Social clubs are seldom long-lived. Elgin has had dozens, but only one has thrived for over a hundred years. A gang of nine good fellows in 1886 wanted a gathering place where they could imbibe, smoke, sing, play cards, shoot pool, and exchange hunting and fishing stories. Because their first quarters on River Street (now North Grove Avenue) overlooked the Fox, they adopted the name Riverside Club. Although loosely organized, with a minimum of rules to dampen the camaraderie, membership was carefully selected. Congeniality counted more than social position and money.
Especially welcome were applicants who could sing or play a musical instrument. The interest in music led to the formation of a club band and orchestra. For several years the Riverside staged an annual minstrel show at the Opera House. The 1909 performance opened with the customary banter between the interlocutor and the end men. The rapid fire exchanges always included a number of sallies aimed at local notables. These were followed by solos, a chorus, a quartet, and moving pictures. The Riverside shows drew packed houses and were considered superior to those of traveling road companies.
There were 28 members enrolled in 1891, when its activities still included social dances. Later something happened at a party (the organization's traditions are obscure and records practically non-existent) that led to the banning of women from the club rooms. This has remained a firm house rule, and on one occasion the wife of a governor of Illinois remained in a car in the club parking lot while her husband was being entertained.
From River Street the club moved to 101-105 Division Street. In 1935, when membership was limited to 160, it occupied the second floor of building at 106 Douglas Avenue. A former rural school house near Huntley was remodeled into a summer home. Complete with kitchen, bar and lounging room, it provided a cool escape for several years.
Because so many judges, state's attorneys, sheriffs, mayors, and councilmen have been members, the Riverside acquired the reputation of a local political cauldron. Many candidacies emerged from informal gatherings in its rooms. In 1966, when its Division Street quarters were torn down to become part of the Elgin Civic Center, the club enlarged a former residence at 21 Lincoln Avenue on a three-acre site overlooking the Fox. The old fellowship is again down by the riverside.
A century ago, long before radio and television brought entertainment into the homes, Elgin was a society of joiners. In addition to several ethnic, veteran, social and literary groups, fraternal societies flourished. Members were attracted by their rituals and regalia, the sickness and death benefits they offered, the values they inculcated and fellowship they fostered.
In the great American republic where everyone was a commoner, the lodges bestowed titles of nobility. Elgin was the home of the Knights Templar, the Knights of Pythias, the Knights of the Golden Rule, the Knights of the Globe, the Knights of the Maccabees, the Knights of Tabor and the Knights of Columbus.
Members voted on the acceptability of those who desired to join their ranks. The Improved Order of Redmen did not admit Indians. Rituals, designed to elevate the membership above the monotony of everyday life, were typically drawn from the Bible or from legends. Secret hand grips, signs and passwords were customary, and lodge jewelry-watch charms, pins, and cuff buttons- was much in demand.
The oldest of these organizations in Elgin, and the largest in membership, was the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The first lodge, Kane No. 47, was formed by six men in 1849. Paul Lodge 691 for German speakers was established in 1881, and Althea Lodge 619 was chartered in 1892.
The female counterparts to the Odd Fellows were the Daughters of Rebekah. Samaritan Lodge, the first in Elgin, was organized in 1883. Blacks were originally excluded from the I.O.O.F., but formed their own organization, Livingston Lodge 2427 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, in 1883 and the women's Household of Ruth 485 in 1887.
Benefits in time of need attracted many members who were often inactive. In 1896 Kane Lodge was paying $2 per week for the first two weeks during illness, $4 per week for the next 13 weeks, and $2 per week for the next 37 weeks. Odd Fellows were also assured a decent burial. Their state organization established a home for the elderly members and their wives at Mattoon and an orphanage at Lincoln.
There were more than 400 Odd Fellows and Rebekahs in Elgin at the turn of the century, and their numbers continued to grow. They purchased the O'Beirne building, where the Spring Street parking deck stands, and financed the addition of third and fourth floors for lodge and club rooms.
When this meeting place opened in 1924, the Althea and Kane lodges (Paul Lodge had disbanded in 1918) had more than 1,100 members, although not all were Elgin residents. Samaritan Lodge of the Rebekahs then had more than 500 on the rolls.
Although some churches objected to these societies, there was more to a lodge than ceremony. An Odd Fellows meeting was like "a school room in which kindness, consideration, courtesy and fellowship are taught." The motto of the order is Friendship, Love and Truth, symbolized by three inter-connected chain links, and its mission was to "visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead, and educate the orphan."
