William Grote (1849-1921), a German-born immigrant, brought industries to Elgin, helped develop the electric street car and inter-urban lines, was elected to two mayoral terms 1891-95, and served as county chairman of the Republican Party.
The city never before contained so many idle men, and among these are numerous strangers who have no visible menas of support. Citizens are becoming alarmed, and the carrying of arms for self defense is quite common.1
Chapter V. Boom and Panic
The years of expansion were now reaching a climax. Elgin had 17,823 residents in the federal census of 1890; by June of 1893, a local count raised that figure to 21,528, a gain of more than twenty percent in just three years. The boundaries of the city and school district were pushed into Cook County in 1891. This crossing of a county line was an unusual proceeding which was confirmed by an act of the state legislature. From the winter of 1889-90 to the summer of 1892, combined assets of the three established local banks-the First National, its mortgage loan adjunct, the Elgin City Banking Company, and the Home National -increased by about fifty percent. Two new banks were launched in 1892 on this wave of prosperity - the Elgin National Bank and the Home Savings, a mortgage loan affiliate of the Home National.
1. The Elgin Improvement Association
Merchant, real estate developer, industrial and transit line promoter William Grote was a Hanoverian immigrant who grasped the business opportunities abounding in an expanding Elgin and rose to become one of the city's wealthiest men. About 1880, he entered the real estate field and was instrumental in securing the move to Elgin of the David C. Cook publishing firm. With his associates, A. B. Church, James B. Lane and E. D. Waldron, he formed the Elgin Improvement Association in 1884 to "provide business enterprise" and "introduce and develop manufactories."2 Before it was dissolved in 1912, this syndicate bought vacant land, subdivided it into lots around new industrial plants, and sold them to newcomers who came to work in them. Many of these new residents were German-born who liked dealing with one of their own.
A classic example of the Protestant ethic in operation, Grote's business acumen was combined with religious conviction. A teetotaler and devout member of the German Evangelical church, he served as a trustee of its denominational college in Naperville. Grote was a member of the Board of Education in 1880-1887 and of the Academy Board of Trustees, 1898-1920. An ardent Republican, he served four years on the Kane County Board, two of them as Elgin Township supervisor. He was elected a chairman of the Kane County Republican Central Committee, and was a member of his party's state committee. Twice he was elected a delegate to Republican national conventions.
Grote's success was a typical Horatio Alger story. At the time of his death in 1921, his estate included 674 tracts of land consisting of farms, business blocks and city lots. At various times he served as president of the Elgin Packing Company, the Elgin Brick and Tile Company, the Home National Bank, and the Seybold Piano and Organ Company. In addition he had substantial stock holdings in the Elgin Lumber Company, the South Elgin Stone Company, and the Elgin Wind Power and Pump Company.
A promotional book issued in 1891 listed the business advantages of locating in Elgin. Although rising in value, land prices were relatively cheap in comparison with Chicago, the cost of living was lower, and therefore the purchasing power of wages was greater. The St. Paul (Milwaukee Road) and the North Western provided direct access to the nation's rail center. Insurance rates were lower than in big cities. Not overlooked was a factor that weighed heavily among businessmen in the years following the Haymarket riot in Chicago: "Labor troubles resulting from strikes and lockouts, sometimes occasioning serious loss to employers, are unknown. It is a poor field for the agitator."3
The operations of the improvement association were furthered by the completion of an electric street car system. As the residential additions spread outward from the city's core, the lumbering horse cars were too slow to provide adequate transportation to and from the business district and the factories. Their movement was described by one contemporary as "animated hat racks used by Bruce Payne to snail a few rickety cars over a small section of alleged street car track."4 Headed by Grote and his associates, the Elgin City Railway Company was chartered in 1886. The corporation purchased Payne's franchise for a reported $41,000 in the summer of 1889. Pledging to lay nine miles of new track at once, six on the east side and three on the west side, the firm secured a new franchise from the City Council over vigorous competition from Chicagoans. To power the cars, the line acquired and expanded the Edison electric light plant and assumed responsibility for furnishing the city with light and power as well as transportation.
