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Elgin: An American History - Table of Contents


This key wind, key set pocket watch in a coin silver case is one of more than fifty million manufactured in Elgin beginning in 1867. John Wesley Powell carried an Elgin during his explorations of the Colorado River, and so did Clyde Barrow when he and Bonnie Parker were riddled to death with gunfire by lawmen in 1934.

0, have you heard the story
The Western papers tell,
How quickly Elgin watches
When made, began to sell?1

Chapter III. Watches, Milk and Butter

A new America moved to the pounding of machines-machines in Elgin that made watches, canned milk, packed com, and churned butter. Steam engines joined water as a source of power, and smoke stacks towered over a more crowded urban landscape. Elgin became-in the slang of the day-a wide-awake, bustling, go-ahead town. Local businessmen challenged the North Western's rail monopoly, secured the location of a state asylum, and broke the control of Chicago commissionmen over cheese and butter prices. The name "Elgin" gained a wide reputation with the sale of the city's products throughout the country. And when a new street was laid out in 1870 it was aptly called Enterprise.

1. Fine Jeweled Movements

Watches were handcrafted until Aaron Dennison in 1850 set up the first American factory capable of mass production. Standardization of sizes made possible the interchangeability of parts, freeing watch owners from the necessity of returning broken timepieces to the original maker for repair. This method of manufacture required a heavy investment in precision machinery. Before the first Elgin watch began ticking, about two hundred fifty thousand dollars in capital funds had been spent, and the company was in financial jeopardy. It was saved by large purchases of bonds, later converted into stock, by Martin Ryerson and Matthew Laffin, wealthy Chicagoans. The Laflin family would be represented on the board of directors for more than seventy Years by four successive generations.

Work on the permanent National Street factory began early in the spring of 1865. This plant consisted of a three-story and basement building with a two-story and basement wing extending west to the river, and a two-story and basement wing, extending south of the main center. A one-story dial room was detached from the main building on the east. Other structures included a one-story engine and boiler house to provide power and steam heat, a gas works for lighting, a blacksmith shop, and a hundred foot-tall smokestack. The buildings were all of light brick with limestone trimmings and metal and slate roofs. The total floor area comprised about 23,000 square feet, to which another 8,000 square feet was added when the east wing was erected in 1868. Capable of indefinite extension, it was the nucleus of what would grow to be the world's largest watch manufacturing complex.

Once production facilities were under way, the company turned to the problem of housing the skilled workmen arriving from the East. In 1866 it purchased the equivalent of a city block bounded by National and Raymond streets, Gifford Place, and the North Western right of way. On the portion facing Raymond Street were erected five one-story, four-room cottages, identical in design, to house management officials until they had built homes of their own. A description of these cottages provides some indication of Elgin's housing at that time. The dwellings included two bedrooms, ten feet square, and a parlor and dining room, each ten by twelve feet. Beneath was a half basement which served as a fruit or cold storage cellar and a coal bin. Cooking was done on a coal stove, which also furnished heat for the house. Water was obtained from a well at the rear of the houses and had to be carried in. When the supervisors had moved into their own homes, the company rented them to other employees at ten dollars per month.

Across the street from the factory, the company in 1867 completed a large brick boarding house, three stories and attic, topped by a French roof and dormer windows. The building, erected at a cost of ten thousand dollars, accommodated single employees and contained a few suites of rooms for families. Expanded over the years, the National House would be "home" for thousands of watch factory workers. On the acre lots given them by the company, the Seven Stars built some of the city's finest residences. On the rise to the east of the factory, which became known as Watch Hill, Charles Moseley's spacious three-story home contained a large ballroom on the third floor, from whose windows guests could see as far south as Clintonville.

The big watch factory after the expansions made between 1879 and 1883. By the end of the '80s, some 2,700 employees were turning out 1,650 fine jeweled movements daily.

Though the factory wasn't finished, the machinery department moved in on January 1, 1866, and the others followed on the first of June. Here in the first watch factory west of the Alleghenies, the pioneer Elgin movement took shape. It was an eighteen-size (one and 23/30 inches in diameter), fifteen-jewel, full plate with straight-line escapement. This was the first quick-train American watch, changing the balance wheel vibrations from fourteen thousand to eighteen thousand vibrations per hour. This permitted use of a balance wheel smaller in diameter and lighter in weight and allowed a weaker and longer main spring, which reduced friction. Named the "B. W. Raymond', after the company's first president, it later became the renowned Elgin railroad watch. It was not until April 1, 1867, after thorough testing, that the B. W. Raymond models were sent out to jewelers for casing. Five additional models were introduced in 1868. All of these early movements were key winds. The company did not issue its first stem winder, a remodeled B. W. Raymond, until June 1873.

Public acceptance of the National Watch Company's product was immediate. The factory turned out eighteen thousand movements in 1867 and 26,000 in 1868. Early in 1870 525 employees were making 130 movements per day. A New York office had been opened the previous year to challenge Waltham in the East. By April 1, 1872, the company had placed on the market more than 125,000 movements. Customers had begun asking for the watch made in Elgin, despite efforts to popularize the name "National," which was used on all the dials. On May 12, 1874, the directors bowed to the public preference and prefixed "Elgin" to the official name of the firm.

A cash dividend of five percent of the par value of one thousand dollars was paid to stockholders on February 1, 1872, an occasion for much comment, since it was the first time an American watch firm had paid money to its original investors. Previous stock dividends, bond conversions, and new issues by then had swelled the total number of outstanding shares to 884. There were 101 recipients of the dividend, the great majority of them Chicago residents. More than a fifth of the stock was now owned by members of the Laflin and Ryerson families.

