Fondly known as "Injun Par," Carl H. Parlasca (1882-1980) first Indians when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show came to 1896. He introduced Indian lore to Elgin's youth as a Boy Scout executive and director of the Song of Hiawatha Pageant.
...the people of Elgin lead a placid and conservative life. They go to church ... they vote Republican, they close their saloons on Sunday, and the biggest job their policemen have is controlling traffic.1
Chapter IX. Civic Pride
Nostalgia has shaped perceptions of the way we were in the years following
the Second World War. Through mists of memory, which often screen out discomforting
thoughts, Elgin emerges as a community large enough to provide urban amenities
without becoming impersonal. When shopping downtown on Saturday or Monday
evening at locally-owned stores or enjoying an outing in the parks, people
usually met others they knew-perhaps a relative, a former classmate or
a fellow employee. Long-established and interconnected families, the high
school basketball team and the Hiawatha Pageant meshed the city together.
Neat, owner-occupied homes and well-kept lawns lined its streets. Scouting
and other youth groups flourished. The changes occurring were gradual and
did not threaten prevailing middle-class values. Labor-management strife
was minimal, and the crime rate was low. Community spirit led to the title
of All America City. If Elgin's outlook was somewhat narrow, which of us
who live in more troubled days will rejoice at the passing of its quiet
1. Postwar Changes
America entered the Korean conflict less than five years after V-J Day. In this brief interlude between wars, 1945-1950, several contemporary institutions emerged. An au-port was re-established on the old Kelley farm. The Jaycees were chartered. To the east of the city, along U.S. 20, arose the area's first drive-in movie, the Starview, and first motel, the Jo-El. Supermarkets, which had first introduced shopping carts locally in 1938, proliferated. Among them was an Elgin-owned store, Gromer's, on the northeast side. And in the spring of 1950 came the first Elgin sighting of a luminous object, throwing off a red glow, traveling at a high rate of speed just above the tree tops.
TV sets went on sale, and local radio broadcasting returned with the opening of two new stations. WRMN, owned by the Elgin Broadcasting Company, went on the air at 6:30 a.m. September 10, 1949. Studios and offices were first located in the FoxHotel, and a tower and transmitter were erected east of the city on Illinois 58. The station-1410 on the AM dial-was initially a 500-watter. The Board of Education was granted an FM license, the first for school purposes in Illinois, and WEPS began broadcasting over 88.1 megacycles on January 13, 1950. WEPS aired instructional programs to the schools in the Elgin system, provided students with experience in radio operation and broadcast athletic contests. E. C. Waggoner, director of audio-visual education, had spearheaded the innovation.
Reconversion at the Elgin National Watch Company was handicapped initially by the necessity of recruiting and training new workers. Nearly five hundred employees had entered the military services, and the war had scattered them. Some of those who had married were discouraged from returning by the severe housing shortage. Projected expansions of new and existing Elgin factories contributed to the shortage of qualified applicants. It took the company three full years to bring its manufacturing facilities up to the 1941 production level. Demand exceeded supply, and the firm remained on a forty-four-hour week through the end of 1948.
To find additional workers, the company purchased a modern building in Lincoln, Nebraska, late in 1945. Twenty-four families moved from Elgin to help start up the new plant. For the first time in the firm's history, some "Elgin" watches would not be made in Elgin. In addition to making plates for all models, Lincoln inaugurated a progressive assembly line, a new method adopted at the Elgin main plant in 1948. Instead of moving large lots of movements from one assembly bench to another, a conveyor system took each individual watch along a row of workbenches, where parts were added by craftsmen skilled in one particular operation. No operations were performed on the belt. The first Lincoln timepiece was completed in 1946. Early in 1949, the Lincoln plant had more than seventeen hundred employees and had completed its millionth watch.
A greatly expanded sales force began selling directly to retailers. The new way of distribution was in part the outcome of a U.S. government suit against Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham on charges of violating the Sherman anti-trust law. Many retail jewelers had complained they were unable to purchase watches through wholesalers accredited by the three manufacturers. Elgin pleaded nolo contendere and was fined five thousand dollars when the case was brought to trial in May 1946.
To cope with the now entrenched Swiss competition, Elgin had the advantage of brand-name recognition. Probably more people owned Elgins than any other make, and a survey showed a preference for an American movement. A major talking point for the salesmen was the Durapower mainspring, announced in 1947 and later guaranteed never to break in service. The company had financed the development of the eight-metal alloy from which the mainspring was made at the Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio. Non-magnetic and rustproof, Elgiloy delivered a more constant flow of power and was more set-resistant than carbon steel.
Of more interest to the salesmen than a new mainspring, however, was style. Changes in style created obsolescence and stimulated sales. Design was no longer limited by the size and shape of the movement; instead, the works became subservient to appearance. This caused headaches for the manufacturing departments, as the size of the movements continued to grow smaller. The most popular wrist watch sizes became the 21/0 (half-inch) for women and the 8/0 (14/15 of an inch) for men. Except for a few pocket watches, production was concentrated on 17, 18, 19 and 21-jewel movements which were protected by the $10.75 tariff.
When T. Albert Potter became board chairman in 1948, he was succeeded as president by James G. Shennan, who had been responsible for the wartime fuse production. Facing a clouded future was an aging board. All the directors, except Shennan, had been sitting for at least sixteen years, and the average length of membership was more than twenty-one years.
The employees were now unionized. Late in 1943, Waltham members of the American Federation of International Jewelry Workers, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, seceded and set up an independent union. Locals of the new organization, the American Watch Workers Union, were quickly established at Hamilton and Elgin, and in the spring of 1944, they won representation rights in elections conducted by the National
Labor Relations Board. Elgin employees voted 2,456 to 402 in favor of the AVV`WU. Machine room employees chose to be represented by Local 1795 of the International Association of Machinists, AF of L.
