Elgin's first park, originally called the Public Square, was laid out by the founder, James T. Gifford, in his 1844 addition. It was enlarged to the east in 1857-1858. Today Gifford Park is a focal point in the Elgin Historic District.
There have been many changes in its long history. Trees were planted and a wooden fence added in 1862. Twelve years later the old fence was removed, the grounds leveled to conform to the street grades, and a new iron fence put up. An intricate flower bed was developed in the early'80s. Elgin's streets were once lighted by electric arc lamps set on top of towers. One of these towers, 85 feet high, was located in Gifford Park, 18851904. A small band stand was, from 1887-1891, another addition. The park was landscaped with modern berms and provided with playground equipment in 1980.
Gifford Park has served as open space for generations of students. Across the way, at the northeast corner of DuPage and Chapel, the city's first public school was opened in 1848. The park was once the arena for snow ball fights between the Old Brick's boys and their sworn enemies from the nearby school on Geneva Street.
A high school was erected along DuPage Street, opposite the park, in 1883-1884. It was replaced by a modern building constructed in two stages, 1905-1906 and 1910-1911. Because of its proximity to Elgin High School, Gifford Park was long familiarly known as "high school park".
Surrounding the park are some of Elgin's more historic structures. Across Chapel Street once stood the Octagon, an eight-sided boarding house. It was replaced in 1900 by a large home for George Cook, son of the founder of the D. C. Cook Publishing Company, who had a turntable installed in the garage. At the southwest corner of Chapel and DuPage stands a Mansard style house that was once the residence of John Murphy, who invented the first successful motorized street sweeper.
Over the years the park has served more purposes than only a short cut for watch factory employees going to and from work. It was a circus ground where P.T. Barnum exhibited the famed midget, Tom Thumb. During the Presidential campaign of 1860, the Republicans held a huge rally in the park. The speakers were on two stands, one thundering forth praises of Abraham Lincoln in English and the other in German. When high school students went out on strike for three days in 1935, Gifford Park was the gathering place for their rallies. And in 1942 the park was the site of a huge pile of metal scrap collected during the Second World War.
Some events in Gifford Park were inexplicable. There was that warm evening in June, 1910, for example, when a little woman in white, shrouded in a white veil, made her appearance. The mysterious visitor sang one verse of "Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?" to every couple sitting in the park and then disappeared up DuPage Street.
In 1979, when property owners in the area set about the task of preserving and restoring this part of Elgin, they called their organization the Gifford Park Association. Three years later the Association held the first of its enormously successful house walks. Proceeds are used for restoration work. The large gazebo in the park was a joint project of the Gifford Park Association and the City of Elgin in 1990. Gifford's Public Square has had a new lease on life.
The Geneva Street Hollow
Elgin's first settlers would not recognize the contours of our urban landscape. Where there are now paved streets and buildings, creeks once meandered to the river. They were fed by numerous springs, one of them about 15 feet in area, which forced up sand and air bubbles. The low-lying land along what are now South Grove and North Grove Avenues was subject to annual flooding, and the Fox often lapped into Fountain Square.
Extensive fill has reduced the grade of the hills descending to the river, which in turn was narrowed as property owners along the banks enlarged their holdings. The city of Elgin contributed to this process by dumping all the refuse and scrapings from the streets in back of the old city hall which once stood on the present site of the former Spiess store. The depth of this fill in the city's center could be measured at a point just west of Brook Street where six sidewalks, one below the other, were found during an excavation.
One of the reminders of the city's early appearance is the Geneva Street Hollow. With the arrival of the watch factory, Elgin's vehicular traffic increased with its population. Wagons and carriages heading east from the business district had to descend into and climb out of a deep slough where Geneva Street crossed DuPage and Chicago Streets. After a rain, it became a huge mudhole and was often impassable. The obvious solution was to raise the level of the streets in this area, but adjacent lot owners, whose property would be far below the higher grade, and taxpayers, who balked at the expense, objected.
Elected to the city council in 1869, Alderman Sam Wilder successfully pushed for the improvement and was placed in charge of the project. The street grades were raised, but the Hollow remained. The second floor of the apartment building at 269-275 DuPage Street, for example, is at street level. The entrance to a house at 62 South Geneva is over a miniature bridge from the sidewalk to the second floor.
On the south side of Chicago Street between Geneva and Chapel are houses whose first floors are below the sidewalk. The depression can best be viewed from the sidewalk overlooking the vacant space between Numbers 3 11 and 317. Fencing was, and is, necessary to prevent unwary pedestrians from falling into the Hollow. But this didn't prevent injuries to several people when a wooden sidewalk built on st' Its along Geneva Street collapsed.
There were other problems before curbing and sewers were constructed. "The houses in the hollow back of the old Baptist Church (where the former Franklin School now stands) were in a lake up to the doorways," reported the Daily Courier in 1887.
The next year the Daily News observed: "The people who live in the 'Geneva Street Hollow are beginning to dig trenches and in other ways are trying to carry off the unnecessary water that fills up the low spot each year."
And what was the fate of Alderman Wilder, who brought all this progress and smoothed the roads to the east? He lost his seat on the council, suffered severe reverses in his business ventures, and left Elgin for Colorado.
The concrete flag on Walton Island
Islands in the Fox come and go. Goff's Island vanished when the river forming its eastern shore was filled. In early Elgin a small island, little more than a mud flat, above the Chicago Street bridge was a stopping place for small boys who waded out into the river to catch buffalo fish with their hands. East and west side boys often fought for its possession when it appeared during times of low water.
Today's downtown island is largely man-made. In 1931 the Elgin chapter of the Izaak Walton League conceived the idea of enlarging two small islands below the dam for use as a park. Permission was obtained from the State Division of Waterways and the War Department. Funds from the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid for most of the labor.