The company had a remarkable continuity of management. There were only three presidents and three plant superintendents during the first sixty years. Benjamin W. Raymond, the first president, was succeeded in 1867 by Thomas M. Avery, who had a lumber business in Chicago. This he relinquished in 1880 to devote his entire attention to watches until his death in 1898. The first local superintendent, Charles S. Moseley, left the firm in 1872 after a dispute with the local business manager, George P. Lord, over lines of authority. He was replaced by George Hunter, who served in that capacity for thirty years. While working at Waltham, Hunter had assisted Ambrose Webster, a pioneer in the introduction of automatic machinery.

Growth in sales required expansion of the plant. In 1870 the south wing was extended into a two-story addition. In 1871 a new engine house was erected, and in the spring of 1873, the dial room was enlarged. In August 1873, work commenced on new front buildings consisting of three stories and a basement, with two front wings and a rear and connecting wing. The wings and connector were two stories and basement. The addition increased the production area by 38,000 square feet. It was practically a reproduction of the main structure of the original building, except that the central executive area was larger and equipped with a bell tower. The principal buildings now formed a letter "H."

In 1874 the engine house was again rebuilt with a one-story boiler house. Two chimney stacks were raised. One was one hundred forty-four feet high, and replaced the original boiler stack. The other stack, for the dial furnaces, was one hundred feet high.

The Panic of '73 was not without its local effects. Late that year, wages were generally cut twenty percent. No dividends were paid from 1873 to 1879. In the spring of 1876, the company made sweeping reductions in the price of all grades of movement. The B. W. Raymond, for example, was reduced from $67.50 list to $39.75. The minimum price of an Elgin watch to a retailer was lowered to less than six dollars. The new prices, far below cost despite the wage reduction, resulted in losses, and the company had to borrow $200,000. But the gamble paid off, the increased volume of sales making possible economies of scale that eventually lowered costs. The introduction of the "popular price" policy made Elgin a major competitor of the American Watch Company at Waltham. It also ended dominance of the industry by the Swiss, who previously had taken the supremacy from the English.

The plant was so busy meeting the demand of the home market that a London office, which had been opened in 1874, was Closed, and the company withdrew from the foreign trade. Some watches had already found their way to Moscow. For a time in 1876, employees were asked to start at 6:30 a.m. and leave at 7 p.m. in the evening to catch up with the orders. Late in 1879, the factory was making 500 movements daily and was still 100,000 to 125,000 behind in orders.

Elgin watches were sold through wholesalers, who called on retail jewelers. The only direct representatives of the company on the road were goodwill men, known as missionaries, who visited retailers to talk about the product. The actual sales were always made by agents of the wholesalers. The company made movements only. Local jewelers cased each watch according to the customer's taste and purse. The company advertised through circulars, almanacs, pictorial engravings, and newspapers. The cover of an 1871 almanac displayed a cartoon figure of a winged Father Time in short pants holding an Elgin watch in one hand and a scythe in the other. On the ground was a broken hour glass. This was the basis for a subsequent design later used as the company's trademark.

The success of the Elgin venture prompted the formation of competitors elsewhere in the country. Eight rival firms were started in Illinois alone between 1869 and 1885-two in Chicago and the others in Aurora, Freeport, Rock Island, Peoria, Springfield and Rockford-but only two, the Rockford Watch Company and the Illinois Watch Company of Springfield, were relatively enduring. Three of the Seven Stars with wanderlust-John K. Bigelow, Otis Hoyt, and Charles E. Mason-were to serve as superintendents of the Springfield concern. Competition in the industry's early days was intense. Edward H. Perry, an Elgin draftsman, was discharged in 1874 for copying company drawings at his home. Soon afterwards, when he started the Adams & Perry Watch Company at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, his purpose became apparent.

The popular price policy sparked an expansion that continued into the '80's and early '90's. Employees numbered 1, 100 in May 1880, when daily production was five hundred movements. By 1888, estimated daily output of fine jeweled movements was sixteen hundred at Elgin, twelve hundred at Waltham, four hundred fifty at the Illinois Watch Company in Springfield, and three hundred at the Hampden plant in Canton, Ohio. An enlarged plant was necessary. During the years 1879 through 1883, more than half a million dollars was spent in doubling capacity. The addition of small towers extended the three-story front. Three-story wings on the east and south were erected, and connectors ran from the center of the complex-the original building -to join the new wings. With the addition of a third story to the central connector, the total floor area for manufacturing purposes was about 175,000 square feet, not including the boiler and engine house, furnace rooms, or any detached buildings. In 1889, an electric light generating plant was installed in a building erected for that purpose.

Father Time replaces his hour glass with a watch in this early version of the Elgin National Watch Company trademark.

To provide quarters for some of the expanded work force, the National House was enlarged with a four-story wing facing south on National Street. The remodeled boarding house opened in 1881 under the management of Carlos H. Smith, the company's cashier. Another wing, facing west along the North Western's right of way, and a two-story building for laundry and servants' quarters, was completed in 1883. The National House then had one hundred fifty lodging rooms and a dining hall capable of serving five hundred at the same time. There was a billiard and smoking room for men and a parlor and library for all. Weekly board and lodging shared with a roommate was four dollars for men and three dollars for women. Meals for non-boarders were at correspondingly low rates.

Productivity - output divided by input of labor - climbed about one-third between 1880 and 1891. One reason was the improvement in methods. Watch dials provide an illustration. The figures and division marks had been applied by painters who worked with fine brushes and magnifying glasses. Alert to any innovation that would reduce cost, the company purchased for fifty thousand dollars a group of ten patents which mechanized the process. Twelve girls released one hundred twenty men for work in other departments.

About 1885 watch jobbers asked manufacturers for uniform discounts. This was agreed to, and at the same time, the producers also fixed retail prices. Manufacturers refused to sell to any jobber who sold to a dealer below the established rates. The manufacturers were free to lower their prices only after notifying all companies associated in the combine at least ten days before the reduction so they could also change. Competition was lessened by this so-called "watch trust," but prices were also stabilized. Not all watchmaking firms were members of this arrangement, called the National Association of Jobbers in American Watches. John C. Dueber's Hampden Watch Company was the most notable exception, but the lower costs of Elgin and Waltham made them the price leaders. After the two big firms began introducing automatic machinery, few concerns could engage in price competition with them. Elgin withdrew from the N.A.J.A.W. in 1891 after an Illinois law prohibited pools, trusts and combines, but Waltham and Elgin prices remained practically identical.