One of the major disappointments of these otherwise prosperous years was the rise and fall of the Majestic Radio & Television Corporation. This firm erected a 186,000-square-foot plant north of the city along Illinois 31 and forecast the employment of 2,700 to 2,800. A small tube radio, one of the Mighty Monarchs of the Air, came off the line in August 1946, and the first phonograph record-Eddy Howard's "My Adobe Hacienda" and "Midnight Masquerade"-was ready for sale in February 1947. The Elgin factory, designed to be the largest of Majestic's three plants, had forty record presses with a capacity of one and a half million records per month. There were more than six hundred employees when Local 1031 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers won an NLRB election a few months later. By June 1948, however, Majestic was bankrupt, and the vacated plant was occupied in 1950 by the Chicago Rawhide Corporation, a manufacturer of oil seals.
The division of watch production between Elgin and Lincoln accelerated the city's industrial diversification. By mid-1950, Chicago Rawhide, Chicago Metal Hose, Illinois Tool Works, and McGraw Electric, the four "new" firms, had a combined employment that exceeded that of the Elgin National Watch Company. McGraw's alone provided jobs for more than one thousand. Illinois Tool Works was expanding with the automotive and appliance industries, completing a new plant on Illinois 25 in 1948 and adding second and third units in 1949 and 1950.
Elgin's industrial expansion, the marriages of returning veterans, and a rising birth rate increased the demand for housing. The virtual ban on residential construction during the war, preceded by years of stagnation during the Depression, left few vacancies, and the supply of building materials was now limited. In two-thirds of the 389 marriages reported in the social columns of the Courier-News from January 2, through November 16,1946, it was stated the newlyweds would make their homes with the brides' parents.
When Mayor Walter E. Miller first proposed the creation of a public housing authority early in 1946, a member of the zoning board resigned in protest. "Public houses are only one of the spearheads for communistic forces seeking to change our republican form of government, " he charged. "Their theme song is 'Government must do it because private capital and private enterprises are not doing it and can't do it.'"2
Attention shifted to another solution when the Elgin National Watch Company obtained an option on the 130-acre Brotzman farm, fronting along the south side of South Street. The Continental Assurance Company of Chicago agreed to underwrite a housing project on the site that called for an eventual six hundred homes. Governor Dwight H. Green had recommended state legislation permitting Illinois insurance companies to invest up to ten percent of their assets in real estate. Sunset Park, the name given to the development in a promotional contest, was the first major housing program to be started under provisions of the new law, and in June 1946, the governor came to Elgin for the ground-breaking.
Construction proceeded rapidly. By the middle of October 1946, some fifty-five houses were under roof, and the first home was occupied in January 1947. Veterans were given preference to purchase homes in the park because scarce materials were allotted under a government priority system. The FHA and VA insured most of the mortgages granted. There were twenty-three different exterior designs, variants of the Cape Cod style, but the floor plans were similar. The houses had full basements, four rooms and bath on the first floor, and space for two more rooms on the unfinished second floor. They featured gas-fired hot-air heat, oak floors, metal kitchen cabinets and insulated ceilings.
Mass produced, with winding streets and curb-line sidewalks, Sunset Park excited widespread public interest and debate. Many who already owned comfortable homes shook their heads at the price ("as low as $9,800" by the end of 1947) or talked about green lumber and leaking foundations, but the homes were snapped up by eager buyers. The new subdivision set a pattern followed by succeeding projects. It was initially suburban in character. Nearly two-thirds of the units were purchased by families from Chicago and elsewhere. Considering the fact that more than three-fifths of the total family incomes in the project were derived from sources outside of Elgin, it is not surprising that Elgin and Kane County were included in the Chicago metropolitan area in the 1950 census.
Sunset Park, completed in the summer of 1948, didn't resolve Elgin's housing shortage. Only 191 homes were built, because the state Purchased much of the land for the U.S. 20 bypass. Nor was much relief provided by temporary housing for the families of twenty-four veterans in barracks moved down from Truax Field, near Madison, Wisconsin. They were erected in 1946-47 on the north side of Illinois 58, two blocks east of Liberty Street. The cost was assumed by the Federal Public Housing Administration, and the project was managed by the Association of Commerce.
Late in 1947, the Association of Commerce revived the idea of public housing to provide rental units, claiming that manufacturers had 3,100 unfilled job openings. The Real Estate Board protested, claiming that 501 new housing units had been completed between October 15, 1945, the date wartime restrictions were eased, and December 1, 1947-a good record, considering the limited supplies of labor and material. This was a problem that the realtors claimed public housing could not remedy.
Although an Elgin Housing Authority was created and members were appointed to the agency, no action was taken because of the backlog of requests for federal funds. Before the postwar housing shortage was licked, one Elgin family was living in a tent. The city's population by 1950 had climbed to 43,534. This was a gain of 13.6 percent since 1940, much of it since the end of the war.
2. Managerial Government
The council-manager plan of municipal government had been discussed in Elgin as early as 1916 and intermittently thereafter, but no action was taken until state legislation in 1951 permitted communities of less than half a million population to adopt this option. Later that year, the Elgin Association of Commerce gave its executive secretary, Al Brant, permission to conduct a series of "educational talks" to civic groups on the advantages of managerial government. He also assisted in forming a committee to work for its adoption.
Rumors arose of personal enrichment at public expense in one of the departments, but complaints centered on the inefficiency of the commission form. The city was burdened by a large bonded debt, inadequate inventories, an overdrawn bank account and no long-range planning. Nearly two dozen departments under the mayor and four commissioners had overlapping responsibilities. There were no uniform work standards or pay policies. Because there was no centralized purchasing, the city in 1951-52 bought 50,000 gallons of gasoline from thirty-three different locations, and twenty-seven individual purchase orders were issued to obtain three gross of office pencils.
In the fall of 1953, petitions were circulated calling for a referendum on the changeover. Elginites for City Manager, later known as Elginites for Council-Manager, was formed under the leadership of Attorney William W. Brady, Anita Connor, who was active in the League of Women Voters, and Adolph Bernstein. This group campaigned for a favorable vote. The incumbent mayor, Myron M. Lehman, then serving his fourth term, and his supporters opposed the change. They maintained that "the American ideal of government means full-time representation, not part-time councils; government by the peoples' representative, not a one-man appointee..."3 ECM charged that "We are driving an old car with gas pedals and no brakes."4
On April 6, 1954, voters approved the plan by a relatively close margin, 5,905 to 5,105, and Elgin became the first commission-form city in Illinois to adopt the managerial option by referendum. The decision in this segmented industrial city was far less conclusive than in a residential, one-class suburb like Highland Park, where the council-manager plan was voted in by a margin of 3,754 to 81 in December of the same year.