From 60 to a 100 men, unemployed during the Depression, worked at various times on the project during the years 1933 through 1937. Gravel dredged from the river bed built up the surface and expanded the area to roughly four acres-three on what was then designated Walton Island and one on North Island. They were joined by a timber bridge. Another foot bridge linked North Island with the mainland on the east bank.* A steel stairway provided access from the Chicago Street bridge. Trees and grass were planted, the shores were rip-rapped, bricks from Elgin which were laid to form pathways, and lagoons were stocked with goldfish from Lords Park. A circular stone "Jacob's Well" was part of the extensive masonry work which enhanced the landscaping. A painted concrete American flag, designed by sculptor Trygve Rovelstad, was placed on the north end. In 1943, after the Highland Avenue bridge was erected, another connecting stairway was built at the south end.
A visitor was impressed in the spring of 1938. "There were mothers with little children, who eagerly raced over the paths and back and forth on the bridges. There were elderly people quietly gazing out at the rushing river. Young people promenaded together. A few stretched themselves on the grass for a sunbath. Here and there a fisherman tossed a line into the stream. . ."
After the Second World War, the Island was neglected and vandalized. Nesting ducks were abused. Underbrush and weeds spread. Vagrants became a police problem after dark. The Island was frequently submerged in times of high water. The park was closed about 1951.
In 1962 the Island was rehabilitated and opened to the public but was closed again three years later. The Larkin High School Class of '69 sparked a drive to clean up and reopen the park and raised funds for a bridge to connect it with the newly completed Civic Center.
The bridge was an ecological experiment in recycling plastic to reduce weight without loss of strength. The floor consisted of chips from thousands of plastic bottles ground up by students in the plastic technology program at Elgin Community College. The bridge collapsed on November 29,1971, although the unique mixture of cement and plastic "sand" was not at fault, and was rebuilt the following year.
The island park is gradually disappearing and is much smaller in area than when it was completed. The long neck stretching south to the Chicago Street bridge has been reclaimed by the river. Strong currents caused by waters rushing over the dam have steadily eaten away at the northern tip. The concrete flag monument was washed out by high waters in 1970. Heavy rains and snow melt have eroded the land around the bridges.
When Walton Island was under construction it was considered to be the first step toward the beautification of the river's banks. The extension of the Fox River Trail, a biking and hiking pathway, along the east shore in 1992 has renewed interest in the park's preservation.
* The name of North or Northerly Island was dropped in 1938, and Walton Island became the designation for both islands.
When James T. Gifford arrived to found our town, South Grove Avenue was nothing but wooded lowland often under water from seasonal flooding of the river. The locality was considered miasmic and unhealthy. The street wasn't platted until 1860, and there were only scattered residences before the first watch factory building arose in 1866 at the National Street end. At one time, because it was relatively level in a city of hills, it was used for horse racing.
When first laid out, there was a crook in Prairie Street. North of this dead-end the road was called River Street. Efforts to connect and straighten the two roads were stymied by the opposition of property owners and two dwellings protruding on the proposed right-of-way. Finally, in 1873, the largest of these, a two-story brick building, was removed several yards to the west. At the time, it was considered quite an engineering feat.
Although homes and boarding houses, occupied chiefly by watch workers, soon dotted both sides of the street, it was never considered a prestigious residential area. The threat of flooding was a detriment. In 1881 some parts of Grove became impassable. Cellars were filled, and the contents of privies floated about on the surface of the water, polluting the air. Another flood occurred in 1887 when the Fox rose a full eight feet within a few hours. Basements on the west side of Grove were filled, and the street was covered with debris and ice. Houses were surrounded by a lake of muddy water.
Removing the crook at Prairie Street provided a main corridor between the watch factory and Fountain Square. Horse drawn cars began running along this artery in 1878. Electrically powered trolleys were introduced in 1890, and the cars were parked at a four-track barn on the west side of the street.
Because the street car lines were converged at the square, many watch workers walked downtown to catch a ride at quitting time. This outpouring of throngs of pedestrians was a local phenomenon that astounded visitors to the city. The heavy vehicular and foot traffic on South Grove led to the opening of Elgin's first self-service supermarket at 159 South Grove. This A & P store, with more than 8,000 feet of floor space, was then the city's largest. Patrons were instructed in the use of newfangled rubber-tired carts to carry out their selections.
One sign of the growing popularity of the automobile was the rise of gas stations. The first on South Grove was a Standard Oil outlet and warehouse, erected in 1915, at the southwest corner of the Lake Street intersection. Herman Bunge's big Sinclair station opened near the National Street intersection in 1920.
Grove was the city's first street to be paved in asphalt, and in 1922 electric street lights were installed from the Square to National Street. Mayor Price described Grove Avenue as Elgin's "great white way." The next year removal of trees and shrubbery from the tree banks was started. "Grove Avenue is no longer a residential street," the superintendent of streets announced, "It's not going to be long before business houses will be located along the entire street."
South Grove, a new designation when River Street became North Grove, emerged as automobile row. The area was attached to the central business district, yet provided more space for display and servicing than downtown locations. Among the now extinct makes once sold on the street were the Star, Locomobile, Whippet, Oakland, Hupmobile, Essex, and Hudson.
More Chevrolets were traded on South Grove than any other make. The dealership, under a succession of owners' names, included the Jenny Motor Company, L-G Chevrolet, Lord & Graf, Lord Motor Company, Brotzman & Melms, Brotzman & Biggers, and Jerry Biggers Chevrolet. Orlo Salisbury was a South Grove dealer for more than fifty years. Starting out with the Elgin Six in 1917, he later sold the Overland, Willys-Knight, and Reo. He became the DeSoto-Plymouth representative in 1933, and switched to Lincoln-Mercury in 1960.
Used car sales lots proliferated in the 1930s. The largest of these, independent of the new car dealerships, was the Elgin Auto Mart at 155 South Grove. The proprietor was Earl W. Muntz. He later became renowned on the West Coast as the "Madman" who was at the mercy of his customers. Newsweek magazine described him as "the master used car salesman of all time." And in the early 1940s, he was the subject of many jokes on the Jack Benny and Bob Hope radio shows for his attention getting advertising tactics.
Beginning with Ford in 1971 and ending with Cadillac Oldsmobile in 1984, new car dealers abandoned South Grove Avenue. Most of them are now located along a strip on Highway 19 at the eastern edge of the city, where more space for high volume sales is available.