A new approach to advertising came in 1886, when the company hired Joseph Hecker to build up an existing military band to give promotional concerts. He was a German-born musician who had been an army bandmaster in England. His players, many of whom were imported from all parts of the country, were given work in the factory when the band wasn't on tour. The band's usual membership was sixty. They filled engagements for expositions, banquets, ceremonies and parades in the Midwest and South. Among the places where the Elgin National Watch Factory Military Band won acclaim were the Ice Palace in St. Paul, the Sioux City Com Palace, the St. Louis Fair of 1887, and the Republican national conventions in Chicago in 1888 and Minneapolis in 1892.

A four-story gymnasium, one hundred by fifty feet, was opened by the company in 1890 adjoining the National House on the east. The entire first floor was fitted up for the band and comprised an office for the director, a music room, a baggage room, uniform lockers, lavatories, and a practice room. In the days before the phonograph was perfected, Elgin residents enjoyed the music that wafted from the gym.

Hecker was among the first directors to introduce and use string basses in a military band, and he is said to have originated the arrangements of symphonies for band performance. The Elgin band was perhaps the only brass organization in the country in which strings, reeds and flutes outnumbered the brass instruments. "To hear Hecker is to be inspired," raved the Fort Worth, Texas, Gazette of March 29, 1890. "To hear the soft and sweet harmonies brought forth by the Elgins, under Hecker's lead, is to be lifted up-to be made happy."2

The stockholders prospered beyond their expectations. In 1880, they held 884 shares with a par value of one thousand dollars each. During the period of plant expansion, they received stock dividends reflecting the increase in assets. In 1882, 116 shares were distributed, raising the stock outstanding to one million dollars. This was increased to two million dollars in 1884 by a one hundred percent stock dividend. With the completion of the building program, cash dividends reached new highs and totalled $3,345,000 during the nine years from 1886 through 1892.

Peter Burritt, a Hanover Township farmer, owned six shares of stock with a par value of six thousand dollars when the first cash dividends were paid in 1872. At the end of 1891, he owned an additional ten shares from the stock disbursements. In addition, he had received in 1887 eight thousand dollars in six percent company bonds redeemable in cash or stock. By June 1892, after the two-for-one split, he owned 32 shares. How much was the market value of this holding? Since the stock was not traded on an exchange, this is difficult to estimate, but the dividends and interest on Burritt's investment in 1892 were $4,480-a return of fourteen percent on the par value of the stock and bonds. It was no wonder that Uncle Peter, who had purchased Elgin real estate with his earnings, was considered one of the city's shrewdest capitalists.

2. Factory Life and Influence

Six ten-hour days per week at the bench occupied most of the waking time of the factory employees. The work of making watches in a large plant was divided among departments. There were originally ten of these, but their number increased with the further division of some operations and the addition of new tasks. Some of the designations of the departments also changed over the years.

The machine shop produced the machines used in the other departments. Plate and screw made the roof and floor of the watch, within which the works were set. This department also made the tiny screws. The plates were engraved with the name of the movement and serial number. In the gilding department, the nickel plates were decorated and the brass plates gilded. Balance turned out the wheels which perform the same functions in a watch that a pendulum does in a clock. Steel work punched out all the flat steel pieces, including the hands, except the wheels. The train of pinions and wheels which transmit the power from the mainspring to the balance was made in the train room. Jeweling cut and shaped the stones, burnished them in their settings, and set them into the plate. In escapement, the wheels employed in the winding mechanism were fitted into the plates. A copper plate was enameled and painted in the dial room. Finishing assembled the various components and adjusted and timed the mechanism. The watches were then shipped to the company's Chicago offices. No orders were filled from the Elgin factory.

White shirts, vests and ties were the work clothes of this group of male watch workers in the early '90s. Women employees wore two petticoats, a long sweeping dress that swept the floor, and high button shoes.

The departments were headed by foremen who were both respected and feared. Typical of many was this description of one known, but never addressed, as "Old John": "While he was rather a strict disciplinarian, he was not a driver. There were no favorites, and he discouraged any familiarity."3

Mass production enabled the company to compete with foreign firms using cheaper labor. George P. Lord, explaining this to visiting Chicagoans, illustrated his point by showing them a wheelcutting machine, where a young woman was cutting two thousand wheels daily. "That young lady can cut more wheels in a day, and cut them better, than any watchmaker in Europe, and you cannot hire an expert watchmaker, cheap labor, for $1.25 per day."4

The work force was about evenly divided among the sexes, but there was a pay differential. "It is true that they do the same kind of work, and do it equally well," admitted the superintendent,5 but the average earnings of the women was something over six dollars per week in 1869; men received up to three dollars per day. A visitor had never seen so many boys and girls in an eastern factory. "Whenever the welcome bell proclaims the hour of noon, or six in the afternoon, these young people give a whoop like released school children, and can hardly wait to put away tools and make benches tidy before they can join the merry throng streaming homeward."6

When the work ethic was considered inviolable, in a plant run by transplanted Yankees who held to the old adage, "time is money," these plant rules posted in 1879 are not surprising:

A ban on smoking, deemed necessary if the movements were to be accurate and reliable, gave rise to the spittoon when male employees adopted chewing tobacco as a substitute. The cuspidors were cleaned by the company, and the users were charged a fee for this accommodation. Their presence throughout the factory was a constant peril for the wearers of long-skirted gingham and calico dresses. The ladies chewed gum, which also had its hazards.