The Illinois Watch Case Company in 1901 employed about 450 who turned out 1,200 pocket watches daily. By 1926 the firm had manufactured more than thirty million. The Dundee Avenue factory is shown as it looked about the turn of the century.
During consideration of an amendment to the franchise in February 1890, one alderman announced that he had been offered a bribe in connection with the type of track to be laid. The alleged offer was traced to a supplier of rails, and the Elgin City Railway was free of taint. One alderman was indicted and subsequently acquitted, but of the seven aldermen up for re-election in April 1890, four chose not to run and the other three were defeated.
On July 4, 1890-before Chicago and most other Illinois cities had them-Elgin's first electric street cars began carrying passengers between what is now Lords Park and Fountain Square. Within a year, the company was operating fifteen motor cars and six trailers over thirteen miles of track. A four-track barn built on the west side of South Grove Avenue housed the equipment. The cars all came down to the Square but did not cross it. Passengers received transfer to another car if they wished to continue their trip. Fares were five cents for adults and three cents for children under twelve.
The trolley line gave Grote and his associates an additional inducement to lure new industries. The Illinois Watch Case Company had been incorporated in 1888 as an outgrowth of a wholesale jewelry firm in Chicago. The president, Max C. Eppenstein, agreed to move to Elgin in return for land and a building along Dundee Avenue. In return, the firm agreed to employ at least one hundred the first year, hire fifty more the second year, and an additional fifty the third year. Shortly before the plant opened, Grote, Church, and Waldron began selling lots in the Grand View subdivision across the way. Its boundaries were Cooper, Cedar, Lincoln, and Dundee avenues. Lots varied in price from $460 to $820.
The Eppenstein firm intended to change its name to the Elgin Watch Case Company. The Elgin National Watch Company, which did not case its movements and was wary of the possible confusion, quickly moved to charter a corporation with that name. Then Eppenstein countered by organizing the National Watch Case Company of Elgin. The dispute was litigated and ultimately appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court, which in 1901 ruled that "Elgin" was a geographic designation which could not be an exclusive trademark because the city existed before the arrival of the watch factory. Meanwhile, the case works prospered. Within a year of its arrival, it was employing about two hundred fifty workers and producing about nine hundred cases daily. Before the decade was over, it had doubled its plant capacity.
Early in 1891, Grote organized a pool of land owners in the far northeast side to attract the Ludlow shoe factory from Chicago. Under the aegis of the improvement association, each land owner was given shares in the pool in proportion to the value of his property. The Ludlow firm was given shares worth forty thousand dollars for a site and building. The firm would gain a twenty percent interest in the property for each consecutive year it employed three hundred fifty. The total amount of land in the pool came to nearly two hundred acres. On April 4, 1891, lots in the Riverside Park addition, carved out of this acreage, were auctioned off in the largest lot sale ever staged in Elgin. Free trolley rides were given prospective buyers to and from the sale. Many bought lots anticipating a rise in price. The area extended north of the Grand View subdivision from the west side of Cedar Avenue to the north side of what is now River Bluff Road, and east to the county line.
George W. Ludlow & Company was headed by Ludlow and his brother-in-law, George R. Keep, and it specialized in making women's shoes. The first pair was turned out in July, while the plant on the northeast comer of Dundee and Congdon avenues was still under construction. By August 1891, 370 employees were making about nine hundred pairs daily. The firm manufactured some three hundred different styles. Its office and sales rooms remained in Chicago.
