1859. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Adlers worked around the clock supervising the making of uniforms for the first volunteers to answer Lincoln's call. Joseph later moved to Arkansas, but Leopold remained and prospered despite two big fires that destroyed his stock. Heretiredin1896, and the business was carried on for a time by his son, Abe.
"Sensational Bargains ... Remarkable Values"
Another native of Germany, Charles "Cheap Charley" Bachrach was one of Adler's major competitors. The large store lie opened in 1867 continued in operation until his death in 1901. Bachrach, who claimed he couldn't be undersold, once used an advertising wagon drawn by two cashmere goats. He also promoted sales by offering gifts, such as a dollar pocket watch or a hardwood child's wagon, with purchases.

Cheap Charley later opened a chain of stores he supervised from Chicago. Manager of his Elgin outlet for more than a decade, Rudolph "Little Sam" Oppenheimer opened his own Yellow Front store in 1887. He hired a brass band and passed out cigars for the occasion.

"Never again will you have such a golden opportunity to dress in such rich raiment at such a trifling cost. "

Another German-born Jewish merchant, Rudolph L. Mendelson, started in 1877. Mendelson often advertised drastic price reductions, prompting a rival to stress that an $8 suit could only be sold for $8. After his death 40 years later, the store was run by his daughter, Lillian, until 1920. It was then purchased by Joseph Rosengarden and became known as the local home of the two-pants suit-"That Extra Pair Gives Double Wear."

"Biggest, Best and Busiest Sale in the History of Elgin."
Jews from imperial Russia appeared in Elgin in the 1880's. Israel Brenner and his wife, Anna, switched in 1885 from groceries to "gents' clothing and ladies' underwear and a full line of novelties, laces, embroidery, hose, tinware and jewelry, which are being sold at bedrock prices." The store continued by their son, Sam, and maintained by their grandson, Louis, is Elgin's oldest family-owned retail business.
"Clothes for Keen Buyers and Careful Dressers"
The fur trade arrived in 1911 with Benjamin Yaffe, an apprentice in Russia, where he learned to trap, tan, and sew skins. He remained in business more than 40 years, retiring in 1953. Hyman Rifkin, another furrier, opened his shop in 1918. Afterhis death, thebusiness was continuedbyhis sons, Sam and Louis. Morris Morrison, a local tailor since 1919, opened his shop in 1939, continuing in business through 1957.
"Greatest show of clothing ever exhibited in Elgin"
There were many others: Barney (Berman) the Tailor, George Lascoe, Louis Epstein, Ike Cohien, Jake Rifken and Joe Singer's Style Shop. There was Jake Levy, a resident manager of Mike Plaut & Company, once Elgin's largest clothing store, the Cohens who ran the Chicago Outlet, Ike Osmansky, and Barney Gisnet's B-G Garment Company.

And Simon Frank. The grand opening of his Gold Seal Clothiers in 1934 featured men's suits and topcoats for $7.85, men's work shoes for $1.39 a pair, and boy's knee pants for 29 cents. Gold Seal often bought seconds and irregulars injob lots. On one occasion, a disgruntled customer returned a pair of pants, claiming he found cockroaches in the cuffs, "So what did you expect to find for $1.98?" was the Frank reply. "Humming birds?"

According to the Talmud: "We do not go before the ark, nor does the priest pronounce the blessing, nor do we read out of the law or the prophets or pronounce the benediction of marriage with the Holy Name unless there are 10 men of Israel present." By the end of the'80s decade there were enough Jewish families in Elgin to establish a house of prayer using the scroll of the law donated by Louis Cohen.

"The Hebrews of Elgin, some of them, will open a synagogue in the third story of the Bruckman block," reported The Daily Courier on January 22, 1889. The first orthodox wedding ceremony in this city was performed in March of that year. United in marriage were Moses Schlossberg, who had a fruit store on Chicago Street, and Alice Goldforb.

The early congregations were often split by differences in doctrine or forms of worship, a pattern not uncommon in Christian churches. In 1902, when a local religious census tallied 28 Jewish families, rival factions threatened to take the dispute to a Chicago rabbi for a judgement. The outcome was two synagogues. They merged three years later, but in 1910 the New Year was again observed in two separate congregations, one meeting on Dexter Avenue and one on Douglas Avenue.

Whatever their internal divisions, those who attended the Synagogues were regarded as "different" in the early years.  When four youths were arrested for rolling the bones (shooting dice) in 1904, for example, a local newspaper reported their names this way; "Louis Goldman, Jew, aged 15; Jay Slocum, American, aged 13; Sam Rosenberg, Jew, aged 15; and Hyman Gould, American, aged 13."