Employees had social experiences that extended beyond the long working hours. In mild weather, they would eat their lunches in the grove in back of the plant. There were baseball games, cricket matches for a sizeable contingent of English watchmakers, parties and dances. The social events and athletic teams were often organized according to the department. A band was organized as early as 1868 and played concerts on Saturday afternoons in the front yard. For six years, beginning in 1872, women employees edited and published a monthly periodical, The Lady Elgin. It was written for employees, but the management assisted in securing advertisements and took five hundred copies of each issue to send around to others in the trade.

The watch factory shaped the pattern of Elgin life for more than a century. The arrival of the Waltham craftsmen in 1864 brought a fresh influx of New England values. Twenty years later, the superintendent and assistant superintendent were natives of Massachusetts. This was still true forty years later, in 1904, and sixty years later, in 1924. Until well after the turn of the century, most of the foremen-with surnames such as Alden, Gerry, Hancock, Gooding, and Torrey-were Yankees, and when the old leadership gave way, the company often replaced them with graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The firm's local officials occupied the highest rank on the city's Prestige scale.

Membership in the Congregational Church rose until it became the fourth-largest of the denomination in the country. Another New England sect, the Universalists, revived its organization and built a new church in 1866. The church women's New England boiled dinners became an annual event. When the Universalists erected a new and larger church in 1892, it was designed in the shape of a pocket watch, an architectural synthesis of the retigious and secular callings of the membership.

in New England and Elgin, idleness was evil, but cleanliness was next to Godliness. A writer who had visited the watch factory observed that "the introduction of watchmaking into this Illinois country was a refining influence upon the population. There is a neatness, orderliness, cleanliness, and extreme quietness not often seen in a factory.. ."8

The tidiness carried over to the residential area, and the landscape reinforced the comparison with New England. "While strolling over the hills and through the groves, one can hardly realize that he is in the heart of the West; hills and dales, and groves and sparkling streams, elegant residences, charming views, and thriving manufactories are all suggestive of New England," reported one Chicago paper in 1867,9 and much later another Chicago newspaper had the same impression. "It's a piece of New England that got lost, but it knows what time it is."10

The watch factory payroll became the mainstay of the local economy, and Elgin stores were thronged on the evenings of the disbursements. Initially, employees were paid in currency on the tenth day of each month. In 1886, a plan of three payments was adopted. Another local phenomenon was the flood of workers pouring north on Grove Avenue and west over the National Street bridge after the closing bell. Only strangers caught unaware could be seen attempting to navigate against the current.

Watches were not the only source of Elgin incomes. The dairy industry also contributed to the town's prosperity.

3. Canned Milk

Production started at Gail Borden's Elgin Milk Condensing Company in May 1865. This venture was at first separately organized from his plants in the East. The condenser quickly became a major consumer of the local milk supply. In 1866, the plant used 303,560 gallons, leaving only 150,976 for shipment to other purchasers. The factory's thirty cheese presses also turned out 240,079 pounds of che , and the firm was experimenting with condensed coffee, the preservation of fruits and the extract of beef. Besides these products, the plant manufactured its own cans, packing cases and cheese boxes.

The cheese venture and the experiments proved unprofitable, and in 1868 the firm was reorganized as the Illinois Condensed Milk Company and linked to the Borden operations in New York and Connecticut. Alfred B. Church, Mrs. Borden's son by a previous marriage, was named superintendent. New machines replaced the original equipment, and the plant was expanded in piecemeal fashion until brick buildings two and three stories high occupied the entire frontage along North Street between Brook and River Streets.

Pure milk contains eighty-five percent water. Boiling in huge copper cauldrons removed seventy-five percent of the water, and granulated sugar was added as a preservative. The residue was a product with twice the strength and richness of cream. A can of "Eagle Brand," Borden's best-known trademark, and two cans of water made a rich milk. Borden was strict about the cleanliness of the supplying farms and the health of their herds. Farmers had to feed their cows particular food, not brewery or distillery mash that would impart a disagreeable flavor to the milk or reduce its richness. Milk rooms were required to maintain a certain temperature. In return, the supplying farmers were paid on a contract basis and received a reliable source of income. Company inspectors demanded sterilized milk cans and strainers and spotless barns. The same standards applied to the manufacturing process.

Condensed milk arrived at an opportune time in the nation's history. As postwar industrialization began to crowd families into cities, few tenement dwellers had access to fresh, pure milk or the means of keeping it safe to use. Borden's condensed milk was especially valuable for feeding children, and the firm's ads tried to influence mothers to abandon nursing their babies.

The business grew steadily, and for a time the condenser was Elgin's second-largest industrial employer. In 1878 some seventy workers were processing about 78,000 quarts weekly. Costs were lowered by mechanization. A press for printing labels fed them automatically to a machine that applied them to the cans. A double-acting pump filled at every stroke two cans brought forward on a revolving table. In the summer of 1882, the firm's 113 employees were packing about 21,000 one-pound cans daily, and about 245 barrels of sugar were used each week. By 1889, the work force had increased to nearly two hundred, and the milk consumption of 10,000 gallons daily was supplied by some 6,000 cows on 107 nearby dairy farms. Further expansion was limited by the difficulty of transporting and keeping cool the milk from the farms, and other condensers-including a large plant in Carpentersville, north of Elgin-were established in northern Illinois.

The milk canning enterprise supplied Elgin with a fountain for its Square and a titillating scandal for its gossips. Water for the condenser originally came from a large spring near the corner of North and Spring streets. In 1873, Illinois Condensed Milk Company erected a large wooden building to cover the reservoir. A pipe carried the flow from Borden's Springs 1,500 feet down a grade slope of some ten feet to the Square, where the city installed a fountain, and to a watering, tank for horses on Douglas Avenue. "The water in these fountains is of the best quality ... and a good, strong stream supplies the want of man and beast," was a contemporary description.11  Others complained of the sea of mud here when heavy winds sprayed the unpaved streets.

