THE SPORTING LIFE
The Bluff Citys of '75
Back in the days when baseball was played barehanded, Elgin was rooting for the hometown Bluff Citys. They were amateurs, but in 1875, when our population had passed 7,500 and citizens were proud of the "bluffs" along the west bank of the Fox, they were good enough to claim the state championship.
The Bluff City Base Ball Club often played for money-the term "amateur" then denoting a part time player-and was organized along business lines with a non-playing board of directors. The players were mostly small in size and were called midgets, dwarfs, and other epithets when away from home. They included an attorney, a butcher, a stone cutter, a tinsmith, a cheese box maker and assorted watch factory hands.
Games were usually played on Saturdays, never on Sunday. Although 25 cents admission was charged, gambling was considered part of the game, and much of the Bluff Citys' income came from side bets between the teams. In challenging the Social Base Ball Club of St. Charles, for example, Elgin offered to play for either $50 or $100.
After a series of victories Elgin entered a tournament at Sycamore open to all amateur clubs in the state. First, second, and third prizes were offered, and the winners'board and room were to be paid. The Bluffs sponsored a dance to raise funds to finance their entrance fee and traveling expenses. Elgin returned home with the $200 first prize, styling themselves champions. Led by a band, they were escorted to a victory dinner at the Waverly House. The weekly Elgin Advocate Was Pleased to report that the club "has received many complimentary notices in different newspapers for the gentlemanly conduct of its members."
The Bluffs continued their winning ways. Springfield came to town in September, claiming to be the champions of central Illinois. Elgin won, 13-11, but the Springfield team argued that it didn't have a fair chance because the umpire, Amintus Rose, happened to be a member of the Bluff City club's board of directors. Offended at this slur upon their sportsmanship, the Bluffs gave their visitors another opportunity the next day with an umpire of their choosing. Elgin won again, 15-9, and the honor of Amintus Rose was vindicated.
With the regular season of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players drawing to a close, the Chicago White Stockings toured the country towns. These pros clearly outclassed their amateur opponents. Undaunted, the Bluffs agreed to meet the White Stockings at the Fairgrounds, near what is now the Dundee-Enterprise intersection. The game was ended by rain after six innings, the Bluffs behind by a score of 33-9. The professionals flattered the Elgin egos, which needed little encouragement, by pronouncing the Bluff Citys the best amateur club they had met.
The White Stocking game was a prelude to a contest for "the amateur championship of the state" between the Bluff Citys and the Bloomingtons in Chicago on October 12, 1875. Apparently the Bloomingtons, and not the Springfields were the real power downstate, but the Chicago Times questioned the whole affair.
"It would be interesting to know," mused the sports writer, "by what process either of them attained the championship, and also by what means they propose to retain it without giving other clubs a chance for it."
A dramatic moment came late in the game when a pitched ball struck George Abbott, the Elgin catcher, over the heart. (Catchers at that time played without gloves, masks or chest protectors.) He picked up the ball, made a perfect peg to retire the runner going to second, and then fell to the ground unconscious. He was believed to be dying for a time, but he later recovered. The Bluffs won 10-5.
Now "state champions," Elgin was promptly challenged by the Chicago Franklins, who claimed to be the best of that city's nines. Hindsight suggests that it would have been advisable for the Bluffs to decline, pointing out the onset of cold weather, and ending their season with laurels intact.
But no, our little Bluffs never ducked a challenge. Exactly what occurred when they met the Franklins in Elgin on October 23, 1875, depends upon your choice of newspapers. The more detailed account in the Chicago Times related events that followed a call of safe at third in the Franklin half of the sixth:
"The Bluffs objected to the decision and were encouraged by the hooting and howling of the congregated mob, who numbered about 1,000. The crowd attempted to over-awe andbrowbeatthe umpire to change the decision, which be refused to do. He then ordered the game to proceed, and when the Bluff s refused, he called the game in favor of the Franklins by a score of 9-,; the score at the time standing 7-3 in favor of the Franklins. The Bluffs have beaten nearly every club they have met this season, and from their actions it seemed as though they took an impending defeat to heart so much as to utterly disconcert them.
The Elgin Advocate told a different story: "The truth of the matter is, the Franklins came out here to beat the Bluffs, if not by fair means then by foul, and brought an umpire with them for that purpose ... We trust that when our boys next play they will select gentlemen for opponents and not a pack of roughs and bruisers like the Franklins."
Thus ended the lively season of 1875, before there was either a National or American League, when baseball and Elgin were both young, and when the gentlemanly Bluff Citys played all challengers-even Chicago roughs and bruisers.