Due to the increased variety of recreational outlets, the expansion of commercial life and health insurance firms, and government social security programs, the number of members in fraternal societies has declined. Rituals no longer have much appeal, and young people see h ttle advantage in belonging.
Locally, many Odd Fellows were unable to maintain dues payments during the Depression, and their building was sold. Kane and Althea lodges were consolidated into Elgin Lodge 12 in 1940. The Odd Fellows and Rebekabs are still meeting in Elgin, currently at the G.A.R. Memorial Hall, although there are now less than 40 active members. They welcome members of all ethnic groups and creeds and take pride in their civic contributions. The state organization continues to maintain a children's home, apartment complexes for senior citizens and handicapped persons, and a 120-bed nursing facility.
The Old Clothes Club
The wearing of brand-new, dark blue jeans has been considered out of fashion since the practice of breaking them in by repeated washing and bleaching arose in the '60s. Then manufacturers introduced stone-washed or acid-washed processes to save the consumer all the bother of aging after purchase. Current style has added holes and tears, and one firm now peppers them with shotgun blasts. The added expense of these dubious improvements is an illustration of what one economist has called "conspicuous consumption." Only the affluent can afford to be wasteful.
A similar fad, although more short-lived, swept Elgin and the nation 70 years ago. The cost of living rose sharply during and after the First World War, reaching a peak in 1920. Clothing prices led the inflationary spiral. One form of protest was the overalls and patches movement. Its ostensible purpose was to stop buying new apparel to force price reductions.
The first local Old Clothes Club arose in the timing department of the watch factory. Workers, who were considered among the best-dressed industrial employees in the country, signed pledges to wear overalls, khaki trousers, and blue shirts. Women employees donned something called "bungalow aprons."
The idea quickly spread among high school students and teachers. Principal William L. Goble was pleased to announce that"the garb of Club members was conservative, if shabby, and few attempted to overdo it." Some style conscious Elgin women began appearing in dresses of calico and gingham.
"A patch in the rears," reported the Daily News on April 17, 1920, "today is a badge of honor."
A watch worker explained that by wearing old clothes "we will not need to buy new clothes." This was all very well for those who happened to own some ragged denim, but what about those who didn't and wanted to join the craze? Elgin stores reported brisk sales of overalls.
This development led the Springfield, Illinois, Federation of Labor to oppose Old Clothes Clubs because they presumably increased the demand for denim and therefore raised prices for the working man. Labor organizations needn't have worried. The fad had little or no effect on the prices of wearing apparel, and it quickly vanished. More significant in reducing the high cost of living was a sharp recession that began a few months later. By the middle of 1921, the unemployment rate exceeded ten percent, and old clothes for some became a necessity.
The Elgin Motor Club
With the increasing number of automobiles on the city's streets, the Elgin Motor Club was first organized in 1903. It lapsed after a few years and then, when there were about 500 locally owned vehicles, was revived in 1912. The club's primary objective was to get its members' cars out of the mire and onto a network of good roads stretching from Elgin east to Chicago, south to Aurora, and north to McHenry County.
The Elgin Motor Club pressured township road commissioners, erected directional and cautionary signs, distributed road maps and information about travel conditions, provided mechanical first aid and an emergency towing service, campaigned against speed traps, sponsored a schoolboy safety patrol, and promoted parking and traffic regulations. Membership reached a peak of about 1,200 during the 1920s.
The president of the Elgin Motor Club for more than 25 years was Theodore J. Schmitz, a watch factory foreman. He was also a leader in the state automobile association. T. J. Schmitz and the Elgin Motor Club are generally credited with originating the "Illinois line", or marked lane division in the center of highways.
The club's most enduring service was making sure that major paved highways were routed through Elgin. When the first of these roads in Kane County, the Fox River Trail (now Highway 31), was projected in 1914 to skirt west of the city along McLean Boulevard, the Elgin Motor Club worked to divert traffic into the downtown area.
Again, in 1919, when it was proposed to route the Grant Highway (now Highway 20) through Dundee and Huntley instead of through Elgin and Marengo, the Elgin Motor Club and Commercial Club (now the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce) vigorously protested. The uproar inspired Merrill 0. Calame, the city's poet laureate, to pen one of his lyric efforts, entitled "The Last Prayer":
Take not my Grant Highway,Schmitz demanded that state highway officials attend a public hearing on the question at the old armory building, and sent the watch factory band into the streets to drum up a crowd of more than 400 protesters. During the long, tumultuous session, cigar and cigarette smoke became so thick that persons halfway back in the room were barely able to distinguish the speaker. Elgin kept the highway.