Gail Borden never resided in Elgin, but he had purchased a home on Division Street with that intention prior to his death early in 1874. Henry Lee Borden, his eldest son, arrived in town the next year and in 1877, became the local superintendent of the condenser. Born and raised in Texas, he had led a rancher's life, and during the Civil War served as a Confederate cavalry officer. One of the chief heirs of his father's fortune, Borden helped organize the Elgin Lumber Company and was elected president of the Home National Bank. As generous as he was wealthy, he donated a new and more ornamental fountain to replace the original. A pillar of the Episcopal Church, an abstainer from alcoholic spirits, he and his wife, Laura, were among the town's most respected social leaders. Then in January 1883, at the age of fifty, Henry Lee Borden quietly left for New York to pursue an affair with a nineteen-year-old soprano, the daughter of a local shoemaker. He was divorced and lost to Elgin, but he later rose to the presidency of all Borden operations in the United States.

4. Creameries and the Board of Trade

When supplies of fluid milk exceeded demand, some of the farmers began making cheese at home. After the war, production was shifted to little factories called creameries. Frank Webster and Henry Sherman erected one about two miles west of Market Square, another was located at Udina, and the third was the Home Factory of Charles W. Gould in Hanover Township. In the fall of 1867, Gould recalled, "having quite a run of milk, and butter being high in price, I conceived of turning it into a combined butter and cheese factory."12  Gould claimed to be the first to ship butter to New York, then the leading state in butter production. He later tried the experiment of shipping butter in tubs made from flour barrel staves cut in two, and from his innovation sprang the "Elgin tubs" which became universally used in packing butter for market for a number of years.

In the fall of 1870, a butter factory on a co-operative basis was opened by the Elgin Dairy Company on the hill at the corner of Ball and Harvey streets. Dr. Joseph Tefft was president of this firm, and Isaac H. Wanzer, the superintendent. A four horsepower steam engine drove the churns and pumps, and the product was said to be superior to hand-churned butter. In 1874 the plant's capacity was two thousand gallons of milk daily, and six to eight hands turned out 149,000 pounds of butter and 190,000 pounds of cheese. The business languished later in the decade, but was re-organized by William H. Hintze as the Elgin Butter Company and began a resurgence in 1883.

Near this city creamery was a little brook into which the skim and sour milk was run and emptied into the Fox at the base of the hill. Families of German immigrants living in the vicinity of Buttermilk Creek are said to have caught the residue and filled their slop barrels to feed pigs, and the area became known as Slop Hill. Others claim the origin of the name goes farther back to the days when the old distillery was operating along the river and livestock was fed on the mash, or slops. Roughly the boundaries of Slop Hill were at Highland Avenue on the south, McClure Avenue on the west, Wing Street on the north, and State Street and the river on the east. A number of Elgin's prominent citizens were raised on the Hill, and its residents are proud of the neighborhood and its heritage.

Other creameries soon arose in the rural environs of Elgin, near the cows to avoid the difficulties of carting the milk over rough country roads. The factory men discovered that a large portion of their best product was repacked in Chicago, then the major market, and put into packages labeled "Orange County Butter" and "New York Full Cream Cheese," and under these false brands were sold at higher prices than were paid the Fox Valley producers. Commission men in Chicago acted in concert to drive down prices, and after freight, cartage, storage and shortages had been deducted, little was left to cover expenses. Late payments were another problem. These grievances were discussed at meetings of the Fox River Dairy Club, which had been formed in 1867.

The discontent led to the organization of the Elgin Board of Trade on March 23, 1872 by the owners and representatives of nineteen factories under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Tefft, the first president. The board was dominated by the producers, who used it to eliminate the middle man. Instead of sellers trying to find a reliable market, the buyers would come to Elgin. The Chicago dealers at first ridiculed or ignored the project, but other buyers, chiefly from St. Louis and New Orleans, responded and insured its success. In the first year, 30,734 pounds of butter and 993,500 pounds of cheese with a total value of eighty-one thousand dollars were traded on the board. By 1880 sales exceeded $1,800,000 for 2,670,877 pounds (136 carloads) of butter and 9,266,474 pounds (468 carloads) of cheese. The board not only provided a stable market; it also established rigid grading standards.

"Elgin cheese" and "Elgin butter" became as widely known as the New York products, and their excellence was demonstrated by the equal or higher prices they commanded. "The Board of Trade is now so firmly established," wrote the secretary in his annual report for 1883, "and so well known in the United States and Europe as to need no special booming to bring it to the attention of dealers or manufacturers. During the year just closed, the board was the monitor to which a large portion of this country at least looked for prices on dairy products."13 Trading exchanges for dairy products were established in other cities, but none had the permanent success of Elgin's.

Butter and cheese production was widely dispersed, and at first there was little concentration of ownership. Later, Elgin-based firms controlling strings of creameries were established. The leaders included Charles W. Gould, John Newman, and the partnership of Delmont E. Wood and William W. Sherwin. Gould manufactured containers to supply his creameries. In 1881-82, Wood and Sherwin erected a huge cold storage warehouse on the west side of the river along the river along the St. Paul tracks. The third floor housed two thousand tons of ice, and the lower floors had a one hundred-carload capacity.

Dairy farmers complained about the confinement entailed by caring for their herds, and they often resented what they regarded as low prices received from the creamery operators and the Borden condenser. When the condenser announced a price of seven cents a quart for June, July and August of 1880, the dairymen formed a combination that refused to accept anything less than nine cents. H. L. Borden, the local manager, suspended operations and prepared to remove the plant's machinery to Delaware County, New York. Factory men were delighted at this prospect, quickly offering to better the Borden price. Realizing that eliminating the market provided by the condenser would ultimately result in lower prices, the farmers capitulated.

To secure better prices, the Elgin dairymen always had the alternatives of shipping fluid milk to Chicago or forming co-operatives to manage their own creameries. Wherever they sold their output, they were usually paid monthly or semi-monthly and therefore had ready money, unlike grain farmers who were paid in a lump sum at harvest time. If the factory men's interests were benefitted by the Board of Trade, the farmers had their own organization. The Illinois Dairymen's Association was formed in Elgin in 1874. Dr. Joseph Tefft was the first president.