Beginning in 1985 the city of Elgin began purchasing land on both sides of South Grove for redevelopment. By 1992 the city had acquired all property from the Fox River east to the low North Western tracks and from Prairie south to National Street.
Long before watches became commonplace, people discovered the time of day by looking at an outdoor tower clock. If they couldn't see the dial, the clock was often equipped with a bell to strike the hours.
Elgin's first "town clock" was purchased at city expense in 1867 for $550. It was installed in the tower of the privately owned woolen factory on the east bank of the river, just north of the Chicago Street bridge. According to the contract specifications, it had four dials, one on each side of the square tower. The dials were six feet in diameter. The hands were gold-plated and the gears were strong enough to lift a hammer of 25 pounds to strike a bell.
Although it was "warranteed to keep first-class time," it usually was correct only twice in a 24 hour period. "For several days the striking arrangement was alarmingly off," reported the weekly Advocate in 1883. "Saturday evening, for instance, at 9 O'clock it struck 1 and woke a startled policeman who was dozing on a corner. When he awoke he made three or four saloons bar their doors before he could be persuaded that it was not closing time."
When anew city hall was completed in 1893, a Howard clock and bell was installed in its Gothic tower. They were the gift of Mayor William Grote and cost about $1,200. The dials, six feet in diameter, were illuminated. The bell weighed 1,000 pounds and struck on the hour. This second attempt at municipal timekeeping was not much of an improvement over the first. Although "warranteed to keep time without varying ten seconds in a year," the clock ceased running whenever the coil congealed in cold weather.
The repeated failures of the city hall clock aroused the ire of Dick Lowrie, an editorial writer for the Daily News, whose office was diagonally across the street. When the clock stopped or showed a wrong time, a caustic paragraph would appear in the newspaper. Asked the reason for what became a personal crusade, Lowrie maintained the clock was a symbol of civic ineptitude: "Laying aside the number of people who are inconvenienced when it isn't running properly, did you ever look at it this way? If our public servants are not taken to task for not properly performing a little thing like making a clock keep time, they may get the idea that they can neglect things a whole lot more important to the city."
When the city hall was razed in 1969, the clock was preserved and later mounted in the south end of the Fountain Square Plaza Mail when it opened in 1976. It is currently pursuing its old ways in this new location. Only three of the four dials come close to the correct time.
The first clock in the watch factory was installed in the tower of the building constructed in 1874. In 1905 it was replaced as a community landmark by the clock installed in the tower of the new plant. Produced by the Seth Thomas Clock Company at a cost of $7,000, it was equipped with a huge bell that tolled the opening, noon, and closing hours of the factory. Mounted in the 144-foot tower, the dials, each 14-1/2 feet in diameter, were visible for long distances. The minute hands were more than seven feet long, and the Roman numerals were three feet high. It kept remarkably accurate time until the wires to the winding mechanism were cut in 1965, and the works were shipped to a museum in Denver. In 1969 the clock was acquired by a museum in Rockford. The works and bell were returned to Elgin in 1989 but haven't been restored.
Outdoor clocks, although not positioned in towers, give us the time today. There are three clocks wl th a total of five dials in Clock Tower Plaza, so-called because it occupies the watch factory site. Motorists and pedestrians downtown can consult the time-and-temperature clocks provided by the NBD Bank (for those heading east) and First Federal Savings and Loan (for those westbound). When the Home National Bank, "The Bank with the Clock", opened its new quarters in what is now called the Tower Building in 1929, a clock at the east corner was a prominent feature. It is currently inoperative.
Despite several sensational raids on stills and speakeasies, Prohibition was never effectively enforced locally. The Depression enabled wets to argue that legalizing liquor would create much-needed jobs. Nine days after his inauguration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended, and Congress speedily enacted, a law to permit beer with an alcoholic content of not more than 3.2 percent. This legislation became effective on April 7, 1933, although the constitutional question was not tested prior to the adoption of the Repeal Amendment later that year.
The Elgin Ministerial Association warned that "any ordinance attempting to regulate or legalize the sale of beer in the city of Elgin is unwarranted," because the new federal and state laws did not repeal the local option decision favored by a majority of Elgin voters in 1914. Protestors maintained that only another referendum, not simply action by the City Council, could remove the local ban on the sale of liquor.
The City Council nevertheless authorized tavern licenses. One of the first applicants, on April 8, 1933, was William A. (Smitty) Schmitz, proprietor of a lunch room at 412 Bluff City Boulevard. More than 50years later, Smitty was still taking his turn behind the bar n Elgin's oldest tavern. Over the years, two sons and four grandsons have assisted in the family business.
Beer was immediately available for Smitty's Tavern back in 1933, despite Prohibition, from bootleg breweries-now legitimate-in Chicago. It was probably better made, even if it had less kick in it. Before long, Smitty was ordering 120 full barrels weekly and selling 26 ounces for 10 cents in glass mugs. Eager customers overflowed the premises and quaffed their purchases out on the sidewalk and in cars parked along the street. Others came to fill up pails and jugs.
A popular attraction in the 1930s, besides the liquid refreshments, was the Friday fish fry. Some factories would call in a hundred orders at noon. Smitty was up at five a.m. to prepare 300 pounds of fish, 100 pounds of potatoes, and 60 heads of cabbage, and didn't finish cleaning up until two a.m. the next day.
Smitty's was a stopping place for workers in south end industrial plants. The oldest of these is Elgin Corrugated Box, which was making butter tubs when Smitty was employed there in the 1920s. Smitty's outlasted Collingbourne Thread Mills, Elgin Metal Casket, McGraw Electric, and the watch factory's Plant No. 2. Since 1991 Smitty's has changed hands and is now known at Southside Annie's, and patrons today include the employees from Elgin Sweeper, Lee Wards, and Shakeproof Ann Castle and Gene Booker, the new proprietors, know most of them by name.
The Post Office
The opening of a post office was once the first official recognition of a settlement's existence. Udina, Fayville, Gray Willow, and Silver Glen were post offices in this vicinity that have vanished. Elgin's post office has grown with the community.
