CELEBRITIES & PRESIDENTS
In the days before television brought them into the family living room, nationally known personalities came to Elgin to perform, lecture, espouse their causes or exhibit themselves. This city attracted more than its share of celebrities because of its proximity to the nation's rail center.
Among the noted literary figures who addressed Elgin audiences were the poet James Russell Lowell in 1855; George Washington Cable, story teller of the Old South, in 1899; Carl Sandburg, poet and biographer of Lincoln, in 1942; and Sinclair Lewis, Nobel Prize winning novelist, in 1944.
Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled across Illinois in the spring of 1850. He rode a stage coach from Galena to Elgin, where be transferred to the newly completed railroad to Chicago. While in town the famed essayist spent $1, an act that would have endeared him to a chamber of commerce if one had then existed. He was scheduled to lecture here in 1856, but cancelled his appearance because of a cold.
Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune was not the first to advise, "Go West, young man", but he popularized the expression in an editorial. He came West himself in 1855 and received $40 for an Elgin lecture. Garrett Rosenkrans, a member of the group inviting the journalist to speak, noticed a pair of socks protruding from the pocket of Greeley's overcoat as they entered the Congregational Church. This contradicted the widespread belief that his only luggage when traveling was a toothbrush and a clean collar.
Nineteenth century black visitors were Frederick Douglass, the former slave, in the 1850s and in 1877, and Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, in 1897.
Clarence Darrow, attorney for the defense, advocated free trade in 1892, attacked imperialism in 1900, and addressed a patriotic rally in 1917.
Among the educators speaking in Elgin were two of America's most famous. Horace Mann, who played a leading part in establishing our public school system, lectured herein 1854. The philosopher, John Dewey, an advocate of progressive education, protested to a teachers' convention in 1895 that "We are damming up the child's mind by calling him to learn something but not do anything."
Jane Addams, founder of Chicago's Hull House, explained settlement work in 1891 and the relationship of women to trade unionism in 1899. In 1921 she spoke on the need for European relief.
Tom Thumb, the celebrated midget, was on display for P.T. Barnum in December 1863. That was the year Thumb married Lavinia Warren, another midget, and Elginites could purchase a souvenir picture of the newlyweds. Tom, whose real name was Charles Sherwood Stratton, was 40 inches tall and weighed 70 pounds.
Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, cautioned a local audience in 1898, "The wage earnings in Elgin are very much higher than in many other places, but they must help in the struggle or they will soon come down to the plane of others."
Business leaders coming to Elgin include James C. Penney, founder of the department store chain, in 1946, and Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, who was here in 1910 for the Elgin National Road Races. He was present to enter two of his cars, but they were disqualified because they didn't meet weight requirements.
An influential 19th century clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher, was described by the Advocate as a "fluent, eloquent lecturer." Many who came to hear him in 1878 were attracted by the notoriety he gained when accused of having an affair with one of his parishioners.
Billy Sunday, the evangelist, in 1900 told a throng in a 3,000seat tabernacle on Douglas Avenue of his hope that "mothers would think more about introducing their daughters to Jesus Christ than having them make their debut into society."
Susan B. Anthony, champion of women's rights whose likeness adorns an unused dollar coin, lectured at the Opera House in 1876. Frances E. Willard, of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, denounced the liquor evil in 1884.
Lucille Ball visited the Illinois Watch Case Company, sponsor of one of her early television shows, in 1948. The firm made Elgin American compacts and cigarette lighters in its Dundee Avenue plant. She is pictured here with the firm's president, Allen B. Gellman.
John Philip Sousa, America's March Mng, conducted his band at the Opera House in 1900. Sergel Rachmaninoff, composer and pianist, gave a concert at the First Methodist Church in 1942. Fritz Kreisler, one of the most admired of all violinists, played at the First Congregational Church in 1923.
Military heroes were always welcome. Major General Oliver 0. Howard, commander of the X1 Corps at Gettysburg, was the Fourth of July orator in 1896. Colonel William "Billy" Mitchell, spoke of the necessity of air power in the Elgin High auditorium in 1926. Sergeant Alvin York, who singlehandedly killed more than 20 Germans and captured 132 others in World War 1, was here in 1929.
Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Antarctic and Arctic explorer, showed some of his films at the Crocker Theater in 1936. Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations during World War 11, defended the Navy's role in the atomic age in 1947.
John L. Sullivan, the "Boston Strong Boy" who lost his heavy-weight boxing title to Gentleman Jim Corbett in 1892, starred in "The Man from Boston" at the Opera House the following year. He drew only a small house and an unfavorable comment in the Daily News. "The play amounts to nothing," concluded the reviewer, who might not have been so derogatory if Sullivan had been in fighting trim, "and the sparring exhibition in the closing act is entirely too tame to be appreciated."