In October 1891, Grote convinced H. K. Cutter and C. H. Grossette to move their shirt factory from Chicago on a promise of a factory to be constructed on the east side of North Liberty Street between Slade Avenue and Page Street. In return for the plant, a three-story brick structure, Cutter and Grossette were obligated to employ two hundred the first year and three hundred in the ensuing four years. The shirtmakers started a temporary workshop to train employees until their building was ready for occupancy in June 1892. Investors in the improvement association were not disappointed in the returns from the donations of land and buildings. On three successive sales days in May 1892, for example, one hundred thirty lots around the case, shoe and shirt factories sold for about forty thousand dollars.
In the summer of 1892, the Griffin Silver Plate Company, a producer of casket trimmings controlled by a group of leading casket manufacturers, was attracted to Elgin from Chicago. The inducements included the donation of half a block of land, an undisclosed money bonus, and reimbursement for the cost of extending water mains to its location on the far west side along South Melrose Avenue. The firm's name was changed to the Elgin Silver Plate Company and full operations began before Christmas. Managed by John M. Blackburn, the business started with fifty employees. By 1899, the plant was so far behind in its orders that a tripled work force was busy until nine o'clock at night an average of six months a year. The factory was then doubled in size with a three-story addition. The expansion made possible the addition of zinc liners to the product line.
The one failure in this string of successful ventures was the R. S. Dickie Manufacturing Company, organized by a group of Chicago meat packers and canners to battle a trust formed by label makers. A plant was constructed along Bluff City Boulevard opposite the new cemetery in 1891. Land surrounding the factory was subdivided into blocks without comers. One street was named after Phil Armour, one of the company's backers. The lot sale attracted buyers with a prize of a free lot for the most accurate estimate of the average sale price, which turned out to be $333.67. The company's presses, which could print eighteen colors, began turning in December, but the enterprise went bankrupt the next month and production ceased in October 1892.
William Grote challenged the incumbent, Arwin E. Price, in the mayoral election of 1891. At issue was Price's alleged laxity in enforcing laws regulating saloons. The News called the contest "a square fight between respectability and disgrace; between order and disorder; between sobriety and whiskey; between home and the saloon."5 The Courier also gave its support to Grote:
The workingmen are for him because he contributes toward their prosperity. The enterprises which he has fostered, the industries he has secured, the very business in which he is engaged, furnish remunerative work, enhance the demand for labor and increase wages.
The business men are for him because he is himself a successful business man ...Grote won handily and was re-elected in 1893. He had become the personification of Elgin prosperity, riding an apogee about to plunge downward.
Owners of homes favor his election because he has, through his efforts to secure new industries, added $100 to the value of every four-by-eight lot in this city.
Church members will vote for Mr Grote because he is himself a church member and an honest one.
Sober men will generally vote for him because he is a sober, respectable citizen.6
2. The Panic of '93
The newcomers arriving in Elgin to work in the factories attracted by the Improvement Association sparked a construction boom. More than twelve hundred homes were erected in 1890-92. The Elgin Loan & Homestead Association granted loans of $99,885 in 1890, $144,780 in 1891, and $168,565 in 1892. The needs of couples and single workers were met by brick flats, the term then used for duplexes and apartments. These two-story and basement buildings featured an overhanging metal cornice, squared front or slanted side bays, an ornamented wooden porch and stained glass window trim. New schools were built and existing ones enlarged. Big churches arose, and modem commercial blocks replaced old structures. Among the big projects were these landmarks:
1891-State Hospital annex, Ludlow shoe factory, Dickie Manufacturing Company plant, Franklin School, Washington School, Fire Station No. 2.
1892-Columbia School, Cutter & Crossette shirt factory, Universalist Church, Presbyterian Church, Ranstead block.
1893-George M. Peck Store, City Hall, Spurling block, German Methodist Church, Elgin Butter Company plant, German Evangelical Church, Disciples of Christ Church, D. C. Cook Publishing Company building.
Elgin's fourth City Hall was completed in the summer of 1893 on the northeast comer of Chicago and Spring streets. Of Victorian-Gothic design, its red-brick exterior was topped by a turreted clock tower and peaked slate roof with protruding gables.