The Bluff Citys of '75
Sparrows and Crows
Bird shooting as a sport is now restricted to upland game species, such as the pheasant and water fowl, but local hunters once went gunning for sparrows and crows. An Illinois law enacted in 1891 provided for a bounty for English sparrows killed during the months of December, January, and February. It was based on the assumption that sparrows drove away the song birds.
Two cents for each bird killed was paid when whole bodies or heads were presented to the city clerk in lots of not less than ten. The law had unforeseen consequences. Boys with air rifles made walking outdoors hazardous. After an elderly resident was hit in the neck by a pellet, police prohibited the shooting of guns downtown. During the business depression following the Panic of '93, unemployed men had earned nearly a dollar a day from the bounty, and their opportunities were reduced. Resort was then to using the sling shot and to trapping with a crust of bread or kernel of corn.
"The state every year pays out thousands of dollars in the shape of bounties on sparrow heads, and what good does it do?" asked the Daily News in 1898. "It teaches the boys cruelty and bloodthirstiness, and the accidents that have occurred through the use of the air guns have added to the expense. In some cases money could not repair the damage done." By the time the sparrow law was repealed in 1901, attention had shifted to crows. Each spring, during the years 1899 through 1906, the rural area around the city resounded with the blasts of gunfire. Hunters were welcomed by farmers at the annual crow shoot sponsored by the Elgin Gun Club.
The big black birds were disliked by farmers because they congregated in large flocks and ate seeds. Hence the term "scarecrow" applied to one means of discouraging them.
Participants in the shoot were divided into teams, the losers paying for a banquet. Hunters went out early in the morning, scattered to favored locations and turned in crow heads at the end of the day's shooting. In addition to crows, the hunters received points for butcher birds, equivalent to two crows, and hawks, worth one crow. One year, the club offered 300 points for a fox, 500 for a wolf and 3,000 for a lion, but no one was successful in the added categories.
At the first shoot in 1899, Charles A. Kerber's team beat John A. Logan's, 284 to 27 1, although the scores were disputed. The biggest slaughter came in 1902, when the teams amassed 1,296 points over two days, and Jim Morrison was credited with 242 heads.
In fairness to the targets that provided the fun, some agriculturalists maintained that fields from which crows had been banished had low yields because of insects. When crows, which eat almost anything, again became plentiful, corn began to thrive. Furthermore, crows feed on animal carrion.
The Gun Club's banquets were prodigious feasts for those who, in modern parlance, would be considered Elgin's "good ol' boys." One jollification held on the Pratt farm north of the city consumed 75 pounds of roast beef, 30 pounds of roast veal, three boiled hams, four kinds of cheese and ten gallons of potato salad, accompanied by suitable libations. The leading marksman of the shoot was presented with a stuffed crow trophy.
As the years passed, crows understandably began giving Elgin a wide berth in the spring, their numbers dropped, and the shoots were abandoned.
The Driving Park
Fanny Brown, Billy Sunday, Sweet William, Fred Arthur, Black Tommy, and Captain Jack once had a rabid following in Elgin. Turf fanciers crowded the rail to cheer these and other horses toward the finish line at our local tracks.
Organized harness racing began here in 1870 with the opening of a track on the fairgrounds of the Elgin Agricultural Society. The 42-acre site was located east of Hill Street between what is now Enterprise Street and Columbia Avenue and extended east to the county line. In addition to exhibits of livestock breeders, agricultural implement dealers, farmers, and fruit growers, the Society sponsored the racing events. The standard distance was one mile, and there were matches for both trotters and pacers. (A trotter moves the front leg on one side of its body and the hind leg on the other at the same time. A pacer moves the legs on the same side of the body together.)
The Elgin Driving Park Association was formed in 1878 to sponsor racing meets on dates other than the annual agricultural fair. After the grounds were abandoned in 188 1, horsemen failed to convince the city to allow Liberty Street to be used as a speedway. The Association opened a new half-mile track in the south end in 1885. The main entrance was just east of the South Liberty-May Street intersection. The stands seated 800. On opening day a former city alderman was caught scaling the fence to avoid paying the 50 cent entrance fee.
Thirty to 40 horses of local owners and breeders were quartered at the park's stalls all year, and at times there were more than one hundred during the racing season. The meets attracted entn' es from a wide circuit, with purses ranging from $300 up to $1,000. Gambling was rife both at the track pools and in the saloons, and there were frequent charges of collusion among the owners and drivers.