Religion was no barrier at "Kreegers'on the Hill", a rendezvous on Chicago Street for people in all walks of life. The store sold tobacco, fruit, candies, commutation tickets, apple cider, fireworks, and also retailed the gossip and political news of the day. One of the Kreegers, Joe, served as Elgin's postmaster, 1933-1948.

Sam Strickman traded tin goods with farmers, an occupation which developed into a junk business. His son, Abe, became an executive with the Illinois Watch Case Company and later served as a justice of the peace.

Three offspring of Elgin's Jewish clothiers entered the field of popular music. Leo Friedman, born in Elgin in 1869, the son of a partner of Cheap Charley, was the co-composer of a hit tune in 1910, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," that is still heard at weddings in the days of rock and rap. Grace LeBoy, the daughter of a tailor with a large family, took music courses at Elgin High before leaving for Chicago in 1905. Grace later married Gus Kahn, an aspiring lyricist, and collaborated with him in several songs. Kahn wrote the words to many hit tunes for the stage: "Dream a Little Dream of Me," "Toot Toot Tootsie," "Carolina in the Morning," "Pretty Baby," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," and "The Waltz You Saved for Me." Bobby Rosengarden, the son of a clothing salesman, is a drummer who has traveled widely with jazz groups. When he was the music director on the Dick Cavett show, a nation-wide television audience saw him lead the band in a rendition of the Elgin High School Loyalty.

Elgin Colonies

Elgin was founded in 1835 by James T. Gifford and first settled by Yorkers and Yankees. Residents of this city, in turn, established new communities elsewhere. The first of these was projected on bluffs along the Lake Michigan shore in Wisconsin. James Gifford, his Illinois town off to a good start, platted Ulao (pronounces YOU-1ay-oh) about 20 miles north of Milwaukee. "We have laid out the tracts embraced in the village ... into about 100 lots and I regard the purchase as a good one," he wrote his wife back in Elgin on July 12, 1847. After he built a brick house, he was joined by his family.

Ulao was located to supply lake steamships with fuel. A large side-wheeler could burn up to two acres of timber land in one journey. Gifford, with the help of a brother and other Elgin nien, built a 1,000-foot pier and three miles of road into the densely forested area' Farmers, who were busy cutting down trees to enlarge their cropland, were eager to sell the logs for firewood. A saw mill was erected, and immense chutes were constructed to slide the timber, cut into fuel length, from the bluff down to the waiting ships.

For some unknown reason the Giffords returned to Elgin in 1849, after the deaths of two of their children in Wisconsin. Ulao no longer exists. The forests were depleted, the steamers began burning coal, and the bluffs eroded with the spring freshets. Grass and sand now cover what was one a street named Elgin.

In 1877, guided by Alfred Lavoie, a local real estate broker, about 50 watch factory officials and other Elgin residents organized an association to purchase land in Florida. The town site selected, called Limona, was suitable for orange groves and winter homes. It was located east of Tampa, in Hillsborough County. Fourteen acres were reserved for hotel grounds and included two small lake, Eucelaire and Beau Lac. The settlement had a post office and a store.

"The Elgin colony is an acquisition to our county, of which we are proud," commented an article in the Tampa Journal, March 6, 1890, "and these people have undoubtedly chosen wisely and well in their selection of a location for homes and profitable investment."

Contact between Elgin and Limona was frequent, and local store windows would occasionally display oranges grown by members of the association. Several watch factory people retired to Limona, among them the company's first factory superintendent, Charles S. Moseley. Limona, an unincorporated community, is still in existence but no longer has a post office.

Elgin's David C. Cook, Friend of the Sunday School, sought a remedy for a chronic health problem in the West. In 1889 he Purchased a spread of 14,000 acres in southern California and Started a fruit ranch. The Southern Pacific railroad ran through the lower end of the property. Cook laid out the town site of Piru (pronounced PEE-ru), had a spur track built to it, and put up a depot. He built a "big house" in his settlement as well as a Methodist Church.

The land was dry and hilly, and water had to be piped at great expense from the mountains to irrigate the 4,000 acres cultivated. His initial planting included thousands of orange trees, 200 acres of walnuts, 190 acres of figs, 130 acres of olives, 20 acres of almonds, and ten acres of persimmon. Peaches, raisin grapes, and chestnuts were later crops.

Although his workers were well housed and fed, Cook had difficulty retaining them. His conditions of employment may have been a factor: "We consider the tobacco habit indecent and filthy. We do not approve the use of beer, wine, or liquors as beverages. We know of no satisfactory excuse for vulgar or profane language."

Natives of the area, which had been used for stock grazing, couldn't understand why Cook had chosen a mountainous wilderness of sagebrush and cactus for his venture, and it was not a success. He sold his property in 1900, but Piru is flourishing today as a Los Angeles suburb.


Chapters -


© 1992-2001 by E. C. Alft and ElginHistory.com. All rights reserved.