Mayor William Grote donated the town clock at a cost that far exceeded his annual salary. George Peck's new store replaced the old City Hall on South Grove Avenue. Its four stories were overshadowed by the five-story Spurling block on the northwest comer of DuPage and Spring streets. This was Elgin's first building with a framework of iron and steel. It was equipped with two hydraulic elevators and two flights of marble and iron stairways.
Pacing Elgin's boom was the uninterrupted growth of the Elgin National Watch Company. In 1891, the firm was employing more than three thousand and turning out an average of eighteen hundred movements daily-about sixty percent of domestic sales. Foreign competition had been dampened by a policy of rebates to wholesalers. American rivals were undercut by Elgin's production efficiencies. In 1892, the company's dividends totaled six hundred thousand dollars in addition to a one hundred percent stock dividend that raised capitalization to four million dollars
The foundations of this economic growth were tenuous. Watches and butter were luxury items with a highly elastic demand. The boom continued into the early months of 1893, but trouble was in the offing. Good harvests in Europe in the early '90s had reduced American agricultural exports which paid for the country's imports. Gold began flowing out of the United States to balance the deficit in the balance of payments. This alarmed bankers, who reacted by cutting back on loans to overextended businessmen. Capital investment fell. In the spring of 1893, money was becoming scarce, and sales were declining.
The growing number of financial and commercial failures, shaking national confidence, went relatively unnoticed in Elgin until butter prices began falling on the Board of Trade. Surpluses mounted with the decreased consumption of butter. This hurt many area farmers who relied on milk sales to offset losses on crops sharply reduced by drought. By June, signs of the downturn were obvious. The E. H. Riker nursery failed, leaving about thirty employees without jobs. The watch, shoe and casket hardware Plants closed on Saturdays. Then in July, the Ludlow shoe Plant made an assignment and shut down, dismissing more than three hundred workers. Residents were now uneasy, and the city's five banks had to face small runs on July 27th.
"Father Time's family is secure and will not feel the turbulence Of the times until the very foundation of the nation's finances is uprooted," assured the Every Saturday on July 22nd. Four days later, the unthinkable happened with the posting of this notice throughout the big factory:
Taking effect Aug. 1, proximo, there will be a reduction of the working force of this factozy equal to at least fifty percent. Individual notices will be given by the several foremen of the departments as early as possible, but this is a general notice to all employees to better their condition in the meantime if possible, and save us the disagreeable duty of discharge.7The watch plant had employed 2,873 in July. The wholesale discharges, mainly of women and single men, reduced this number to 1,473 by the end of August. Reductions in force continued gradually through the next year until the total payroll fell to 1,088 in August 1894. Those who remained suffered severe losses in income. The layoffs were accompanied by drastic cuts in wages that included foremen and job bosses. Working days were reduced to four per week in August 1893, and in January 1894, they were limited to three. In February, they were increased to four, and by the end of April, the work week was restored to five days. The company attempted to reduce its huge inventory by cutting prices, and no dividends were paid from April 1893 until November 1894. "Men are not buying watches," said president Avery; "when they have not enough to buy food."8
During this low tide in the company's fortunes, English investors offered to purchase the four thousand shares of stock at two thousand dollars per share and to assume the obligation of paying the one million dollars in bonds the company had issued to its stockholders. This was a total of $9 million for a firm in which the owners had invested only $884,000. There were then about one hundred fifty stockholders. About ten percent of the shares were held by Elgin residents. Some of the small stockholders, pressed for income after the usual quarterly dividends of two and a half percent had been suspended, wanted to sell. Members of the Laflin family of Chicago, who then held about half of the stock, agreed to the offer only if all stockholders would do the same, and the offer was not accepted.
The English may have wanted the watch factory, but the Chicago commissionmen wanted no part of the Elgin Board of Trade. A concerted attempt was made in the spring of 1894 for a daily call on the Produce Exchange to establish prices for butter in Chicago. They were able to attract only a small portion of the high-grade butter produced in the Elgin district, and the effort collapsed.