Under the council-manager plan, the voters elect at large a mayor and council members for staggered four-year terms. The mayor has no veto and casts a vote along with the council. Policies are approved by the part-time City Council and administered by an appointed city manager who holds office at the pleasure of the council. Administrative responsibility is centralized in the manager.
To ensure the election of Council members favoring the new structure, ECM organized the caucus method of selecting candidates employed in some Chicago suburbs. An assembly of 138 delegates from forty-eight church and civic organizations adopted a platform and nominated candidates. ECM became a political party, a new feature in local politics, where candidates had usually run as independents. The ECM nominee for Mayor, Orlo E. Salisbury, swept every precinct. Only one member of its slate, the first woman to seek city office, failed to win a Council seat.
The city's first manager, Raymond P. Botch, was a fiscal expert who introduced an annual budget, a capital improvement Plan and centralized purchasing. He streamlined the departmental organization, established uniform personnel policies and, aided by the levying of a sales tax in 1956, reduced the debt. The improved financial condition enabled the city in 1957 to begin developing off-street parking lots on the periphery of the central business district.
Elginites for Council Manager members had a majority, but not a monopoly, of the Council seats for eleven years. By 1959, enough discontent with their decisions had accumulated to give rise to another party, Home Rule for Elgin, which opposed the council-manager form and attacked the manager. Precinct tabulations of the election results that year exposed class lines in a heterogeneous city. ECM's strength lay in the prestige areas of high residential property values. Its supporters tended to be "society" church members; League of Women Voters members, who had been active in the adoption of the new form of government; Rotarians, Kiwanians, and Lions; prominent members of the Association of Commerce; and white-collar workers, including a growing number of commuters. Home Rule's base was in the river and railroad precincts, especially the southeast quadrant of the city. Its voters tended to be members of labor unions and ethnic churches, blue-collar workers, rank and file Democrats, small retailers, and firefighters and policemen disturbed by a public safety officer program they feared was a forerunner of an eventual merger of the two departments.
LeRoy Mote, the ECM mayoral candidate, edged out his opponent, 7,401 to 7,197, and only one Home Ruler, Clyde Shales, was elected to the Council. Home Rule dissolved after losing the 1961 election. Elginites for Council Manager now had no organized opposition, but it was soon confronted by a fatal dilemma. Formed to protect the council-manager plan from subversion by Council candidates who did not respect its method of operation, at its next caucus it rejected a proposed Council candidate who had been a delegate to the original ECM caucus and who was committed to the council-manager plan both in form and spirit. The outcast, running as an independent, far outpolled all the ECM nominees in the 1963 election. Clyde Shales, the former Home Ruler, was elected mayor, and ECM was dead.
It was expected that Shales would undermine the manager's position or bring back the patronage practices of the commissioners. He confounded both friend and foe by doing neither. Instead, by staying within the often uncertain boundary lines between policy and administration, he helped entrench the managerial plan in Elgin. Since 1963, municipal elections have returned to contests between independents, at times loosely combined. Issues have varied over the years, but the high standard of probity in office introduced by ECM has been continued, and growing public confidence in managerial direction made possible an expansion of city services.
This emblem appeared everywhere, including the vehicle license decal, after Elgin won the award.
The complexity and added responsibilities of municipal government and public school systems now require trained and experienced administrators. Although the leadership they exercise in formulating ideas and budgets for City Council and Board of Education members to consider often moves them noticeably into policy-making, ultimate control lies with the elected officials and voting public.
3. School Expansion
The public schools grew in three ways: in area, by the annexation of adjacent elementary districts; in enrollment; and in age level served, with the development of a junior college.
At the end of the Second World War, the state of Illinois embarked on a policy of reducing the large number of local school districts with small enrollments. On January 1, 1947, Kane County had ninety-three school districts, about a third of them operating one-teacher buildings. With the aim of providing better schools at lower per-pupil cost, the state forced the small districts to combine enrollments or be annexed to a contiguous district. Failure to do so meant a loss of state funding. Twenty-one complete or partial districts were merged into Elgin's School District U46 between 1948 and 1953. Among those annexed were Illinois Park and two in South Elgin in 1952, and two in Wayne Township in 1951 and 1953. In most of the added territory, the elementary schools already operating were continued as units of U46. What had been a school system confined mainly to the city of Elgin now encompassed parts of Kane, Cook and DuPage counties.
With the development of Sunset Park, it was necessary to construct Gifford School in 1948-49. As enrollments increased, Larsen Junior High School was opened in 1951 and its counterpart, Ellis, in 1952 to house grades 7-9 for the east side. Since Abbott School was already serving grades 7-9, the six-three-three organization was established. All students attended an elementary school through the sixth grade, a junior high from the seventh through ninth grade, and the senior high from tenth through twelfth grade. This arrangement was continued until 1982, when middle schools replaced the junior high and a K-6, 7-8 and 9-12 progression was adopted.
As enrollments continued to grow, additions were made in 1953 to the Illinois Park School and in 1954 to the Gifford building. In 1954, two elementary schools, Coleman and Huff, were completed on the east side. By 1955-56, district enrollment from kindergarten through the twelfth grade had climbed to more than 8,200, an increase of 57 per cent over what it had been in 1948-49.
To assist the throng of veterans seeking college training under the G. I. Bill of Rights after the Second World War, the University of Illinois opened an extension center in the high school building in 1946. When this program was phased out, the Board of Education of U46 established Elgin Community College in 1949 to serve the needs of those who wanted to continue their education but could not afford or did not wish to attend a fouryear school. The private Elgin Junior College sponsored by the Elgin Academy had been abandoned during the war. ECC opened with seventy-one first year-students and thirty-three nurse trainees from Sherman Hospital. Two years later, the first graduating class of twenty-two received degrees. The college continued to use classrooms in the west wing of the high school until 1959, when a nearby apartment building on Chicago Street was converted into Renner Hall. As enrollment expanded, temporary facilities were utilized wherever space was available, including the Masonic Temple and the two Y's.
