Few businesses in Elgin have a longer and more documented history than undertaking. Those we now call funeral directors were originally carpenters and cabinetmakers. William S. Shaw , a carpenter, is believed to have made the coffin in 1837 for Mary Ann Kimball, the first settler to die in Elgin. Another carpenter who arrived the same year, Abel Walker, became sexton of the "Old Cem" on Channing Street and made most of the coffins prior to the Civil War.
In 1848 Walker built Elgin's first hearse. He also provided flat and raised-top coffins with or without glass, metallic cases, outside boxes, and a grave-digging service. The graves were dug by Patrick Daley, an Irish immigrant, who began his spade work on September 28, 1850, and continued this occupation for about 25 years.
How costly were the early funerals? One of the more expensive was that of James T. Gifford, the town's founder, who died in 1850. The coffin was $9; the outside box, $1; the grave digging, $1; and the use of Walker's hearse, $1.
After the Civil War, undertaking became an additional service of furniture stores employing cabinetmakers. Sam Wilder, proprietor of one of these combinations, advertised in 1866 "the largest and best stock of undertaker's material in the city" and "excellent hearses, always in readiness." Elgin's oldest existing funeral establishment, Wait-Ross-Allanson, traces its origin back to William T. Wait, who was at one time employed in Wilder's store and became a partner in his own business in 1877.
James A. Palmer, who arrived in Elgin in 1873, introduced several mortuary services. Although associated with furniture stores, he devoted his entire time to undertaking and for some time was the city's only embalmer. While his predecessors simply delivered a coffin to the deceased's home, leaving the "laying out" to the care of relatives and friends, Palmer not only prepared the body but also saw to all the arrangements, such as procuring flowers, engaging pallbearers, carriages, and music.
When Palmer retired in 1907, his then partner, Fred T. Norris, continued developing innovations. In 1915 Norris purchased a limousine hearse, the first in the city, and erected Elgin's first "funeral parlor" at 226 East Chicago Street. When expanded and remodeled in 1926, it was said to be the largest in Illinois. Later known as Norris Mortuary, in 1935 it was the first building in Elgin to be air-conditioned. Two trade publications, The Embalmers Monthly and Casket and Sunnyside, highlighted the event. The mortuary was gutted by fire in 1970.
Clarence A. Reber, who began working for the F. T. Norris Mortuary during his senior year at Elgin High, 1918-1919, was in the business for 70 years. His first assignment was driving a Model-T Ford ambulance delivering chairs and tables for social events and burial boxes to cemeteries. Beginning in 1925, after graduation from the Worsham College of Mortuary Science, he kept a record of the more than 6,000 embalmings he had performed.
Following the death of F. T. Norris in 1950, he was left an interest in the firm. With Russell Norris, a son of the deceased, he conducted the Norris-Reber Mortuary until 1962, when he established the Reber Mortuary Service. In 1968 he moved to the Schmidt Funeral Home, operating independently with Schmidt's facilities and equipment. He retired in1989.
Despite all the changes over the years, there has been one occupational constant. "Perhaps in all the varied walks of life," James A. Palmer explained more than a century ago, "there is none that requires in its follower a combination of gentleness, sympathy, feeling, and good taste more than in the business of an undertaker."
Coffin Hardware and Caskets
The bodies prepared by Elgin undertakers were often interred in Elgin-made caskets. The Elgin Silver Plate Company a producer of casket trimmings, was in full operation on the far west side by the end of 1892. The firm was given a site, an undisclosed cash bonus, and reimbursement for the cost of extending water mains out to Melrose Avenue and Carr Street. By 1899 the plant was so far behind in orders for coffin handles, decorative ornaments, and cornices that th e work force was kept busy until 9:00 p.m. The factory was doubled in size, making possible the addition of zinc liners to the product line.
Elgin Silver Plate was acquired in 1926 by a competitor, Western Casket Hardware, which had been established on the east side in 1903. Operations were consolidated in the plant of the latter firm. About two years later, Western began manufacturing metal caskets. These soon dominated the output, and the firm's name was changed to Elgin Metal Casket Company in 1939. Elgin produced quality caskets in steel, stainless steel, bronze, and copper, and in peak years shipped up to 70,000 throughout the country. Former President Calvin Coolidge is buried in one. The body of John F. Kennedy was transported from Dallas to Washington in an Elgin casket after his assassination in 1963. Purchased first by Simmons in 1968 and then by Gulf & Western in 1979, the business was moved to Indiana in 1982.
Old Cem and Bluff City
What was once a burial ground along Channing Street at the west end of Fulton Street is now the site of a school and its playing field. The cemetery was laid out by the town's founder, James T. Gifford, in an 1844 plat, and the first interments were received that year. It replaced the community's first cemetery atthe southwest corner of Division and Chapel Streets. The Channing Street cemetery held the remains of many of Elgin's early settlers. Gifford was buried there in 1850.