The watch factory layoffs had an immediate effect on businesses dependent upon its paydays. Construction ceased on many building projects. Sherman Hospital had started work on a new building in the north end but could not continue. Many small family-operated retail concerns failed. Other industries could not take up the slack. The D. C. Cook publishing house was one of the few to maintain production stability. The condenser and the case factory laid off workers, and several plants reduced their hours of work. The Elgin Packing Company, which usually hired from three hundred to four hundred during the harvest season, took on only about one hundred seventy-five because of the poor harvest. The average yearly price of butter on the Board of Trade dropped from 26 cents in 1893 to 17.9 cents in 1896.
There were other failures in addition to the shoe factory. The Elgin Condensed Milk Company, in severe financial difficulties, was sold to the Borden operation in February 1894. A major disappointment was the inability of the Mason Air Brake & Signal Company to live up to its expectations. This producer of a newly patented pneumatic train signal system took over the building vacated by the defunct R. S. Dickie firm. The Grote magic again failed to work at this site, and the firm folded in August 1894.
Single girls, among those laid off, faced a problem of housing because they could no longer stay in the company-owned National House. Many left the city for parental homes. The unemployed could find few jobs on surrounding farms because of depressed prices for livestock and milk and the prevailing drought. Relief was supplied at first by churches, clubs and lodges which sought to help their members, and by merchants extending credit. When these sources were exhausted and winter approached, Mayor Grote in November 1893 formed the Elgin Central Relief Association to collect funds, clothing and food for those in need. By the following April, when the effort was disbanded, $2,313 in cash, 750 articles of food and 1,800 pieces of clothing had been distributed.
The economic panic had social consequences. The city's population declined by more than sixteen hundred between June 1893 and June 1894 as idled workers sought jobs elsewhere. As a result of this exodus, enrollment in the lower grades of the school system fell, but gained in the high school because there were no employment alternatives. Vagrants camped on the city's outskirts or loafed on Fountain Square. Some resorted to strange antics around the asylum, hoping to be arrested and committed. Burglaries and swindles increased, and there were indications that fires were deliberately set. Some who lived through these times recalled subsisting on a diet of cornmeal mush.
Troubled residents found a variety of explanations for the collapse. One minister said it was God's will. American Protective Association members blamed the Pope. The Elgin Democrat reasoned that profits of big business had been too high while wages remained low. Others decried the rampant speculation that had preceded the Panic. Republicans found a scapegoat in President Grover Cleveland and his low tariff policies. The Democrats had been gaining strength prior to the Panic, electing a Kane County sheriff and treasurer in 1890. This was the first time they had captured these offices since pre-Civil War days. In 1892, Cleveland had received 40.6 percent of the two-party vote in Elgin Township. The panic ended this resurgence. Bryan got only 23.5 percent of the Elgin vote in 1896, although the city was one of his stops during the campaign.
A slow revival began early in 1895, when the watch factory resumed production for inventory, but the Panic of '93 had weakened confidence in an industrial way of life. There were cries of "scab protectors" when the local National Guard company left for strike duty in Chicago. When prosperity returned, Elgin workers embraced the security offered by labor unions.
The first labor union of importance in Elgin was the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, which rose to prominence in the '80's. Many of the Knights were watch factory employees, and in 1886, their candidate for the state legislature, Arwin Price, carried the township over his Republican and Democratic opponents. The Order, open to all workers and vague in its aims, dwindled in numbers by the end of the decade. When Henry Demarest Lloyd, the social reformer, addressed an Elgin audience in the spring of 1890, he noted the absence of labor unions in the city.
Nevertheless, at year's end, Local 5504 of the American Federation of Labor was organized. Although management ignored its existence, by late September 1891 the union had more than six hundred members and was encouraging workers at Waltham and other plants to join the movement. At about the same time a separate union of the company's machinists was chartered. Employees complained that management officials in Chicago were cold and distant and unacquainted with their problems.