The public schools would have been harder pressed financially if the parochial schools had not expanded. St. Edward Central Catholic High School opened in September 1941 in the vacated Lord elementary school and was functioning as a four-year school by 1943-44. Its first graduating class that year consisted of thirteen girls and nine boys. The physical plant grew with the enrollment-a gymnasium in 1951 and new additions in 1961-63 and 1969-70, the latter improvement replacing the original Lord building. St. Edward, which now has a student body of more than six hundred, receives students from four parish schools in Elgin-St. Mary, St. Joseph, St. Laurence and St. Thomas More -and three others in St. Charles, Dundee and Carpentersville. The oldest religious school in Elgin, St. John's Lutheran, erected a large new building in 1955-56, and Good Shepherd Lutheran, Opened a school at its west side location in stages beginning in 1961.
Elgin High School flowered under the principalship of Roscoe S. Cartwright. Adept'at good public relations, he kept the community informed about student achievements and the school's progress, and in return received strong support from parents and the civic leadership. Academic standards reached new highs, and the forensic teams produced a series of conference, sectional, state and national titles. In 1954, the state visitors could report that "the educational program is broad and meeting well the needs and interests of the students enrolled. The total program provided a rather outstanding co-curricular activities program. Through these activities, which include the student government along with the democratic spirit found in the classrooms, the student body exemplifies the highest type of student cooperation and morale, for which the school is to be highly commended."
The high school provided a focus for another golden age for Elgin athletics. Basketball attracted the most spectators. Fans crowded into the gymnasium with a fervor that developed into mania with the approach of the state tournament games in March. John Krafft, who had taken Elgin High teams into the finals in 1943, 1944 and 1945, ended an outstanding career with two more trips downstate in 1949 and 1950. The winning tradition continued under his successor, Bill Chesbrough, when the Maroons were again state finalists in 1953, 1955, 1957 and 1958. At St. Edward Central Catholic High School, Greg True surmounted the handicap of a small enrollment to coach the Green Wave to six district titles between 1950 and 1959.
Visions of the first state title in thirty years shimmered in the heads of devotees when Elgin led West Rockford 40-27 at half time in the 1955 championship game. Although Rockford roared back with a full-court press, the Maroons still led 57-51 with little more than two minutes to play. Then, in one awful second, West scored six points. A Warrior star was fouled after shooting. The ball went in, and so did the two free throws he was awarded on the one-and-one. When the ball was thrown back in play, Rockford and Elgin players collided in mid-air. The clock ticked off one second and stopped with the ref's whistle. The foul was called on Elgin, and West added two more free throws. Given this momentum, the Warriors got the ball on an Elgin turnover immediately afterward, went ahead, and finally won, 61-59. The road north on Illinois 47 was blurred by tears.
Hope rose again when the 1956-57 Maroons' height and poise carried them to Elgin's first undefeated season. They won twenty-seven games in a row and ranked first in the polls before losing to Herrin in the quarter-finals. Some of the more talented players in this era went on to fame in college competition, and one of them, Flynn Robinson, played eight seasons in the National Basketball Association. Of the first twenty selections for the Elgin Sports Hall of Fame, twelve were basketball players and coaches.
From 1900 through 1984 Maroon cage teams won 1106 games and lost 593. In thirty-four seasons as coach, Chesbrough's quintets won 556. Although basketball was the dominant sport, the football magic that had entranced fans in the '20s returned with Emery Ebbert, who led the Maroons to Big Eight titles in 1950, 1953 (shared) and 1955. The last year was an undefeated season, a performance the Elgin eleven repeated under Coach Bob Duffield in 1958.
4. All America City
The rate of population growth during the 1950s lagged far behind the automobile, as well as the state and nation. The rise of little more than five thousand stemmed chiefly from births and state hospital admissions rather than in-migration or annexations. The baby-boom children were provided with recreational advantages by the churches, YMCA, YWCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls and an expanding school system. The newly organized Little Leagues were immediately popular. Orlow Davis, who formed the first one in 1951, was probably not the first to observe that "parents pose a more persistent problem than the boys."5 Beginning in 1957, two years after the first McDonald's opened in Des Plaines, parents and their offspring could enjoy hamburgers, fries and shakes at a local outlet of the fast food chain. Service clubs-Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Cosmopolitan, Exchange, the Jaycees, Altrusa and others-vied in sponsoring or assisting projects for civic betterment, and many of these were oriented toward youth.
Church and Sunday school membership increased, and few organizations scheduled meetings for Wednesday evenings, the customary "church night." Eight new church buildings were erected during the '50s, and several others were enlarged. The Elgin Council of Christian Education was organized by representatives Of Protestant churches in 1938 to introduce religious instruction to the public schools. Weekly classes from the fourth through eighth grades were conducted on a voluntary attendance basis until the U.S. Supreme Court, in the McCollum case, declared the practice unconstitutional in 1948. The Elgin Council of Churches was formed in 1950 to continue other cooperative programs, such as Religious Education Week and World Wide Communion Sunday, and to serve as a voice of Christian social action.
A total of 1,764 homes were built in Elgin during the 1950-59 decade, the peak year corning in 1955, when 226 units were started. Construction was at first centered in Blackhawk Manor on the northeast side, where ground was broken in 1953. This was the city's largest housing project up to that time, and it accounted for a substantial growth in Elgin's population in Cook County. The west side grew with scattered construction and annexation-239 lots east of McLean Boulevard between Larkin and Lawrence avenues were added in 1954 -until Wing Park Manor was started in 1955. Work on Eagle Heights in the northwest began in 1959. Westside population was sufficient to support the opening of the Town and Country Shopping Plaza on North McLean Boulevard in 1958 and the Wing Park Shopping Center the following year. Kimball Junior High and the Highland Elementary School were opened in 1959 to serve enrollment from this area, and a new Catholic parish, St. Thomas More, was organized for the northwest side the same year.
Population around Elgin grew at a faster pace than it did within the city. The westward expansion of the Chicago metropolitan area was aided by the construction of limited-access superhighways, the availability of federal government guarantees (FHA and VA) to lenders of money for middle-class housing, and the decay of the central city. The Meadowdale development on the east side of Carpentersville, north of Elgin, opened sales in 1953. The village population grew from 1,523 in 1950 to 17,424 in 1960. To the east, the new towns of Streamwood and Hanover Park were rising out of Hanover Township farmland. To the west were the Century Oaks development, started in 1953, and Almora Heights, platted in 1956. South Elgin's population more than doubled between 1950 and 1960. The young families in these towns and subdivisions depended upon Elgin's medical services and boosted the city's retail sales.