A favorite of the gambling element was Elgin Chief. A big winner here, be was entered in a mile race at Woodstock's one third mile track against the best in McHenry County. The Chief was far in the lead at the end of the second lap. His driver, accustomed to half-mile ovals, thought the race was over and reined up. The Elgin bettors screamed frantically to keep going, but the driver thought they were applauding. By the time he caught on, the rest of the field was nearing the finish line. It wasn't the Chief's fault, but a pile of money that went north never came home.
The Driving Park races in July, 1893, were called off after the first day's events. The Association dissolved, and its buildings, fencing, and stalls were sold at auction. The grounds continued to be used for circuses and sporting events until the land was subdivided for housing late in 1903. Horsemen found a new site at Wing Park in 1907, when a Gentlemen's Driving Club was organized. Betting was prohibited in the city park. Meets were held annually, usually on the Fourth of July, through 1915, when gentlemen's interest in owning horses gave way to owning automobiles.
Periodically an interest in walking, both for speed and distance, has swept Elgin. Pedestrian races were of two types: the straight heel-and-toe, in which one foot always had to be touching the ground, or the go-as-you-please, permitting competitors to either walk or run.
Ten watch workers entered a 15-mile marathon at the Opera House in 1879. Only four managed to finish the distance. The winner, whose time was two hours, six minutes, and seven seconds, received a silver cup; the second prize was a box of cigars. In 1882, again at the Opera House, a two-man 50-mile go-as-you-please was won by Jimmy Brett, a traveling professional. He covered the distance in eight hours and 27 minutes, including a 20 minute stop for supper.
Dan O'Leary, "the champion long distance walker of the world," visited Elgin for more than a week in 1908 to promote an interest in exercise and organize a walking club under the auspices of the YMCA. During his stay be sauntered into Chicago, leaving one morning at 10:30 and arriving at 5:52. Four days later he strolled the 22 miles to Aurora in five hours. Led by O'Leary, the walking club hiked to the Dundee bridge and back in two hours and ten minutes.
While O'Leary was in town, John Walch, white-haired and said to be 54 years of age, ambled into Elgin at midnight on his walk across the United States. He was 19 days out of New York. Walch, dressed in tight-fitting canvas trousers and wearing a small cap, carrying a long pointed staff with an American flag on the end.
Another pedestrian celebrity was Edward Payson Weston, who first achieved notoriety when he traveled on foot from Boston to Washington, D.C., a distance of 478 miles, for Lincoln's inauguration in 1861. This journey whetted his appetite for further long-distance jaunts. One of them from Portland, Maine, to Chicago, a distance of 1,326 miles, he made in 26 days and had time to attend church services and preach to bystanders about the evils of drink. In 1899 he walked from New York to San Francisco and back in 187 days.
Weston strolled into Elgin along the North Western tracks in 1913. Then 75 years old, he had started his walk in New York City and was on his way to Minneapolis, a trek of 1,500 miles he was planning to complete in 60 days. He was averaging better than four miles per hour on highways and three miles an hour on railroad ties. To the curious who greeted him, he revealed that his road diet was chiefly raw eggs and milk. The famed walker rested at the Western House on North State for two hours and then proceeded on his way.
Returning to Elgin as an octogenarian in 1924, Dan O'Leary Put on an exhibition preceding a semi-pro baseball game. He circled the bases 12 times in ten minutes and ten seconds.
Despite the protests of the Elgin Ministerial Association and the Woman's Club, a walkathon was staged at the Paradise Ballroom on Prairie Street in 1934. Spectators paid 25 cents admission to watch contestants keep walking 45 minutes of each hour until they dropped from exhaustion. The winner was the last one on his or her feet. Although one clergyman claimed the marathon "pandered to the lowest element," the 28 couples who entered had little else to do during the Depression. They were fed seven times daily and examined by a physician from time to time. At the end of the tenth day, or 240 hours, 15 couples and two solos remained on the floor. Watching people walk had limited spectator appeal, and the Walkathon folded after two weeks. At the end, about a dozen couples were still shuffling.Nine Elgin Community College students tried to bike the 50 miles from Rockford on a bitter cold day in February, 1963. Only John Behrens of Algonquin finished the ordeal, and it took him 14-1/2 hours.
A more recent phenomenon has been the walkathon staged for a philanthropic purpose. Entrants gather signatures of those pledging to pay an amount to a charitable or service organization for each mile walked. One of the largest of these events took place in May, 1971, when about 3,000 young people walked up to 30 miles for the Mother Goose Child Development Center and other recipients.
