The Record Keeper
Orphaned at the age of 16, he spent years writing the history of his family. Of limited formal education, be became superintendent of Elgin's public schools. He was John B. Newcomb (1824-1897), our city's pre-eminent record keeper.
Newcomb had taught in country schools east of town before his appointment in 1851 to the District No. 6 school on the west side. Because his salary was paid from tuition as well as tax funds, it was necessary to advertise for pupils. The school directors announced in the Fox Valley Courier that "they have engaged the services of Mr. Newcomb, a teacher of much ability and practical knowledge of his profession, who brings with him the best testimonials of adaptation and success in teaching village schools."
He was also a man of integrity. On one occasion he expelled a lethargic pupil, Walter Kimball, who was learning so little that as a teacher he was ashamed to take any of his father's money. And he ruled his classes with a firm hand. One of his former students recalled him as "a very competent and thorough teacher, nothing like him anywhere, but he ruled the school with four rulers about two feet long, two and one-half inches thick, bard wood clear through."
When the Elgin Academy opened its doors in 1856, John Newcomb was a member of its original teaching staff. He was listed as the instructor of natural sciences, of the normal or teaching course, of penmanship -an art of which he was a master, and of phonography. The latter subject was an early form of shorthand that employed phonetic spelling. He was so devoted to its practice that he named a daughter Foneta.
After serving as superintendent of the local public schools, 1860-1866, Newcomb was appointed cemetery sexton. While serving in this capacity, 1866-1869, he painstakingly assembled a list of burials from Elgin's earliest days and recorded the date and place of death of Elgin's Civil War soldiers. His annotations following the names of the deceased were of immense help to local historians and visiting genealogists.
Somewhat ahead of his time, Newcomb achieved notoriety by posting "No Smoking" signs throughout the burial ground on Channing Street. During another term as sexton, 1885-1889, he was influential in laying out the new Bluff City cemetery. "A cemetery should be full of surprises," he maintained. "Nothing should be regular or stiff. There ought not to be two grave stones in a line, nor a systematic arrangement of roads. If it will add to the appearance of the grounds to run a road around a tree, it should be done."
His long residence in the city and his obsession with record keeping made Newcomb a community memory bank. Meticulously accurate, he would pen marginal comments about persons listed in the early city directories. For example, after the entry, "Asa Barrows, sash doors and blinds," he wrote: "Architect of Baptist church and residence of Honorable G. P. Lord." By the name of Adam D. Hughes, he noted: "The first grave dug in Elgin by the late Patrick Daley was a child of this Hughes. The grave was dug September 23, 1850-Mr. Daley reached Elgin from Ireland, June 8, 1850." Newcomb became a source of "background" information for the newsmen of his day and was often called upon to identify early photographs. While serving as secretary of the Old Settlers Association, he began preserving the records of its proceedings.
In 1878, Newcomb was a member of a committee chosen by the Elgin Scientific and Historical Society to collect information for a proposed history of the community. The book was never written, but some of the recollections assembled by the committee was later published in Autobiographies of Fox Valley Pioneers by the Elgin Genealogical Society.
Newcomb spent 14 years, four of them full-time, writing a Genealogical Memoir of the Newcomb Family Containing Records of Nearly Every Person of the Name in America from 1865 to 1874. More than 500 pages in length, it was compiled from the answers to several thousand letters of inquiry he had written, a monumental feat without a photocopying machine.
Not everyone can be or would want to be as diligent a recorder as John Newcomb. But we can all benefit by his example. Have you remembered to list the names of the persons in your family photographs and the date the pictures were taken?
The ideas of creative individuals have helped to transform our lives. Elgin has had a number of inventors over the years. The failures and achievements of three of them are notable.
The Leader said of Daniel Guptill (1806-1904) in the '80s that "he has more inventions, in and out of his head, developed or undeveloped, than any other man that ever lived in this city." A Yankee tinkerer from boyhood, he came West in 1836 to establish a farm in Hanover Township east of town.
In 1861 he retired to Elgin and began to experiment with a variety of labor-saving devices of limited practicality and little commercial value. These included a cow milker operated by a crank, an automatic dishwasher, an endless chain sickle for a mowing machine, and a mangle. For the local cannery he fashioned a 55-pound machine that could solder two cans atonce and a machine for cutting corn off the cob.
Uncle Dan's biggest dream was a flying machine. The first experiment, in the early '70s, was a near disaster. A son, Rodney, climbed to the roof of a shed, flapped a pair of artificial wings, and then hit the ground with painful suddenness. Dan decided the wings were too heavy and not constructed on correct principles; Rodney decided he no longer wanted to be a testpilot.
By 1890, now a bard of bearing octogenarian with dimming sight, Guptill had constructed a model for a new approach. The it sailing sheet," which resembled a huge umbrella, was supposed to do the lifting while four moving wings, two on each side of the framework, propelled the machine forward. The operator ran with the machine until airborne, then fanned the wings vigorously. The action was something like rowing a boat.
In August, 1892, the new design, comprising more than 200 square feet of bedsheets, baling wire and light wood, was tested, but the machine only flopped around for a time, took a header, and broke a wing. Undaunted, Uncle Dan tried again a year later. A youth weighing less than 100 pounds was put into the harness and ran. The sailing sheet filled with air, took the runner off his feet, and carried him for a considerable distance from four to six feet off the ground.
A. M. Price patent drawing.
Encouraged by this glide, the inventor held another trial in October, 1893. The Every Saturday reported that "new dreams and visions have been added. The machine, however, does not fly." After still another failure in 1895, a lack of funds ended the experiments, but Daniel Guptill had reached some conclusions shared by those who continued to pursue the goal of flight: that wood should be replaced by aluminum; that a machine couldn't rise from the ground until it had first gained some momentum; that the proportions of the machine should be about one-third ahead of the operator and two-thirds behind; and that a heavier-than-air machine had more potential than a balloon or gas bag.
