The main plant of the Elgin National Watch Company was constructed in stages between 1902 and 1927.
"This town is too small for flappers. There are a number of us who would like to be flappers, but if we were, we'd probably get a licking at home."1
Chapter VII: Whirling Twenties
The '20s blew in with a savage tornado, but the whole decade was a whirlwind of exuberant expansion. Population reached 33,385 in a special census conducted in December 1925, a gain of more than twenty percent over the total in 1920. It was the most rapid growth since the early '90s. The Elgin National Watch Company was the eye of the big spin, assembling more than nine million movements and earning twenty-two million dollars. Payrolls from a work force that swelled past four thousand whipped up a building boom.
Elginites flocked to the movies and listened to WTAS, drank bootleg beer, cheered the basketball championships of the Maroons, gasped at the free ways of sheiks and their shebas, jammed downtown streets with their new cars and heard rumors that Chicago gangsters controlled roadhouses east and west of town. Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions, Cosmopolitan and Exchange clubs were chartered for community service, and the city's first bathing beauty contest sent the winner to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. The benefactions of Nathaniel and Laura Davidson Sears lifted Elgin Academy to the front rank among Midwest prep schools and brought the city a fine collection of early American paintings. The excitement reached a climax with the erection of a fifteen-story skyscraper on Fountain Square, just before the wind died down in 1929.
1. Palm Sunday Tornado
At noon on Palm Sunday, March 28, 1920, families were returning from church services or looking forward to dinner, unaware that about five minutes later, three and a half miles southwest of Geneva, a tornado was beginning to roar its way toward Elgin. It passed one-half mile east of the St. Charles Training School for Boys at 12:10 p.m., and reached the center of the city, fifteen miles from its starting point, at 12:23 p.m., traveling at an average velocity of fifty miles per hour. Twisting and turning, the wind cut a swath about two blocks wide from the southwest corner of the city to the north end of Dundee Avenue. It headed out across the northwestern part of Cook County into Lake County, continuing due northeast to Wauconda. The total length of its path was approximately thirty miles.
Preceded by a heavy rain, violent hail, and then sudden darkness, the funnel cloud first descended on Adams Street, near the city limits, where a father was crushed by a collapsing house but the baby in his arms remained unhurt. Racing along Elm Street, wrecking houses and uprooting trees, the tornado turned onto Walnut Avenue, where three blocks from Billings to Perry were laid waste. Little damage was done as the storm came down Standish to South State Street. The raging wind crossed the Fox between Prairie Street and the Milwaukee Road depot, scooping the water from the bed of the river, and smashed into the east side business section. Completely demolished were the George M. Peck store and the Grand Theater, where two vaudeville performers were killed in a dressing room as they prepared for the afternoon show. Practically the entire roof was torn away at Ackemann's, and most of the large plate-glass windows were broken. The entire second floor of the Wait and Ross furniture store was ruined. The City Hall and the First Methodist Church were structurally weakened.
Most of the worshippers had left the Congregational Church, but two women and a girl were buried in debris when the storm forced open the main doors and knocked the brick tower into the main auditorium, sending debris from the ceiling and balcony through the floor and into the basement. One woman was crushed to death at the Baptist Church when a part of the brick front fell inward and down through the balcony to the main floor. Had the tornado arrived during services at these two large churches, the loss of fife would have been much greater.
Tornado wreckage: Riverside drive above, and an overturned barn on Seneca Street below.
Leaving downtown, the storm blew along Dundee Avenue, destroying or damaging residences and shredding the roof and second floor of the Selz-Schwab shoe factory. Barns and thirty head of cattle on two farms along the road to Dundee were destroyed. Light and power were cut off. The local National Guard company was called out to patrol the streets and prevent looting, and the business district was roped off by five o'clock. The disaster left seven dead in Elgin, seriously injured about thirty, and destroyed at least one million dollars in property.
The scenes left behind were awe-inspiring. About twenty-five houses were destroyed. Some were completely leveled, and others lay intact but on their sides. Several had entire roofs and walls ripped away. Scores of residences were severely damaged. Shattered glass was everywhere. Tangled meshes of uprooted trees, downed telephone poles and wires, overturned automobiles, and material tom from buildings made many streets impassable. The big clean-up began next day, with people from all walks of life helping to clear away the rubble.
Witnesses marveled at the freak occurrences. One man was lifted off the ground, twirled around twenty feet in the air, and then pitched through a plate glass window in the downtown district. He emerged with only a few slight cuts. Six members of one family were sitting in the parlor of their home at Mosely and Orange streets when the storm picked the house off its base and carried it down the block, revealing the family still seated. An automobile parked in front of Ackemann's was stripped of its top and body, leaving only the bare chassis standing. A kitchen knife, blown two hundred yards from a residence, was driven four inches into a tree. The steeple of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church was snapped off at the base, did a somersault on the way down, and was deposited on the ground in one piece.
One result of the tornado was a new department store. The disaster left George M. Peck's store a rain-soaked shambles. The aging Civil War veteran began selling the salvaged stock on the second floor of the Peter Burritt building until a new four-story building on the cleared site was erected. He then sold the business to the general manager of Ackemann's, Joseph C. Spiess. His store opened in February 1921 and became the chief anchor of the South Grove retail section.
2. Labor Troubles
One wage earner out of five in the United States was engaged in a work stoppage in 1919. Workers walked out at the Elgin Butter Tub, Elgin Metal Novelty, Elgin Manufacturing and other local plants, but the street car strike was the most disruptive. It was a complex dispute involving inflationary pressures, the growing popularity of the automobile and government regulation of fares.
The street car lines were owned by the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railroad, a corporation which operated the Elgin-Aurora and Elgin-Carpentersville interurbans and the third-rail line into Chicago. The AE&C generating stations, moreover, supplied the city's power and light. In the year ending June 30, 1918, the Elgin street car line, running twenty-three trollies over twelve and a half miles of track, carried 3.7 million passengers.
When the fare was raised from five cents to six cents on July 2, 1918, the number of riders fell to 2.9 million annually. The higher fare, not authorized by the Elgin city franchise agreement, became an issue in the mayoral contest of 1919. Arwin Price had returned to the hustings, once again presenting himself as an underdog courageously battling the business interests that allegedly ran the city. Denouncing his opposition as the "silk stocking" crowd, he asked, "Do you want to be represented by a man who will look after the interests of the common people or by a man who represented the corporations?"2 Price's platform said he would see to it that the street car fare was returned to five cents or he would "turn back every penny of my first year's salary, $2,500, to the city treasury"3 This was the first time Price had run since women were allowed to vote in municipal elections, a factor which lessened his chances. Despite the opposition of both newspapers, the sixty-eight-year-old champion of the common man was returned to City Hall.
In the spring of 1918 the union of AE&C employees had approved a two-year contract with the company that provided for a ten-hour day and increased wage rates by ten cents per hour. On July 14, 1919, the union asked for a general increase of forty-one cents per hour and an eight-hour day. The company, which had been running with a deficit, replied that it was unable to grant any increases without a rise in fares. Backed by a strike vote of 466 to 25, AE&C employees, including about seventy Elgin street car workers, struck at 3 a.m. in the morning of July 30,1919.