Creamery operators and dairymen had one concern in common -oleomargarine-which began making some inroads as a competitor of butter when the big meat packers started up production in the early '80s. This alternative spread could easily be adulterated, and it was frequently sold as butter. Dairy interests pushed for regulation and advocated a tax on colored margarine, but American production of the substitute did not amount to more than ten percent of butter output until well after the turn of the century.

The production of cheese and butter gave rise to related businesses in Elgin: containers, equipment for factory operators and dairymen, and stock breeding. Reuben R. Stone and his son-inlaw, Pierce F. Gibbons, were among the first to make butter tubs and cheese boxes in Elgin. As early as 1877, William W. Sherwin's plant turned out one hundred thousand cheese boxes and twenty thousand butter tubs and packages. Charles W. Gould was also a major producer for a time. Wood and Sherwin's mill was destroyed by fire in 1887, but the next year they erected a new plant on the west side of Douglas, just south of the C&NW tracks. This brick building of four floors was soon employing seventy workers turning out 500,000 butter tubs and ten thousand cheese boxes annually. In 1890, it became part of the Creamery Package Manufacturing Company of Chicago, which Wood and Sherwin helped to organize.

The Elgin Co-operative Butter Tub Company was formed in 1886 by Caspar Schmidt, three of his sons, and other coopers as an outgrowth of a strike at Wood and Sherwin's. In 1891, it was incorporated as the Elgin Butter Tub Company. Their wooden "Schmidt-tub" was distributed throughout the dairy sections of the country.

Three firms led in the supply of equipment. David F. Barclay was the pioneer in this field. His manufacturing businesses outgrew his hardware store, and a separate plant for cans, vats, boilers and other apparatus was erected on Brook Street. One of the organizers of the Elgin Board of Trade, Barclay served as its president in 1881-1884 and 1885-1895. The Hawthorne brothers, George and Richard, specialized in cream coolers and milk heaters. R. P. Jackman & Son manufactured steam engines and other dairy machinery.

Increased attention was given to the development of improved strains of milk-producing stock. When the first milk was sent to Chicago in 1852, there weren't more than eight hundred scrub cows in Elgin Township. Twenty-five years later, there were at least twelve thousand, outnumbering the human population, and increased attention was given to the development of improved breeds. In 1874, the first black and white Holsteins from the Netherlands appeared in the valley, and soon Dr. Tefft's Zwaan, affectionately called "old cow," was startling the countryside with a daily yield of eight gallons. She gave 12,6101/2 pounds of milk from May 12,1878 through March 5,1879.

When the Illinois Holstein Breeders' Association was formed in Elgin in 1885, Dr. Tefft was chosen president. Besides Tefft, other stock importers and breeders in the immediate Elgin area were Sylvester S. Mann, who had a huge stock barn in back of his residence on Division Street, and Dr. William A. Pratt. A former dentist, Pratt abandoned an earlier interest in hatching fish to take up raising cows. Elgin Maid, one of Mann's Holsteins, was pictured in the Breeder's Gazette in 1884 for giving fifty-one and a half pounds of milk in one day. Evidence of the advancement in strains by the '90s were the records of two Pratt animals. Nierop gave one hundred sixteen pounds of milk in a day, and Echo gave 23,7751/4 pounds of milk in one year.

5. Elgin Enterprise

The first state mental hospital in Illinois opened at Jacksonville in 1851. Despite the growth of population in the northern part of the state, it was not until 1869 that the legislature authorized the Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane, appropriated $125,000 for its construction, and created a commission to select a location.

This is the architect's drawing of the first building at the Elgin Mental Health Center, then called the Northern Illinois Hospital for the Insane. Under construction from 1870 to 1874, it was designed to accommodate 300 patients. The building was vacated in 1973.

Elgin was an eager contender for the new hospital. The city issued bonds to provide a substantial inducement in the form of the 160-acre Chisholm farm southwest of town, a spring three-fourths of a mile to the west, and freight charges on the Chicago & North Western during construction. Walter L. Pease was sent to Springfield to plead the city's case, carrying with him more funds than were needed for travel expenses. The corruption involved was public knowledge. It was perhaps more than coincidence that three of those selected as members of the location commission had close Elgin ties. David S. Hammond of Cook County was a neighboring resident in Hanover Township; Augustus Adams of DeKalb County had been an Elgin manufacturer; and Merritt Joslyn of McHenry County was a brother of the Rev. Adonirain and Colonel Ed.

A five-member Board of Trustees placed in charge of construction plans included three Elgin residents, Henry Sherman, R. W. Padelford, and Orlando Davidson. They chose the congregate plan, over the cottage system because of the lower cost. This necessity of economy would be a persistent theme in the history of the institution.

The adopted plan consisted of a center building with two irregularly shaped wings, and a rear building for the domestic department and machinery. It was expected to house three hundred patients. Construction began in the summer of 1870, but completion was delayed by the shortage of material in the aftermath of the great Chicago fire. The north wing was finally opened for patients on April 3, 1872, and the center building was completed and occupied two years later. The south wing was not opened until 1875 because of the failure of the Legislature to provide maintenance funds. At that time, the name was changed to Illinois Northern Hospital for the Insane.

The central structure was four stories and the wings three stories in height, built of Dundee brick with stone caps and sills from quarries near Joliet. The length of the center building was 62 feet, and that of each wing, 512 feet, making an entire frontage of 1,686 feet. When completed, the center was occupied by the staff, the north wing by female patients, and the south wing by male patients. The extensive acreage attached to the hospital provided the food supply.