Shoe Factory Road, running along the northern border of Hanover Township, derives its name from this plant located on Congdon Avenue. The shoe factory, erected in 1891, was one of several industries which moved to Elgin from Chicago.
Discontent among employees had been growing with the company's profits. After one distribution to stockholders, the Advocate questioned why, "with all this harvest of the golden sheaves, is it necessary to pare down the wages of some of its humblest operatives, as has been done from time to time?"9 Resentment smoldered under the tyranny of some supervisors. "How would a certain foreman like to see his daughter treated as he treats other people's daughters?" asked the factory correspondent of the Every Saturday.10 Work at the big plant was described as dehumanizing by this same reporter:
Many a young man and woman has gained a place at the bench, fresh from a country home, without even the rudiments of a mechanical education, and has for years, from youth to middle age, performed over and over again, thousands of times a day, the same little operation. They are human machines who work only that they may make a living.11New automatic machines that fed themselves material, performed their operations and discharged the work were the creations of William A. Gabriel, a mechanical genius from Connecticut who became head of the designing and drafting department in 1888. "We give the benefits to the consumers of watches. We can make them cheaper and sell them cheaper," explained President Avery,12 but the workers viewed the automatics as a threat to wages based on skill. They also narrowed the differences in productivity between male and female employees. In 1891, daily rates for a ten-hour day for men ranged from two dollars and twenty-five cents to two dollars and fifty cents and for women not over one dollar and thirty-five cents. Women paid at the lower wage level could be shifted into the tasks simplified by the new machines. One of the automatics replaced twenty-five workers earning a total of sixty-two dollars and fifty cents per day with a youth paid one dollar and fifty cents.
The fears about these consequences of automation were expressed by the employee reporter in the Every Saturday, December 5, 1891:
A single hand is no longer required to carry on several operations upon a watch part. Each man or girl has his or her single operation and any greenhand, of average intelligence, can soon learn them. There are exceptions, and fortunate is he who comes under this head, for to him, and to him only, is independence more than a meaningless word.Some envisioned unemployment. The Daily News on July 31, 1894, quoted a Waltham worker who had been laid off:
Pretty soon they will be backing wagons up to the rear doors of the shops, loaded with brass, nickel and jewels, and trotting the horses round to the front doors to take the finished watches off the steps without a human hand having touched the blamed things.Hard work, accompanied by sobriety and thrift, was supposed to lead to material success. For a new generation of employees, this belief could not explain obvious inequities or the seeming injustice of layoffs beyond their control.
Local 5504 disappeared during the Panic of '93, but the comforting sense of security that watch workers had enjoyed in the years of expansion was dispelled by the layoffs. The company's directors had appropriated one thousand dollars for the relief of the unemployed, but they also voted eighteen hundred dollars for the development of another automatic. With the return of prosperity, the union was revived as Local 6091. In August 1898, the piecework rate among skilled stem-winders was cut from seventy seven cents to fifty cents a box. When the male workers protested, they were replaced by women, but twenty-two women joined eighty-nine men in the walkout, the first in the company's history. President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor was involved in the negotiations that led to a settlement. Unrest continued. It was claimed early in 1899 that wages in the plate department were forty per cent lower than in 1892.
Although Local 6091 enrolled a majority of the male employees, its bargaining power was weakened by the exclusion of the lady watch makers. Comprising about half the work force, they were compelled to form an auxiliary of their own. The American Federation of Labor, chiefly interested in representing skilled craftsman, was opposed to the employment of women in factories. It was claimed they cheapened wages, were easily manipulated by management and as temporary workers cared little about maintaining hard-won benefits.