The strike lasted twenty-three days, forced the complete or Partial closing of more than two dozen local factories that depended upon the Batavia power house for electricity, resulted in unemployment for more than a thousand non-strikers, and Plunged night time Elgin into darkness. The watch factory wasn't affected because it generated its own power, but residents without cars had to walk to work, and kerosene lamps were brought down from the attic. Reporters assembling for the first road race since the war kept the nation informed of developments. The situation at the city water pumping station and the two hospitals was the most serious. Mayor Price's threat to avert a water famine by running river water into the city mains was forestalled by a union pledge to run power to the hospitals and pumping station after the lines were segregated. The rest of the city was left without power, except those plants operating with makeshift steam and gas engines.
When the union offered to scale down their wage proposal to fifteen cents, AE&C officials answered that even this amount would result in a nine cents fare. Such an increase, they claimed, would result in a further loss of riders to the automobile. A final company offer was five cents per hour, which the strikers rejected on August lith by a vote of 429 to 41. Meanwhile, Arwin Price was insisting that the fare be returned to the franchise rate of five cents. The stalemate was finally resolved by the company's bankruptcy. On August 19th, the U. S. district court in Chicago instructed the receiver to operate the Batavia power plant and to grant a temporary five cents per hour increase. If the strikers refused to resume work, he was ordered to begin operations with other men. An arbitrator would be appointed to take up the wage question. The men voted to return to work, and power was restored on August 21st.
On December 11th, employees were granted a permanent six and a half cent per hour increase, and the following month the company was allowed to raise fares to eight cents. Taunted by a citizen about his failure to return his first year's salary, the mayor blandly replied, "You shouldn't believe all you read in the papers."4 During the receivership, the valley interurbans were separated from the third-rail division that ran into Chicago. The former became the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Company and the latter, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin.
The street car men gained little from their strike, but the unrest continued. In 1921, printers walked out at the Courier for five days, and the Associated Building Contractors began a concerted drive against the closed shop. The Elgin Trades Council fought back, and construction activities were halted for a time. The city's labor turmoil was a prologue to a conflict between the school teachers and the Board of Education.
When the Elgin Teachers Association was formed in 1920, an amendment to its proposed constitution, barring the organization from resorting to strikes or boycotts to accomplish its purposes, was voted down. Some of the businessmen who constituted a majority on the school board were unfriendly to the idea of unionism, and the failure of the ETA to adopt the amendment tended to confirm their suspicions of its tendencies. Instead of striking, however, principal and teacher dissatisfaction with Supt. Robert I. White and the inflationary squeeze led the ETA into political action.
Board of Education elections were usually uncontested, perfunctory rites which aroused little interest. In 1921 only sixty-six voters turned out at the polls. In April 1922, the ETA, led by Nellie K. Hanaford of Lowrie School, filed a slate of candidates opposed to those supported by the board. The key contest was a battle between Dr. Edward H. Abbott, the incumbent, and the Rev. Frank D. Adams of the First Universalist, backed by the teachers, for the presidency of the board. Among the issues in the election was the quality of education provided by the district's schools. 'Me Abbott faction pointed to 1920 census figures which showed that Elgin had the lowest percentage of illiteracy of any major Illinois city and the highest number of high school students per one thousand population. Adams claimed the district had no night or continuation school and implied that the high school program emphasized preparation for college and neglected the needs of the student who wanted only a high school diploma.
The contests drew a record turnout. Abbott overwhelmed Adams, 4,551 to 1,271, and the entire "teacher's ticket" went down in defeat by comparable margins. The victors and the holdover board members wreaked their vengeance at the board meeting of May 26, 1922. Fourteen teachers were dismissed and seventeen placed on probation. Only three of the eleven elementary school principals were tendered contracts. No one received an increase in salary.
Despondent over her dismissal, Mary E. Long, principal of Sheridan School, committed. suicide by taking poison early in the morning of May 30th. Long, who had been raised in Elgin, was an admired veteran of twenty-seven years' service, and public opinion quickly turned against the board. Prodded by outraged citizens, the board met in special session the evening of her death and rescinded its actions. At a subsequent meeting the board accepted Superintendent White's resignation, offered contracts to the teachers placed on probation, and agreed to take up the cases of the dismissed teachers on an individual basis. All except three Were later rehired. The next year, the Elgin Teachers Association was dissolved, and the board gave its approval to a new faculty group, the Elgin Council of Education.
The whole affair was given widespread publicity in the Chicago papers, and through them to the entire country. The annual convention of National Education Association, voted for a complete investigation. The report submitted cited the growing estrangement between superintendent and teachers as the main cause, but included the board's misinterpretation of ETA methods as contributory.
3. Industrial Leadership
The Elgin National Watch Company dominated the domestic watch industry in the '20s. The local output averaged one million movements annually from 1920 through 1928, more than half of the domestic watch production and more than twice what the closest competitor, Waltham, was turning out. In 1922, when Elgin reported a net income after taxes of $1,275,181, Waltham had a deficit of $2,011,920. The war had popularized the wrist watch, and the market shifted away from the pocket model. The Jazz Age consumer wanted freedom from the watch chain, and Elgin adapted more quickly than Waltham to the change in demand.
Company ads aimed at males emphasized the convenience of the new style and appealed to the manliness of the wearer:
Your regular fellow takes off his gloves, unbuttons his undercoat, digs out his watch, looks at it, puts it back in his vest pocket, buttons his undercoat, buttons his overcoat and then says, 'Was it 2:34 or 2:35?'The smaller movements led the company to begin casing for greater accuracy. By 1926, of the thirty-five grades of movements, eleven were cased completely at the factory.
The man who sports an Elgin strap watch shoots up his cuff, and is confronted by the true time expressed by a pair of bold, masculine hands on a dial that's plain as a pikestaff.5
The big factory's annual earnings exceeded two million dollars from 1923 through 1927, and in 1925 they topped three million dollars, the highest in the company's history. According to Elgin advertisements appearing in the Saturday Evening Post in the first six months of 1928, there were at that time 14,418 retail jewelers in the U. S., and all but twelve of them were selling Elgins.
Many jewelry store repairmen were now graduates of the Elgin Watchmakers College, which opened in 1921 in a new building on South Grove Avenue. This trade school was endowed by the company, and students benefitted from the close association with watchmaking operations. The company gained from a growing corps of repairmen trained to maintain its products.
The plant was expanded with the increased sales. Building 4, the center wing directly in the rear of and parallel to Building 1 facing National Street, was started late in 1921 and completed early in 1923. It was five stories, plus basement and attic. The original structure of 1866 was demolished to make room for the new arrangement. The old south wing was razed in the early summer of 1926, and construction began on Buildings 5 and 5A. Building 5, the new south wing, consisted of four floors and basement with a center section of five floors. Its length was four hundred ninety-five feet and the width twenty-eight feet, with the exception of a center section which was one hundred thirty feet deep. Building 5A, which adjoined the east of the center portion of the new wing, was four stories in height. The two structures, which were ready for occupancy late in 1927, brought the total floor space to 21.3 acres.