The city's streets were crowded with visitors' cars and the rise of automobile registrations, which rose from less than ten thousand in 1950 to more than fifteen thousand in 1959. Bus driver strikes of sixteen days in 1953 and seven weeks in 1955 weakened confidence in public transportation and stimulated sales of cars. The city opened its first off-street metered lot in 1952, and the next year put into effect a one-way street pattern downtown.
Despite the parking problem, the central business district continued to flourish. The first big retailer to expand was Sears, Roebuck, which now occupied the building which once housed Swan's. A major addition in 1948 made this store Elgin's volume leader. The Joseph Spiess Company doubled its floor space in 1950 and added a new facade. In 1951, the store opened a parking lot facing Fulton Street and another one in 1955 on the site of the old Star Theater. Ackemann's completed an interior remodeling and a new modernized exterior from sidewalk to roof in 1955. A new three-story addition in 1957-58 increased space by about a third, and in 1959, a two-level parking lot for almost two hundred cars was opened on the southwest corner of Spring and Division streets. Dial telephone service arrived late in 1955 in a new Illinois Bell installation on East Chicago Street. Other new buildings downtown housed the Elgin Federal Savings & Loan Association in 1957 and an Osco Drug Store, which opened in 1959 on the site of the former Rialto Theater.
During the early fifties the watch company was still prospering despite the intense Swiss competition. At the end of 1952 the firm presented watches to 507 employees who had twenty-five or more years of continuous service and pins to 365 who had fifteen or more. A total of 645 active and retired employees owned about twelve percent of the stock. In 1953, when earnings exceeded $2 million for the first time since 1927, about 3,800 were employed at the two local plants. When the decline began with the cancellation of military contracts, the slack was taken up by production space expansions at McGraw Electric in 1951, Chicago Rawhide in 1954 and 1957, the Elgin Machine Works in 1953 and Shakeproof in 1956.
The state hospital had evolved into a self-sufficient institution with its own sewage treatment plant, water supply, power generator and three miles of asphalt roads. An 840-acre farm extending west from the Center Building to McLean Boulevard provided much of the food supply. Employees, many of them recent arrivals from the southern part of the state, lived on the grounds.
Swelled by admissions to the veterans' unit, overcrowding became critical, and in 1951 was said to be 179 percent of capacity. Patient population reached 6,784 in 1955 before the pressure on overtaxed facilities was eased with the introduction of the new drug therapies. Treatment was then concentrated less on cure than on the release of patients whose dangerous behavior had receded, and attention turned to community clinics.
In these Cold War Years, the community was alert to the Red menace. The VFW organized a Loyalty Day parade to which became an annual event, in 1951. It was conceived as a counter to the Communist May Day demonstrations, although no one could recall these ever having taken place on Fountain Square. While more than a dozen servicemen from Elgin were dying in Korea, subversion was feared at home. U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy had strong local support. His followers agreed with one writer of a letter to the Courier-News: "We maintain we do not need any liberalism, progressive thinking or socialism. What we need to do is practice Americanism."6
Another reader replied to this in the paper's issue of July 23, 1953, warning that the nation's ideals "can only be achieved by stopping political zealots from doing away with democracy while at the same time recognizing and thwarting the communist threat."
Whatever "Americanism" was, Elginites for City Manager in 1956-57 organized a campaign for an All America City designation in an annual contest conducted by the National Municipal League and Look Magazine. Elgin was one of eleven cities selected from the 164 entering the competition. Applicants were judged by the effort and initiative shown by residents in working together for civic betterment and the resulting accomplishments. Elgin's were impressive: the successful referendum to adopt the council-manager plan, completion of a drive to raise one and a half million dollars for a new YMCA, a citizens' survey of U46 school needs, repeated over-subscriptions to the Community Chest and the establishment of mental health and crippled children's clinics.
Listed among the achievements in the All America City presentation was an account of the annual Song of Hiawatha pageant and its director, Carl Parlasca. If the judges took into consideration the character of Elgin' s citizenry, no better example of an American could be found than Injun Par.
5. Song of Hiawatha
In early presentations around the campfire, there were only a few episodes, and the narrator's voice came through a megaphone. Later came an amphitheater seating two thousand, complex lighting effects, a cast and crew of more than two hundred, and a microphone, but the measured pace of the opening words of Longfellow's poem remained the same:
Should you ask me, whence these stories?Carl Parlasca became a legend himself, and for more than half a century, the Song of Hiawatha pageant was an Elgin tradition. Son of German immigrants-his father was one of the city's first mail carriers-he was born at Big Piney, Wyoming, during one of his parents' hunting trips. He grew up in Elgin spellbound by stories of the American West and of the Indians who once freely roamed its plains and hills, remembering with delight the visit of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in 1896.
Whence these legends and traditions ...
I should answer, I should tell you ...
From the land of the 0jibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs ...
While employed as a bookkeeper for the Borden condenser, he became a Boy Scout leader and in 1920 accepted a position as camp director for the Boy Scout Council's summer camp located on Lake Bohner, near Burlington, Wisconsin. With him as camp cook went Mrs. Par, the former E. Maude Cunningham, whom he had married in 1904. He became the local Scout executive in 1922, introducing the Indian and Western lore he acquired on trips to reservations. The sessions at Lake Bohner ended in 1923, and during the next two summers, the Scouts were located at Idlewild, along the west bank of the Fox between Carpentersville and Algonquin. Camp Big Timber, north and west of Elgin, was opened in 1926 with the same log cabin used at Idlewild.
Par began teaching the Scouts the intricate and symbolic dances he had learned from Eddie Little Chief, a Rosebud Sioux. They became close friends, and Par later danced with him in the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Circus. He also was associated with Ralph Hubbard of Medora, North Dakota, one of the leading white interpreters of Indian choreography.
