Thirty-three men, most of them long forgotten, have served as mayors of Elgin since the city was chartered in 1854. A peculiar, thick-skinned breed, they struggled to win a job few would want and discovered their constituents either never heard of that old maxim, "You can't fight city hall," or else regarded it as a call to battle with the mayor as chief target.
Elgin mayors have brought to office some unusual experiences: prospecting for gold in the Wind River Range; working at the age of 11 as a mold bolder in a glass factory; crossing trackless lands on an old gray horse to doctor the sick; cutting tombstones; breaking prairie sod with a seven yoke team of oxen; carrying messages between military posts during a time of Indian uprisings. By the end of their terms, most had acquired a few more.
The city council meetings over which they presided offer considerable insight into the human comedy. One local journalist recalled: "Many men found the council proceedings their only source of entertainment and recreation...They were, as some said, the poor man's theater." Prominent among the actors were uninhibited members of the council, but there has always been some lively audience participation.
Illustrating American geographic mobility, only six of the mayors were born in Elgin, and only eight more were natives of Illinois. Two were foreign -born. Not all were Republicans in this GOP stronghold. At least six were Democrats, one of whom edited the old Elgin Democrat, and another was a Greenbacker. William C. Kimball was so staunch a Democrat that he once refused a room at his hostelry to a traveling salesman who made disparaging remarks about the party. On another occasion, be received a generous offer of $500 for a horse he had been trying to sell. The deal was practically concluded when the buyer cast some aspersions about Democrats. "My friend,"said Kimball, "You couldn't buy that horse now for $5,000. It has always been in good Democratic hands, and I couldn't sleep if I thought Republicans were mistreating it."
All of the mayors have had an established occupation they pursued apart from their position at city hall, and only the five who served during the years of commission government were full-time mayors. Doctor, lawyer, bricklayer, teacher, car dealer their occupations have mirrored the community they served.
Before assuming office, most mayors acquired political experience in other local elected positions such as alderman or councilman, school board member, township supervisor, and library director. Five were unsuccessful in their initial try at the mayoralty. David F. Barclay was beaten by a margin of more than four to one the first time he ran, but he later was elected to four terms. Those with the longest tenure have been Myron M. Lehman, 16 years; Arwin E Price, 15 years; and Richard Verbic, 12 years.
"His Honor," a title often used with a trace of ridicule by Elgin citizens, frequently had close acquaintance with alcoholic beverages. One was a distillery operator. One died of the effects of chronic alcoholism after a long career of speaking before temperance meetings. Another was consigned to the devil by no less than Carry Nation. She didn't approve of his cigar smoking, either.
Most, however, soberly listened to the real or imagined grievances of outraged residents. "When I became mayor of this city last spring," remarked a disillusioned Carl Botsford in 1905, " I was given to understand that this office I now occupy was one of honor. Since my election, I have found it is an office for complaints."
Before civil service was introduced, the mayor had the unenviable task of choosing among a swarm of job applicants. "Mayor-elect Wayne is importuned, besought, pleaded with, urged, coaxed, threatened by an army of office-seekers who are hungry for plums, be they large or small. It is no fun being mayor-elect," reported the Every Saturday in 1895.
A crowded public indignation meeting at the Opera House in 1878 requested Mayor Edwin F. Reeves to "resign the office which he has so shamefully disgraced," and in the event of his refusal, recommended "proper legal measures be taken to test his sanity." Near the end of his tumultuous term Reeves was understandably disenchanted: "I regret to say the honest man that accepts the position of councilman or mayor of this city must be a brave philanthropist or reckless of his individual reputation.
Under the commission form of government, 1911-1955, an Elgin mayor could be ousted before his term expired. If signatures equal to 55 percent of the vote cast for mayoral candidates in the preceding municipal election were obtained, a referendum could be held on the question of whether the mayor should be retained.
Petitions were circulated seeking the dismissal of Mayor Myron M. Lehman after he had been in office only a year. He expressed his opinion of them in what the Courier-News reporter described as "certain artistic and colorful language common in his army sergeant days." Considerably less that the 6,956 required signatures were obtained, the movement collapsed, and Lehman went on to win three more elections.
More than official greeters and ribbon-cutters, Elgin's mayors have usually been decision-makers. Their leadership wasn't always inspired, but most did what they could to resolve the problems and conflicts of urban living, chuckling over unsigned crank letters, realizing they can't please everyone and repressing feelings of raving paranoia.
With few exceptions, city hall has been a dead-end for those seeking advancement in American politics. This has been the rule in Elgin, Four were unsuccessful in attempts at the Republican nomination for Congress. Only four mayors were ever elected to state office, two to single terms in the state Legislature and two to judgeships.
George P. Lord summed up the conclusions of several mayors after he was defeated in a bid for re-election. He thanked those who had voted for him, and then added: "To those who, differing from my friends, so freely excused me from the cares of office, I am under lasting obligations. In no other way could they have done me so great a favor."
In many a mayor's term, citizens have bewailed a new"worst crises in the city's history," but somehow Elgin has survived. They may be a peculiar breed, and the office a doubtful glory, but we need our mayors. Without them to act as scape-goats for our civic misfortunes, we might have to blame ourselves.