The directors added to the capital stock to reflect the increase in physical plant and earning power. In 1920, the authorized capital was increased from five million dollars (50,000 shares at a par value of one hundred dollars) to seven million dollars (280,000 shares at twenty-five dollars par). In 1923, a stock dividend raised the authorized capital to eight and a half million dollars, and yet another stock dividend declared in 1925 increased this to ten million dollars. The company had paid dividends every year since 1880 and was free of debt after the last of the six percent certificates of 1887 had been redeemed in 1901. Dividends rose in 1921-23, but did not reflect the increasing profits because plant expansion was financed out of earnings. From 1925 through 1929, however, they were never less than $1.4 million annually, and in 1926 reached $3,548,265.
Sharing in these distributions were employees, who became stockholders after the split of 1920. One-seventh of the total of 280,000 shares was made available to them, and to facilitate purchase, a bonus amounting to ten per cent of their entire wages for 1920 was paid in 1921 when the stock was offered for sale. More than half of the employees accepted the offer, buying a total of 15,428 shares.
Ninety per cent of the cost of a watch represented labor; only ten per cent of the cost was for raw materials. In producing a million movements, the plant used only about one hundred tons of metal. The manufacturing process emphasized a minute division of labor. One worker usually performed a single operation. To further reduce costs, William A. Gabriel and his associates in the designing and machine room continued to perform technological marvels. One machine drilled, countersunk and tapped holes in the lower plate. Composed of fifteen thousand parts, the machine accomplished 105 operations, completing a plate every fifteen seconds. It was enclosed in a glass case and ran in an oil spray. Every tool on the machine was connected by wire to a circuit breaker, which stopped the machine if breakage occurred. A flashing light then pointed to the trouble area.
Assembly operations remained a repetitive, exacting process entailing the handling of small parts under tension and often requiring use of a magnifier. Although pushed by the piecework system and pressed by cost-conscious foremen, wages were considered superior to jobs in the city's other plants. A growing number of children and even grandchildren of earlier employees were now at the benches. While turnover in the first six months was high, those who stayed had long job tenures. In 1919, nearly a thousand had been in the shop twenty-five years; more than four hundred for thirty years; and ninety for forty or more years.
The fringe benefits were generous for the era, and did much to promote loyalty to the firm. A more generous pension fund was established in 1918 to which both the employees and the company contributed on a matching basis. The next year, the Aid and Mortuary funds were combined into the Relief Fund and turned over to a newly formed Employees Advisory Council. In addition to providing health and life insurance protection, the council assumed management of the gymnasium, organized athletic leagues and entertainment, and, beginning in 1921, published a monthly magazine, The Watch Word. Much of the expense of these activities was assumed by the company.
Representatives on the council were chosen from each of the departments. The council's initial report, issued in 1920, emphasized one of its aims: "It was sought to eliminate friction and controversy in every possible way, and substitute, therefore, cordial co-production between the management and employees." Elgin was spared the labor troubles of Waltham, which was hit by a strike lasting more than five months in 1924-25 and resulted in recognition of a union.
Of all the presidents of the Elgin National Watch Company, none was more respected by the employees than Charles H. Hulburd (18501924). During the years of his management, 1898-1924, the firm expanded fringe benefits and made substantial contributions toward community betterment.
In November 1926, there were 4,370 on the payroll-2,200 women and 2,170 men-working a forty-four and a half hour week and producing about four thousand movements daily. From management's viewpoint, they were members of Father Time's family. The employees developed a love-hate relationship to this paternalism. Their jobs and social lives became intertwined. News of marriages, vacation, and sports activities found their way into the pages of The Watch Word, where individuals received recognition often denied them elsewhere. But dependence upon the good will of Father Time and his representatives was seldom forgotten. The foremen were frequently given gifts and other testimonials to mark their birthdays.
4. Silver Screens and Crystal Sets
Movies, longer in length and focused on the star system, were more popular than ever. "Surging, pressing, impatient, clamoring crowds push and shove before the wicket," reported the Couzier. They were there "to see Pickford and determined to see Pickford to as good advantage as possible."6 Larger and more comfortable facilities were at hand. Although the Grand was totally destroyed by the tornado and the Temple was razed by fire the same year, the new Grove opened in December 1920 in a fifty thousand dollar building furnished with one thousand seats and a pipe organ. This was the first of Elgin's silent palaces.
Closely following the opening of the Grove came an even more luxurious theater. The Grand was rebuilt and opened as the Rialto in April 1921, with Orpheurn Circuit vaudeville acts and Norma Talmadge in "The Passion Flower." It had a seating capacity of about 1,350 and cost upwards of $130,000. Patrons had a complete view of the stage from every section, even though the last row of seats was more than one hundred feet away. The stage had a frontage of seventy-two feet and was thirty feet deep. Finally, the largest of all, the Crocker, opened in September 1923 with Constance Talmadge in "Dulcie" and three acts of vaudeville. Located just north of the Star on South Grove, it was equipped with a Wurlitzer organ and seated about sixteen hundred.
In their constant battle with film producers and distributors, the exhibitors could only hold their own by combining forces. Large groups of theaters gained an advantage in purchasing films, both in price and selection. By 1924, Frank J. Thielen of Aurora had put together a strong group of more than two dozen leaseholds, including the Grove, Rialto and Crocker, and then sold out to the even larger Chicago-based chain of Barney Balaban and Sam Katz. This provided stiff competition for the two remaining smaller houses. The Orpheum, its name now changed to the Midway, closed in 1924. The Star found an audience by appealing to Elgin's youth with double-feature Westerns until it flickered out in 1929.
With the advent of sound, which required extensive alterations in the theater, Balaban & Katz decided to close the Grove in the fall of 1927 and introduce the new sensation at the Rialto. Delores Costello and Conrad Nagel, "talking and acting as if they stepped out of the screen onto the stage,"7 appeared in "Tenderloin" in September 1928. The Crocker's first talkie came a year later with "The Careless Age," starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Loretta Young.
The silver screen was likened in one local ad to "a pair of wings that carry me far, far out of myself and my limitations, far from today and its problems."8 Those who didn't choose this form of escape could stay home, put on head phones, adjust their crystal sets, and listen to Radio Station WTAS air Elgin's name across the land. Its chief attraction was the brash owner and announcer, Charlie Erbstein, a Chicago attorney.
Before he abandoned criminal for civil practice, mainly divorces, Charles E. Erbstein compiled a record of having defended more than a hundred persons accused of murder without having the death penalty imposed. Three times he was threatened with disbarment, and on each occasion, acting as his own impassioned attorney, he was acquitted and emerged full of fight for another battle. Erbstein would run up and down in front of the jury box, shouting his arguments and excoriating the prosecution. His inexhaustible energy, droll wit, and legal brilliance ranked him with Clarence Darrow, and his income grew with his notoriety.
Erbstein first appeared in Elgin as the sponsor of a car during the road races. In 1915, he purchased more than two hundred acres east of the Peter Sharp hill and south of the Lake Street road (now U.S. 20) in Hanover Township. There he erected a large residence and riding stable and later developed his own golf course. He named his estate Villa Olivia after a daughter.