Elgin's first Hiawatha pageant was produced by Mina Lee Brady, a dramatics teacher, on the lower lagoon at Lords Park in 1916. Although he had been enactment that turned Par's thoughts toward one of her students, it wasn't this Longfellow's epic, but a Chicago performance in the mid-'20s of "The Indian Play of Hiawatha." Francis M. Cayou, an Omaha Indian, was the director, and the actors were Ojibway Indians.
A rudimentary Song of Hiawatha began in 1927 as simply one of the activities for the Big Timber campers. The poem's magic, arising from the natural setting and Par's showmanship, caught on. Scouts began preferring to attend the "Hiawatha" period, entranced with playing the roles of red men. Soon parents and other visitors were dropping in to watch, and the pageant grew. The 50th production in 1976 drew more than nine thousand spectators, many of them from out of state.
Par retired from Scouting in 1948, but he continued as director and narrator of the Song of Hiawatha. He was a strict disciplinarian and demanding teacher at rehearsals, insisting that costumes be authentic in detail, and yet his knack for working with young people was to influence hundreds of lives. Helping Par at Big Timber was Mrs. Par, his companion during long stays with Indian friends. She was a home economist and an early leader in the Girl Scout movement. Mrs. Par, who played the role of Old Nakomis until her death in 1954, was the only woman to perform in the pageant until the Kwo-Ne-She (Dragon Fly) girl dancers were added in 1948.
Although admission was charged beginning in 1935, the purpose of the pageant was to acquaint the audience with Indian lore, not to make money. Participants donated their time and were motivated by the joy of performing and their devotion to Par. Except for Indians who were present as participants or advisers on authenticity, it was a home talent show. As the years went by, there were happy reunions of former participants who returned to see Par and old friends. The 1974 cast included twenty-seven offspring of former dancers and a number of third generation members.
Recognition of years of work in behalf of Indians and his understanding of Indian cultures and problems led to Par's adoption as a tribal brother. He became High Eagle of the Brule tribe of the Sioux, Fast Buffalo to the Blackfeet, and Sailing Home Once In A While among the Qjibway. He was an honorary chief of the Koshares and the recipient of a special citation from the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Parlascas amassed an extensive collection of Indian costumes, artifacts and books on the history and customs of various tribes. These have been placed on permanent display at the Gail Borden Library as a memorial to them.
The Big Timber Dancers appeared at the Scout National Jamboree in 1937 at Washington, D.C. Par was in charge of the Indian dancers at the World Jamboree of Scouts at Moissons, France, in 1947. Later, the boys and Kwo-Ne-Shes appeared at many fairs and festivals, including the Orange Bowl parade in 1963. The Mid-Winter Ceremonial, first presented in 1948, became an annual off-season event. Introduced by Par's sonorous greeting, "We have come to dance in your Lodge, to be near you, to cheer you, to bring you Good Medicine," it featured a series of dances. Some of these were native to the Southwest, the Land of Room Enough and Time Enough.
It took up to three years of study and practice to develop a Big Timber dancer. Boys enrolled when they attained the age of twelve; girls started when they were high school sophomores. Once, there were dozens who tried out at auditions; in the final years, young people no longer had the dedication to put in the endless hours of practice each week from September to June. Veterans who had assumed family obligations were not being replaced. It was difficult to conceive of the pageant without Par, and he was aging.
Wearing his familiar Stetson, Par narrated the final performance in 1979. Eight months after Hiawatha last glided away into the fiery sunset, he died at the age of 97. The beat of tomtoms and tinkle of ankle bells are stilled, and canoes no longer drift in silence past the tepees of old Nokomis and lago, the Great Boaster. The voice of Injun Par, Elgin's Nawadaha, who "sang of Hiawatha, sang the song of Hiawatha," is heard no more.
6. The End of Time
The Germans allowed the Swiss to export watches during the Second World War, and in return, the Swiss industry supplied Germany with military equipment. Watches were among the few goods that could be purchased with war-inflated incomes. During the year, 1941 through 1945, more than thirty million jeweled-lever movements entered the United States. Imports of jeweled watches averaged 7.4 million per year in 1946-50, about 75 per cent of total domestic consumption.
Aided by government subsidies, the Swiss led in technological innovations. They developed the shock-resistant watch, the self-winder, the chronograph, and novelty wrist watches. They created a volume market by selling through department, drug and even discount stores. The domestic industry faltered before this aggressive competition. At the end of 1948, Waltham laid off its twenty-three hundred workers and attempted a financial reorganization. In April 1950, Elgin laid off about three hundred, evenly divided between Elgin and Lincoln, and went on a four-day week schedule.
Contracts for fuses and other military orders for Korea provided temporary relief. At the outbreak of the conflict, Elgin engineered and produced, within a period of twenty-eight days, a device to prevent the premature explosion of a new air-to-ground antitank rocket. Plant No. 2 on Bluff City Boulevard, closed in November 1949, was re-opened for ordnance work during the emergency. Employment at the Lincoln plant increased to nearly twenty-three hundred, the majority working on timing devices for the armed forces.
Swiss labor rates were said to be only forty percent of wages paid for comparable jobs in the United States. To overcome this advantage, the company exerted constant effort to reduce costs. The Wadsworth Watch Company of Dayton, Kentucky, was purchased in 1950 and the Hadley Company, Inc., of Providence, Rhode Island, a maker of watch bands and men's jewelry accessories, was acquired in 1951. They assured a source of supply and fitted into the new interest in style.
Elgin announced the first American-made self-winding watch in 1950, but production was soon abandoned. More hope was placed on the development of a battery-powered watch, introduced with great fanfare in 1952, but it never reached production stage.
A landmark in watch output was reached in 1951, when the fifty-millionth Elgin movement was completed. It was a 21-jewel, 15/0 watch, about one-tenth the cubic size of the first model in 1867. All plates were gold-plated. The dial was sterling silver with applied eighteen-karat gold markers. The hour, minute and second hands were of solid gold, and it was enclosed in an eighteen-karat natural gold case. The celebration of this event masked a development more ominous. In the fall of that year, Wadsworth began casing lower-priced Swiss movements.