James T. Gifford's initial application for a post office for his little town of Elgin was denied because it was too near the post office in McClure's Grove, three miles north on the way to Dundee. Two months later, the decision was reversed, and Gifford was appointed postmaster on July 19, 1837. Beginning in 1839, Elgin was placed on a mail route that ran once a week from Chicago to Rockford to Galena by stage coach.
Before the first stamps were issued in 1847, postage was charged according to the distance traveled. It cost six cents to send a single sheet of paper weighing less than one ounce 30 miles or less; the rate rose to 25 cents if the distance was more than 400 miles. The receiver of the letter, not the sender, paid the postage. The net receipts at Elgin for the earliest available fiscal year, 1841, were $263.45 of which Gifford received $135.57.
The post office originally located in Gifford's log cabin, has occupied several sites in the business district. It was in attorney Isaac G. Wilson's law office when he was in charge. Once it was housed in Martin Straussel's little hotel on Center Street. Before carrier service was started, it was necessary to call for letters at the post office, which became a kind of community meeting place. Each family rented a box. In the late 1870s, there were 1,400 glass boxes and 156 lock boxes. General delivery, then as now, was for the traveling public.
The first quarters designed for postal use were opened in 1884 on the first floor of the Hunter and Hawkins building on the northeast corner of Grove Avenue and DuPage Street. In 1902, the federal government completed a new building on Spring Street at what is now Carleton Rogers Park. That building had to be increased by an addition in 1910. The present building, the first to be erected in the Civic Center, was opened in 1966.
Less than two years after the David C. Cook Publishing Company moved to Elgin in 1882, the local post office was ranked third-largest in the state by weight of mail handled. In 1888, when more than 1. 1 million pounds of second-class mail (newspapers and periodicals) were mailed, Elgin was 24th among all American cities in this category. To relieve the space problem in 1895, a postal employee was stationed at Cook's to cancel the stamps.
The postmastership once was a political appointment, and the Post Office Department was the heart of the federal government's patronage system. This explains why six Elgin postmaster were politically active attorneys and four were newspaper editors. One of the latter ' A.J. Joslyn, noted that the job would make up losses from non-paying subscribers to his Weekly Gazette.
When Grover Cleveland returned to the White House in 1892, five local candidates vied for the postmastership. The Every Saturday, a weekly newspaper, reviewed their qualifications with tongue in cheek. There apparently was some misunderstanding among three of the hopefuls. One had "Senator Palmer's unqualified promise"; another "banked especially on Senator Palmer's absolute promise"; and a third relied with confidence on "the positive promise of Senator Palmer."
There were 262 Illinois postmasterships at the disposal of President Woodrow Wilson after his election in 1912. The Elgin job, which paid $3,600, was one of the biggest plums. Harry D. Hemmens, who had received his appointment during a Republican administration, expected to be quickly removed. Hernmens remained in office 15 months after his term had lapsed, because of a disagreement among Democrats over the naming of his successor.
Over the years, the local post office has added services: money orders in 1864; international money orders in 187 1; home delivery in 1884; special delivery in 1885; parcel post in 1913; and express mail in 1977. For a number of years beginning in 1911, a postal savings bank was a safe place to deposit money.
Political appointments ceased when the present postal service began operations as an independent agency in 1971, and George Beckwith became the first merit-based postmaster the following year.
The downtown Elgin Community College building-often referred to as the Sears building-was built in 1908. It first was called the Henrietta because of the name carved in stone on the pediment above the main entrance, in memory of Henrietta Hackerodt Burritt. She was the first wife of Peter Burritt, whose extensive real estate holdings in Elgin were inherited by Rebecca McBride Burritt Gilbert, his second wife. It was Rebecca who named the building for Henrietta.
The Henrietta was constructed for leasing to Swan's Department store, which occupied the building for 30 years. Theodore F. Swan began his Elgin mercantile career with- a grocery store on River Street (North Grove Avenue) in 1867. By 1880 he had added dry goods and shoes in larger quarters on South Grove. In 1893 he moved his growing business to the Spurling Block (now the Commerce Building) on the northwest corner of DuPage and Spring Streets.
Swan was the first Elgin merchant to introduce the "cash railway system" to send money from any part of the store to the cashier. He also was the first to abandon evening hours in the interest of his employees. Unlike many other stores of the time, Swan's terms were strictly cash. Carrie Jacobs Bond, the composer of "I Love You Truly", "Just a Wearying for You", and "The End of a Perfect Day", plugged sheet music sales at Swan's in the early '90s.
Swan's move across the street to the Henrietta gave his operation a
main floor of 25,000 square feet. The basement was initially used for storage.
The second floor at one time housed the Elks Club. When Theodore F. Swan
died in 1922, the business was carried on by his son, Theodore 1. Swan.
The store closed in 1938.
The Henrietta was then occupied by Sears, Roebuck & Company, which had arrived in Elgin ten years earlier. In 1941 the basement and second-floor selling areas were expanded, and a parking lot to accommodate 85 cars was developed. This compelled the removal of six small houses owned by Gilbert along the Fulton Street frontage. The Sears automotive wing was added in 1948.
The Henrietta block, was erected for $60,000. Its renovations for college use cost more than $2 million.
Neither a charitable institution nor a nursing home, Oak Crest Residence at 204 South State Street, Elgin, occupies a unique place in our community as a privately operated, nonprofit retirement center. During an eastern trip, Mrs. George M. (Julie) Peck, wife of an Elgin department store owner, visited a home for the elderly sponsored by Presbyterians in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Impressed by its facilities, she wanted Elgin to have a similar residence. Discussing the idea with Mr. and Mrs. George P. Lord, the city's leading philanthropists, she was delighted to learn that Mary Lord's will already included a bequest for that purpose.
Original plans called for management by the First Congregational Church, in which the Pecks and Lords were active members. At a reorganization meeting in 1904, however, other churches were represented, and a new charter was obtained providing for non-denominational sponsorship by the Old People's Home Association of Elgin. (This name was changed to Oak Crest Residence in 1959.)