Herbert L. Thompson (1882-1954) was far more successful. He held patents on more that a hundred mechanical devices, among them a wire weaving machine, an electric corn popper, an attachment to a kitchen faucet that beat eggs and whipped cream, an electric lift for use on a chiropractic table. He formed the Elgin Wbeel and Engine Company in 1910 to make a toy steam engine with a flash boiler of his design. Later he developed and patented a one-half horsepower gasoline engine to be used for lighting homes and running washing machines where no electricity was available. Elgin engines powered Maytag washers beginning in 1914. Thompson sold the patent and the business in 1916 to the Maytag Company for a reported $35,000.
Thompson patented a new small engine in 1917 and incorporated another firm, the Elgin Gas Motor Company, to manufacture it. One year 7,000 of these engines were sold to a large Chicago mail order house. This venture and the patent rights were sold to Maytag in 1923.Albert M. (Bert) Price (1873-1957) was a professional designer and member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He came to Elgin as a factory superintendent in 1901 and three years later embarked upon a career as a consulting engineer with offices in Elgin and Chicago.
Price's inventions revolutionized the production of chewing gum. Before a machine he designed was put to use in 1909, men had to stand on each side of a roller passing a thick block of gum back and forth until it thinned down to the required size. The Price machine eliminated all the handwork and was therefore more sanitary. One machine with a a series of rollers performed all the thinning operations, cut off sheets 18 inches square, and stacked them on trays for cooling. The gum, marked off by the machine, was then broken into individual pieces.
When subjected to moisture, gum will become soft and Sticky; when in contact with dry air, it will turn hard and brittle, breaking and crumbling when chewed. A patent granted to Price in 1914 solved these problems in a way that increased productivity. "The machine is automatic in its entire operation," explained the inventor, "the bare gum sticks entering at one end and completely sealed and wrapped bundles being discharged from the other end, the sealing of a moisture-proof wrapper about each bundle fully protecting the gum against air and moisture and causing the gum to retain its proper consistency and flavor."
Royalties from these and other patents were the basis for an early retirement and an estate conservatively estimated at more than $1 million at the time of his death. Dan Guptill would have been astonished.
CAUTION: Elgin has produced some commendable poets, but they are not quoted here. Readers who admire the likes of Milton, Keats, Browning, Longfellow, and Frost are advised to proceed at their own risk,
From time to time, Elginites have been moved to express their feelings about our community in the form of poetry. James Gifford, the town founder, was one of the first. In 1850 he explained, in somewhat tortured measures, why he emigrated:
The lovely fair lawns which are spread in the west,Delmer Dufield, whose verse at least rhymed, rhapsodized in 1896:
With their fertile soil drew me forth from the East,
To culture and till them and here make a home,
Midst the pure running fountains and prairie that bloom...
Hail, Elgin, our city! The pride of the West,On the occasion of the removal of the electric arc light tower from Fountain Square in 1903, one reporter was inspired by the muse in this fashion:
That nestles so close to the stream;
Tis here that we labor and here that we rest,
And here we awake in a dream...
Well known to all nations; the fame of this town
Has spread to the ends of the earth;
Its milk and its watches have gained that renown
That comes to all things of true worth.
The tower which stood for twenty yearsW. T. Barnes, proprietor of the Elgin Steam Boiler Works, congratulated the city on his presence in 1889:
Upon the Fountain Square
Is leveled with the ground at last,
It makes the place look bare.
No more the copper on his beat
Will by its rays of light
Go chasing hoboes down the street
At lonely hours of night.
A boiler maker at any townThat same year a store, proprietor used verse to direct customers to his establishment:
Is indeed an acquisition
And Elgin has one of best renown
And splendid his position
If the name of the store you'd know,An early Elgin National Watch Company advertisement contained this ode about the local icon:
Where the crowd is sure to go,
T.F. Swan's I'll give to you,
No. 10 Grove Avenue
0, have you heard the storyJ. Park Brown was a watch worker for nearly 40 years and a respected amateur naturalist. He published, probably at his own expense, three books of poems during the years 1919 through 1922. Brown could lyricise on such topics as the watch dial and the balance room at the watch factory. One of his offerings is entitled, "E.N.W.F. Building, and Operatives," which is rather far removed from Shelley's "To a Sky Lark." This is Brown's tribute to "The Elgin Watch":
The Western papers tell.
How quickly Elgin Watches
When made, began to sell?...
Tell other manufacturers
Their banners must be furled,
The "National" can beat them,
And Elgin Watch the world.
The Elgin watch has won a placeAnd here is a portion, mercifully brief, of his "Elgin, Illinois":
Supreme in the commercial race.
The world acknowledges the fame
And honor due your worthy name.
Cleft by the river Fox.That's enough. Remember, you were given warning.
Your sightly dam doth power employ
Yet cannot boast of locks...
The Accident Man
Richard R. Parkin (1845-1915) was a leading citizen in the Elgin of his day. He was a watch factory worker for more than 20 years, and also served as the city's fire chief, 1878-1881. Widely respected, he was elected alderman from the old Fifth Ward in 1887 by a vote of 250-36.
Parkin resigned his seat on the city council to accept an appointment to head Elgin's newly completed water system. During his more than 25 years as superintendent, he was responsible for its steady expansion and conversion from pumping river water to an artesian well supply. Parkin also was a commander of the Grand Army of the Republic and was active in Masonic orders.
In addition to his civic prominence, Parkin led a charmed life. He had so many narrow escapes from death over the years, his friends marveled at his ability to survive.
During the Civil War, he enlisted in Elgin's Co. 1, 127th Illinois Infantry, at the age of 17. At the Battle of Jonesboro in the Atlanta campaign, he was shot through the right lung, the bullet piercing his body and coming out his back. For three days he lay on the field, bleeding from the wound with the air escaping through the hole in his chest. "When they finally picked me up," he recalled, "I thought it was all over with. The boys afterward told me they did everything they could to stop the air from oozing out. They even ran a handkerchief through me from one side to the other." Was this the end of his military service? No, he recovered in time to be captured by the Confederates in the Carolina campaign.