The Township Collectors
Property taxes usually are paid now by a check mailed to the county treasurer. In days gone by, when checks were not commonly used, each township elected a collector who received payments in person and in cash. The winner customarily had a terminal illness or severe handicap that prevented him from fulfilling the duties of the office. Someone then would "buy out" the person elected and would be appointed as a deputy to do the work.
The collector was allowed two percent of the funds collected up to $75,000, which meant that compensation was $1,500. The person who "bought" the collectorship from the one elected gave him a sum mutually agreed upon, usually $1,000.
Supporters of candidates for the position would publicize the qualifications that had no relationship to the duties of the office. In 1890, "a worthy young watch factory man, disabled from work by paralysis" won out over two close competitors who also were unfortunate. One candidate in 1897 placed an ad in the Daily News that explained how his foot had been amputated after it was crushed by an Elgin street car. Unable to work, he was destitute. He went on to "respectfully solicit the votes of all who feel like assisting a brother in distress for the office of town collector."
It was announced in the Advocate in 1904 that 'Dick,' would be a candidate for town collector at the coming spring election. "For nearly 16 months be has been confined to his home on Julian Place by illness. His wife has also been ill for several months. Friends of Mr. are promoting his candidacy because of his misfortune."
Elgin was not alone in providing this form of assistance. Candidates for the office of collector in the down river township of Aurora in 1894 included a man minus both feet, a man with one arm, and two who were ill.
The elected collector frequently died soon after his victory, sometimes before be could "sell". This happened in 1914, when a woman, Cora Wait, paid $1,000 to the deceased's widow and received the appointment by the town board. Miss Wait gathered in $398,036.71 in five weeks' time. Her compensation amounted to $7,960.74. She kept $1,500 of this amount and by law turned over the balance to the town fund.
The practice had its critics. One citizen in a letter published in the Daily News called it "a sentiment of the cheapest kind" and maintained that there were others in Elgin who were "poor and miserable all their lives on account of chronic sickness and inability to work. With as much right as the cripples, who are no worse off, they could clamor for offices on the strength of poverty. They do not do this, for they have the good sense to know they are not qualified to fill them."
This way of aiding the handicapped finally ended in 1917 when the state legislature abolished the office of township collector in counties of less that 100,000 population, which included Kane.
The Pols and the Press
Politicians have long been regarded as a dubious breed by the citizens they ostensibly serve. The best of them are considered merely sufferable and the rest simply reprehensible. Government is necessary because we live in a finite world in which choices must be made. Politics is decision making. Whenever politicians make these decisions, there are winners and losers, and the losers are wont to cry foul. Because the pols are authority figures, the public delights in learning of their foibles.
Elgin newspapers in days gone by spared few adjectives in criticizing what they deemed the failures of elected officials. Whatever their position, high or low, none was exempt from the editor's invective.
Representatives at the state capital have seldom enjoyed a favorable reputation. "There was a time when to be a state legislator meant something honorable," opined the Every Saturday in 1885. "So many men filling the office of late have so disgraced it that the term commands no respect. A legislatoran Illinois legislator-is looked up to as much as is the scum on a stagnant pond."
Ten years later the same paper was more specific: "The rank corruption existing at Springfield in which at least two of Kane County's trio of representatives are playing a high hand, is creating a little comment of late." The Honorable Congressman in Washington was described this way by the Advocate in 1882: "In his dealings with men be has shown a wanton disregard for truth, a complete lack of manly honor."
In 1878 the Daily News, after printing a cartoon picturing Mayor Ed Reeves as ajackass, called him an "adjudged lunatic" and added: "There is no such thing as truthfulness about him or his clique, and hardly a decent man in the city can be found to support him. It is among the bummers and street corner loafers that he receives his backing."
Reeves also inspired out of town disgust. A McHenry County paper was moved to declare: "It's a shame someone does not beat the Elgin mayor till life is extinct. He deserves it."
About Arwin E. Price, the Every Saturday in 1889 asked: "Why should the poor unfortunate vagrants be dragged through the streets to the lockup every time they get a little intoxicated, while the Mayor of Elgin is permitted to reel about town unmolested?"
Possibly the most unrestrained diatribe appeared in the Advocate in 1882. It was directed at an Elgin justice of the peace, who shall be nameless, who had reportedly hid under a sofa to escape a police raid on a disorderly house in Chicago. "It is about time that the office which he pretends to fill was declared vacant. The fellow is a gambler, beat, pimp and drunkard. He is a moral leper and a mental imbecile. He is decayed from the effects of debauchery. He is incapable of comprehending, not to mention practicing, average decency or passable morality. Such is the individual elected to administer the laws of this community. "Occasionally the politicians retaliated. Alex Carline, editor of the Siftings, printed an uncomplimentary piece about Alderman Dan Dumser. About a month later Dumser, masking his fury, invited Carline for a carriage ride. When they approached the Fox, Dumser drove into the middle of the stream. Then, with no warning, he pushed Carline into the water.
Arwin Price, who was scourged by the press in every one of his 11 mayoralty campaigns (he won six, lost five), thrashed Edward J. (Real Estate) Roach by mistake, thinking he was a newspaper editor. On another occasion he was fined for assaulting a Daily Courier reporter "so he couldn't write anything for a week."
Are politicians better behaved today or are journalists more circumspect?
We could credit both professions with improvement, but others would insist
they have worsened.
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