Hundreds of women employees, however, had long tenures at the Elgin National Watch Company, and they included the married as well as the unwed and widowed. Many romances were culminated through close relationships at the big factory, and the bride often returned to her bench after the honeymoon. Six women were employed for fifty years or more, and scores worked for more than forty. Despite extended periods of service, the wage discrimination continued. Females were not considered for promotion. None was ever made the head of a department, and it wasn't until 1917 that a woman was appointed a jobmaster.
Of special concern to the watch company as an employer of large numbers of women was a state law enacted with the encouragement of Governor John P. Altgeld and Florence Kelley of Hull House. Women were limited to eight hours of work per day, and a factory inspector posted notice of the regulation in December 1893. The company refused to obey the law, arguing that it was intended to apply only to sweat shops and not to well-lighted, heated and ventilated factories. Warrants were issued against the firm's officials. The Illinois Supreme Court later declared the legislation unconstitutional on the ground that it abridged freedom of contract.
Labor troubles were also breaking out among the shoe workers. After the shoe factory was placed in receivership, Grote and Church obtained the controlling interest and ran it on a limited scale. In 1897, the plant was sold to Selz-Schwab & Company of Chicago. With the return to full production came a militant union. A strike began March 17, 1898 and lasted more than three months. Another walkout occurred on January 11, 1899, and work wasn't resumed until March 4.
In the fall of 1898 there were only four unions with membership in the newly organized Elgin Trades Council-the machinists, bakers, cigar makers, and shoe workers-but interest in unionization spread rapidly. At the invitation of the Watchworkers' Union, Samuel Gompers spoke in Elgin on October 19, 1898, and Jane Addams of Hull House gave an address at the First Congregational Church on January 18, 1899, on "The Relation of Women to Trades Unionism." In 1899 alone, additional unions were formed among the watch case workers, retail clerks, barbers, printers, tailors, custom boot and shoe makers, painters and decorators, laborers and carpenters. In a series of resolutions extending from 1900 through 1901, the City Council required that union labor be employed on all city projects. Organization continued apace, until by 1903 there were more than forty trade and labor unions in Elgin with a combined membership of more than five thousand.
The rise of unions was accompanied by a reform movement led by two young ministers fresh from their studies under Graham Taylor at the Chicago Theological Seminary. The Rev. Winfield R. Gaylord served as pastor of the Prospect Street Congregational Church from 1896 until 1898, when he became assistant minister of the First Congregational Church downtown. He was succeeded by the Rev. Carl D. Thompson. Both were convinced the church should become an instrument of social change as well as a means of individual salvation.
When lagging financial support of the Prospect Street church was charged to Thompson's preaching of the social gospel in the spring of 1899, a canvass of the membership was taken. Encouraged by results which seemed to support his views, the Reverend Mr. Thompson made his position clear: "Therefore, with re-doubled energy and vigor, I shall press forward into the thick of the struggle for the Kingdom of God on earth. I tell you plainly now in order that there may be no misunderstanding, that so long as I preach here, this pulpit will never cease to ring with cries for social reform. You are to expect not less, but more of appeal for industrial, economic and civic righteousness."13
Thompson formed a men's movement at the Prospect Street church in June 1899. Under its auspices, well-known reformers came to speak in Elgin, including Tom L. Johnson, advocate of the single tax, who later became mayor of Cleveland, and Samuel L. ("Golden Rule") Jones, mayor of Toledo, a manufacturer and advocate of unionism who had established an eight-hour day, vacations with pay, and a minimum wage in his own plant. The Rev. J. Stitt Wilson, a friend of Gaylord and Thompson, conducted his "Social Crusade," a series of meetings in revival style based on the idea that church brotherhood meant a new social justice and righteousness in economic life. Graham Taylor's Chicago Commons opened a camp on the Penney farm northwest of Elgin in June 1900 to give boys and girls from the slums a taste of rural life.
