'Dry' or 'wet' decision faced Elgin in 1910

Published: 4/19/2010 12:01 AM

Would the Elgin area remain "wet" or would the citizens vote "dry" and end liquor sales? Was a local department store going to be able to find "Elgin's Cinderella?" And, what about that federal probe? Was it going to end Elgin's reign as the "butter capital" of the world?

These are just some of the questions people might have wondered about after reading the newspapers of a century ago. Here's a look at those stories and others that made the Elgin area news in April 1910.

Dry idea: "It is easy to vote the town dry, but do you think you can vote the people dry?" said well-known attorney Clarence Darrow to an Elgin audience preceding an election to outlaw alcoholic beverages.

"I object to a crowd of fanatics seeking to lead a great body of working men down a blind alley and behind a flag no one ever saw. The town glutton is a great deal worse off than the drunkard and there are many more of them."

"Taxes are lower in dry towns," touted ads run by those who hoped to lock the saloon doors. "If the saloon is good, why do the police go there first to find criminals?'

Over 3,000 people - all men - went to the polls and decided by a 3 to 2 ratio to maintain Elgin Township's "wet" status.

"It is apparent the voters are well satisfied with the existing condition," said a local liquor dealer who was heading up the "wet" campaign.

"We will take our defeat like good sportsmen and come back harder than ever," said a spokesman for the opposition.

Joining Elgin in a list of towns that wanted to remain "wet" were Gilberts and Genoa, while nearby Marengo decided it was time to end liquor sales in their area.

Butter buster: Elgin was known as the "butter capital" of the world a century ago, but the federal government was out to change that. The Elgin Board of Trade, which set butter prices, was a "trust," claimed Department of Justice officials.

The government had reportedly assigned a top "trust buster" to the case who said federal intervention was necessary because the "price fixing" occurred over a multistate area.

School controversy: Normally a quiet affair, the election of school board members became a livelier event as some expressed displeasure with the administration's decision to tear down Elgin High School - then a quarter-century old structure.

It should have been converted to a grade school and the high school built elsewhere, they argued. Challengers were also critical of the district's practice of "letting go" of "more capable" teachers who commanded a better salary and keeping "weaker" lower paid staff who they said were shifted around to different schools too frequently.

• In other schools news, the practice of rural school teachers arranging for their own substitutes must stop, announced the county superintendent. In many cases, the person taking the place of the regular teacher was one of his or her friends who didn't even attend high school, he added. The superintendent was also critical of one rural school board's decision to end the spring semester in early March because no family in the district wanted to board the teacher assigned to the building.

Trash talk: Could the city government institute a garbage collection system and have things go according to plans?

The answer was "yes"- a fact that surprised some critics. The new collection plan, which some had been advocating for years, saw scavengers make their weekly rounds and pick up everything except "dirt, building materials and outside refuse." Residents were required to have their garbage in metal cans with lids and it could be no more than 50 feet from the street and weigh no more than 50 pounds. Anyone overturning a garbage can faced a $3 fine - a rather stiff penalty for the time.

Piano builders: Elgin was known as a watch and dairy area but was fast being known for another product - pianos.

The Seybold Organ and Piano Company, begun six years earlier, now had a monthly payroll of over $7,000 and was shipping its product as far away as China, Australia, Japan, India and Africa. While their competitors were able to turn out pianos in as few as 60 days, the care taken by the Elgin company required a period of four months, they said.

If the shoe fits: Finally, the newspapers called her "Elgin's Cinderella" and with good reason.

Seeking to come up with a unique promotion, one of Elgin's largest department stores offered a free pair of shoes to the first women over 18 years of age whose dainty size would allow her to slip into a size "A" width.

After presenting the prize to Miss Anna Schweitzer of the city's west side, the business continued the publicity by offering another pair free to a second "Cinderella."

• Jerry Turnquist writes about Elgin area history. E-mail him at