George P. Lord donated his family homestead on a seven acre site on the crest of the South State Street hill. Street cars running along the front of the property provided easy access to all parts of the city. Across the street was a small grove of oak trees sloping down to the North Western right of way. Lordgave a portion of this tract, to be named Central Park, to the city to provide the projected home's residents with an unobstructed view of the river and the east side.
In addition to the site, her husband gave 50 shares of Diamond Match Company and 90 shares of First National Bank stock. Mary Lord, who died April, 1905, left a store building and lot on Douglas Avenue to the association. Altogether the Lords gave in cash and property more than three-fourths of the original endowment and building fund.
The former Lord home was razed, and construction of a new building was begun in the summer of 1905. The architect was W. Wright Abell. George P. Lord, chairman of the building committee, died at the age of 87, a few days before the home formally opened in September, 1906.
About 20 acres of land in the rear, called the Lord's Pasture, was then unsubdivided. A garden supplied residents with seasonal fresh vegetables and a surplus for canning. A cow and chickens to provide milk and eggs were acquired in the spring of 1907. The physical plant has been enlarged and modernized over the years. A 1914 addition provided a connecting link between the main building and the dining room and kitchen in the rear. A two-story western extension to the south wing in 1928 included seven bedrooms and a large lounge.
Fire, dreaded by all homes for seniors, broke out about 7 a.m. on December 22, 1919, when residents were assembling for breakfast. Starting around the chimney directly In the center of the main structure, it spread rapidly over the entire roof and completely gutted the second floor. Much of the building was damaged by water used in fighting the blaze. The 41 women residents all escaped injury and were cared for in private homes until the home was rebuilt in 1920 and a complete set of fire escapes was added. Later a sprinkler system was installed.
Over the years, Oak Crest has had hundreds of residents who brought with them memories filled with the events of long and useful lives. Mary Briggs, an army nurse during the Civil War, was once a resident. So was James Fairchild, a watch factory foreman who helped organize Elgin's first YMCA in 1867. Another resident, Lois Hillis, was an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, who had visited her during an illness. Her local music school, with classes in note reading, began the serious study of music in Elgin.
Oak Crest, is now about the same age as some of its current residents. Like them it can look back on its achievements, take pride in its experiences, and find ever new ways to adapt to changes.
The observatory on the northeast corner of Watch and Raymond Streets is a reminder of the days when Elgin was the home of the world's largest watch manufacturing complex. Opened in 1910, this building housed the instruments that timed millions of fine jeweled movements. Since Elgin was the only watch manufacturer in America which maintained its own observatory, the slogan- "Timed to the Stars"-was featured in its advertising.
The telescope was set exactly north and south, as all time observations were made on the meridian. Comparing the time by fixed stars required skill and practice on the part of the observer. With his eye on the transit, he noted the coincidence of the star with the hair line in the telescope by pressing a button which recorded on a chronograph. An instrument for testing the operator corrected for human error. Ten or more stars were observed on clear nights.
In every room of the nearby factory where movements were regulated was a sounding device telling the seconds. Each of these factory instruments was wired directly to the mean time clock in the observatory.
Elgin was the only watch manufacturer in America which maintained its own observatory, and the slogan-"Timed to the Stars"- was featured in its advertising. Star-fixed time started the New York Central's Twentieth Century train on its initial 18-hour run from Chicago to New York in 1932. At Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in both 1933 and 1934, gates were opened daily by a time impulse from the observatory.
The premier quality Lord and Lady Elgin movements were once sold with an observatory certificate testifying tho their precision in timekeeping. Switchboard operators at the main plant gave the correct Elgin observatory time for an average of more than 500 callers daily from 1938 to 1955.
Meteorological instruments were installed because weather conditions were believed to have some effect on watch factory operations. Temperatures and rainfall at this station were recorded for the U.S. Weather Bureau from 1910 to 1926.
The observatory is a good example of how a historic structure can be put to contemporary use. In1959 the land and building were deeded for educational purposes to Elgin School District U-46. In 1963 the district added a planetarium chamber, special lighting, a concealed sound system, and 65 reclining seats.
The basement of this addition has a project room used for grinding mirrors. While the original portion of the observatory and its equipment remain intact, the building is now used to help students learn astronomic concepts important to the space age.
The Shoe Factory
An aging factory building on the northeast corner of Congdon and Dundee Avenues, now more than a century old, has survived damage by two tornadoes and outlasted a succession of tenants. It was completed in 1891 for George W. Ludlow & Company, which removed its shoe making operations from Chicago. The firm was drawn here by an offer of land and building from the Elgin Improvement Company, which planned to recoup this gift by selling lots in the neighboring area to employees. Ludlow was to be given 20 percent interest in the property for each consecutive year it employed 350.
By August, 1891, 370 employees were working ten hours a day, six days a week, making women's shoes. Goat skins were used for the uppers and cattle hides for the soles. The plant was unable to fill its orders for two busy years, and then went under in the Panic of '93. William Grote and A. B. Church, who headed the Elgin Improvement Company, obtained the controlling interest and ran the plant on a limited scale.
In 1896 the plant began producing shoes under contract with the Selz-Schwab & Company of Chicago. The following year Selz-Schwab bought the factory, the fifth in its chain of plants. Its operations were frequently interrupted by strikes and/or lockouts. The plant didn't reach capacity until the 'twenties, when more than 300 employees were producing about 2,000 pairs of women's shoes daily.The shoe factory was in the path of the Palm Sunday tornado of 1920 and was the hardest hit of any Elgin industrial plant. The roof was lifted off, and the second story lay in a heap on the first story ceiling. The sprinkler system let go with the impact and flooded machinery and goods in process of completion. Leather skins were blown over a wide area.
More damaging than the tornado was the Depression. Selz-Schwab ceased production in 1929. The vacated building was occupied in 1930 by the B-G Garment Company founded by Barney Gisnet of Chicago. The firm, which made dresses, was brought to Elgin through the efforts of the Association of Commerce. The job openings were eagerly sought as unemployment increased. Lucky applicants started at 25 cents per hour. During peak seasons, the B-G, known familiarly as the Barney Google, employed as many as 200, but the usual payroll listed 125-150. Most of the workers were women, and they were members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Production was temporarily interrupted by a tornado in 1933 which blew down the top floor on the west side.
