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Chapter 23


The Automatics

Elgin's fine-jeweled watches were machine made. An expert watchmaker, working by band, might make a watch in three weeks. The factory on National Street as early as 1869 was turning out one every 3-V2 days for every worker in the establishment, including clerks. Eventually the output reached about one movement per employee per day.

A watch is a precision instrument that requires close tolerances to secure proper fit of minute parts. Elgin at first maintained tolerances of V2,500th of an inch and later reduced them to V10,000th of an inch. A machine took the place of a tool guided by a worker. Because of the watch's small components, cams and levers were more accurate than the band and eye of the operator. The inanimate punches, dies, and lathes mocked the craftsman's skills acquired in years of apprenticeship.

The intricate machines also reduced labor costs. In 1891 one of the automatics replaced 25 employees; another did the work of 50. The total work force nevertheless increased because lower prices increased sales.

In 1895 a Daily News reporter penned this description of an automatic screw machine's operations producing screws from a wire coil: "The back cutter notches and pulls forward the wire to the desired length, and the front cutter ... trims the rest down until it is the proper size for the thread, which is cut by a die which advances with a circular motion, then reverses the motion and withdraws to give place to a chuck that receives the screw and carries it back to a saw which cuts the slot in the head.

"This operation leaves a burr at the end of the slot ... which is removed by another and final cutter to which it is carried by the same indefatigable chuck, whose last office is to release the screw at the mouth of a tube ... through which it is shot by a blast of air into a bottle of oil. Some idea of the size of these screws may possibly be obtained from the fact that one pound of the raw material, i.e., the wire, makes 80,000 of the smallest screws."

One visitor in 1914 was impressed by "all the wonderful machines which are more than human." He watched one that it contains 15,000 parts, is about as high as a man and about four times as large other ways. You see the work go into the open mouth, but what it does inside is a mystery; it eats the pieces as fast as a man can shovel them in, but when they come out at the other end it has done the work of 70 men. It doesn't get tired as other men would. If anything should happen, it stops and rings a tiny electric bell and tells the attendant what's the matter."

This was an Elgin automatic designed by William A. Gabriel and his associates that was constructed after eight years of experimental work. It drilled, countersunk, and tapped the lower plate of the watch, completing its task every 15 seconds. It revolved the plate to 24 separate stations. Glass enclosed, it was run in an oil spray. Every too] was connected by an electric wire to a circuit breaker.

A machine designed and built in 1919 was used to weigh and sort tiny watch balance screws-among the smallest then known-into families of different weight down to one-millionth of an ounce. Exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, it excited much interest among viewers. It was donated to the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Science and Technology in 1964.

Elgin is no longer a Watch City. Gone are the clock tower and bell, the bustling pay days, the annual employee picnics, the music of Professor Hecker's band, the shop talk, and the National House. The contribution of the Elgin National Watch Company to the advancement of automated production endures.

House of Corrections

Known locally as the "house of correction", it was a reformatory of sorts, but it wasn't a penal institution. The Illinois Creamery Company purchased rancid and stale butter from cold storage warehouses, commission men, and creameries, and reworked it for a second chance in the market.

The firm, owned by Chicagoans, began operating in the former chewing gum factory, now a Sherman Hospital parking lot, in 1896. The following year a new plant was erected in the southeast end below the Fox River Switch, where the Chicago & North Western and Soo Line tracks cross.

Old butter was collected in barrels and shipped to Elgin. This was somewhat embarrassing because the city was then renowned as a center of premium quality butter production. After separators removed the foreign matter, it was heated by steam coils, reduced to oil, and purified with chemicals. It was then solidified, mixed with fresh milk, and churned. The finished product was molded into pound squares and tubs. The law provided that "renovated" butter had to be marked in full-faced letters one half inch square on each package.

Dallas Monroe, the local superintendent, was the developer of the process. At its peak output, Illinois Creamery employed more than 30 workers and turned out four to five million pounds annually. The firm claimed to be the largest producer of renovated butter in the country. In 1906 Illinois Creamery was purchased by the American Farm Products Company, but the growing competition of margarine soon ended the business. It was not renovated, and the house of correction was purchased by Borden's in 1911 for use as a shipping station.