In 1922 he rigged up a small broadcasting room at his home. His station, originally listed at 9AWK, was a replica of the radio room aboard American naval vessels, complete with navigation lights and illuminated portholes. His hobby quickly expanded to larger quarters above a pump house. The popularity of his broadcasts, now using the call letters WTAS, grew. In the spring of 1923, Erbstein purchased Motor Inn, an eatery with rumored bootleg connections about a mile and a quarter west of Villa Olivia. He transformed this place into an attractive restaurant called the Purple Grackle. A special wire strung from the Grackle to WTAS made possible radio broadcasts by the restautant's orchestras.
The dramatic talents which had entranced juries was now directed to a larger audience. Erbstein's banter and singing kept the programs "pepped up." His readings, with syncopated backgrounds from the Grackle, included "The Bowlegged Boy," "The Curse of Drink," and a rollicking burlesque, "The Bull Fight." The music, Erbstein's recitations, and salty "Willie, Tommy, Annie and Sammy" dialogues, gave WTAS an audience throughout the Middle West. After its power was increased in June 1923 with the installation of three 200-foot transmitting towers and new generators, it could be heard all over the country. One correspondent reported he tuned in on a ship off the coast of China. WTAS won a contest conducted by the Milwaukee Journal for the most popular radio station in 1924. The curious began congregating at Villa Olivia, driving over the beautiful lawns and disturbing the operation. Gates were erected, and guard dogs were turned loose at night.
Erbstein, who had no need for commercial revenue, said his broadcasts served three purposes: to entertain himself, to entertain the public, and to assist his favorite charities. More than one million dollars poured in for the relief of victims of a disaster, about five and a half million cigarettes and cigars were collected for disabled war veterans, and funds were raised for patients at Elgin State Hospital.
There were critics, particularly in Elgin, who took offense to Erbstein's spiced comment or complained that WTAS was interfering with the reception of other stations. WTAS did not observe the Monday "silent night" for Chicago stations to clear the air lanes for distant broadcasts. Erbstein answered the criticism by announcing, "If the people of Elgin are not proud of the fact that this station is already known all over the world as an Elgin station, I shall hereafter, if they so desire, state that the Villa Olivia broadcasting station is located in Hanover Township, Cook County, Illinois."9 Three months later, mollified by the support of Elgin businessmen, he returned to locating his station "near Elgin."
Charles E. Erbstein (1876-1927) made a fortune as a divorce attorney, then turned over his practice to assistants and became the impresario Of INTAS. In 1923 his radio station was airing Yes! We Have No Bananas, Barney Google, Who's Sorry Now and other tunes from the Purple Grackle.
A pioneer in remote hook-ups, WTAS began broadcasting over leased wires in March 1924 from Kimball Hall in Chicago. Erbstein also operated a sister station, WCEE, on a different wave length. Although the station was maintained at Villa Olivia, most of the programming was transferred to Kimball Hall. In October 1925, Erbstein sold WTAS to Liberty magazine, and WLIB began operating over its wave length. In 1927 WTAS returned to the air for a brief period on the WCEE wave length. The transmitting equipment, however, was moved to Chicago. After the Federal Radio Commission ordered ninety-one stations in the fourth radio zone off the air, including WTAS and WLIB, WTAS was consolidated with the Chicago Tribune's WGN effective November 11, 1928.
5. How's Business?
In the presidential election of 1924, Calvin Coolidge received 10,888 votes in Elgin Township; his Democratic opponent limped behind with only 854. "Silent Cal" is reported to have said, among other memorable utterances, that "the chief business of the American people is business."10 In Elgin in the '20s, business, with one horrendous exception, was very good. The Elgin Association of Commerce had more to trumpet than watches and watch cases. The city's humming factories continued to turn out windmills, street sweepers, butter tubs, religious literature, pianos, shirts, shoes, grey iron castings, container filling machinery, jewelry novelties, stoves and ovens.
The cannery closed down, but other firms were introducing new lines or reaching production peaks. Oleo replaced butter as the major output of the B. S. Pearsall Butter Company, and Pearsall was elected president of the national margarine trade association. Collingbourne Mills, formerly called the Western Thread Company, was prospering with stamped embroidery pattems and the addition of silk to its annual output of millions of cotton and rayon spools. The Reiter Company, organized in 1917 to manufacture boiler-cleaning machinery, evolved into the Elgin Softener Company, with water softener and filter equipment for domestic and industrial purposes. Western Casket Hardware bought Elgin Silver Plate in 1926, becoming a leader in its field, and two years later began making metal caskets. The "chocolate malted" craze kept Borden's malted milk division busy. There was even an attempt at making aircraft, but Ta-Ho-Ma was defunct after testing its maroon and cream bi-plane in 1928.
Arthur Leath's was the kind of home-grown success story relished at business dinners. Arriving in Elgin in 1903 with a total capital of twelve dollars and fifty cents, he started out in a small, one-room upholstery repair shop, then branched out into the manufacture of mail order furniture. In 1915 A. Leath & Company entered the chain store field. By 1927 his Elgin factories were shipping three-piece living room suites to his thirty-two "Come Over To Our House" stores. Art Leath died a millionaire that year, but the business he established continued and now comprises more than 130 stores located throughout the country.
Residential construction, stimulated by the rise in population and the ravages of the tornado, proceeded briskly. In a period of little more than three years, from January 1, 1926, through the first four months of 1929, 839 housing units were built at a cost of $3 million. A typical bungalow with basement and fireplace on a fifty by one hundred twenty-five foot lot was priced about $6,600. Assets of the Elgin Loan and Homestead Association, chiefly home mortgages, more than tripled from $1.3 million in 1921 to $5 million in 1929. Loans seldom exceeded one-half of the appraised value of the property and were usually paid off within nine years. The Illinois Supreme Court did not uphold the zoning power of municipalities until 1925. The local ordinance was enacted three years later. Proposals to change zoning classifications have been a recurrent source of disputes coming before the City Council ever since.
Vigorous building activity was not confined to housing. Besides the theaters and industrial plants, major projects with their dates of completion included the First Methodist Church and Elgin Academy's Sears Art Gallery, 1924; the Fox Hotel, Masonic Temple, and Elgin Loan and Homestead Association, 1925; a big addition to St. Joseph Hospital, 1926; the Elks Club and the nine-story Professional Building, 1927; and the fifteen-story skyscraper for the Home Banks, 1929.
Real estate speculation caused the downfall of one business and its investors. Charles Rippberger entered the real estate and loan field about 1889 during an earlier Elgin boom. Not long before his death in 1915, he admitted a son, Walter, and a son-in-law, Sam T. Peterson, as active partners in the prospering firm. That year the younger men completed a handsome new office building on the northeast comer of Division and Spring streets. The Charles Rippberger Company developed into a non-chartered savings and loan institution and Peterson became a community leader. In a day when business prestige was at its highest, Sam Peterson was the businessman's businessman. In 1920, he was elected president of the Elgin Association of Commerce and in 1921, became president of both the YMCA and Kiwanis Club.
The firm advertised that it was "governed by a code of ethics dealing only fairness to all concerned,"11 and the city was thunderstruck in December 1925 when Peterson and Rippberger was arrested. Accounts had been doctored to cover heavy losses in farm land investments. Without notifying owners of securities left with them for safekeeping, they had used them as collateral to float bank loans in a futile attempt to stave off bankruptcy. Creditors filed claims of $1,260,000 and salvaged less than six and a half cents on the dollar. Many personal financial failures followed the debacle. Both men were convicted, Peterson paying a fine and Rippberger going to prison.