The B-G was not the only occupant of the former shoe factory in the '30s. Tiny Tim, a miniature golf course, opened in the west wing of the first floor in 1930. The set-up was 450 feet long and equipped with pipes and posts for hazards. A district highway shop of the State of Illinois employed painters and construction men to produce and maintain signs for 1,500 miles of roads in eight northern counties. Libby Neon Products, which designed neon lighting and signs, became a tenant in 1938.
The Brody Company, a major manufacturer of Women's coats under the brand names "Sycamore" and "Town and Country" succeeded the B-G in 1952 and hired some of its employees. Brody's subsequently turned from manufacturing to retailing quality clothing for both men and women. Brody's closed in 1990, but the landmark building remains.
Douglas Avenue, one of Elgin's oldest thoroughfares, has been in the process of development and redevelopment for more than a century. Originally called Mill Street when it was included in James T. Gifford's plat of 1843, it was renamed for Senator Stephen A. Douglas.
Over the years, the lower end became commercialized, and the stretch above Kimball Street, known as "upper Douglas," developed into a residential area. Along the tree-lined street are small cottages and mansions, old flats and modern apartments, and an ethnic and socio-economic mix that mirrors the city.
The first family to live on what would become Douglas Avenue were pioneer settlers from New Hampshire. Phinehas and Relief Kimball and their daughter, Mary Ann, arrived in June, 1835. Their log cabin near the northwest corner of what is now the Kimball-Douglas intersection was erected before that of the town founder. P. J. Kimball, Jr., who had been tailoring in Chicago, later joined his parents and sister. The Kimball claim on the east side encompassed much of the land between what are now Division Street, Jefferson Avenue, Dundee Avenue, and the river. North of Jefferson was the Lovell farm.
In 1854, P. J. Kimball, Jr. subdivided the blocks from Kimball north to Jefferson into large lots. However the section was slow to develop. In 1860 there were less than a dozen houses on this part of the street. One of them, 251 Douglas Avenue, is still standing. With. the increase in population after the arrival of the watch factory, more houses appeared. Their occupants by 1870 included Colonel John S. Wilcox, an attorney who commanded the 52nd Illinois during the Civil War; Leopold Adler, one of whose sons would one day donate the Adler Planetarium to the city of Chicago; a physician and a dentist. In 1872, residents respectfully requested that the city council establish a sidewalk grade, and three years later they asked for gas lamps as far north as Summit Street.
Between 1880 and 1893, the city's population more than doubled, and construction moved north onto the former Lovell farm. By the time the building boom came to a halt during the panic of '93, many vacant lots had disappeared, and dwellings had crossed Lincoln Avenue.
Because land values were rising, apartments replaced some of the older dwellings. The first of these was erected south of the Adler home, at 300-302, in 1885, and the largest, the red-brick flats, at 269-27 1, in 1892.The move northward was given impetus by public transportation. The roadway is unusually wide, 42 feet from curb to curb, room for Bruce Payne's horse car line. His tracks extended to Slade in 188 1. When electric streetcars began running in 1890, they went up Douglas to Lovell Street where the track branched to the east and west.
By 1884, Douglas was being referred to in the weekly Advocate as "Elgin's fashionable avenue". Later it would be referred to as the "Gold Coast". The society paper, the Every Saturday, reported in 1886 that Miss Hattie Pease, who would one day bequeath the funds for the Hemmens Building, "will entertain a company of friends at a dancing party Tuesday evening at her charming home on Douglas Avenue."
Some leading Elgin citizens had a Douglas address. In the home at 258 lived Henry Lee Borden, superintendent of the condensed milk factory and subsequent president of the Home National Bank. The home at 400, razed for a luxury apartment in 1929, was the home of Mayor William Grote, who brought a number of industries to Elgin. August Scheele, whose big grocery on lower Douglas set a standard for quality and cleanliness, must have really liked the street. When he first arrived as an immigrant from Germany, he boarded with the Grotes. In 1909 the Scheeles moved into a newly built home at 819. They later lived at 802, and then moved to 850.
William P. Topping, production superintendent of the D.C. Cook Publishing Company, resided at 705; Ben Pearsall, a leader in the oleomargarine industry, lived at 808; two presidents of the Illinois Watch Case Company, once the city's second largest manufacturer, lived at 940, a home with 173 windows. The home at 931 was the residence of A. C. Rinehimer of the architectural woodwork firm, and another Rinehimer, C.A., lived at 1025.
The Retans, father and son, lived at the southwest corner of the Seneca intersection for more than 60 years. Not long after arriving in Elgin in 1857, Ebenezer Retan had moved to the site of what is now 420. In 1909-10 the old homestead was replaced by the palatial residence of his son, Allen.
Most of the homes in the 800 and 900 block between the Lincoln and Cooper crossings were erected after the turn of the century and before World War L By the end of the 1920s, construction had reached River Bluff Road. There has been no new housing construction on the street since the two-unit apartment at 650-52 was erected in 1955.
A walk or a bicycle ride will reward the observant. At 514, the home saloon keeper Chris Lay bought in 1882, wrought iron cresting adorns not only the rooftop but also the side bays. The homes at 251 and 653 retain the once fashionable wrought iron fences.
Note the sunburst motif in both the porch and attic gables at 456, built for Colonel Wilcox to replace this earlier home on this site. Don't miss the decorated porch gable on 736. At 705, built for a Scheele manager in 1904, the picket fence is reconstructed, but solar heating has been added to the roof. The hitching posts on the tree bank at 465, 630, 903, and 911 are reminders of days when vehicles were motorless.
Cars have replaced carriages, barns have been converted into garages, and the once graveled roadway has been paved since 1904. A new generation along the avenue has been restoring and preserving the fine old places.