Originally five acres in area, the cemetery was expanded, mainly to the east, to about 17 acres. By the end of the 1880s, the city had spread around all sides of the grounds, and there was little room for more burials. A new cemetery was opened in 1889, and many remains were moved to this location. In 1898, there were only 29 burials in what became known as "Old Cem" and 119 removals. The last interment was in 1906.
As the years went by "Old Cem" became an eyesore, overgrown with moss and weeds. There was no provision for perpetual care in the sale of lots, and maintenance of the sunken graves was neglected when relatives died or moved away. Vandals overturned or broke many of the stones.
"Now that we have a new cemetery," the Daily Courier suggested as early as 1891, "it may be that we shall live to see the old burial ground transformed into a park with almost no vestige of its former use." Although the city encouraged removals, one lawyer maintained the city had no right to "coerce people into having the bones of loved ones ruthlessly shoveled into carts and dumped into new receptacles at Bluff City."
Ownership of the land was in question because the cemetery had been established prior to the forming of a municipal government. An additional problem was a clause in the deed to the oldest portion lying nearest to the Channing Street line. It provided that if the place were ever used for other than interment purposes, title would revert to the Gifford heirs.
The city financed the continuous removal work and provided new grave sites in Bluff City cemetery without cost. Finally, in 1945, the City Council declared, not without protest from many residents, that "Old Cem" was vacated for cemetery purposes, and that title rested with the city. The site was leased to the school district in 1947 for development as a recreation area. The district later assumed ownership in a trade with the city for Maroon Field and erected Channing Memorial School.
"Old Cem" once contained about 4,000 graves. At least one still remains, that of William Hackman, in the far southeast corner. It is a reminder, in the words of a memorial tablet erected by the Elgin Area Historical Society, that "Their Worldly Tasks Completed, Elgin's Pioneers Were Laid to Rest In This Hallowed Ground".
Bluff City Cemetery, the city's third, was opened September 8, 1889. The dedication ceremonies attracted a large crowd who arrived by horse drawn vehicles and a special Milwaukee Road train. City council members and other dignitaries sat on a temporary platform, and 15 members of the Watch Factory Band played. Mayor Arwin E. Price gave the dedication address.
The city had purchased the 107.8-acre Whitcomb farm on the Kane-Cook County line southeast of the city for $10,576.65. An initial 30 acres was developed for cemetery use, and a new road, Bluff City Boulevard, was laid out to the site. The first interment was September 4,1889, the remains of a small child brought from Channing Street. The lot cost $36.27; today's prices range from $375 to $495.
The first sexton at the new cemetery was Albert Marckhoff. A "keeper's" house was constructed in 1892 opposite the entrance of what is now the superintendent's office. The tornado of 1896 whipped through Bluff City, uprooting many trees and overturning several stones. The roof of the sexton's house was carried off, and the stone chimney was blown down, breaking in the side of the house. The Marckhoff family escaped unharmed, and so did Jim, the work horse. The barn was blown 60 feet and turned over, but Jim was found walking on the ceiling.
A Perpetual Care and Improvement Fund was established in 1914, when a board of cemetery managers was organized. Anyone could leave $100 or more for continuous grave maintenance. Perpetual care became mandatory in 1964.
Two of Bluff City's interesting monuments are among those brought from Channing. Near the southwest corner of Maple and Highland is an Italian marble statue of an angel bearing a cross. After it was placed on the Hendee-Brown plot, it was shipped to Paris for an exhibition at the expense of the Italian government. A stone facsimile of a log cabin marks the grave of pioneer Benjamin Burritt. The date of his arrival in the West, 1837, is carved above the doorway. It is east of the cemetery office on Pearl Avenue.
A Vermont granite memorial to James T. Gifford was unveiled in 1930. It stands just inside the west entrance and represents the settler leading his oxen. Plain, rough hewn stones bearing the names "Injun Par" and "Old Nokomis" designate the graves of Carl and Maude Parlasca, who made the Song of Hiawatha Pageant an Elgin institution.
Why the designation "Bluff City"? It was also once the name of a local baseball team, and the city's first daily newspaper. It was derived from the hillsides formed by the Fox River. Publishers of an 1875 Elgin history objected to its use, however, "Ours is not a 'bluff city. . . ." they pointed out. "We have no precipitous banks or hills, nor are our people rude, coarse or blustering in their manners."
From the time of its opening, burials in Bluff City were made without
regard to religion or race. The cemetery is a last resting place for the
Elgin's rich and poor, the prominent and little known, the givers and takers.
In life, some of them were associated with the places and events in this
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