Home from the war, the young veteran was a shortstop and crippled his fingers (there were no gloves in those days) playing for Elgin's first formally organized baseball team.
While fighting fires and supervising water department construction, Parkin "would never let anyone do any work that he considered dangerous until he had inspected it himself," remembered a city employee. "He was not afraid of anything."
Once his eye was injured when struck by a piece from a broken chisel; on another occasion he was hit by a stray shot fired by a hunter; and when he was in a ditch being dug, the earth caved in and nearly buried him. He was helping to unload huge timbers when the mass of them fell on him. His thigh was broken, his head, arms, and body were bruised and mangled, and he suffered internal injuries.
Anson L. Clark, who had attended him while a surgeon in the 127th, was once asked by a reporter if hehad any news."No," the doctor replied, "only I tied up another arm for Parkin. I imagine if he stayed at home to avoid injury, the roof would fall on his bead."
Dick Parkin's last accident was one of Elgin's more spectacular. In 1912 a streetcar was heading south on Douglas Avenue at a fast clip when an express wagon drove out of an alley onto the tracks just south of Franklin Street. The motorman applied the airbrakes about 250 feet away, but the tracks were slippery and the streetcar hit the wagon broadside. The wagon was loaded with an old boiler, iron pipes and scrap. The boiler was hurled against the front of the streetcar, eaving it in, while the loose iron pipes were driven through the windows.
Three men on the wagon lost their lives, and the motorman and several streetcar passengers were severely injured. Among them was Parkin, who had been standing on the front platform. His left side was badly crushed, his back strained, and his face and hands were badly cut by flying glass. But Parkin recovered and was soon back on the job.
How did this man of accidents and close calls finally meet his end? Why in bed, naturally, in his 70th year.
Volunteers keep our civic, church, youth, and welfare organizations functioning. Without their leadership and helping hands, the impersonal, costly services of government would need to be expanded. This is the biography of one of Elgin's busiest unpaid workers for community betterment.
Grace Marsh (1869-1954) received an Elgin High School diploma in 1886 and became a teacher in rural schools and then in the Elgin system. In 1891 she married William P. Topping, who was employed by David C. Cook Publishing Company and served as its production superintendent beginning in 1903. Two daughters, Gladys and Mildred, were born of this union.
A member of the First Baptist Church, she was soon a leader in its women's societies, not only in Elgin, but also in state and national organizations. In 1902, with a Methodist friend, she conceived the idea that the Christian women of Elgin should join together for better service and mutual understanding. The outcome was the Elgin Woman's Mission Union. Grace Topping became its president in 1912.
In addition to her work with church groups, Topping was a busy club woman. In 1902, with Carrie Gifford Holden, she formed the Searchers, a study group still active in Elgin today. She held various offices in the Elgin Woman's Club, and was president during the Depression years, 1929-1931, when the club was responsible for financing and managing Sherman Hospital. In 1908, Topping campaigned successfully for the free collection of garbage in Elgin and sponsored an extensive tree and shrubbery planting for a "city beautiful" project.
In 1913, when advocating the construction of an incinerator before the Commercial Club, she explained one of her methods of getting a project off the ground. "Women believe in agitating a subject. Continually keeping a thing before the public sometimes brings results."
While serving as chairman of the civic department of the Woman's Club in 1922, she developed a plan for a statue to honor all the men who had served in World War I. Assisted by Mrs. Clayton Evelien, she raised the funds and selected the Doughboy statue in Davidson Park. The idea was to solicit small donations from a large number of participants. All but $70 of the $2,140.78 collected came in contributions of less than $5 from more than 7,500 residents. The cost of the statue was $1,930, and the remaining funds were used to place historical boulders in Lords, Wing, and Gifford parks.
During World War I, she originated the idea of the Victory Bell. Beginning May 8, 1918, and continuing to the end of the conflict, bells rang and whistles blew at 11 a.m. each work day while the city united in prayer. Every factory and business except one participated.
The range of Topping's efforts seem inexhaustible. She served on the governing board of the Community Chest (now the United Way) and organized its woman's division. She was president of the YWCA, 1933-1935; regent of the Elgin chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1942-1944; and in 1949, at the age of 80, was elected president of the Sherman Hospital Auxiliary. Anything else? In 1939, when Illinois first allowed women jurors, Topping was one of the initial selectees, making a daily trip to the federal court building in Chicago for six weeks.
Her civic record was accompanied by a happy marriage that lasted more than 59 years. Grace (Marsh) Topping, had an abundant life, filled with the joys of service to her church and community.
A pioneer in the cause of public health, Dr. Alban L. Mann (1859-1943) served as Elgin's city physician from 1889-1891 and 1912-1937. He was one of the first doctors to have a patient admitted to the newly opened Sherman Hospital, and was an outspoken advocate of the compulsory registration of all births, and urged universal vaccination against small pox. Dr. Mann was the first president of the Anti-Tuberculosis Society and was the chairman of the American Red Cross.
During his second appointment as city physician, Dr. Mann organized a laboratory for the use of Elgin doctors. Its equipment proved invaluable when a typhoid fever epidemic broke out in 1916, and rumors spread that the city's water supply was the cause. Acting quickly, Dr. Mann traced the sources of contamination to a watch factory well supplying drinking water to the plant's employees. Nearly 200 residents, most of them watch workers, were stricken and more than 20 died. Dr. Mann worked long hours to reduce the secondary case potential, and he received high praise from representatives of the state board of health for his prompt handling of the problem before specialists could arrive to assist.