The first superintendent was Dr. Edwin A. Kilbourne. By November 1872, 183 patients had arrived from Jacksonville, county poor farms and private homes, and there was a long waiting list. The first patient admitted was discharged with condition unchanged, a result prophetic of the lot of many of those who followed. For years, the asylum's function was mainly custodial rather than curative. Restraint was often used, many patients were kept in seclusion, and all were locked up at night.

Much of the cost to the city of securing the hospital, more than forty thousand dollars, remained unaccounted for, and the results were disappointing. "The insane asylum is a noble institution, and its buildings exceed in size and cost anything in the county; but the citizens of Elgin have not derived the advantage from its location here which they anticipated"14 was a contemporary conclusion.

With the asylum in hand, attention was directed to the railroad monopoly. Discrimination, rebates, and favoritism among shippers were common, and Illinois farmers were rebelling. Excessive rates for passengers and freight on the Chicago & North Western became exasperating. The charges on a box of tea or a piano were said to be higher from Chicago to Elgin than from New York to Chicago. Citizens sent committees at various times to confer with the railroad authorities, but they were of no avail.

Possibility of relief lay in organizing a competing line. A company had been projected in 1865 to build a road from the Indiana line via Chicago to the Mississippi River. The charter remained dormant until 1870, when a group was formed to sell stock. George S. Bowen, a Chicago capitalist with an interest in the local woolen mill, had moved to Elgin after the Chicago fire and was active in promoting the new railroad. So popular was the idea that the newcomer was elected mayor unopposed in 1872 and re-elected, again unopposed, in 1873.

Elgin provided some of the leaders in promoting this Chicago & Pacific railroad. Of the seven directors elected to the board of directors, three were local residents: Bowen, the vice president and subsequent president; John S. Wilcox, the line's attorney; and Walter L. Pease, president of the First National Bank. George H. Daniels, business manager of the Gazette, was named general passenger and freight agent. William R. Creighton contracted to build the telegraph.

The new railroad had good prospects. In a time of poor roads, farmers were eager for close access to rail heads. The planned route to the ultimate destination at Savanna, somewhat this side of the Pacific, was the shortest from the lake to the Mississippi. The thirty-five miles of track from Chicago to Elgin was seven miles shorter than the North Westem's, although the Chicago depot was not downtown.

The first rails were laid in Chicago in July 1872. Passing through the northeast comer of DuPage County, the tracks reentered Cook County along the southern end of Hanover Township, where it was welcomed by farmers and creamery operators. The Chicago & Pacific reached Poplar Creek in July 1873, and entered Elgin in October. A house on Highland Avenue was converted into a station. Wilcox, Bowen and others went out through DeKalb and Ogle counties, holding meetings at country schoolhouses to convince farmers to grant right of way. Track laying west of Elgin started in Nov ember 1873, and by March 1875, the C & P tracks reached Byron on the banks of the Rock River, eighty-seven miles west of Chicago.

New towns, among them Bartlett and Hampshire, developed around the C & P stations. Five trains passed through Elgin daily, and there was a retail boom. "This new railroad outlet," noted a city directory, "has added largely to the business facilities of Elgin. It has also opened up communication with the country west of the city, the trade of which has heretofore been tributary to other towns."15

As its tracks extended westward, the Chicago & Pacific steamed into financial trouble. The worsening business depression reduced potential profits. The Illinois Constitution prohibited aid by local governments, and now private subscribers found it difficult to meet their pledges. Interest among shippers was shifting from the creation of competing roads to regulatory legislation as a means of controlling monopoly. A series of accidents, the most serious the destruction of a stock train which went through a trestle over the Des Plaines River, spelled doom.

Foreclosure proceedings were filed in January 1877, and the road was placed in receivership. Many Elginites lost heavily by their investments in the Chicago & Pacific. Bowen and Pease declared bankruptcy, the latter surrendering his interest in the First National Bank. John S. Wilcox lost a comfortable fortune.

Despite these individual reverses, the original aim of the railroad was realized. It was feared the North Western would purchase the defunct line, but the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railway (now the Milwaukee Road) secured control of the stock, assumed the indebtedness, and reorganized the company in 1880. The line was extended from Byron to Lanark, where the rail line had a connection to Savanna. Rates were lowered on the North Western, and by running directly into the CMSP&P depot in downtown Chicago, the travel time from Elgin was also reduced. An impressive new passenger station was erected in Elgin in 1881. The monopoly buster had made its contribution to the growth of the city.

6. More Than Watches

Watchmaking transformed Elgin into a factory town, but a variety of other manufacturers entered the local arena of American capitalism. Some had only a fleeting existence in a competitive world, such as ventures into washing machine wringers, barbed wire and kerosene cans. Others made profits and survived. The output of these industries in the last third of the 19th century was made possible by a labor force that came from rural origins to spend ten-hour days at workbenches and machines. Not as well known as the watch factory, these smaller producers are nevertheless an essential part of the community's history.

While the creameries and the condenser were consuming the milk of dairy fanns, another industry was processing the farmers' sweet corn. Samuel F. Perry, who had been operating a cannery at Geneva, was persuaded to move to Elgin. The Elgin Packing Company was incorporated in 1869, and Dr. Joseph Tefft served as its first president. Buildings were erected on the southwest corner of West Chicago and Union streets in time for the 1870 harvest. The plant prospered, and eventually five buildings covered more than an acre of ground. The principal output was sweet corn, but immense quantities of beans, pumpkins and other vegetables were also canned.

A small number of workers were employed the year around making cans and assembling boxes, but during the packing season more than three to four hundred men, women and children were kept busy. Daily capacity came to exceed 50,000 two-pound cans of com, and a million-can season was not unusual. Brand names included Watch, Elgin, and Fox River. A strike of some thirty huskers in 1877 illustrated the labor-management relations methods then prevailing. They were being paid three cents per bushel and asked for four. Sam Perry took the leaders by their collars and bounced them out of the yard. A series of bad crop years beginning in 1914 signaled the cannery's decline.