Although some letter carriers would not be intrigued by recreational walking, it's a pleasant form of exercise that doesn't require special equipment and can be enjoyed by people of all ages. William Wait hiked from Fountain Square to the heart of South Elgin in 40 minutes in November, 1916. He was 68 at the time.
How long has it been since you took a good walk? Here in Elgin the Fox River Trail is waiting. For those who aren't nature lovers, tour guides for walks through the Elgin and Dundee historic districts are available. Why not take a walk now; tomorrow or next weekend it may rain. And, if you want, go-as-you-please.
Kittens and Pirates
Back in 1910 Elgin welcomed its first professional baseball team when the Elgin Baseball Association, headed by attorney Frank A. McCarthy, was awarded a franchise in the Class C Northern Association.
The Elgin entry was financed by the sale of shares to fans at $10 each. The inter-urban trolley line, which ran along the east side of the river between Elgin and Dundee, assisted the club financially and contributed the spectator stands. Home grounds for the team was a field just east of Trout Park. Seating capacity was about 3,500.
Other teams in the league were Jacksonville, Joliet, Decatur, Kankakee, and Freeport in Illinois and Clinton and Muscatine in Iowa. A schedule was arranged for 126 games, 63 at home and 63 away. Team rosters were limited to 14 men.
The Elgin players were nicknamed the Kittens, after their manager, Malachi Kittredge, a former catcher with Chicago in the National League. Uniforms were pearl gray, trimmed with black.
The Kittens were very good. In their first games, on the road, they stole six bases in beating the Clinton Tigers 8-1. Before they arrived home, Cy Boothby had hurled a no-hitter against Freeport. In the opening game at Elgin, 1,400 fans saw them trounce Clinton 17-1. Fritz Maisel stole four bases.
While the Kittens were winning games, the Northern Association was losing franchises. Joliet dropped out June 20 and was replaced by Sterling. Freeport and Clinton succumbed 10 days later. The league was reorganized as Class D and struggled along with six teams. When the Northern Association finally collapsed early in July, the Kittens were leading the league with a 35-19 record. Elgin was awarded the pennant.
The chief beneficiaries of the venture were the railroads. The Northern Association was spread out too much geographically. It covered more territory than the Class B Three-1 League with larger cities. The traveling expenses and poor attendance at the home games of losing clubs were responsible for the league's demise.
"No discouragement should follow the fate of the first season," editorialized the Daily Courier. "Ithas been a big advertisement for Elgin, and the enthusiasts have certainly witnessed some of the cleanest, fastest baseball in the city's history."
Local fans delighted in following the playing career of the one Kitten to make the major leagues. Maisel, the Elgin third baseman, became a regular with New York in the American League. In 1914 he set a league record with 74 stolen bases. it was broken by Ty Cobb the following year.
Elgin was also a member of the professional Bi-State League in 1915 with Aurora, Streator, Freeport, Ottawa, and Racine. The park was at the southwest corner of Wing Park Boulevard and Wing Street. The Elgin Pirates (the Daily News called them the Watch Makers) were in third place with a record of 26 games won and 23 lost when the League blew up early in July. The contractors who laid out the grounds and built the stands and fences for the park hadn't been paid, and the management was a month behind in paying the players. Bill Burwell, one of the Elgin pitchers, made it to the majors, winning eight and losing eight for the St. Louis Browns in 1920 and 1921.
The Elgin National Road Races were famed tests of the skill of automobile drivers and the endurance of their machines. This city was also the starting point for two series of road races for bicycles.
The first of these was organized in 1894 and attracted 27 participants and a crowd of about 500 spectators. Starting at the intersection of St. Charles and Watch streets, the course ran 22 miles south to Lake and Galena Streets in Aurora. The route was the shortest possible distance, making fraud impossible. The smooth, hard road crossed the river at St. Charles.
The Joliet, Ottawa, Aurora and Rockford cycling clubs sent representatives
who waited to see the start and then boarded a "low North Western" train
to be on band at the finish. Several prizes were offered, including a gold
medal, bicycles, saddles, lamps and tires. One of the riders had a bike
with an aluminum frame weighing only 15 pounds. J. B. Lund of Chicago had
the winning time of 68 minutes; Carl Swanson of Elgin was a close second.
Of the fifty riders who started the second, and last, Elgin Aurora race in 1895,36 finished. The winning time was cut to 55 minutes.
Interest in cycling faded after the turn of the century, but Sunday road racing from Elgin to Chicago began in 1926 and continued through i964, when increased motor vehicle congestion made the event too hazardous.