It is my tires' salutation...
I grant indeed, that you will grant
The highway the right to travel
Through Elgin our city grand,
Instead of roads made out of gravel.
Some of the motor club's suggestions were farsighted. It called for a third downtown bridge in 1926 (the Highland Avenue span opened in 1940); a Highway 20 bypass in 1931 (completed in 1960); and the extension of Duncan Avenue to East Dundee in 1935 (opened in 1954). The Elgin Motor Club was dissolved in 1952, but drivers are still benefitting from its efforts in getting cars out of the mud and routing roads into and around the city.
One of Elgin's oldest institutions, the Young Men's Christian Association, was formed in 1866. Primarily religious in emphasis, it distributed tracts, sponsored outdoor preaching on Market (now Fountain) Square, organized prayer meetings, and promoted mission Sunday schools among those who didn't attend church. It was disbanded in 1873 and the books in its reading room were donated to the new public library. The present organization was established on September 26, 1882, with seven members. Early the next year, rented quarters provided a reading room, a game parlor, a secretary's office, and a small gymnasium for exercising. The Owl Club, whose members played cards as well as imbibed, was a tenant in the same building. When the Owls decided to sell their billiards table, the Y claimed a moral victory.
The Y led a precarious existence in its early years. At a meeting called in 1884 to consider dissolving the association, only seven members were present. The vote was a narrow four to three to continue operation. The general secretary left town suddenly in 1885, allegedly having kept money from several membership cards he had issued. It wasn't until E.C. "Bert" Carroll arrived as secretary in 1886 that the Y began to grow. A summer natatorium, equipped with 25 dressing rooms and a spring board, was erected on the Fox River. The parlor was furnished with a piano, organ, stereoscope, and various games. It became a meeting place for social events. Within two years under Carroll's active management, membership rose from 25 to more than 300.
The Association had the financial backing of George P. Lord, a philanthropist who was elected president in 1883 and continued in office for 23 years. In the fall of 1895, expanded quarters were found on the ground floor of the Marguerite Block, on the north side of Chicago Street just east of the bridge. There was space for a reading room with more than 600 volumes and a collection of fine paintings provided by Lord.
Of greater interest to the members was a larger gymnasium and the opportunity to play a new game. Basketball had been devised in 1891 by James A. Naismith, an instructor at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was introduced in Elgin at a state Y convention in 1893 in a game which allowed each team nine men on the floor.
In 1901 the Y purchased the Marguerite Block and two other building with which it connected. The expanded physical plant along the river made possible new activities. Bowling alleys were introduced in 1902. In 1907-1908 extensive improvements included a cement swimming pool; a new gym two stories in height; and a dormitory.
The Boys' Department organized graded gym classes, games, and outings. A camping program was established at Wauconda in Lake County in 1903. The cost for eleven days of swimming, boating, and baseball was $6.50, including wagon transportation to and from the site.
A permanent camp at Lake Beulah, near East Troy, Wisconsin, was donated to the Y in 1928 by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Edwards. The gift included matching funds for camp buildings. Camp Edwards is in deep woodlands, but an adjoining farm was deeded to the Y by Paula Wilke. The camp grew much of its food in the early days, and the boys were expected to work in the large garden. Today girl, as well as boys and their parents, come to the camp the year round, and it is used by School District U46 for an outdoor education program.
A big new $1.65 million building was opened on the northeast corner of Channing and Division Streets in 1961. The new Y contained a gym large enough to permit two basketball games to be played simultaneously; a swimming pool; two handball courts; a chapel; exercise rooms; and a banquet area. Increased population in the service area, which extends well beyond Elgin, led to the addition of an auxiliary gym and two handball courts in 1973. A west side building with a six-lane pool was completed at the cost of $1.3 million in 1977. It was named the Taylor YMCA Family Fitness Center in honor of Jack E. Taylor, who contributed more than $400,000 to its construction.
The YMCA has offered countless services to meet changing needs. There
have been swimming lessons and basketball tournaments; picnics and formal
banquets; travel programs; trips to amusement parks and baseball games;
Hi-Y, Indian Guides, and Indian Maiden activities. Outreach programs provided
ways to reach youngsters from first offenders to kids seeking a big brother.
For more than a century the Elgin Y has been a place to learn, have fun,
and grow in character and understanding.
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