Jack Johnson, heavyweight title holder, 1908-1915, and a fancier of expensive automobiles, wanted to burn up the Road Race course in 1910. He attempted to arrange a match race with Barney Oldfield and was disappointed when the other champion declined. In 1924, Johnson was a patient in St. Joseph Hospital after an automobile accident. Floyd Patterson trained at the Marycrest Farm on Rohrssen Road for an unsuccessful defense of his heavyweight crown against Sonny Liston in 1962.
Movie stars: Gene Autry, 'The Oklahoma Cowboy," appeared on the stage
of the Crocker Theater in 1934. Dorothy Lamour, co-star with Bing Crosby
and Bob Hope in the Road Pictures series, auctioned off a sarong at a war
bond rally in Fountain Square in 1942. You may even remember Anita Ekberg's
visit in 1953.
Radio personalities were here, too, beginning with Sam 'n Henry at the Masonic Temple in 1926. They were later better known as Amos and Andy. One of the weekly stage shows at the Crocker Theater in 1931 featured Marian and Jim Jordan. Subsequently they became Fibber McGee and Molly. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy appeared at a well diggers' convention held in Elgin in 1933. They were among the aspiring entertainers provided by a Chicago booking agent.
Three famous people dropped in unanounced. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker arrived in 1913 for a visit with a cousin, an Elgin fire fighter. She had scorned female clothing while a girl and adopted male garb. Trained in medicine, Walker had married another physician, and the couple practiced together. She kept her own name throughout her marriage, unusual in her day, and became a celebrity as a leading advocate of dress reform. She believed, in modern terminology, in unisex clothing.
While serving as an assistant surgeon during the Civil War, Walker insisted on wearing the same uniform as her fellow Union officers, despite sharp protests from the shocked soldiers. Captured in 1864, she spent several months in a Confederate prison. Later she became a promoter of feminist causes, especially woman's suffrage. How did people know she was in Elgin? She was identified boarding a street car in Fountain Square wearing a man's jacket, trousers, tie, plug hat, and boots.
Jesse Owens, who set several track and field records and was a star of the 1936 Olympics, was injured in an automobile accident at Villa Street and Ramona Avenue in 1940. The car Owens was driving on Highway 20 collided with another vehicle that had pulled into his right of way. He escaped with lacerations of the arms, head, and face, and was cared for at St. Joseph's Hospital.
Frank ("Bring 'em Back Alive") Buck, the very image of an intrepid big-game hunter, usually was pictured in a pith helmet. He brought to the United States hundreds of wild animals, including 39 elephants, 60 tigers, 62 leopards, and 52 orangutans for zoos and circuses. And who captured Frank Buck, the fearless explorer and trapper? Why an Elgin policeman, who caught him speeding on South State Street in 1937.
Contrary to rumor, Elizabeth Taylor was not a patient receiving treatment for a back problem at Sherman Hospital, the Beatles did not find seclusion here overnight while on a Midwest tour, and it is unlikely that either Madonna or Michael Jackson will appear at the Hemmens Auditorium in the near future.
Lincoln Never Slept Here
Although New Salem and Springfield claim him as a resident, traces of Abraham Lincoln's life can be found all over Illinois. As a militiaman in the Black Hawk War, circuit riding lawyer, and office seeker, he traveled widely in his adopted state. Many an Illinois city or village can boast that Lincoln once practiced in its courthouse, addressed a rally in the public square, or stopped at a local hotel.
There are records of Lincoln's journeys over our broad prairies to Galena in the far northwest corner, to Quincy in the western bulge, to Jonesboro in the southern tip, to Danville along the eastern straight-edge, and to Chicago on the lake. Many communities have erected markers to commemorate the occasions of his stay or have preserved the dwellings in which he slept. Lincoln visited several places near Elgin, such as Oregon, Waukegan, Evanston, Rockford, Freeport, and Joliet. On at least two occasions he may have stopped at Aurora, where a client lived.
But he never walked the streets of Elgin. Very likely this city was the largest in Illinois he hadn't seen by the time he left the state for the White House in 1861. And yet the people of Elgin were among his strongest supporters. An 11-member Elgin delegation went to Springfield in 1860 to congratulate Lincoln on his nomination for the presidency. Among them was Luther Stiles, a carpenter who lived on DuPage Street. On arriving at the candidate's home, Stiles discovered that he had left his coat on the train. Lincoln noted Stiles' embarrassment and escorted him to a large sofa. There Lincoln patted him on the shoulder and chatted about the warm weather. During the half hour the Elginites spent in Lincoln's home, they talked mostly of Lincoln's chances of election.
Neither the candidate nor his local supporters were to be disappointed. Elgin contributed wide majorities to Lincoln's victories in 1860 and 1864. Not all the towns he visited can claim as much.