Employment in the domestic production of jeweled-lever watches plummeted from more than ten thousand workers in 1948 to little more than four thousand in April 1954. In 1953, imports of watches containing seventeen jewels and less were 10,615,000. American production was 2,237,000. Elgin had a week's shutdown in its watch departments at the Elgin plant in the months of April, May, and June of 1954. By that summer, the company had laid off every employee in the assembly room who had been trained in the previous fifteen years. Waltham was in even worse straits, with less than a hundred persons making and assembling jeweled movements. "How far can you shrink?" asked Walter Cenerazzo, president of the American Watch Workers Union when pleading for a higher tariff before a congressional committee. "We are going to die."7
Importers argued that the Swiss had purchased half a million dollars more of American goods than we had purchased from Switzerland during the life of the reciprocal trade agreement. Asking for increased protection in the form of equality at the border, domestic producers claimed that World War II experience showed that the skills of the jeweled watch business were essential to the security of the nation in the event of war. President Eisenhower accepted this argument in raising the tariff in 1954 on watches of seventeen or less jewels.
Increased protection was a short-lived morale booster. The challenge of low-priced imports was more effectively met by U. S. Time Corporation, which introduced the Timex in 1950. This non-jeweled watch with a simplified movement was sold everywhere. It was so low in price that it could be discarded and a new one purchased at less than the ordinary cost of repair. Timex watches were given attractive styling and caught public attention with "torture test" TV advertising. Consumers lost interest in expensive watches as status symbols. Style had become more important than precision and long-lasting dependability, and appearance could be purchased far more cheaply with a pin-levered Timex than a jewel-levered Elgin.
When Elgin began putting out low-priced jeweled watches to compete with the pin-levers, quality suffered. By the middle '50s, jewelers were wincing when customers selected an Elgin because of the complaints that might ensue. With the decline in sales and quality came intramural accusations born of frustration. There were too many changes in direction, or there wasn't enough change. Management blamed the union for waste and poor workmanship and was in turn assailed for its experiments and the failure of the electronic. The sales department asked production men to make what they could sell and were told to sell what could be made. The domestic competition was not faring any better. Waltham went into receivership in 1949, reorganized and was bankrupt again the next year.
The company turned with renewed interest to diversification efforts, which had begun in 1944 with the creation of an industrial division. Originally housed at Plant No. 3 in Aurora, it turned out diamond abrasive compounds, developed the non-horological possibilities of Elgiloy, and supervised licenses of synthetic oils. A major broadening of the product line came in 195455 with the purchase of three California firms that comprised an electronics division. It was not profitable. Neither was the later acquisition of firms making clocks and diamond rings.
The recession of 1957-58 hurt the watch business, already depressed by both foreign and domestic pin-lever competition. For the fiscal year ending March 1, 1958, the company reported a loss of $2.4 million, the largest in the company's history. A proxy fight for control of the board, the first of several, followed. The insurgents were led by Henry M. Margolis, a New York industrialist, who won a seat on the board in 1958 and assumed control two years later. The Margolis group was in turn challenged by dissidents in 1964 and again in 1965, when Irving L. Stein became board chairman. There were four different presidents between 1961 and 1968.
A company built on time was winding down. Each year, a part ceased to function. The observatory was abandoned in 1955. The Watch Word stopped publication in 1956. The last dividend was paid in 1957. In 1958, the Lincoln plant, which then employed eight hundred fifty, was shut down and its operations consolidated at Elgin. The Watchmakers College closed its doors in 1960. In an attempt to cut costs, an assembly plant was opened in Blaney, South Carolina, in 1963. The town was so eager to get the factory that it changed its name to Elgin. The main plant in Illinois supplied the southern operation with parts. When the company observed its centennial in 1964, only about 900 were still on watch work in Elgin.
Death throes of the company began in 1965, symbolically marked by a stoppage of the tower clock due to freezing temperatures. Losses for the fiscal year were a staggering $6.8 million. The remaining local employees dropped to about 400. The main plant, declared obsolete, was sold. The clock mechanism was dismantled and shipped to a museum. The abandoned plant was opened to the public for the sale of fixtures. Throngs of former employees, many with tear-filled eyes, took a last, sad walk through once-busy rooms now in disarray. A wrecking crew began razing the plant in the early summer of 1966, working from the back toward the front, a century after the first building had been erected on the site. One by one, the sections collapsed into rubble, until only the tower remained. Then, on Sunday morning, October 3rd, dynamite charges brought the landmark crashing down into a pile of bricks, mortar and twisted metal. Only the main entrance posts were left standing to remind passers-by of what had once been the world's largest watch producer.
The South Carolina plant, with two hundred employees, was phased out at the end of 1967. This ended watch part manufacture in Elgin. The remaining local employees were engaged in warranty repair, trade material, diamond product operations, and the assembly of Swiss movements. These activities were housed in Plant No. 2 on Bluff City Boulevard and in a new leased building on Fleetwood Drive.
The group of New York investors who now controlled the company in 1969 merged TST Industries-the former Thompson Starrett Construction Company-with Elgin, putting the company into heavy construction. The name of the combination became Elgin National Industries, but losses continued. Assembly of Swiss movements was transferred from Elgin to New York in 1970, and the rented building on Fleetwood Drive was vacated. In 1971 the firm lost thirteen million dollars and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Bank debt had swollen to twenty-one million dollars, and there were fifteen million dollars in bonds outstanding. In 1972 offices were moved to Chicago, where a subsidiary that made machinery to clean and move coal and other minerals was making money. Other units were sold to reduce the debt.
The now slender ties of the company to Elgin were severed in 1973. Early that year, Katy Industries, a conglomerate headquartered in Elgin, purchased Plant No. 2 and the assets of the Diamond Products Division. The watch division continued repairing operations in a portion of the building until the end of the year, when an agreement was reached to sell the division to a unit of Societe des Gard-Temps of Switzerland.
Among the properties scheduled for liquidation was the old Elgin National Watch Company pension fund, with a surplus of some twelve million dollars. Elgin National Industries proposed to guarantee the pensions through the purchase of annuities, grant some small monthly increases, and keep the surplus. Pensioners, numbering about a thousand locally, believed the funds belonged to them and claimed the settlement was inequitable. Existing payments had declined well below the cost of living. One veteran with thirty-six years' service was receiving $16.75 monthly. The pensioners organized, brought legal action and took their case to Washington. Testimony by the Elgin pensioners at congressional hearings on pension reform legislation brought national attention. The Illinois attorney general won an injunction to restrain the liquidation. Under this pressure, the company compromised in an out-of-court settlement which granted substantial benefit increases.