Organized under the auspices of the Amateur Bicycle League of America, the length of the route ranged from 32 to 67 miles in the early years but eventually was set at 50 miles. The Elgin starting point varied-Gifford Park, the lagoon at Lords Park, the main entrance to the watch factory on National Street, and the intersection of State and Highland.
The Elgin-Chicago race, held in late September or early October, attracted some of the outstanding cyclists in the United States. It was arranged as a handicap meet, with riders starting in separate groups according to their ability, but awards also were presented to the riders making the fastest times. Because police cooperation was necessary to control traffic, the race was sponsored by Cook County politicos.
The first race, 45 miles, started in Gifford Park, proceeded two blocks south to Villa, and then went east on what is now Highway 20. The field of 91 riders was escorted by motorcycle policemen and photographed by movie and newspaper cameramen. The course ended at 22nd and Robey streets.
Not all of the participants were able to complete the long Sunday afternoon ordeal. Of 92 starters in the 47 miler of 1930, for example, only 58 finished. The speed and stamina of the leaders often was remarkable. Frank Brilando pedaled a 65 mile course in 1942 in 2:33.37, averaging almost 25 miles an hour.
Entries included young and old. Frank Erhart, age 13, completed the 47-mile distance in 193 1 in 1:56.50. Bob Matchett of Elgin, a 15 year old student at Abbott Junior High, went 50 milesin 2:20in 1951. Among the racers in 1952 was Tom Brown, age 82.
When the route was established at 50 miles, the riders left the Elgin starting line, followed Highway 31 through West Dundee, Carpentersville and Algonquin to Cary, then went down U.S. 14 through Fox River Grove, Barrington, Palatine, Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Des Plaines, and Park Ridge; it finished on Devon Avenue, just east of Milwaukee Avenue, in Chicago.
Speeds attained depended upon such factors as wind, temperature ' and traffic conditions. The record- 1:43.72-was set by Bob Tetzlaff of Los Angeles in 1960. That's 28 and nine-tenths miles per hour for a stretch of 50 miles. Try beating that on Your two wheels!
Bowling in its early days was an adjunct of the saloon, providing a little exercise between quaffs. One local clergyman in 1884 called them "man traps" and explained that the games let to gambling or else were played with forfeits of drinks or cigars. Some of the alleys were outdoors. At Buckrice's notorious beer garden east of town, for example, the wooden planks leading up to the pins were warped by the weather, and it was a trick just keeping the hole-less ball on the boards until the pins were reached.
Equipment was primitive, and scores often depended upon chance. At Frank Fisk's place, one of the first where more elbows were bent holding a ball than holding a glass, the alley was a rough affair made of two-by-fours. The balls rolled into a pit padded with old mattresses, and they were returned up the center of the alley since there was no run back. The boys in the pit, working without a frame hanging above the alley, spotted the pins by hand. There was little protection, and getting hit was a common occurrence.
By the turn of the century, after the American Bowling Congress had standardized playing rules and equipment, the sport became more popular and more respectable. Alleys were acquired by the prestigious Century Club in 1899 and the YMCA in 1902. The David C. Cook Publishing Company, where employees neither smoked nor drank, installed alleys for the use of employees at its new north end plant.
When Harry (Shorty) Lord opened his alleys in the basement of the Spurling Block at the northwest corner of DuPage and Spring Streets in 1911, he invited women to participate in the sport. Max W. Schneider and Harry (Goat) Schneider, brothers and watch workers, took over Lord's place in 1914.
In 1926 the Schneiders opened eight alleys in a new brick building at 113 South Grove. An upper floor was added in 1939, and eight more alleys were installed. The next year a new wing brought the total to 28, and in 1955 an addition to the south provided space for another 12 lanes.
When the first local tournament was organized by the Elgin Individual Championship Bowling Association in 1922, half the games were rolled at Schneider's Recreation. Ed Myers compiled a total of 1,595 pins in eight games to win the first city title. It was at Schneider's in 1930 that Floretta McCutcheon demonstrated why she is considered one of the greatest women bowlers of all time. She came to Elgin to give instructions and engage in nine exhibition matches. Not only did she roll a perfect game, she racked up a 702, 700, and 649 series for an average of 228 for the nine games.
Schneider's was also the site of one of the most amazing bowling feats ever recorded in Elgin. In 1937 Hank (Iron Man) Rieder of Dubuque, Iowa, bowled a 100-game exhibition without leaving the alley and approaches and without sitting down or eating. The stunt required 11 hours and 58 minutes. He averaged 209.71. During the 100 games, Rieder matched his skill against 14 local stars, winning 72 and losing only 28. He had 541 strikes, 385 spares, 16 errors and 81 splits. Opponents included Frank Burmeister, William (Wild Bill) Topping, Duke Westerman, Leo Stumpf and Casey Smith. Gertie Gerber, one of Elgin's best women bowlers, averaged 191 in five games.