Some businesses were growing larger through consolidation. In 1929, the Illinois Public Utilities Commission issued an order merging the Chicago Telephone Company (later Illinois Bell) with the Interstate line, which then had seven hundred fifty subscribers. Elgin now had only one telephone system. Western United Gas and Electric was now one of Samuel Instill's Commonwealth Edison companies and took over the electric service from the transit system in 1924. The most publicized merger united the Courier and News, which had been engaged in a furious circulation war. In June 1921 the News led in the city, 4,235 to 3,870, but trailed behind its rival in total sales, 8,622 to 7,621. The Courier's edge in the outlying towns accounted for the difference. By the end of 1924, the Courier's circulation mounted to more than ten thousand, a figure which enabled the paper to double national advertising rates. Effective with the issue of January 2, 1926, the two papers were merged into the Courier-News.
Downtown was a crowded, bustling warren of retail trade and services. In 1925 the busiest section was a four-block area centered on DuPage Street and South Grove Avenue. Amusement seekers had a choice of two movie houses, a bowling alley and a billiard parlor. Two restaurants and four lunch rooms catered to the hungry. One of these, the Kelley Hotel Restaurant and Cafeteria, seated more than three hundred and was open twenty-four hours a day. There were also five groceries, two meat markets, three bakeries and six confectionaries. How about clothes? Two department stores, Swan's and the Joseph Spiess Company, sold wearing apparel, but there were also eleven clothing stores, four tailor shops and two shoe dealers.
That's not all. In this hive were four drug stores, two banks, four barber shops, three beauty parlors, two dime stores (Kresge's and Woolworth's), two lending firms, two furniture stores (Kimball's and Leath's), two florists, two hotels, twentyone real estate and insurance agencies, eleven law firms, ten physicians, eight dentists, three chiropractors, an optometrist, a gift shop, two tobacconists, a hardware, a photo finisher, a collection agency, an advertising service, a sign shop, stores selling radios, auto accessories, sewing machines and musical instruments ' and shoe, watch and radio repair shops. Other business establishments were thriving on East Chicago Street, Milwaukee Street, (where Ackemann's was located), Douglas Avenue, and Spring Street. Calvin Coolidge knew what he was talking about.
6. The Car
During the '20s most Elgin families acquired an automobile. Less than two thousand motor vehicles were owned by residents in 1920; ten years later, there were more than 7,500 local cars and trucks on the streets. Taxis had now replaced the livery stables, the last one closing in 1918, and the few remaining fire station horses were sold in 1922. About 1922-23 South Grove Avenue came to be recognized as "automobile row" with the concentration of sales agencies and garages in the area. Dealers displayed a variety of makes at the automobile show held in February 1922: Grant, Davis, Reo, Overland, Willys-Knight, Chevrolet, Elgin (made in Argo, Illinois, but advertised as "built like a watch"), Studebaker, Marmon, Huppmobile, Dort, Oldsmobile, Buick, Nash, Jordan, Durant, Paige, Lincoln, Auburn, Packard, Oakland, and the ever-present Model T Ford.
The first concrete highway between the Elgin area and Chicago, now Illinois 72, was completed in October 1920. It extended from Milwaukee Avenue on the outskirts of Chicago to the county line. Kane County then made plans to continue the road through East and West Dundee to join the Fox River Trail, now Illinois 31. Stimulated by the assumption of state responsibility for the construction and maintenance of highways, other roads soon followed. The Fox Valley Trail reached Dundee in 1922. The final stretch of concrete of the Lake Street Road, now U. S. 20, between Elgin and Chicago was poured in September 1923. A cement road, now Illinois 25, connecting Elgin and Dundee on the east side of the river was completed in August 1929. The opening in 1930 of the Elgin-St. Charles stretch of this highway gave the Fox Valley motorist roads on both sides of the river extending from north of Dundee to points south of Aurora.
None of these construction projects caused more controversy than the Elgin-Evanston road. What is now Illinois 58 was officially opened in June 1932 after protracted conferences, delays, arguments and dilatory maneuvers. Paving was started on the Illinois 72-to-Elgin section in the spring of 1928 and was soon dead ended in mud some fifty feet east of the city limits. The state wanted a right of way from the city boundary line westward on an extension of Summit Street, the ultimate objective being continuance by a proposed bridge over the river to Illinois 31. City officials objected strenuously to this route because it cut through a sixteen-acre tract located just north of Lords Park. It was claimed that a highway through this area's springs would interfere with the flow of water through the park. The commissioners offered a number of alternative entrance sites, but the state denied their contention and remained adamant. Meanwhile, the Elgin Motor Club, Elgin Association of Commerce, the Elgin Business Men's Association, and other groups were demanding: "Get the highway!" Finally, with the election of an entirely new commission in 1931, the acquisition of the Summit Street extension was authorized. The city, township and county each paid about one-third of the costs. The last major highway of the period, Irving Park Road (now Illinois 19), was completed to Chicago in 1934 after a viaduct was built over EJ&E tracks.
Both property owners and drivers wanted paved city streets. During the years 1922 through 1931, about seventy miles of concrete-cement roadway was constructed on a special assessment basis, the city paying a generous twenty percent or more as its share under the public benefit principle. Streets were at last free of mud and dust, but the city government had mired itself in debt.
The cars and new highways brought comfort, convenience and privacy to travel and profoundly changed patterns of living. They also created problems of safety, traffic regulation and parking. By 1926 when there were 276 accidents on the city's streets, resulting in seven deaths and forty-seven serious injuries, nearly half of all police arrests were for traffic violations. Stop signs were placed at through-street intersections, and the first traffic light was installed at the Villa and Liberty intersection in 1927. The next year, the City Council attempted to relieve downtown parking problems by imposing a one-hour limit.
Another result of the automobile was the decline of mass transit. As early as the street car strike of 1919, a former Elgin motorman had observed: "Automobiles are so numerous nowadays that street cars are no longer a necessity for many people."12 All through the '20s, the number of passengers carried by the interurbans and local trollies steadily declined.
The automobile also brought a new twist to an old male urge first noted by the Courier in 1920:
Sedate old Elgin, snuggled in the Fox River Valley, away from the evils of the city, is infested with that dangerous pest-the auto lizard.The flourishing automotive industry was well represented in Elgin. There was a brief fling at reviving the local manufacturing of vehicles, but both attempts were financial disasters. The Duty Motor Company was attracted to Elgin by the offer of a new building erected by the Association of Commerce. Located on Raymond Street, the factory was completed in 1922. One truck chassis was finished and purchased by the Elgin fire department. It was a mechanical failure, and on at least one occasion, had to be towed to a fire. Two other trucks were partially completed when the assets were transferred to the American Stearn Truck Company of Chicago. Probably no vehicles were made in Elgin before this firm went bankrupt. Its assets were sold at a public auction early in 1925.
Oh, but it's true. They work in pairs. Driving their car to the curb, they shut off the motor, turn off the lights and wait for their prey. Some use a spotlight to single out the girls they intend to lure.