Malted Milk

Elgin once produced malted milk in large quantities at a plant that stood at the southwest corner of North State Street and Highland Avenue. Richard Hetherington and William J. Meadows, brothers-in-law, purchased a patent application for a food concentrate called milkine. It consisted of 50 percent cow's milk, 22 percent malted barley, 22 percent flour, five percent beef and one percent lime and salt. They began production in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1894, then moved to Elgin in 1897. A corporation, the Elgin Milkine Company, was formed.

According to its advertisements, hot or cold water added to the concentrate made a "most delicious beverage, supplying to the system all the various elements of nutrition which nature requires for man's perfect physical condition." It was said to be a perfect health food, deliciously palatable, highly nutritious, easily digested, readily assimilated, compact and convenient.

The business grew slowly because of litigation for patent infringement brought by a strong competitor, the Horlick Malted Milk Company of Racine, Wisconsin. When the Elgin Milkine Company was sold to the Borden Condensed Milk Company in 1903, there were only seven hands employed at its old packing plant at Union and West Chicago streets. Hetherington moved to Borden's New York offices. Meadows remained in Elgin in charge of production.

Beef was eliminated from the formula, and with the aid of Borden's larger capital and distribution system, sales of Meadow brand malted milk rapidly increased. In 1911-12 a big new plant, was erected to expand production capacity. Beginning with World War 1, when the business was declared an essential industry, and continuing through the "chocolate malted" craze of the '20s, the operation worked around the clock, seven days a week. Employment rose to 85 and weekly output reached 125,000 pounds.

Barley malt and wheat flour were mixed into a mash, converting the starch into a sugar. This was put through a filtering process, milk was added, and the mixture was placed in finishing pans, where steam heat removed moisture. The remaining dry and porous caked substance was ground into powder and shipped out in bottles ' cans, and barrels.

Elgin's role as a manufacturer of malted milk ended in 1936 when the equipment was moved to a Borden plant in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Voting Machines

In 1909 the Commercial Club, predecessor of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce, interested Robert E. Petrie in locating his proposed voting machine plant in Elgin. A machine was placed on display in the Spurling Block, now the Commerce Building, for prospective Elgin investors to examine. When the International Voting Machine Company of Elgin was incorporated the following spring, local stockholders comprised a majority of its board of directors. Petrie, from Chicago, was chosen President. The firm was capitalized for $1 million. Hopes ran high for the new industry. More than 20 states had authorized the use of voting machines, and investors dreamed of thousands of precincts as a potential market.

International was one of three unsuccessful bidders for the million dollar order" of the Cook County Board of Election Commissioners, but there were other opportunities. Or were there? By 1912, with orders slow in coming, the firm's stockholders were reasoning that the city of Elgin ought to be among its customers. How would it look if the city of its manufacture were not using the International? The commission form of government then prevailing in Elgin allowed voters to propose an ordinance by petition and adopt or reject it by majority vote. The firm prodded a petition to the City Council and campaigned in its behalf. The Daily Courier editorialized: "The sentiment appears to be that this is a local industry which should be supported now that it is located here, and if the placing of an order by Elgin means that this industry will be put on its feet and given an opportunity to become of value to the city that it will be money well spent."

The proposal to purchase the machines carried by a vote of 2,943 to 1,211. Ten machines were ordered at a total cost of $7,500. They were delivered and accepted in June, 1913.

Voting was accomplished by turning a key, and each machine provided keys for at least 40 candidates in each of eight parties. There were 40 additional keys for independent candidates and spaces for eight referendum questions. The machine weighed about 400 pounds.

The first opportunity to try the new method of voting came in the October, 1913, light plant bond referendum, but a new complication arose. Women were now permitted to vote in local elections, but the state law passed since the purchase of the machines stipulated that separate counts must be provided for male and female voters. This would require 20 machines, two for each precinct, and the city had only ten. The machines were not used.