"Doc" Mann carried the chief burden in stemming the influenza and small pox outbreaks of 1918, the diphtheria epidemic of 1921, and the scarlet fever cases in the winter of 1925-26. Despite limited finances, through the years he carried on a determined program of disease prevention. His zealous enforcement of sanitation rules and the quarantine system, without Political favoritism and very little tact, caused many to regard him as an irascible fanatic. On one occasion be attempted to stop a Pie eating contest at a Wing Park picnic because gulping down half a pie on a hot day was hazardous. Close-mouthed, often eccentric in his behavior, abrupt, and at times downright ornery, he once asked the state's attorney to bring charges against three physicians he claimed were not reporting cases of communicable disease.
Dr. Alban L. Mann in his laboratory, 1937.
All this is prefactory to what occurred when Dr. Mann toured the Armour & Company stockyards in Chicago. In 1906 Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, described loathsome conditions in the meat packing industry. The book detailed the grinding up of poisoned rats and the use of diseased animals and included an account of a worker falling into a boiling vat and coming out as lard. Public outrage led to passage of a federal meat inspection law.
To counter the book's impact on consumer opinion, Armour and other packers embarked upon a public relations program to show how they had cleaned up their act. Dr. Mann and the heads of other health departments were invited to visit the Armour operations and see for themselves the new standards of cleanliness. The guests were impressed by what they had seen in the processing areas and then accepted an invitation to lunch in the company restaurant. The meal was good, and for dessert Dr. Mann ordered a slice of mince pie. A piece of human thumb was in the filling.
Elgin's Bluff City cemetery, now a century old, holds the remains of two people of some renown who have only a fleeting connection with this city. They were Dan DeMarbelle (18181903) and Annie Donna Tallent (1827-1901).
Wracked by rheumatism and penniless, a tired old man had come to Elgin to live with a son on Seneca Street. Few paid him much attention until Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show came to town in 1897. He was standing in the crowd among the tents when Colonel W. F. Cody glanced in his direction, gazed intently at him for an instant, and recognized a former associate, Dan DeMarbelle.
DeMarbelle, who was once the manager of a theatrical company, at one time had traveled with Cody's show and used this background to more sharply dramatize the performances of the cowboys and Indians. The colonel arranged for his old friend to view the afternoon entertainment from an easy chair in front of the band. That evening, DeMarbelle dined with Cody, Annie Oakley, and other show figures in the colonel's private dining car and left with a generous parting gift.
Dan DeMarbelle's life was more varied than that of an old trouper. He was born in France, where he had musical training, and in his youth be sailed on whaling ships. He was in the navy during the war with Mexico and served as a drum major of the Sixth Michigan during the Civil War. He subsequently organized a circus, but lost everything in a fire.
Aventriloquist, sleight-of-hand performer, pfinter and wood carver, DeMarbelle could play almost any musical instrument. He composed more than 25 songs. The best known in its day was "When They Ring Those Golden Bells for You and Me".
There's a land beyond the river,When DeMarbelle died in poverty, the local G.A.R. post buried him in the Soldiers Reserve at Bluff City, and the government provided a small marker.
That we call the sweet forever
And we only reach that shore by faith's decree;
One by one we gain the portals
There to dwell with the immortals,
When they ring the golden bells for you and me.
David G. Tallent, an Elgin blacksmith, was seized with"gold fever". With his wife, Annie, and their young son, Robert, he left for the West in 1874. They joined a party in six covered wagons that left Sioux City, Iowa, in October on a 350-mile trek to the Black Hills, where it was rumored gold had been discovered. They entered Dakota Territory in violation of a treaty the government had made with the Sioux and camped near what is now Custer, South Dakota, in the winter of 1874-75.
Annie Tallent, a woman of refinement and education, was the only female in the party. While enduring the hardships of the trail and life in the open, she read Milton's Paradise Lost.
No whites were permitted anywhere in the Hills, a part of the Sioux reservation, and when spring came they were ordered to leave by the U.S. second Cavalry and escorted to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. In 1876, the Tallents again entered the Hills after the Army had given up trying to keep the whites out, proceeded to Deadwood, and drifted down to Rapid City.
Annie Tallent and her son returned to Elgin for a visit with her brother and sister in 1887. When she returned to Dakota Territory, she discovered that her husband had vanished. Annie Tallent died in Sturgis, South Dakota in 1901 without ever seeing her husband again and was buried in Elgin with her relatives. Robert Tallent's search for his father ended at a remote copper mining camp in Wyoming, where he learned that David Tallent had died in 1911.
A monument to the memory of Annie Tallent was dedicated in the Black Hills in 1924. To some, she represents the heroism and resourcefulness of pioneer women, and she is lauded in verse by Badger Clark, poet of the region.
Ever yet her story thrillsShe was also a law breaker. The Indians were not only enraged at another example of white treachery when the first gold seekers arrived on their reservation, but also by the presence of a woman among them. To them she meant permanent white settlement of their sacred Hills, and in the view of some historians her arrival contributed to the uprising of the Sioux and the massacre at the Little Big Horn.
For you see, she was a lady,
Oh, a good and gallant lady
Our First Lady of the Hills..
Virtue Is Its Own Reward
Here are stories about three women, each of whom was known for her good works in the Elgin of her day. Readers looking for a moral may not be disappointed.
A lonely widowhood was not for Ina F. Ellis (1879-1964). Beginning about 1951, she gave free piano lessons to boys, aged six to 12. Her home on River Bluff Road was equipped with five pianos and an organ. The boys were welcome to use them for practice and her front yard for baseball.
Every Saturday night, the boys and their parents were invited over for movies, a recital,and refreshments. There were so many people attending that cars were parked for a block around.
When Mrs. Ellis died, a close neighbor was one of only a handful attending her funeral. "Surely," he commented, "you would think some of these children, many of whom have grown up, or their parents would have remembered."
Long before the Anderson Animal Shelter at South Elgin came into existence, there was the home of Mary Bryant (18941968) on Highland Avenue. She took in stray dogs and cats, paying for food and veterinary care out of her own pocket.