A 1986 Time magazine cover story examined Ronald Reagan's popularity as president. When compared with his predecessors, was he Elgin's most popular? Using the ball ot box as a standard, the 16,248 votes cast for him in 1984 are less then the 16,352 Dwight Eisenhower received in 1952, when there were fewer eligible voters in the township. Measuring percentage of the votes cast for the two major party candidates, however, Ike's 78.5 percent in 1956 was far from being a record in this Republican stronghold.
Well, then, it must have been Lincoln. No, Old Abe wasn't as popular in Elgin as he was in Dundee Town ship and Aurora, and couldn't do better than 64.2 percent of the vote in 1860 which fell to 63.1 percent in 1864. A good case can be made for Warren G. Harding. In 1920, he beat his Democratic opponent by a margin of 8-1, garnering 88.6 percent of the two-party vote.
Harding had only one major opponent, however, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, not only had to face a Democrat but also a strong challenge from Robert M. LaFollette, who ran on a third party Progressive ticket. Coolidge received 83.2 percent of the vote cast for all three candidates and a thumping 92.7 percent of the combined Republican and Democratic votes.
Even more impressive is the local support given the ebullient Teddy Roosevelt. In 1904, after three years in the White House-time enough to accumulate disaffection-he captured 86 percent of the two-party vote.
Then, after leaving office in 1909, he emerged as a third party Progressive candidate three years later. Facing William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic challenger, as well as the opposition of the Daily News, Roosevelt received 63.8 percent of the local vote for the three candidates. In their loyalty to TR, Elgin voters had done the unthinkable by deserting the Republican candidate. The margin of Teddy's victory in the township, 63.8 percent, was also astonishing when compared to his showing in the Illinois totals, 37 percent, and, in the national vote, only 29.6 percent.
Enough of these figures. Coolidge may have had a higher percentage of the vote among three candidates than did Roosevelt, but there are intangibles in history. Who can doubt that TRcowboy, hero of San Juan Hill, and trust buster-caused Elgin hearts to beat faster than they ever did for Silent Cal?
Among the more distinguished visitors to Elgin over the years have been presidents of the United States, although only one, Ulysses S. Grant, was in office at the time. Copies of local papers are missing for 1872, the probable year of his tour of the watch factory, but there are other records substantiating the event.
Work benches were decorated with flowers for the occasion. When the president and his entourage came to a department using gauges, he asked permission to examine one of them. Taking a hair from his head, be took its measurement and marveled at the close tolerance of watch materials. He later was the honored guest at a banquet held by company officials.
Delia Ryan, who lived nearby on Highland Avenue, remembered that Grant also stopped at the Lynch home still standing at 35 Leonard. General William F. Lynch had served under Grant at Fort Donelson and Shiloh.
After leaving the White House, Grant resided for a brief period in Galena, Illinois. In December, 1879, while on the way to Chicago, his train stopped at the old west side North Western depot. The former president appeared on the rear platform and was greeted by a crowd estimated at two or three thousand.
"Mayor Lord got on and showed him our city in the dusk, but the general spoke not," reported the Daily News. "The band played an air, Mayor Lord proposed three cheers, which were heartily given. The train moved, and the great man was gone."
In April, 1880, again en route to Chicago, Grant's stop was more prolonged. He was welcomed by the military band, the Elgin Guards, hundreds of school children, and a large number of citizens on foot and in carriages. He briefly responded, recalled his visit to the watch factory, and then went into the depot. For nearly an hour he shook hands with residents, many of them veterans of his Vicksburg campaign. "Old and young, white and black, men of all parties," commented the weekly Aduocate, "were eager to grasp the hand and look into the face of him who never faltered when his country called him in the hour of danger."
Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York, a vice presidential candidate, spoke from a platform erected at the west side North Western station in October, 1900. Brandishing his Rough Rider hat, he reminded his audience that "where the American flag has been hoisted in honor, let it not be hauled down in dishonor." High lighting his visit, 35 dynamite bombs were fired from a mortar in back of the Opera House. Teddy, very popular locally, also spoke briefly from a passing train in 1910 and shook some hands on another train stop in 1917.
Senator John F. Kennedy campaigned from an improvised platform at the intersection of DuPage and South Grove in October, 1960.
A Congressman from Michigan, serving his sixth term, Representative Gerald R. Ford addressed a party testimonial dinner at the Blue Moon restaurant in December, 1961. He concluded with the stirring and memorable words: "It will be the Republican job in 1962 to speak up for America, speak up for the GOP.@
A former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, addressed an Elgin audience and shook hands at the Holiday Inn in March, 1976. If elected president, he said he would decentralize the federal government and appoint a commission to recommend putting Social Security on a sound fiscal basis.
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