In fact, they were never used. In 1914 Petrie was unseated as the president of International by directors alarmed at the slow progress of the firm. The only machines actually sold were the ten gathering dust in the Elgin City Hall. Then the whole enterprise collapsed with a court ruling that the International and other voting machines with patents pending since 1895 were infringing on a prior patent. In May, 1916, all of International's shop equipment, tools, and inventory were loaded into several freight cars and sent to a firm in Newark, New Jersey, holding the original patent. The stockholders received nothing, since the sale price was equal only to the company's debts. The city was left with two tons of machines that were never used.

Miniature Trains

Remember the "tiny train" you rode when a kid at an amusement park? Chances are the engine was gasoline or electric powered, but in days gone by they were little steamers, and some of them were made in Elgin.

Harry E. Stephens, who had been a watch factory machinist and a builder of custom-made bicycles, designed a locomotive in a home workshop. It was placed in use at Chicago's White City, a south side amusement park, in 1905, the year he formed a partnership with Ashley J. Abell. Their firm, the International Miniature Railway Company, produced a 12-inch gauge engine that could haul as many as six cars holding 24 adults or 48 children. Including the tender, it was about eight feet long. International also made the cars. A complete train of engine and six cars, exclusive of track, cost about $1,200.

Stephens was in charge of production, while Abell managed the business end and supervised installation. Because this was an Elgin industry, the proprietors could not resist advertising that the engine's parts were interchangeable and "as perfect in construction as a watch." Many of the parts were purchased from suppliers, including the boilers. Starting out in a rented portion of a building on the corner of Douglas and North, they moved up to larger quarters on River Street (North Grove) late in 1906. In addition to building the trains, the firm was equipped to provide landscapes and scenery.

"The Miniature Railway you have in our park was surely the best drawing card during the season," wrote one of their customers in 1906. "The engine, a perfect miniature of the modern passenger engine, was the hit of Detroit. The children went wild over it, the farmers were amazed, and the wise people said, 'that's the limit'."

By the time Stephens and Abell dissolved their partnership early in 1908, International Miniature had constructed more than 20 "American Type" six-horse-power engines. They were in use at amusement parks from San Francisco to Boston.

Continuing on his own, Stephens brought out an auto ride of eight cars for installation at Riverview Park in Chicago. Each automobile was equipped with a half-horsepower electric motor and obtained its power from a third rail by means of a trolley concealed beneath the car. On "A Trip Through the Mountain", the cars passed through tunnels, up hills and through valleys on a narrow gauge track. Production ended in 1910.

Coffee Mills

In 1889 the C. H. Woodruff foundry, which had been making school furniture almost exclusively, introduced the Elgin National coffee mill for groceries, hotels, and restaurants. Sales were brisk, and the number of employees rose from 40 to 65 within a year.

The first mills were painted black or maroon with gilt striping. The hoppers were either black or polished nickel. The grinding burrs were steel. The two large turning wheels were adapted for use by either hand or motor power.

Heavy pig iron was unloaded from a railroad side track at the North State Street plant and taken to the cupola in an elevator. The molten metal was poured into sand molds. The castings which emerged were then placed in rattling machines which cleared away the hardened sand. After the rough edges were ground off, the castings were bored and the parts assembled. The last stages in the manufacturing process were painting and japanning.

Elgin National mills were later made in both counter top and floor models and were finished in red, blue, and gold bronze colors. The largest was 68-1/2 inches high, had wheels 34 inches in diameter, and weighed 365 pounds. It could hold up to nine pounds for grinding. The smallest, for household use, was only about a foot high and weighed 20 pounds.

Before production ended in 1917, when a fire destroyed the molds, coffee mill wheels were used by Elgin boys on the pushmobile and coaster cars they built during the years of the Elgin Road Races. The Elgin Nationals are now highly prized by antique collectors and can be seen as period pieces in many historical exhibits. One way of determining the age of an Elgin made mill is the name of the manufacturer on the wheel. The C. H. Woodruff Company did not become Woodruff & Edwards until 1900.

Chewing Gum

Over the years Elgin's industries turned out everything from kerosene cans, condensed milk, opera house seats, windmills, pianos, speedometers, malted milk to shoes. Among this varied output was chewing gum.