The Academy is Elgin's oldest private school; St. John's and St. Mary's are the oldest parochial schools. When St. John's Lutheran school first opened its doors in 1865, the classes were taught by the church's pastors. After a two-year suspension, it was re-opened in 1876 in the old frame church on the corner of Spring and Division, the congregation having erected a new building. The first lay teacher was called in 1878.
German immigration reached flood tide in the 1880s, and to provide for the increased enrollment, a new two-room school was erected in 1884. "Many of the recent arrivals do not understand English until it is taught in this school," reported the Daily Courier in 1885, and the newspaper reminded taxpayers of the money it was saving them. The German language was used in the morning session and English in the afternoon. Since 1921 all subjects have been taught in the English language.
A new two-story brick school building, finished in the same style as the church, was dedicated in 1915. There were two classrooms downstairs and one classroom and a large meeting hall upstairs. The present school, opened in 1956, contains nine separate classrooms and provides schooling from kindergarten through the eighth grade. In educating and training its students, St. John's is continuously building the church of tomorrow.
Villa Olivia Country Club is named for Olivia Erbstein, who attended St. Mary's Catholic School. So did James M. Roche, who became president and chief executive officer of General Motors Corporation. Another former student is Dave Casper, an outstanding pass receiver for seven seasons in the National Football League.
St. Mary's was established as an academy for young ladies of all denominations in 1880. Its faculty, Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, aimed to mold minds "in the way of rectitude and virtue, thus developing the moral and intellectual qualities simultaneously." At the first public exercises in 1881, the theme of Miranda Dougherty's essay had a contemporary ring. Woman is no longer inferior to man, she declared, and could aspire to high honors in mathematics and science.
The first three graduates in 1883 included Anna Lynch, the noted portrait and miniature painter. Boys up to the age of 13 were admitted beginning in 1886. The high school department issued diplomas for about 20 years.
The school was first located on Villa Street. A new building nearer the mother church was erected in 1924-25 at the southeast corner of South Gifford and Fulton Streets. Parishoners had to stand guard at the construction site to protect the school from Ku Flux Klan vandalism. The old building, still standing, was sold to the Turners.
The first Catholic parochial school in this vicinity, St. Mary's in its early days attracted students from a wide geographic area as well as from Elgin and South Elgin. Irish surnames once dominated the class lists; now there are many Hispanic students. Whatever their ethnic background, religious and lay teachers have striven to provide them with the understandings needed by good Christians and good citizens.
Before public high schools were generally established in the United States, secondary education was provided by private academies. Elgin, Illinois, was a raw western settlement of about 150 residents when its Academy was chartered by the state legislature in 1839. The school was a dream far in advance of the community's ability to make a reality. Fifteen years passed before a reorganized board of trustees under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Tefft began raising funds for a building by selling stock at $50 per share.
In 1855 the board purchased a hill site along Park Street, where the foundation of a defunct Northern Illinois College had been started by the Free Will Baptists in 1848. Within its walls Allan Pinkerton, the Dundee cooper who would become a famed private detective, secretly met one of the counterfeiters he was seeking to bring to justice.
Joshua Wilbur and Edwin F. Reeves, local craftsmen, completed this building in the Greek Revival style originally planned by J. Quigley, an architect in Buffalo, New York. It was an imposing three story structure of brick and stone. The columned entrance was capped by a triangular pediment, and the gabled roof was surmounted by a domed bell tower. The general design was similar to the third state capitol at Vandalia and the first capitol at Springfield.
One provision of the amended charter was unusual for its day. It opened the school "to all religious denominations, and the profession of no particular religious faiths shall be required, either of officers or pupils." Principal Robert Blenkiron, a graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge, and three assistants opened the Academy doors on December 1, 1856. Names of the first students--60 gentlemen and 47 ladies-were inscribed on the fly leaf of a Bible they presented to the school.
The east wing of the first floor of Old Main, as the building is now known, was occupied by the principal and his family. The west wing was used as a student dormitory. Classes were held on the second floor, and the third floor remained unfinished. Students studied at night by candles or fluid lamps. Water was drawn from a deep well outside, and heat was supplied by stoves connected to four chimneys.
During the early years no diplomas were issued. Students attended one, two, or three years. In 1860 the Academy was offering instruction in arithmetic, spelling, reading, geography, algebra, geometry, Latin, and philosophy. Besides these studies, students had the advantages of a free series of lectures and membership in a Literary Society. Principal Clark Braden that year sounded an often repeated theme of private schools:"There are peculiar advantages afforded to the student in such a school. He is in classes of his own advancement, and has far more time devoted to him than he could possibly have in a common school, even if the teacher be equally as good. There is more emulation and better discipline, from the better arrangement and contact with better class of minds."
This advertisement, published by the Academy in 1880, shows Old Main's chimneys.
Tuition was $6.75, $8.75, and $10.75 per term of 16 weeks depending upon the courses selected, with extra charges for modem languages, instrumental and vocal music, penmanship, and drawing.
Heavily in debt from its inception because the sale of stock was insufficient to pay the costs of construction, the Academy also lacked the financial support and drawing power of a church affiliation. During the Civil War income from tuition dropped with the enlistment of students for military service. Desperate for funds in 1865, the school appealed to the city government to buy 80 shares. At a referendum on the question, the voters rejected the proposal by a vote of 111 to 45.
The building and grounds were then advertised for sale to pay off a mortgage of $3,000. After the auctioneer made his announcement of the terms, Dr. Joseph Tefft, president of the board of trustees, stepped forward. "It is a blame shame and disgrace to the citizens of Elgin to permit this sale,"he said, "and I will be the one to redeem it." His words inspired additional contributions, and the foreclosure was called off.
The Academy's fortunes revived under the principalship of Amos G. Sears, 1870-1881, who organized a curriculum to prepare students for "College, Teaching, Business, and Life." Attendance peaked at close to 300, and the burden of debt was removed. Students were drawn from the more affluent city households, but most of them came from rural areas where there was no public high school. In the early days these country students, who swelled the enrollment after the fall harvest, often arrived on horseback or rode on the milk wagons headed for the Borden condenser or the local butter factory. In one instance, the conveyance was an ox cart. A few boarded in town with relatives and friends. In 1879-80 South Elgin sent ten students and Bartlett, eight. In the fall of 1882 about 50 students arrived on the morning trains.