Can't give away all your kittens? Take them to the cat lady over on Highland. You're moving, and the new landlord won't allow dogs? Mrs. Bryant would try to find a new home for your pet. What about the sickly looking stray that comes to your door? Why don't you contact Mary Bryant?
For more than 30 years, Mary Bryant carried on a work that neither other private parties nor the city seemed willing to do. Then in 1965, after repeated-and-justifiable-complaints from neighboring residents about the noise and odors, she was charged with maintaining a public nuisance and given two weeks to close her shelter.
There were tears. "I want to leave Elgin," she said. "I don't ever want to hear this town's name again."
Harriet Gifford was Elgin's first teacher, holding informal classes in her brother's log cabin in 1836. She is celebrated for this distinction in most of our local histories, although she taught for only a few years. Gifford School is named in her honor.
Another teacher, Hattie Griffin (1862-1943) has been forgotten. She began teaching in Elgin in 1882 and retired 51 years later. While serving as the principal of Lincoln School, she organized one of the first Boy Scout troops in the city, fostered the early elementary art and music classes, established supervised play at recess, and helped develop the school crossing guards program. She also was active in the local chapter of the American Association of University Women and the Elgin Woman's Club and served as a director of the Old People's Home, now Oak Crest Residence.
Hattie Griffin was the moving spirit behind the formation of the YWCA. Concerned about the lack of recreation for a large number of working women in Elgin, she interested others in securing a charter and solicited the funds necessary for the opening.
Each year the YWCA holds an annual Leader Luncheon to give public recognition to area women who excel in various fields of endeavor. One of the honors is bestowed upon an educator. Is it named in honor of Hattie Griffin, a lifelong teacher and the leading figure in organizing the YWCA? No, it's called the Harriet Gifford Award for Education. After all, she was Elgin's first teacher, and who remembers Hattie Griffin?
Footnotes to History
Born and raised in Michigan, the son of a minister, Tom Ferry came to Elgin as a young man to clerk in B.W. Raymond's store on Chicago Street. Hejoined the local First Congregational Church in 1843 at the age of 15. After two years' residence, he returned to his native state. Probably few of the pioneers in the little settlement along the Fox River took much notice of him.
Those who did recall Tom Ferry, may have noted his rise in the Republican Party. Following service in the Michigan state legislature, he was elected to Congress for three terms beginning in 1864, and in 1871 became a U.S. Senator.
In 1875, when Ferry was president pro tem of the Senate, he became, under the law then in effect, the acting vice-president upon the death of the incumbent, Henry Wilson. In the absence of President U.S. Grant, Ferry opened the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition on July 4, 1876.
Grant's term expired at noon on March 4, 1877. Because that date was a Sunday, the newly elected president, Rutherford B. Hayes, was formally inaugurated on Monday, March 5. The Constitution specifies that the President shall take the oath of office "before he enter on the execution of his office." And that is why Thomas White Ferry, a former Elgin store clerk, always believed be had served for one day as President of the United States. Since Grant was no longer the President, and Hayes had not assumed the office, the acting vice-president was President. Ferry never knew, and neither did the public, that Hayes had taken the oath in a private ceremony held at the White House the day before.
In 1862 President Lincoln signed legislation providing for the construction of a transcontinental railroad by two corporations. The Union Pacific built westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the Central Pacific laid tracks eastward from Sacramento, California. Both railroads pushed forward in record time to obtain the lion's share of federal aid and land grants for every mile completed.
The builders had to overcome almost insurmountable engineering problems and cope with mountain blizzards and desert heat. Uniting the country by rail was a spectacular achievement. The two sets of rails were finally joined with a golden spike in a celebration at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869.
The scene has been portrayed in novels and films, and the picture of the assembled dignitaries and construction workers is a frequently used illustration in American histories. Now who do you suppose made that renowned golden spike? An Elginite, of course!
William H. Cloudman, assistant superintendent at the Elgin Watch factory, 1878-1909, had worked as a jeweler in California. While in the West he made the acquaintance of Oakes Ames, one of the railway magnates, at whose request he fashioned one of America's most famous historical artifacts.
Thomas W. Ferry and William H. Cloudman, who once walked the streets and byways of Elgin, should be accorded at least a footnote in American history. Perhaps a marker should be placed at our city limits, informing visitors that they are entering the one time home of a man who believed he had been President for a day and of the man who made the golden spike.
Books containing biographies of Elgin residents were issued in 1878, 1888, 1898, 1904, and 1908. Some of the more interesting figures in our local history weren't included in these publications, either because of their sense of privacy or because they could not or would not pay for the allotted space.Among the omissions was the life of Arthur Newsome, for half a century the patriarchal leader of Elgin's black community. He was born a slave on the Newsome plantation in North Carolina about 1826. When still a child, be was taken to northwestern Alabama where the Newsomes found more fertile cotton land near the village of Cherokee in the Tennessee River Valley.
When Arthur Newsome attained manhood, his master approved his marriage to a woman who bore him three children during their seven years together. Then the master died and the estate was divided among his sons. Arthur Newsome's wife and children were auctioned off to a plantation in Arkansas. He pleaded to be sold with them, but his new master valued his services in the fields too much to part with him. A plea to visit his family at Christmas by traveling on foot was a] so denied, and he was mated to another woman, Minerva.
Floggings on the Newsome plantation were frequent, but the Civil War awakened a hope of freedom. Soon after the battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, Union forces occupied portions of northern Alabama and many slaves fled behind federal lines. Among them were Arthur Newsome, who was put to work driving wagons for a Minnesota regiment, and Minerva, who was among the "contrabands"-captured enemy property-sent north to Elgin in October, 1862. Newsome remained with the army and was at the siege of Corinth.
On March 17, 1863, a day he would always remember, Newsome was brought to Elgin by a homeward-bound Minnesota soldier. Although be often spoke of the joy he felt at being free, the contrabands were an often-abused minority in Elgin. Their children attended a separate colored school, and whites jeered at their camp meeting worship services.