Last night, by actual count, there were eleven pairs of he-vamps working on Grove Avenue between Prairie Street and the watch factory.13
The Rubber Ace Company was incorporated in 1919 to manufacture a sponge rubber inner tube designed to eliminate blowout and flat problems. For a time, the plant was busy turning out this "In-a-tire," but the filler apparently hardened and cracked. The firm went into receivership in 1922, and an attempt at reorganization the next year proved futile.
Other automotive manufacturers were more successful. Production of the Van Sicklen speedometer at the watch factory exceeded one thousand instruments a day in 1920. The firm's patents and contracts were purchased by the Stewart-Warner Company after a downturn in business in 1921. The production arrangement with the Elgin National Watch Company continued until 1924, when operations were moved to Chicago. Late in 1922 the Elgin Clock Company was chartered as an outgrowth of an automobile clock the Elgin National Watch Company had developed for Van Sicklen. The new firm occupied space in the watch factory vacated by Stewart-Warner until a new plant on Bluff City Boulevard was ready in 1926. Although production of the "Elgin" and "Hunter" dashboard clocks continued, the chief output was now automobile smoking sets and vanity cases. After an east wing was added in 1927, the completed plant covered the entire frontage from Raymond to Grace streets. The firm was then supplying most of the sets and cases sold as standard equipment on the more expensive cars. In 1928 Elgin Clock was acquired by Allied Motor Industries, a holding company which formed a subsidiary, the Van Sicklen Corporation, to operate the Elgin plant. Late in 1929, Van Sicklen purchased the rights to manufacture the "Lorraine" controllable driving light.
Cars brought opportunities to three young men. A Czech immigrant, Martin Skok, who was thoroughly familiar with automobile engines, began making replacement piston pins in a small garage in 1920. Seven years later (production then averaged five thousand pins a day), his Elgin Machine Works moved into a big new plant on North State Street. For years the firm entered cars in the Indianapolis 500 under the name, "Elgin Piston Pin Special." In 1926, W. R. Meadows began making asphalt expansion joints for the new concrete highways in a small building on Kimball Street vacated by Rubber Ace. Automobile garages and service stations were springing up all over the city during the '20's. One of the gas pumpers at the Texaco outlet was James M. Roche, a graduate of the Elgin High School Class of 1923, who was continuing his education by correspondence. In 1965 he became president of General Motors.
7. Ku Klux Klan
The post-war boom in building and paving construction increased the demand for unskilled labor. The city's black population climbed from a reported 116 in 1920 to 240 in 1925, a figure still less than one percent of the total residents. There were other factors leading to the rise of the Klan in a community that had once welcomed Abolitionist orators. The Chicago race riot of 1919 frightened some whites. The war had fostered intolerance, and there were some Protestants who resented the growing numbers of Catholics more than they did Negroes.
Klan recruitment began in the summer of 1921. The first victim was a sixteen-year-old Negro, Preston Johnson. On October 23, 1921, he was taken for a ride to the rural area west of Wing Park and accused by a sheetless mob of having fathered a child born to a white girl. He was stripped, rolled in tar and feathers and then ordered out of town. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, recently formed under the leadership of Mrs. Edward (Ila) Newsome, asked, "Has the local Ku Klux Klan started their reign of terror in Elgin?"14 State's Attorney Charles L. Abbott obtained indictments of nineteen of the perpetrators. The grand jury's report concluded that there was not the slightest evidence of Johnson's misconduct with a white girl, that there was no basis for the rumor of a child born of mixed parentage, that the victim was of good character, and that the mob action was without cause or provocation. Sixteen men were convicted. All were fined, and six went to jail for brief terms. In a classic illustration of what psychologists call projection, a few years later one of the ringleaders was given a one-year sentence for contributing to the sexual delinquency of two girls, aged thirteen and fourteen.
The convictions should have discouraged enlistments, but membership rose, and Elgin was considered the center of Klan activities in Kane County. Its first public appearance came in 1922 at a burial service for a prominent member of one of the Masonic orders. While the mourners were gathering about the grave to hear the benediction, seven figures clad in white robes marked with red crosses came from behind a knoll. Filing into the shape of a cross, the leader placed a large floral cross at the head of the casket. Then, at a low whistling sound, they withdrew. In October of the same year, a caravan of cars drove to rites near FreePort, where more than two hundred Elgin men were said to have been initiated. Fiery crosses were burned from time to time at Klan gatherings in the rural areas.
A spokesman for the state Klan, addressing a public meeting in the high school auditorium, avowed the Krusaders' belief that America should be ruled by white Protestants free of alleged Popish dictates and immigrant lawlessness. Klan activities and the identity of members, some of whom were women associates, were cloaked in secrecy. Following a split in the national organization in 1924, there were two local units, Nos. 18 and 93. Some incidents attributed to the Klan may have been the work of pranksters or others using the KKK's reputation for their own purposes. A secret membership Citizens' League was the Klan's political action arm. Its influence in municipal and county elections may account for the immunity from arrest enjoyed by Klansmen.
On a February night in 1924 about seventy hooded Klansmen followed a burning cross in a parade up Highland Avenue. They led two black men from Chicago tied with ropes around their necks and arms. The captives were severely beaten and left tied to stakes in an empty field west of the city. Klansmen called at the home of a Negro bootblack in September 1925 and ordered him to leave town for making uncomplimentary remarks about the KKK, and other blacks received threatening letters.
In addition to intimidating blacks, Klan animosity was directed toward Catholics. Men of St. Mary's parish had to patrol the construction site of a new parochial school to protect it from Klan vandalism. A fiery cross was burned in front of St. Mary's rectory the night of February 28, 1925, and spotlights flashed into the home. The police did not respond to Father H. E. Ouimet's repeated calls for assistance, even though the disturbance continued for more than an hour. The priest denounced the Klansinen as cowards, and church members protested police indifference. A link between the Klan and the Elgin police was confirmed three months later when Klansmen held a midnight funeral service over the grave of a recently deceased officer. Robed Klansmen, led by the Exalted Cyclops, an electrically lighted cross and an American flag assembled on Bluff City Boulevard and marched two abreast to the cemetery. A large semi-circle was formed about the grave, and an audience of both men and women surrounded the Klansmen and watched the rites, which began with a hymn of brotherhood restricted to its membership:
Blessed by the Klansmen's tie,The blacks may have been defenseless, but aroused Catholics were not. One of their religious periodicals identified many of the local Klan members, and the Courier printed the list as a news item. The arrest of a nationally known KKK leader on a morals charge in 1926 and internal dissension finally dampened the zeal of the sheeted bigots.
Of real fraternal love,
That binds us in a fellowship
Akin to that above.15
8. The Polluted Fox
Factories originally located along the Fox River for the water power, but the river banks remain industrialized after conversion to other forms of energy. In 1888, the year the city began using the river for its water supply, the stream was described as "very low and recedes so far from the natural shore line that it leaves a most desolate appearing margin, strewn with debris in the soft black mud, some of which being of an animal nature adds to the odiferousness of the atmosphere."16 After the installation of the water system, sewer outlets poured in raw waste. Year after year, as population increased, Elgin and other communities made the once beautiful Fox a dumping ground.