Immediately afterward, Rieder challenged Goat Schneider to a special five-game match. In the first game, Rieder rolled eleven straight strikes and left the six pin in the twelfth frame. The pin wiggled, but refused to fall. In this match Rieder averaged 248.2.
When Schneider's celebrated the opening of its fortieth alley in 1955, a renowned woman bowler, Marion Ladewig, bowled an exhibition match against Gabby Hartnett, Hall of Fame catcher for the Cubs, who was then a bowling alley proprietor on Chicago's north side.
The successor to Schneider's Recreation, D & L Bowling Lanes, closed in 1991 when the building was sold for conversion to offices. When the balls, pins, shoes, bar glasses and other memorabilia were auctioned off, veteran bowlers could recall many good lines at what was once Elgin's largest bowling emporium. Its automatic pinspotters, air conditioning and women's leagues were far removed from the sport's origins.
Three Elgin establishments continue to serve local keglers. Bowlway opened on Villa Street in 1942 with no pillars or posts to block spectators' views of its 16 Brunswick alleys. Elgin Lanes, with 40 alleys, started up on the west side In 1965, and Frontier Lanes, now Country Lanes, on East Chicago Street opened in 1966. Its original 24 alleys were expanded to 40 in 1972.
Return with us now to those chilling days of yesteryear, when the frozen middle lagoon at Lords Park was the site of some of the Midwest's most prestigious skating meets. They attracted hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators who ringed the ice to cheer their favorites.
A winter ice carnival sponsored by the Daily News in 1922 led to the organization of the Elgin Skating Club for the purpose of promoting skating and skating events. This group sponsored the Illinois championship in 1924, the Tri-State in 1925, the Central States in 1926, and the Western Open in 1927, 1928, and 1929.
After a suspension during the business downturn, the competition was revived in 1935 by the Elgin Skating Association. The Tri-State meet was an annual event at Lords Park from 1938 through 1942. Elaine Bogda Gordon, who became an Elgin resident, was a Chicagoan when she won several titles in the TriState at Elgin. In 1942 she captured the Tri-State and Western Open titles and set a national record for senior women in the 440yard dash. Merrill 0. Calame, who later became president of the Illinois Skating Association, and Henry Traub directed the events until the Second World War reduced entries.
Because the sport required constant practice to master the fundamentals of balance, rhythm, drive, stamina, and pace, it is not surprising that many of Elgin's fastest skaters lived within walking distance of Lords Park. For eight years local skaters raced for the Elgin championship over the one-mile, eight-lap course. Eddie Gathman won in 1935 and 1938; Lowell Miller in 1936, 1937, 1939, and 1940; and Johnny Tennant in 1941 and 1942.
Elgin skaters often traveled to meets in other cities, especially to the Silver Skates events sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. Gathman won the intermediate boys title in 1930. Alice Ehlert Fortin was first in the junior girls division in 1931. Walter Rust, Jr. won his Silver Skates as a midget in 1938 and as a juvenile in 1940, when he was also the juvenile Tri-State and North American champion.
Rolland W. Walbaum was the manager of the Elgin club when the Tri-State was revived after the war. The meets were held at Elgin each year through 1954, with the exception of 1950, when an unusually mild winter forced cancellation.
The Loss to West
Warning: Recalling the past can at times be painful. Some Elgin basketball fans in attendance at the University of Illinois' George Huff Gymnasium on the night of March 19, 1955, or those at home watching on television, may not want to continue reading about the Illinois High School Association State Basketball Tournament.
West Rockford, which led the polls through most of the 1954-55 season, was the top pick and went into action with a 241 record. The Warriors were the Big Eight champions and had defeated Elgin in their conference game. The Maroons entered the tourney at 23-3. With all but 16 teams eliminated, Elgin and West Rockford were bracketed for an encore. Coach Bill Chesbrough's Elgin squad was comprised of Tom Aley, Paul Hudgens, Earl Lamp, Chuck Rachow, Jon Schurmeier, Gary Siegmeier, Gary Smith, Doug Wallace, Sam Werner and Mike Zimmer. Aley was the center and leading scorer, Hudgens the playmaking guard.