Newsome was taken into the home of Nelson Truesdell and given a job at Lansing Morgan's lumber yard. With materials obtained from Morgan, he built houses for his people on Ann Street lots which Truesdell sold him on easy terms. Small and wiry, but a hard worker, Newsome once told a group of black children, "If there's a dollar floating around this country, I get a cent of it, and so may everybody here, but they've got to'wrestle' for it."
The Second Baptist Church was organized in December 1866. Newsome was one of the first trustees, and informal services of prayer and song were held in his home.
The colored school was held in a building unsuitable for school purposes and remote from "the Settlement" where most blacks resided. Newsome was one of 16 blacks who signed a petition of protest to the city council,pointing out that "we are taxed in proportion to our means to build and support all the public schools" and that "we should be allowed the same privileges in using them that others have." Elgin abandoned its segregated system in 1872.
As the Years oassed ' Newsome tended a large garden and became known throughout the town as "Uncle Arthur." He was a fixture at the Emancipation Day barbecues, where chunks of beef, pork and mutton were roasted in specially prepared pits. At one of these celebrations, the program featured an address on "The Present Condition of the White Race", and the unveiling of a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln for the Second Baptist Church.
Born a slave and only semi-literate, Arthur Newsome lived to see a grandson graduate from Elgin High School. He died a free man in 1913 in the house he had built on Ann Street.
Every community has had memorable characters who didn't seem to mind that they were regarded by their fellow citizens as more than a little weird. Elgin has been blessed with its quota. There was Bronco Bill Duddy, who wore a cowboy hat on top of his long curls, peddled an Indian cure for all ailments, and was skilled in tearing paper into fancy and ornamental shapes. And there was Doug Force, who walked around town, a desk strapped over his shoulders, writing scroll cards, ten cents each, three for a quarter.
Another one was Charles Peletiab Corliss (1841-1915), who for 28 years was employed as a watch designer and model maker by the Elgin National Watch Company. "His information about watch making," recalled the plant superintendent, "was more complete than that of any other man in the United States if not the world." Unmarried, be was so regular in his habits people claimed they could set their clocks by the times of his movements. His long white beard earned him the nickname of "Father Time." A thrifty Yankee from Vermont, he made no investments and used no banks. When he died he left a small fortune in pay check envelopes he had never opened.
Born in Elgin, John William (Billy) Gates (1852?-1932) pursued a variety of occupations, but he was chiefly a bill poster and advance agent for circuses and theatrical road shows. When transferring baggage from the railroad station to the Opera House, he fell from a load of scenery and broke a bone in his neck. He survived, proclaimed himself "the man with a broken neck," and exhibited himself in dime museums and side shows.
Most ice cream vendors used a bell; Billy Gates announced his arrival with a bugle. In 1893 he opened Parkside Place on the north edge of Lords Park. A big dance floor was on the first floor, a parlor and dining room on the second. Although his relations with the police were not always amicable, it was Parkside's demise that would linger in Elgin memories. The resort caught fire on a December afternoon in 1901. Dozens of boys, who had been skating on the park lagoon, lined up to launch a barrage of snow balls at the building in a desperate effort to put out the flames. They were unsuccessful. Parkside was leveled to the ground, despite one of the more constructive uses of the snowball in local annals.
Billy returned for a visit in 1922, about 15 years after he left Elgin. Always a showman, be walked about downtown wearing a white sombrero, light buckskin coat with fringes, red necktie, blue serge trousers, and some kind of medal. Kids followed him about the streets, while he was passing out cards with his picture and the announcement: "John W. Gates, Billings, Montana, the oldest bill poster in the U.S. still on the job. The man who sticks up for everybody."
Dr. William G. Todd (1821-1913), who arrived in Elgin with his family in 1837, was an early graduate of Rush Medical College in Chicago, although he never practiced. It was said that he couldn't stand the sight of blood. He joined the Pike's Peak gold rush with his father, but returned to pursue several callings, including those of farmer, machinist, and carpenter. Dr. Todd maintained the town clock in the old woolen mill, experimented with his microscope, and pursued the study of astronomy, inviting school pupils to gaze at the stars through his telescope. He was a regular attendant at meetings of the Elgin Scientific Society and at one time served as its president.
It was Dr. Todd's role as a weather prophet that amused the community. His predictions were based on several theories. One was the position of the moon in relation to the earth; another was the extent of the snow line. He believed there were four storm periods during the year, and they came about on the 21st of December, March, June, and September. In 1877 he compiled a weather chart for July and one for August, naming the days on which storms would occur. They were available for 15 cents each, but there weren't many buyers. He was wrong so many times he might qualify as a TV weather reporter if he were alive today.
Dr. Todd tried to persuade Daniel E. McArthur (1820-1891), afarmer out on the Highland Avenue road, that the world really was round, but Dan remained convinced that it was flat. With a variety of arguments McArthur expounded his views in letters to the editor and on the lecture platform. At the end of one of his debates with a misguided round globe theorist, the chairman asked the audience to decide who won by a rising vote. It appeared that opinion was about evenly divided, an indication that Elgin may have had more than its share of those who marched to a different drummer.
The first edition of Who's Who in America was published by A. N. Marquis in 1899. It contained 8,602 biographical sketches of notables. The latest edition had more than 75,000 entries, about three per 10,000 of general population. Wealth, social position, or desire to be included are not sufficient reasons for listing. You can't buy your way in. Admission is based on either "the position of responsibility held" or "the level of significant achievement in a career of noteworthy activity." In many instances these criteria overlap.
Although there is a break-down of college alma maters, none exists for the source of high school diplomas. More than 50 local graduates have been among the entries in Who's Who over the Years. They include the designer of an experimental streamlined train (Fred Adams), a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry (Paul J. Flory), an authority on food-borne diseases (Gail M. Dack), a researcher in magneto-elasto-dynamics (Robert C. Geldmacher), the director of the first test of an air-to-air rocket missile (Frank O'Beirne), and the discoverer of the streptococcus equisimilis (Mildred Engelbrecht).