Joseph Vollar & Company began the manufacture of chewing gum in 1875. Hailing the arrival of this producer, the Advocate predicted the output would bring renown to Elgin "when found sticking to door casings, floors, chairs, and bedposts throughout the continent."16  Some ten to fifty workers were employed, Mostly women, and production rose to thirty million "chews" annually. The gum was made from Maine spruce and the juice of the Mexican sapota tree, sweetened by sugar and flavored by oil extracts. The first brand was Grasshopper Chewing Gum, the trademark featuring a grasshopper on top of a pig. Later, capitalizing on the name now made famous by watches, Elgin Pride and Elgin Heart became the leading brands. Too heavy an investment in the pictures and cards included with the gum proved to be the firm's undoing when styles changed, and the business was closed by creditors in 1890.

While superintendent of the watch factory, Charles S. Moseley, with his brother, Horace, began the manufacture of jewelers' lathes and small tools for watch repairing. The firm was originally known as Moseley Brothers. Horace acquired the interest of his brother and carried on the business for many years. The Moseley products had a wide reputation for accuracy and efficiency.

Cyrus H. Woodruff, a native of Massachusetts, helped to organize the Illinois Iron & Bolt Company in Dundee in 1864, sold his interest after about three years, and for a time operated an Elgin foundry, making fine quality castings for watch factory machinery. Later he ran a foundry in Clintonville for several years, and then in 1879 erected an iron works along the east side of North State Street at the foot of Mountain Street. The chief output at first consisted of castings for school and opera seating, and some twenty-five workers were employed. For a time the firm was known as Woodruff & Bishop. In 1882, it was called Woodruff & Clark and had added feed mills and corn shellers to its line.

A new plant was built to handle the expanding orders in 1885, when Charles H. Woodruff joined his father and the business became C. H. Woodruff & Company. Three buildings were erected -a main structure, a storehouse and a machine shop. By 1887, the firm was melting about one hundred fifty tons of pig iron per month and employing about fifty people. That year the works produced eighty thousand opera chairs, some shipped as far as San Diego. Two years later, a shipment of one thousand school seats went to Sydney, Australia, and in 1890, some five thousand school desks were purchased by the government of Chile. In 1889, the company began making coffee grinding mills for groceries, eventually becoming a leading manufacturer of this item.

Local craftsmen began making custom-fitted shoes in Elgin in the early 1850s. The 1860 census disclosed more than twenty individual shoemakers in town. About three out of four were foreign-bom, mostly natives of Germany and England. In the fall of 1873, the first small boot and shoe factory was opened by Groce Brothers, but it was of short duration. George L. Congdon in 1881 moved his Chicago operations to Elgin, lured by money raised through local subscription. A large three-story and basement brick plant was erected in what was then the far north end, along Prospect Street near Slade Avenue. Residential lots were platted about the plant and then sold. A large home on a high terrace at the northwest comer of Cherry and Prospect Streets was converted into a boarding house for employees.

Congdon, originally from Massachusetts, had been connected with the shoe business since boyhood and had traveled to Europe in search of improved manufacturing methods. He introduced a clinching screw on a solid iron form. His Elgin factory employed more than 150 workers, about forty to fifty of them women. Labor-saving machinery was used wherever practicable. There were machines with dies for cutting out soles two or three at a time; heel cutters; machines for stitching; puncturing machines for hand-sewing; peggers and eyelet inserters; hand stitchers; heel affixers; sole attachers; and foot-shaped molds. Most of these machines were driven by steam power. In 1885, Congdon entered into a partnership with William Floto and later sold out to the latter. Floto continued the business until his death in December of that year, when production ceased.

William D. Nichols began the manufacture of power windmills 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 into a partnership with John M. Murphy. They built a plant on River Street, and C. H. Geister, a local manufacturer of agricultural implements, joined them the following year. Their mill was called the Centennial. After a damaging fire, the firm was in the hands of a receiver in 1887. Nichols then turned his patents over the newly organized Elgin Windmill and Pump Company. The new firm, headed by George M. Peck, took over the River Street plant and was soon turning out about twenty-five mills per week. In 1895, when production had doubled, the plant was moved to North State Street. Three sizes of power mills were made, with wheels fourteen, sixteen and twenty feet in diameter. There were five sizes of pumping mills, and galvanized steel had replaced wooden blades.

David C. Cook, devout son of a Methodist minister-turned-printer, became interested in the Sunday school movement while learning his father's trade. He worked with children of the poor in Chicago, often teaching two or three classes on a Sabbath and also holding outdoor song services. Lesson helps were then nonexistent, so he decided to write and print them himself. His first venture, Our Sunday School Quarterly, was a pamphlet. It was followed in April 1875 by Our Sunday-School Gem, a sixteen page magazine. Both were immediately successful. Aided by his wife, who took charge of the primary department publications, the business outgrew its Chicago location. In May 1882, the David C. Cook Publishing Company moved to Elgin, occupying the old woolen mill. Fourteen big cylinder presses were installed in the new quarters started a stream of Sunday school literature from Elgin to every quarter of the globe.

By the end of 1883, the firm was the city's second-largest industrial employer, and its presses were running day and night. In one four-day period that year, the company received 6,425 letters and sent out 68,400 second-class packages weighing twenty-one and a half tons. The new post office, completed early in 1884 on the northeast comer of DuPage Avenue and South Grove Street, channeled enough Cook literature to quickly rank as the third busiest in the state by weight of mail handled. At the end of the decade, the regular publications-four weekly papers, one semimonthly, ten monthlies, and eighteen quarterlies-required a work force of 350. The firm became the most stable and longlived of Elgin's numerous manufacturers.

Copyright Notice

I    Country Town in the West
II   The Dividing Line
III  Watches, Milk and Butter
IV   The Expanding City
V    Boom and Panic
VI   The Good Years
VII  Whirling Twenties
VIII Depression and War
IX   Civic Pride
X    Modern Elgin

Special Update
End Notes

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