"It is certain that the sewage and dumped refuse discharge of the city's filth into Fox River is fraught with danger to the health of the people, and ought to be discontinued as soon as possible," concluded a report of the Sewer Commissioners of the city in 1898.17 In urging conversion from river water to an artesian well supply, however, Mayor Price declared that the Fox was "the natural sewer created by Almighty God for that purpose and that purpose alone." After the city began pumping from wells in 1904, concern about continued pollution went into abeyance.18
A major contaminator was the gas works. Oils and tar were released into the river, sometimes spreading over the entire width of the stream and covering its bottom with two inches of refuse. Swimming became dangerous for health reasons. The downstream city of St. Charles began complaining to the state in 1913 about the discharge from Elgin.
The deterioration of the Fox was the subject of hearings held by the state Rivers and Lakes Conunission in 1914. Testimony revealed that the river was offensive in smell and contained clots of sewage floating on the surface. It also revealed that cattle became sick from drinking its water and got sore mouths from acid wastes released by factories. The commission concluded that "the safe limit for the natural dilution of raw sewage has been reached,"19 and filed suit to compel cities along the Fox to stop discharging sewage and industrial wastes by January 1, 1916. Plans for a central sewage disposal system drawn by City Engineer Morgan H. Brightman were submitted to the commission, but state laws and constitutional limitations on the bonding powers of municipalities made it impossible to finance the project.
Finally, in 1917, the state Legislature authorized the creation of sanitary districts to treat sewage which (1) provided a means of financing beyond the limit of bonded indebtedness of any municipality within the district, and (2) could serve as a natural drainage area, regardless of the corporate boundaries of municipalities. The Sanitary District of Elgin was established by the voters at a special election held May 9, 1922. There were 480 votes in favor of the proposal and 131 against. On January 26, 1924, voters approved a seven million dollar bond issue to finance the construction of a sewage disposal system by a vote of 435 to 79. The district, governed by three appointed trustees, was made completely independent of the city government. Its original boundary lines included more than six hundred acres outside of the city, chiefly in the unincorporated community of Illinois Park and in small sections of land adjoining the city on the north and south.
The treatment system, erected under the supervision of Morgan Brightman, was completed in 1927. Its capacity was 3.3 million gallons of sewage daily. The addition in 1932 of a digester and a primary settling tank raised this to 4.2 million gallons. Crude sewage flowed through the interceptors lying under and along the east bank of the Fox. These trunk lines, aided by pumping stations, carried the sewage to the treatment plant located near the Fox River Switch. The sewage passed through grit chambers, which received the sand and gravel, moved to a sludge digestion tank, and then was drawn onto the sludge drying bed. Trickling filter beds removed the sewage in solution and aerated it. Secondary settling tanks provided final sedimentation treatment before discharge of the effluent into the Fox.
The completion of the sanitary district's plant did not end pollution of the Fox. The Elgin State Hospital and other communities continued to discharge directly into the river, and the increased use of artificial nitrates by farmers encouraged plant growth in the river.
Focused upon high school basketball and football, the '20s were a golden age for sports in Elgin as well as America. The Maroons joined the newly formed Northern Illinois High School Conference, then popularly known as the Big Seven, in 1916. The organized competition for a title added zest to athletics and attracted spectators to the away games by interurban and automobile. Elgin's most formidable rival was Rockford. Maroon varsity elevens won 62 games, lost nineteen and tied nine, winning outright or sharing five Big Seven titles during the ten-year period from 1920-29. Starting in 1919-20 and continuing for ten seasons, Elgin cagers won 146 games and lost 57, leading the conference in four of those years.
In the last of three post-season intersectional football games with Connecticut teams, Ansonia came west in 1922. The outlook for Elgin was doubtful. The home team had won only one game that year and lost six, while their opponents had won six and lost one. Downtown streets and storefronts were decorated with bunting, flags and each school's colors. In the light of flaring torches, a huge crowd led by Mayor Price and other dignitaries welcomed the visitors. Elaborate preparations were made for Elgin's first homecoming, with a float parade before Saturday's game and a big dance afterwards. The Maroons did their part, gaining an upset 10-6 victory before a throng of four thousand.
Beginning in 1908, a state-wide high school basketball tournament followed the regular season and aroused new interest in the game. Led by the speed and keen eye of Louis (Soup) Serneny, born in Hungary of immigrant parents, the Maroons entered the 1924 finals after eliminating seven opponents in district and sectional games. The opener with Canton was a wild nightmare, neither team playing up to form, but Elgin squeaked through, 16-14. Considered the underdogs in the title game with Athens, the Maroons led 9-1 at the end of the first quarter and won handily, 2817. Reports of the game's progress were relayed to Villa Olivia for broadcasting by radio station WTAS. A wild celebration and public honors greeted the town's heroes.
The Maroons had no problems in the district eliminations the next year, but the sectional was hard-fought. About three hundred fans followed them downstate to Urbana, scene of the finals, while those at home packed the high school auditorium to hear the play-by-play returns as they came in by means of a direct telephone line. In the downtown area, the Courier and the News were giving the results by megaphone to crowds so large they blocked traffic. The games with Canton, 31-15, and Champaign, 25-17, were an anti- climax, and Elgin became the first team to win the state championship two years in succession. The seeds of Elgin's basketball traditions were planted in 1924 and 1925.
Individual standouts emerged from the victories. Earl (Tanner) Britton was the most versatile. A center on the basketball floor, he was the team's leading scorer in 1920-21 and 1921-22. A fullback and kicker on the football field, his 157 points in the 1921 season remain a school record. He was also a sprinter, high jumper and relay anchor. When he advanced to the college level, the home folks continued to cheer. Britton opened holes as a blocking back for Red Grange at the University of Illinois and preserved an undefeated season with a 55-yard field goal against Iowa. Douglas (GaGa) Mills, high point man on the 1925 basketball squad, also enrolled at Illinois and was named to the All-Big Ten team in 1929 and 1930. Later, he became a successful basketball coach and athletic director for Illinois.
10. The Dark Side
Legally dry since the local option referendum of 1914, Elgin's bootleg liquor traffic and countryside roadhouses were thriving long before the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in 1920. The Althen family's Elgin Eagle Brewing Company, although barred from selling its product in the township, had continued to supply customers elsewhere. After the Volstead Act, the idle buildings on the fourteen-acre site along North State Street, once appraised at a quarter of a million dollars were sold for a reported seventy-five thousand dollars.
The new firm, the Elgin Ice and Beverage Company, announced it would make Eagle root beer and Bohemian Cereal Beverage, a near beer. By law the alcoholic content of this substitute could not exceed one-half of one percent. Rumors were soon circulating that the plant was turning out more potent stuff. The real owners were said to be Lawrence J. (Butch) Crowley and Richard J. Burrill of Joliet, and the local business was supposedly linked to their bootleg operations. Crowley was already legendary as the owner of a house with gold door knobs. In March 1923 prohibition agents seized three truckloads of beer making their way out of town. Each of the tarpaulin-covered machines was carrying thirty-five barrels. The raid was made without the knowledge of either the local police or county sheriff. Louis Althen, a member of the sheriffs committee on the Kane County Board of Supervisors, denied that the trucks came from Elgin Ice and Beverage, where he was acting as production superintendent or consultant.