Among their occupations are or have been a sculptor (Trygve Rovelstad), anthropologist (David W. Plath), foreign service officer (J. Wesley Adams), entomologist (John P. Kramer), federal judge (Alfred Kirkland), TV critic (Tom Shales), professor of pedodontics (John R. Mink), physicist (Samuel A. Werner), biochemist (William H. Matchett), microbiologist (Dietrich C. Bauer), and artist (Jane Peterson).
Some are or have been chief executives of large-scale business enterprises: Dial (John W. Teets), General Motors (James M. Roche), Republic Steel (William DeLancey), Encyclopedia Brittanica (Charles E. Swanson), and Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company (Joseph C. Ladd). Others have been vice presidents of Sears, Roebuck (Max Adler), Carnation (Arthur P. Herold), Motorola (Earl Gomersall), and American Hospital Supply (Paul D. Scheele).
The books they have authored are not in the hammock reading class: Small-Scale Reactivity Measurements in Nuclear Reactors (Wesley K. Foell), Ecology and Economics (Marshall 1. Goldman), The Beginning of Ideology (Donald R. Kelley), Elements of Railroad Engineering (Walter C. Sadler), The Coordination of Complexity in South Asia (Lloyd I. Rudolph), and Transition Metal Hydrides (Earl L. Muetterties). Considering the accomplishments of these former students of our schools, it is surprising that only two were starters on varsity basketball teams.
Lloyd A. Hall
One of America's most inventive chemists was born in Elgin, the son of a barber. Lloyd A. Hall (1894-1971) attended Wing School (now Burnham Schoolhouse) until about the age of 12, then moved with his family to Aurora.
At the time of his death in Pasadena, California, he was widely known in the field of food chemistry for his pioneering work on meat curing products, seasonings, emulsions, baking products, antioxidants, and protein hydrozolyates. Hall developed techniques for curing meat by sterilizing it, thereby preventing spoilage of fats and oils in the meat. He authored more than 50 scientific papers on food technology and was granted more than 100 patents on products or processes he devised.
A chemist and technical director at the Griffith Laboratories in Chicago, 1925-1959, he developed a process of using nitrate and nitrate enclosed in salt crystals for the curing of meat and the preservation of its color. He patented a process for curing bacon which reduced the required time from two weeks to twenty-four hours.
Hall discovered a means of sterilizing spices, which he found to be frequently contaminated with bacteria, by exposing them to a gas called ethylene oxide in a vacuum chamber. Whereas sterilization with heat destroyed the flavor, aroma, and color of the spices, Hall's tecbnique did not. His procedure was later used in sterilizing drugs, medicine, medical supplies, and a number of other products.
During World War II, he was primarily responsible for developing a means of preserving canned goods for long periods of time. His discovery allowed the U.S. Army to supply its allies with canned foods to sustain them during the latter portion of the war. Following his retirement, Hall spent six months in Indonesia as a consultant to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Agency.
One would assume that someone with Hall's creative genius and scientific education would find little difficulty in securing a job after he completed his studies at Northwestern University. His qualifications were so exceptional that in fact he was hired by Western Electric Company, over the telephone, only to be immediately rejected when be reported for duty. Thinking a mistake had been made, be asked the reason. It was then that be was reminded once again what it meant to be black.
Charles L. "Kid" Abbott was a native son who lived all of his three score and ten years in Elgin. Few have known the city more intimately or loved it more than be. Born in 1865, like many others in his day, he dropped out of school at 14 to work in the watch factory. After a year and one-half, he left to pursue a variety of occupations. He painted houses for nine summers and during the winter months worked as a plumber, bartender, teamster, and stable hand.
He returned to the watch factory from 1890-1893, and then decided to pursue a career in law. While conducting a boat livery and working as a firefighter, he studied at home with books borrowed from friends and lawyers. Abbott was admitted to the bar in 1896. He served as an alderman in the old Sixth Ward, as an assistant state's attorney, 1900-1916, and as state's attorney, 1916-1928.
A skilled orator and well read in the classics, Abbott was an exceptionally able prosecutor. He fought the Klan and was an early advocate of judicial reform. Outside of the courtroom he could compose poetry, recite Shakespeare, and participate in amateur dramatics. A tireless civic worker, he was active in the Boy Scout movement and helped organize what is now the United Way.
Kid Abbott, who came up the hard way and as a prosecutor was well acquainted with the seamier side of Elgin, delivered an eloquent salute to his city at the conclusion of an address to the Commercial Club in 1910.
"My love for Elgin is sincere, and unmixed with any ingredient of self-interest. The people of Elgin have been very kind to me, and I love them. For the physical Elgin, I have that love which is only engendered by long and happy association. For 45 years-yes, from the time when the chief objects of interest shown to strangers were the old town pump and the liberty pole that kept each other company on a small island in the center of a mud lake that is now known as Fountain Square-I have watched its growth from a small hamlet to its present city-like proportions. I played as a boy about these corners and have fished in the tail race that ran out from the old woolen mills directly under the spot where I now stand addressing you.
"I have sat astride Shultz and Todson's old iron lions, and have played among the dry goods boxes that were piled high underneath the stairway that ran on the outside ... of old ... Sherman hall where Town's Block now stands, and I have gazed with awe at the old blue army overcoats of the farmer veterans who were perched on their loads of wood about our streets waiting for purchasers. The old landmarks are becoming fewer and fewer, but for many of those which still remain, I entertain an affection inexpressible. I love old Elgin-Elgin my birthplace-Elgin my home-Elgin where my children were born where my dearest friends live and many of those near and dear to me lie buried."