Joseph Vollor, a Civil War veteran, started up production in the spring of 1875 in a building near the intersection of Dexter Street and Douglas Avenue. Hailing its arrival, the weekly Aduocate proclaimed that the gum "will afford happiness to hundreds of thousands of youngsters and bring fame to Elgin when found sticking to door easings, floors, chairs, and bedposts throughout the continent."

Initial annual production of about 11 million sticks eventually expanded to more than 30 million pieces requiring the efforts of three dozen employees. The gum was made from Maine spruce and the juice of the Mexican sapota tree, sweetened by sugar, and flavored by oil extracts.

Vollor acquired a gum factory in Chicago for a time, relocating its operations in a building on Channing Street. Later he consolidated both plants in a former shoe factory on Slade Avenue, just east of Prospect Street. The Channing plant was later remodeled into a brick flat still standing at 169 South Channing.

The firm specialized in pictorial gum. Sometimes, as in 1884, the pictures were of leading contenders for the White House. Brand names included "Grasshopper," "Elgin Heart," and "Elgin Pride."

Vollor went bankrupt in 1890. The trouble seemed to have been too heavy an investment in the pictures and cards that were sold with the gum. With a large inventory on hand, it was difficult to work them off when styles changed. The plant in the north end was condemned as a menace to the neighborhood and a fire hazard in 1926. It was razed in 1929.


The growing scarcity of energy producing resources has focused attention on other sources of power, such as the sun or the wind. Elgin once produced thousands of windmills for farms all over the United States and even the world. An Elgin soldier, serving in North Africa during the Second World War, discovered an Elgin mill pumping water in a desert area.

John Spencer Adams, a watch factory mechanic, began experimenting with rotary motion windmills in 1879. He incorporated the National Windmill & Pump Company, but apparently ran into patent infringement problems with a Beloit, Wisconsin, firm and didn't begin production before turning his attention to are light towers.

William D. Nichols began the manufacture of power mills of his own invention in Chicago in 1866, subsequently moving to Batavia. After the Challenge Mill Company absorbed his interest, he came to Elgin in 1883 and entered a partnership with John M. Murphy. Their plant was on River Street. Charles H. Geister, a local manufacturer of farm implements, joined them the following year. Their mill was called the Centennial, but the firm was in the hands of a receiver by 1887.

Nichols turned over his patents and factory to the newly organized Elgin Wind Power & Pump Company headed by George M. Peck. By 1895, when the plant was moved to North State Street, up to 50 mills and towers were shipped weekly. The power mills had wheels up to 20 feet in diameter. Steel fans were replacing the wood wheels. The corporate name was changed to the Elgin Windmill Company in 1925.

Two of the Elgin models, the Centennial and the Hummer, were vaneless. In 1906 Gilbert Snow, the company's plant manager and designer, received a patent on a self-oiler for the Little Giant that required oil changes only once a year instead of a weekly lubrication. The Wonder, its main shaft and crank gears operating in a bath of oil, was introduced in 1912 and widely distributed. Other models were called the Terrible Swede, the Lady Elgin, the Mogul, the Whizz, and the, Flying Dutchman. The New Elgin was low priced and popular during the Depression years.

Due to variable wind conditions, windmills were not always a dependable source of power. Given a steady wind velocity of 15 miles per hour, however, a 12-foot Elgin wheel could lift 640 gallons of water per hour from a depth of 100 feet.

Rural electrification and the farm depression of the '20s brought a lingering death to the local windmill business. The addition of beacon lights and tank towers to the product line was of little avail. In 1929, the last profitable year, 1,592 mills and 707 towers were sold; in 1932, only 288 mills and 60 towers. The Woodruff & Edwards foundry purchased Elgin Windmill in 1943, and mill production ceased about 1947 or 1948.

Butter Tubs

According to an old American saying, born of a competitive economy, a business goes from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. Established by a grandfather who came up the hard way, it is carried on by a dutiful son who wears a suit and tie, and then declines with a grandson who has other interests.