The federal agents struck again early in the morning of August 14, 1923. Two big Macks and two Reos, loaded with beer, started out of the plant shortly after seven, convoyed by several cars. Ordered to halt by the feds, one truck got away and another sped south through the State Street business district, chased by gun-firing agents. Before the startled eyes of pedestrians on their way to work, the fleeing truck was riddled with bullets and buckshot before it was abandoned at the comer of Locust Street. The driver, who was captured after running into the basement of a nearby home, claimed he fled because he thought the agents were hijackers.
After capturing the truck, the feds entered the brewery and apprehended workmen hurriedly emptying kegs. Twelve men were arrested, five of them Elgin residents, and they were bailed out by Burrill, who drove up in a Cadillac. Crowley and Burrill, who allegedly had tried to bribe one of the officers, were found guilty in March 1924 and sentenced to six months in the Chicago House of Corrections. The federal district court ordered the destruction of the beer, described with local pride as the best bootleg beer in northern Illinois, and the apparatus. Offers to purchase the equipment for suggested shipment to Canada or Australia were refused.
"This is the first destruction of brewery machinery under the Volstead Act in this district, and so far as we know, anywhere in the country," declared the U.S. attorney, and he added: "It has become apparent that the only way to make beer outlaws respect civilized government is to jail them and destroy their equipment with ax and torch in full view of an outraged public."20 Guards had to order away some of the "outraged public" who showed up with pails, cans and other containers hoping to carry off the brew when the barrels were emptied. With motion picture newsreel cameras grinding, the huge vats and large copper kettles were cut with acetylene flame and smashed.
Although a large producer-perhaps too large to overlook-the old brewery had plenty of competition from garage and basement entrepreneurs. Mayor Arwin E. Price, whose personal habits made him someone of authority on the subject, estimated in 1922 that "right here in the city of Elgin today, I venture to say there are 500 people violating the prohibition law. The violators are not the so-called toughs. Respectable citizens are manufacturing wine, moonshine, home brew and white mule."21
Charles L. (Kid) Abbott of Elgin, an acknowledged wet, was the Kane County state's attorney from 1916 to 1928. He was convinced that the "bootleggers are in complete accord with the Anti-Saloon League, and all work and vote for the dry cause."22 And Police Magistrate George Thompson, commenting on the thirty arrests for drunkenness in one month in 1925, pointed out that "more arrests of intoxicated men are being made than when Elgin had saloons."23
A newly elected state's attorney pledged to crack down. George D. Carbary took office in 1928 and immediately launched a series of raids in the Elgin area. Carefully planned, they led to the arrest of more than thirty violators of the dry law and eight persons accused of bookmaking. Taken as evidence were 837 gallons of wine, sixty gallons of whiskey, a large quantity of gin, assorted containers of beer, wine presses and fifteen gambling machines. The largest find was in the 300 block of Dundee Avenue, where 535 gallons of wine and a wine press were seized. The City Hall basement was crammed with barrels, jugs, kegs, slot machines and still equipment. Stiff fines were handed out to those found guilty. For a time, a great thirst prevailed, but the purveyors were soon back in business.
Carbary was more successful in putting a stop to gambling at a greyhound track. The 102 Ranch was erected west of the city limits along McLean Boulevard in 1927. The forty-nine-acre racing plant, built at a cost of about $120,000, was impressive. It consisted of a grandstand, a quarter-mile floodlighted oval, numerous small buildings and ten acres of parking. The entire spectator section, seating nearly five thousand, was under a single roof, including the paddock and pari-mutual booths. The ends of the grandstand were paneled with glass. Dog tracks operating in Cicero were believed to be controlled by gangsters, and suspicion was attached to this one.
The initial meet of forty nights was sponsored by the Kane County Kennel Club. Eight races were run each evening, with the exception of Sundays. There were eight greyhounds in each race. The entries were exercised in the morning and at three o'clock in the afternoon were penned in the "jennie pit," an enclosure filled with stalls and off limits to everyone. At the beginning of each race, the dogs were led to the eight-compartment starting box on the inside rail. The electrically operated mechanical rabbit circled the track, and when it reached a distance of seventy feet in front of the starting box, a door was sprung and the dogs released. Each hound, following his instinct and training, strained to catch the realistic-looking rabbit.
At least six thousand spectators appeared at the brightly lit Ranch on opening night. They saw Oakland Heart win the feature event, the five-sixteenths-mile Inaugural Handicap, paying $15.80 to win, $5.80 to place, and $3.20 to show. The time for one of the quarter-mile races was less than twenty-seven seconds. The novelty soon wore off, so did the crowds, and in less than a month the venture was in financial difficulty. Many of those who paid the admission fee did not wager. After a reorganization of the management, the Ranch re-opened for a second meet, but attendance remained thin, and the races were suspended after twelve nights.
The Ranch was sold at a foreclosure sale in 1928. The return to creditors was said to be about 35 cents on the dollar, and investors, about one hundred of whom lived in Elgin, received nothing. The purchaser, a realtor, had planned a housing project on the site, but in January 1929 the plant was again sold, and that summer the new owners began re-conditioning the Ranch for a sixty-day meet.
News of the return of racing aroused immediate controversy over the legality of wagering on greyhounds. "They can open their plant and run dog races," warned State's Attorney Carbary, "but they can't gamble."24 Promoters maintained that the "contribution" form of wagering was allowable and talked of securing an injunction to restrain authorities from interfering. Carbary was asked by a deputy sheriff to meet privately with three unidentified men. At the meeting, Carbary identified one of them as Al Capone. The answer was, "No," and the deputy lost his job.
The showdown came on open night when a thousand patrons were gathered at the track. The sheriff and his deputies and representatives of the state's attorney's office took positions at every betting window. No arrests were made because no bets were accepted. The first race was called, and the electric rabbit was sent on its way preparatory to springing the barrier. Picking UP speed for the first half of the distance around the oval, the rabbit unexpectedly slowed down as it passed the grandstand and came to a stop just before reaching the starting box. Mechanics worked about twenty minutes in a futile effort to repair the difficulty. When they gave up, the night's program was canceled.
The next night, shortly after one o'clock, a watchman at the track saw the entire grandstand burst into flame and light up the countryside. Screaming a warning, the watchman rushed to the bunkhouse and roused the dog owners sleeping there. The area for blocks around became bright as day. The one hundred seventy-five dogs in the kennels were in a bedlam, and about sixty broke loose and were fighting and running wild in the nearby fields. Despite the efforts of firefighters, within two hours the Ranch was a mass of smouldering embers. Only the ornamental entrance, the kennels, and the wall around the track were left standing. One dog burned to death, and three others had to be destroyed as a result of wounds suffered in the crazed fighting.
In the investigation that followed, oil-soaked rags, gunny sacks and
traces of gunpowder bums were discovered. The premises had caught fire
in several places at the same time. The deputy state fire marshal decided
there was no doubt of arson, but by whom? An anti-gambling fanatic? Disgruntled
investors or creditors who had lost heavily in the initial venture? Neighboring
residents who had complained about the noise and lights? George Carbary
believed he knew.
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
© 2001 by E. C. Alft and ElginHistory.com. All Rights Reservered.