Gilbert M. Turnbull
Born in Iowa, the son of a carpenter, Gilbert Marshall Turnbull (1856-1919) became one of Elgin's busiest architects. He and his partners, William C. Jones and David E. Postle, designed homes, multi-family units, stores, schools, government buildings, churches, and factories. Many of his structures are still standing as community landmarks.
Turnbull's arrival in Elgin in 1880 as a young contractor coincided with the beginning of one of the city's biggest building booms. In little more than a dozen years, watch factory employment tripled, and new industries were starting. By the end of the decade, Turnbull moved to the drawing board to design double residences and flats to meet the needs of workers pouring into the city. His Elgin brick flats, a local counter-part of Chicago greystones and New York brownstones, were three-storied. The lower floor was partly below ground level, and the steps of the wooden porch led to the second floor entrances. Erected with common brick, they had overhanging metal cornices, one-window rectangular bays in front, and triangular bays on the sides. Stained front window edging and red brick trim added decoration.
Good examples of Turnbull's flats, in use more than 90 years, can be viewed at 71-73 Park Row (1888), his own residence, 360-362 Prairie (1888), 427-429 Fulton (1890) and 3-7 North Liberty (1892). A more elaborate version, with rounded arches, is at 208-10 Dexter (1893). The flat at 150-154 South Gifford (1890), built for his father-in-law, departs from his usual symmetry.
Among the more notable single family residences designed by Turnbull's firm are those for Dr. O.L. Pelton at 214 South State (1890), W. A. Drew at 11 North Liberty (1891), Charles Busche at 616 Park (1892) and George B. Richardson at 600 East Chicago (1892) Turnbull and his partners also designed Fire Station No. 2 (189 1), the former Elgin City Hall (1893), the German Evangelical Church, now Faith Methodist, (1893), Sherman Hospital (1895) and Wing School, now Burnham School House apartments (1899).
Many of Turnbull's projects in his later years were outside of the city, when he concentrated on churches and schools and worked on contract for the Borden Condensed Milk Company and the Bowman Dairy Company. His last major Elgin structure, completed in 1914, was the Peter Buritt Memorial Building on South Grove Avenue.
Some Remarkable Women
A national Women's Hall of Fame was established at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1969. If a local listing were to be made of women who blazed trails yesterday for the liberated women of today, perhaps it would include these Elgin names:
Rose (Sheuerman) Adler (1835-1905) was a leader of the Woman's Club's project that led to the establishment of Sherman Hospital.
Myra (Colby) Bradwell (1831-1894) created an Elgin sensation in 1852 when she eloped, her father and brother giving chase with firearms. Editor of the first law journal in the west, she passed the required examination in 1869 and applied for admission to the Illinois Bar, only to be refused because she was a woman.
Anita (Spence) Connor (1911-1966), long active in the League of Women Voters, played a major role in bringing the council-manager form of municipal government to Elgin.
Edna Geister (1892-1959), author of seven books on recreation and one volume ofjuvenile fiction, was a national director of recreation for the YWCA during World War 1.
Janet Geister (1885-1964), a graduate of the Sherman Hospital training school for nurses, was director of the American Nursing Association from 1927-1933. At the time, it was the nation's largest professional women's organization.
Libbie Goll (1876-1951) for more than 40 years owned and managed Resthaven Sanitarium, an institution she established in 1909.
Louise (Kerber) Logan (1891-1972) was the active director of the Family Welfare Association from 1930-1934, serving as a volunteer and supervising local relief efforts during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Mattie (Pease) Lowrie (1839-1921) became Elgin's first woman public office holder with her election to the school board in 1888.
Lillian (Rapp) McDonald (1899-1957) made a hole-in-one in 1923, became Elgin's first woman airplane pilot in 1931, and took up motorcycling in 1950.
C. Irene Oberg (1869-1962) with Mary Wheeler, organized the Sherman Hospital training school for nurses and served as the hospital's superintendent from 1905-1929.
Alice Byrd Potter (1875-1955), unescorted by any man, drove a party of women from Chicago to New York and back in a Haynes automobile in 1908. The only trouble during the 1,745mile trip was one tire puncture, and the car's manufacturer said it was the best cross country performance his model had ever made. For that day, it was considered a daring adventure, and a not too far-sighted Daily Courier reporter wrote"the record she has just made may never be equaled by another woman driver."
Susan (Daggett) Whitford (1836-19 10) was brought to the Elgin area at age four by her homesteading parents. Graduated from medical school in 1870, she was one of the first women physicians in the state and for many years served as Elgin's only female practitioner.
He never lived in Elgin, but his friendly influence, personal generosity, and monied connections were major reasons this community grew from a rural settlement to an industrial city. His name was Benjamin W. Raymond (1801 - 1883), a merchant capitalist who came West in 1836 as a business associate of Samuel N. Dexter. He soon rose to prominence in Chicago and was elected mayor in 1839 and again in 1842.
In 1839 Raymond and Dexter bought one-half of James T. Gifford's claim
and opened a store on the southwest corner of DuPage and Center Streets.
When they erected a cobblestone store on the southeast corner of Spring
and Chicago Streets in 1842, the change marked a shift toward the river
of the commercial area.
Benjamin Raymond's capital was invested in other Elgin enterprises in the '40s. He was a partner in the foundry of Augustus Adams, he was instrumental in erecting Dexter's woolen mill, and be established a tannery. A director of the Galena and Chicago Union, he was influential in routing the railroad through Elgin, and he later became president of the Fox River Valley Railroad which built a line from Elgin north into McHenry County.
The crowning favor Benjamin Raymond bestowed upon Elgin was an industry which shaped this city's fortunes for a century. Elected president of the newly organized National Watch Company in 1864, he offered to locate the factory in Elgin on conditions that its citizens contribute a total of 35 acres of land and subscribe to $25,000 of the stock issue.
He wasn't born in Elgin, and be never was a resident, but Benjamin Raymond
would rank high on our civic hall of fame.
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