These activities shocked many in the church and community. A drop in attendance convinced Thompson that the majority no longer endorsed his advocacy of Christian socialism, and he resigned his pastorate in December 1900 to form the People's Church, which conducted Sunday evening meetings at the Opera House. Among the titles of sermons given there were: "The Economics of the Kingdom of Heaven," "Methods and Morals of Taxation," and "The Social Christ."
Thompson left his pastorate at the People's Church early in 1902 to join Wilson's Social Crusade in California, and the center of the local reform movement shifted to the trade union. In 1903, James H. Brower, a carpenter and president of the Building Trades Council, was the Socialist candidate for mayor of Elgin and received 397 votes. This was less than nine per cent of the ballots cast, but a visiting Socialist speaker was heartened by "the healthy growth of the party in Elgin" and predicted that the "future is ours and that future is not far off."14 This was the year more than five thousand marched in Elgin's biggest Labor Day parade, and in an open letter to Samuel Gompers, the local machinists' union decried his abstention from politics:
We believe that the methods of organized labor once effective are now lacking-that unless we broaden our lines and enter new fields of activities, we are bound to become annihilated by the new methods of the monopolist ... and that we must enter the political arena conscious of our class interests.15But the Elgin Socialists were overwhelmed by the return of good times, the middle class character of the community and the charisma of Theodore Roosevelt, the trust buster. In 1904, the Socialist candidate for president, Eugene V. Debs, received less than five per cent of the Elgin vote; Teddy garnered 82 percent of the total. The unions returned to the goals of higher wages and job security. And what became of the Reverends Gaylord and Thompson? They were elected as Socialists to the Wisconsin state legislature, where Gaylord, to the astonishment of the Illinois city he had left, announced that he was more able to say what he meant standing at a bar in a saloon than from a pulpit.
4. Island Fever
When war was declared on Spain in April 1898, Elgin's Company E, 3rd Regiment, Illinois National Guard, was called up. Led by Captain Benjamin E. Gould, escorted by G.A.R. members through a cheering crowd and serenaded by Hecker's band, the company left the Milwaukee Road station for training. Early in August, under the protective guns of the cruiser Cincinnati, the 3rd Illinois landed at Aroyo, Puerto Rico. With the 4th Ohio, they marched to Guayama, where they were fired upon from the hills. They replied at long range, and the Spaniards disappeared. The liberators settled down to outpost duty after the peace protocol was signed on August 12.
The rainy season came. Pvt. Nels Nelson wrote home: "The hospital is crowded with the sick, most of them suffering from malaria or typhoid fever. I have not seen a Spanish soldier yet."16 At one time during this epidemic, two-thirds of the company ere unable to carry rifles. Dr. Carlton E. Starrett of Elgin, assistant regimental surgeon, pleaded in a letter to his wife: "If there is anything you can do to arouse public sentiment to hold meetings by citizens and get up a racket to get the soldiers home, it will save many lives. The food used here is something awful, and a continual flow into the hospital is a result."17 Company E finally left Puerto Rico on November 3. They received a tumultuous welcome on their arrival home. Five Elgin men died of disease in this "splendid little war" that made America a world power.
When the United States encountered guerrilla resistance in bringing civilization to the Philippines, opinion in town was divided. In October 1900, spokesmen for the differing viewpoints on imperialism visited Elgin during the presidential. campaign. Theodore Roosevelt, the former Rough Rider and now a candidate for the vice presidency, asked a cheering audience "to declare once for all ... that where the American flag has been hoisted in honor, it shall never be pulled down in dishonor."18 Clarence Darrow, the Chicago defense attorney, was ironic: "The Filipinos haven't done anything. I presume that there are young men from Elgin who have gone over there to shoot them. They have undoubtedly taken bullets and prayer books."19
Puerto Rico became an American possession, and its residents were subsequently
granted citizenship. Spanish-speaking and impoverished, they would one
day come to Elgin in large numbers. During the Second World War, Elgin
soldiers, sailors and airmen would die helping to recapture the Philippines
from the Japanese.
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
Town in the West
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