There are of course exceptions to this progression. One of them is the Elgin Corrugated Box Company, which has been headed by four generations of the Schmidt family. One reason is that no "instant vice presidencies" were created for the sons, grandsons, and great grandson of the first president, each of whom had to don a shop apron.

The business began years ago, when Elgin was the center of the Midwest dairy industry The surrounding rural area was dotted with hundreds of cows and scores of little creameries which processed their milk into butter and cheese. The Board of Trade, a local commodity exchange, established prices for these products over much of the cou itry, and local industries supplied dairymen with apparatus and containers.

Wooden tubs were used by dairymen to ship their butter to market. Retailers scooped out the butter in portions of one pound or less for consumers. The tubs were as much a fixture in the old general store as the coffee mill.

The largest of Elgin's butter tub and cheese box plants was that of Delmont E. Wood and W. W. Sherwin.  Nineteen coopers at Wood & Sherwin's went out on strike in March, 1886. It was a bitter dispute that suspended operations, and when they were started up again with new employees, those who remained on strike were without jobs. Thirteen of them, including sons of Caspar Schmidt, organized the Elgin Co-operative Butter Tub Company by selling 800 shares at $ 10 each. Schmidt, a Germanborn proprietor of a barrel shop, was chosen president. The company leased a frame building along the west side mill race and began production on April 30, 1886.

The new firm, owned by the employees and customers, was no sooner launched than it was hit by a disastrous fire on August 22, 1886. Destroyed with the plant were about 700 finished tubs and a great deal of stock-hoops, bottoms and covers besides the newly purchased machinery. Incendiarism was suspected because rumors had been circulating that "the boys would be burned out."

Starting all over again, Elgin Co-operative was soon confronted with a legal problem. Wood and Sherwin had merged their operation with the Creamery Package Manufacturing Company of Chicago in 1890. This firm had brought suit against Elgin Co-operative in 1887 for patent infringement, and the dispute was litigated for years until it was finally decided in favor of the defendants nearly a decade later.

With the expansion of the dairy industry, there was enough demand for two local producers. By the end of 1890, Elgin Cooperative was turning out about 1,000 tubs and cheese boxes daily and was straining the plant's capacity.

A new three-story and basement brick building on North State Street was occupied early in 1892. Fire resistant, it was equipped with improved drying kilns, exhaust fans, a power elevator, and a Milwaukee Road siding. Steam engines were available to supplement the water power. Storage was provided for 50 carloads of stock in addition to a warehouse with a capacity of 25 carloads.

The cooperative form was abandoned in 1891, when the business was incorporated by the Schmidts as the Elgin Butter Tub Company with capital stock of $ 100,000. It has remained a family-owned, closed corporation.

Although a three-story warehouse was added in 1899, the company cut loose from the mill race and moved to a new plant constructed on the east side near the Fox River Switch in 190405. The new site provided room for an efficient one-story plant and railroad sidings on both the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago & North Western. A mammoth warehouse for inventory and raw material storage, 200 feet in length and 160 feet wide, was erected in 1907. At the time daily capacity exceeded 10,000 tubs. More than 200 workers were employed.

At its peak of production in the mid-twenties, annual output approximated two million tubs which carried about 100 million pounds of butter from producer to consumer. The principal market was in the Midwest dairy states. "Schmidtubs," as they were known in the trade, were made of white ash stock, much of it from the company3s own timber holdings in Louisiana. They were made in ten, 20, 25; 30) 40 and 63-pound sizes, about go percent in the largest size. No nails were used in their construction, although brads were used in sewing the rim around the cover. The accurately planed and jointed staves were compressed together, with either steel or wood hoops holding the container in rigid form. All of the specialized automatic machinery was designed and fabricated by the company's own engineers.

When solid fiber and corrugated cartons began replacing tubs as a means of packaging butter, a few machines were installed about 1940 to print and cut corrugated sheets. Each year the volume of fiberboard increased and that of tubs declined. The last Schmidtub was produced in 1945. After the purchase of a corrugator, the first Elgin-made complete carton was ready for shipment to the Playskool Manufacturing Company on June 4, 1946, and the firm's name was changed to the Elgin Corrugated Box Company.


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