The Illinois Watch Case Company, for years the city's second largest employer, was also going down. About half the firm's postwar dollar volume was in ladies' compacts, the rest divided between cigarette cases and lighters, dresser sets, watch cases and powder jars. An expanded advertising budget aimed at establishing brand consciousness for the Elgin American line. The company sponsored a network radio program, "You Bet Your Life," starring Groucho Marx, and went on television with two big Thanksgiving specials. Lucille Ball, one of the Hollywood stars promoting the firm's products, visited the Elgin factory in 1948.
The addition of the Certina watch, a quality Swiss import, to the company's offerings in 1951 marked the beginning of a series of losses. The Certina was hurt by the switch in consumer preference to the lower-priced movements. The company ceased making watch cases, and in 1956, the name of the Illinois Watch Case Company, the parent company, was changed to that of its subsidiary, Elgin American, Inc. Foreign competition made heavy inroads into the firm's markets, and operations were drastically curtailed by the end of the decade. The shift of production of the Elgin American line to Japan was a financial disaster, and the Dundee Avenue plant was abandoned in 1963.
7. Elgin in 1960
It was one of the last years before things began coming apart before advisers were sent to a far away place called Vietnam. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, and except for disturbing changes in teenage dress styles, the counterculture was not yet visible in Elgin in 1960. A survey of local youth reported conservative views. Their goals were marriage, family and financial security, and most opposed lowering the voting age to 18. Respondents did favor rock 'n roll, which the Courier-News described as "a wailing diatribe on 20th-century culture."7b
Besides the religious and national holidays, the year brought a succession of traditional local events. In March came the state tournament basketball games (EHS won the conference title and advanced to the sectional); in May, more than fifty units marched in the Loyalty Day parade, and the Junior Woman's Club presented its biennial Follies with two chorus lines; the Song of Hiawatha attracted large crowds in June; bargain hunters thronged stores on Dollar Day in July; August brought the Kane County Fair; the Community Chest rounded up contributions in September and October; and in November came the annual Charity Ball sponsored by the Fideliters.
For the first time since 1940, when Wendell L Willkie spoke briefly from the rear platform of his campaign train, a presidential candidate appeared in Elgin. John F. Kennedy, addressing a large noon-time crowd from an improvised dais at the intersection of DuPage Street and South Grove Avenue, alleged that America's prestige in the world had slipped. The visit produced little change in local voting behavior. Richard Nixon carried Elgin Township by a count of 15,487 to Kennedy's 5,924.
The Dutch Elm disease, which had first appeared in Illinois in 1951 and in Elgin in 1956, was striking with full force. Although more than a thousand elms around town were now infested, voters in a referendum rejected a forestry program to halt the spread of the blight.
The 1960 census figures, besides showing a population of 49,447, supplied more statistical information about the city than any previous count. Median family income in 1959 was $7,147, nearly six hundred dollars more than the statewide figure. Persons employed in white-collar occupations now exceeded those employed as craftsmen and operatives. Only 13.7 percent worked outside the city. A customarily high proportion of married women, 39.8 percent, had jobs, and 30.6 percent of the men older than 65 were still employed. Unemployment was low, only 2.6 percent at the time of the count. Excluding patients and employees on the state hospital grounds, about 61 percent lived on the east side of the river and 39 percent on the west side. The population, despite the fact that more than a fourth of the households had at least one child younger than six, had a median age of 37.4 years.
Of the 270 housing units occupied by "non-whites" at the time of the census, about one-fifth lacked some plumbing facilities, and more than a fourth were considered to be deteriorating or dilapidated. To remedy the overcrowded living conditions among the black minority, the Association of Commerce proposed a privately financed multi-unit housing project on Hickory Place. Neighbors protested to the City Council, which was asked to re-zone the site, that it would depreciate property values. "The Negro in Elgin needs a place to live and he needs it badly," Adelia Green testified before the council. "He pays more for the same place than the white person does, so he can't depreciate the value of the property if he's paying more."8 The plan was defeated.
The downtown business district was changing. The Union National Bank razed Town's Block, rebuilt after the fire of 1879 on the southeast comer of Fountain Square, for a new structure. The First Federal Savings & Loan Association occupied new quarters on the comer of North Grove and Highland avenues. Radio station WRMN moved from the Fox Hotel to a location farther south on Douglas Avenue and started up night broadcasting on FM. Carson Pirie Scott & Company, a Chicago retailer bought out the Block & Kuhl department stores. It was closed when Carson's opened a branch in the Meadowdale shopping center.
Some local traffic was routed away from the downtown area when the U.S. 20 bypass was opened between McLean Boulevard and Grace Street. Seeking to provide parking for downtown shoppers, the city rushed to completion the Riverside parking deck on the east side of the river between Prairie and Chicago Streets. Extending over the river, the concrete slab was supported by rows of concrete piles that allowed the water to flow underneath. The deck's 175 spaces brought the total capacity of the city government's off-street metered lots to 619.
Governor William G. Stratton arrived by helicopter to start the 34th annual fifty-mile bicycle race from Elgin to Chicago. The thirty-three amateur cyclists left in five separate groups at seven minute intervals. The riders pumped up Illinois 31 to U.S. 14 and followed this road to the finish line on Devon Avenue, just east of Milwaukee Avenue. Bob Tetzlaff of Los Angeles set a new record of one hour, 43.72 minutes.
The Illinois Tollway, Interstate 90, had been completed from O'Hare
Field to South Beloit in 1958. The four-lane limited-access road skirted
the northern edge of Elgin. It was another fulfillment of James Gifford's
foresight that his settlement would sit astride a major transportation
corridor. Late in 1960, the Northwest (now Kennedy) Expressway was finished,
linking the tollway with Chicago's Loop. The Congress Street (now Eisenhower)
Expressway, which had been opened in stages beginning in 1954, was now
nearly finished and connected Elgin with Chicago via U.S. 20. The expressway
system, coupled with the expansion of the Metropolitan Sanitary District,
opened the farmland in the western neck of Cook County for housing development.
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.