Three of the Academy's most noted nineteenth century alumni were among these rural residents. Melvin Fraser (1858-1936), a member of the Class of '78, was a Presbyterian missionary in West Africa who credited the Greek he learned at the Academy for its assistance in devising a written language for one of the tribes in his charge . Katherine Sharp (18651914), '80, was the head librarian and first director of the school of library science at the University of Illinois. Herbert McCornack (1860-1944),'81, from a Rutland Township family, was the inventor of the Sharples cream separator and the Surge milking machine.
The Academy went into another period of decline after the opening of a large new building for Elgin High School in 1884. During one of several financial crises, the Academy could not pay its principal a fixed salary. Instead, he was allowed to keep what was left of the tuition revenue after employing his own assistants.
"Is the Academy a real need of our situation and our times@ asked the Advocate in 1887. "Unquestionably it has served a great and useful purpose the past 30 years ... But within, say the last decade of years, the public schools have been greatly improved. . ..In the face of these improvements the question recurs to the academy, is it now needed?".
One response of the Academy was an attempt to broaden its offerings by the establishment of a manual training program. Mrs. Lucy Lovell provided funds for Lovell Hall, a three-story stone and brick building opened in 1888. The foundry and blacksmith shop were located on the ground floor, a machine room on the second floor, and a wood shop on the third floor.
In the early 1890s, city water was introduced at Old Main, fire escapes were provided, and the building was wired for electricity and piped for steam heating.
The Academy's fortunes have resembled a silent movie serial called "The Perils of Pauline." Each episode would end with the heroine in dire straits, only to be rescued-somewhat miraculously-in the next installment. When trustees scraped up $4,000 to keep the school going in 1902 , the Advocate reprised an old theme: "Elgin Academy has weathered the worst storm in the history of its existence and has survived the ordeal."Funds were so low in 1911 that teachers could not be assured of contracts for the coming year. A fund raising drive brought in pledges of more than $40,000. Once more the Academy was saved in the nick of time, only to be hit by fire. Lightning struck the bell tower of Old Main on the night of August 17, 19 11, and within minutes the familiar dome was a mass of flames. Before fire fighters arrived, the roof and third floor were blazing. Damage from water equaled the destruction by fire. The reconstruction substituted a flat roof for the gabled roof, thereby erasing the integrity of the original Greek Revival style.
In the spring of 1914 Horace Mann Buckley, the school's principal, reviewed the Academy's travails in a letter to the Daily News:: "The marvel is that the Academy has lived over half a century, when death was expected at the close of practically every year. Uncertainty of existence has caused the school to lose students, prestige, money through gifts and bequests, and to fail in gaining recognition."
Plans were made to raise $65,000. "If the drive is not successful," warned William Grote, president of the board of trustees, "the Academy will be closed at the end of the present year, never to open again." The goal was reached on June 10, 1915. It was the largest sum, up to that time, ever raised by public subscription in Elgin. Students celebrated with a bonfire, the ringing of the school bell, fireworks, cheers, and songs. "It will never be necessary to go begging for the Academy again," Grote prophesied. Little did he know.
Major contributors to this drive were Judge Nathaniel C. Sears and his wife, the former Laura Davidson. The son of a former Academy principal, be had lived for a time with his parents in Old Main. She was the granddaughter of James T. Gifford, the founder of Elgin, and an Academy alumna. This childless couple adopted the school they shared in common.
Sears, who became president of the board of trustees in 1920, believed the Academy could survive only by attracting students who could pay a high tuition and that dormitories were necessary to widen the geographic area from which these students would come. The Judge found the leader he needed in Karl J. Stouffer, whose 16 years as Dean was marked by an expanded campus, increased enrollment, and improved scholastic standards.
A series of gifts by Judge and Mrs. Sears transformed the physical plant. New buildings included a gymnasium, a dean's residence, and dormitories. An athletic field was developed along Franklin Boulevard near Lords Park. The Laura Davidson Sears Academy of Fine Arts was opened in 1924 to house the paintings the couple had collected, A bequest in the Judge's will provided funds to erect Sears Hall, a large dormitory at the north end of the campus, in 1940.
Buoyed by the legacies of Judge and Mrs. Sears, the Academy managed to stay afloat during the Depression. To attract more students, the Elgin Junior College was added to the school's program in 1933. Initially organized in 1914, it had been abandoned in 1927. Its revival enabled students who couldn't afford to leave home to continue their education. After men began entering military service, it was abandoned in 1943.
A threatened collapse in the late 1960s was averted by the sale of most of the art collection. By 1974, however, the money problem had surfaced again. "Unless we can raise the necessary funds we will probably have to close down the school," warned the president of the board of trustees. It was during this period that attention was directed to Old Main.
With the opening of the Mary Peck Edwards Hall in 1969, Old Main was vacated. Condemned as unsafe and a growing campus eyesore, the Academy had neither the funds to bring it up to the fire code nor to demolish it. The American Revolution Bicentennial came to the rescue in 1976 when its restoration became the community's project to celebrate the occasion. The building was deeded to the city and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. More than $150,000 was raised in a fund drive. Additional financing came from three state grants and from the insurance payments after a fire in 1978 caused major damage to the interior. These sources paid for the exterior restoration, completed in 1979-1980 at a cost of $302,000.
Although the original chimneys were not replaced, the gabled roof was reproduced and a new plastic cupola similar to the old bell dome was lifted into place. Paint was removed to reveal the brick, and new windows were installed.
Old Main was leased by the city to the Elgin Area Historical Society,
which raised most of the money for remodeling the interior into a museum.
Much of the labor was donated by members of the Society and other organizations,
such as the Gifford Park Association and the Golden 'K' Kiwanis Club. Federal
block grant money, $110,000, paid for the elevator and interior fire stairway
required if the building was to be used by the public. The first floor
was completed in 1987, the second in 1991, and the third in 1992. Old Main
has once again become a community landmark.
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