Both West Rockford and Elgin scrambled past their first three opponents. The Maroons had a scare in the semi-final with Princeton. Elgin was behind 35-29 at the half, but Hudgens canned five straight jump shots from about 20 feet out to spark a revival and a chance to meet the favored Warriors in the title game.
Hopes rose as Elgin took an early lead: 8-7 ... 14-8... 18-8 and expanded it to 24- 10 at the quarter. An upset was in the making. At half time the Maroons still had a 40-27 cushion, and visions of the first state championship in 30 years shimmered in the beads of Watch City fans. Although West Rockford roared back with a full-court press, Elgin still led 57-51 with a little more than two minutes left to play.
Then, in one second, West scored six points. Nolden Gentry, a Warrior star, was fouled after shooting. The ball went in, and so did the two free throws he was awarded in the one-and-one. When the ball was thrown back in play, a Rockford and an Elgin player collided in mid-air. The clock ticked off one second and stopped with the ref s whistle. The foul was on Elgin, and West added two more free throws. Given this momentum, the Warriors got the ball on an Elgin turnover immediately afterward, went ahead, and finally won, 61-59.
The road north on Highway 47 was filled with tears. So was the Elgin gym during a reception the next day for a gallant team that had gone much farther than expected. March Madness has recurring symptoms. After all these years, some fans are still reliving that one awful second.
The Rat Hole
The bowling alleys and billiard parlor in the basement of 5658 South Grove were first opened by Beardsly & Walker before the turn of the century. Bill Harmening took over the place in 1926. It lost its liquor license because the premises couldn't be viewed from the street. By the 1940s most of the leagues had switched to Schneider's, Bowlway, and Maple Lanes, and Harmening's became a hangout for young pool shooters popularly called the Rat Hole.
Ron Bunte, one of the regulars, remembers it as "dark, dank, and not too clean, warm in the winter and naturally cool in the summer with occasional whiffs of sawdust and meat emanating from Kerber's meat market upstairs.
Besides its three alleys, Harmening's had six regulation pocket pool tables and a snooker table. It also acquired a reputation as a place mothers warned their daughters about. Women shoppers crossed the street to avoid the entrance, and the stairway down to the basement was known as the Thirteen Steps to Hell, but there were no hoodlums. Harmening's wasjust a haunt for young men fascinated with eight ball, rotation, and snooker at ten cents a rack or a penny a minute. Most of the guys had part-time jobs and some picked up extra money by pin setting.
Frank "Red" Lazzara began working with Bill Harmening in 1939 and bought the operation after the latter's death ten years later. Frank had rigid rules of conduct which particularly applied to students who thought pool playing more attractive than attending classes. In 1950 he formed and coached the Harmening Cats, an amateur baseball team with some standout former Maroon and Green Wave players. The Rat Hole was soon decorated with championship trophies from the YMCA league (four titles in succession, 1951-54) and tournaments. The Rat Hole also supplied some of the boxing talent that participated in Chicago Golden Gloves matches and players for the Elgin Torpedoes, a semi-pro football team.
Young men from Harmening's who served in WW II and the Korean conflict, many of them marines, were always welcomed home on furlough or after discharge by Bill and Frank. For some it was the first stop after getting off the Third Rail.
Frank, who had become a respected father figure to many of his patrons, continued the business until Walgreen's drugstore occupied the site in 1956. He then opened Lazzara's Pizza on National Street, and Elgin's finest sharks, hustlers, and slop artists lost their home away from home.
The Elgin National Road Races, held annually during the years 1910-1915 and 1919-1920, fascinated boys who hiked west of town to watch the practice sessions and visit the drivers' camps. On race days, they were among the thousands of spectators who saw the big cars roar around the graveled track.
They soon began building their own motorless racers, using cast iron coffee mill wheels obtained from the Woodruff & Edwards foundry. Bodies came from dismantled wagons, fruit crates and other scrap. The steering mechanism consisted of ropes attached to a round pole and spool, and the steering wheel was another coffee mill casting. Back yards were littered with oil cans, cracked wheels, axles and the debris of accidents.
Whose car was fastest? "Let's race!" The coasters were either pushed by another boy or, gravity powered, rolled down the many hills of a river city. The first contests were staged in various parts of town in the late summer and early fall of 1910. The driver had the best of it because the "mechanic"had to push all the way up a rise and then jump on the back of the car as it went down a slope.
Several of the races were organized with entry fees, ticket sales, adult starters, elimination heats and prizes for the winners. The coasters usually were given the names of stock cars the boys had seen on the west sl de track, such as Benz, National, Mercer, Black Crow, Simplex, Knox, Lozier, and Marmon. Caps pulled low over their foreheads, goggled to keep out the dust, and wearing driving gloves, the boys maneuvered their cars around hairpin turns and sped along the stretches. If wheels spun off, or the steering failed, or the cars collided, the mishaps added to the fun. There was even an automobile show in 1911, with the cars spruced up for display in a barn on Brook Street. The winner, fully equipped with Woodruff & Edwards wheels, was a Buick Bug".
Some adults had reservations about the sport. "Several near accidents have been reported on account of boys using the sidewalks of the city for a coasting place for their miniature autos," reported the Daily Courier. "This is especially true of National Street. Here they use the street after dark and force pedestrians off the walk." When police cracked down, one enterprising gang developed an "S" shaped course from the rear of 326 Alexander Avenue (now River Bluff Road) down to the river and challenged all of the city's drivers and mechanics to a race to crown the city champion.
By 1915, improvements, such as roller bearing wheels, had arrived. That was the year pushmobilers on the Division Street slope, between Channing and Gifford streets, nearly outpaced the police department's new Ford. And it was in 1915 that a 13year-old built a car powered by a gasoline engine connected directly to the rear axle by a belt.
The local pushmobile craze faded with the destruction of the foundry's coffee mill molds in a 1917 fire and the ending of the Road Races, but childhood memories of two men, Mike Danilek and Ed Schuld, would lead to a revival in 1934.
With the one-time revival of the Road Races in 1933, a new generation of Elgin boys was building motorless racing cars. With the cooperation of city officials, Danilek and Schuld organized a race over a four-block course around Lincoln, North Spring, Slade, and Douglas. Each racing team included the driver and pushers who employed a variety of propulsion methods. One youngster rigged up a handlebar similar to a baby carriage; another had a kind of lawn mower handle; and still another had a pole fitted into a socket on the back of the car.
Local businessmen sponsored some of the cars. MayorMyron Lehman was the official starter. The races attracted about 3,000 spectators who witnessed spills at the corners and breakdowns from buckled wheels and lost tires. Five-year-old Bud Tweedie was aided by three pushers in winning the race for younger drivers. He went three laps around the four-mile course in six minutes, 20 seconds. Don Clark and his three pushers captured the four-lap contest for drivers ages 5-12 in ten minutes, 26 seconds.
The 1935 race switched from pushmobiles to coasters shooting down the Mill Street hill from Commonwealth to Harvey. Tweedie won again. Both cars were designed and built by Schuld and the driver's father. His pushmobile had rubber tires off an old wagon, but his succeeding coasters had wire wheels, a carefully balanced chassis and chicken wire and paper-mache streamlining.
The races became an annual event. Anyone could build a car, and there was no limit to the cost. Girls began participating, and some of the vehicles topped 300 pounds and attained rolling speeds of more than 20 mph. Hundreds of people lined curbs to watch the fifth running on North Grove Avenue. The cars were now started from a ramp at the Jefferson Avenue intersection and coasted to the finish line on Cherry Street. Danilek became a missionary for the new sport, helping to organize races in nearby communities. By the end of the decade, local winners were competing for a Kane County championship. Danilek's races had no connection with the national Soap Box Derby started in 1934 in Akron, Ohio, and subsidized by the Chevrolet Division of General Motors. The local events ended in 1942 after World War 11 absorbed energies and resources. They were resumed in 1950 under the sponsorship of the Elgin Exchange Club.
The first sanctioned All American Soap Box Derby in Elgin was held in 1952 under the direction of Frederick J. "Fritz" Ackmann. Contestants were limited to boys between the ages of 11 and 15, who were required to build their own cars with parental advice. Rules governed the size and-weight of the vehicle, how it was constructed, and how much money it would cost.
All cars were checked in at the Chevrolet dealership for final inspection and remained locked up until taken to the 732-foot course on the National Street hill. Each of the 41 drivers that first year was outfitted with a helmet and T-shirt. Races were held in two divisions: Class B (forboys 11 and 12) and ClassA(for boys 13-15). The local champion advanced to the national finals at Akron. A Doll Derby, introduced the previous year, was part of the event. Seventy little girls paraded down the hill with decorated doll carriages for prizes in various categories.
Although the Soap Box Derbies ended here in 1959, local drivers entered
races held in other communities. In 1961Jimmy Service of Elgin outpaced
more than 40 other entries to take first place at Belvidere. The last Elgin
entry in the Derby was Larry Christiansen in 1964. His father, Hal, was
the Elgin champion in 1952 and his uncle Richard won the Fox Valley Cracker
Box Derby held in Elgin in 1939.
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