Industrial Development in McLean County, Illinois
From: History of McLean County Illinois
By: Jacob L. Hasbrouck
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianoplis 1924


The industrial and manufacturing interests of Bloomington are centered largely in the repair and machine shops of the Chicago & Alton Railroad, which form the largest single industry of the city. These shops were established in Bloomington soon after the road was built through the city, in 1853. Col. R. P. Morgan, the superintendent, and Jesse W. Fell, rode horseback from Bloomington to Joliet looking for the most available site, and finally chose Bloomington. The road was poor and its first group of buildings were temporary wooden structures, located "way out of town." In 1857 they employed 180 men. On Oct. 31, 1867, the shops burned down. Should they be rebuilt? Some of the directors favored having their repair work done in Chicago, but a committee of Bloomington citizens headed by Judge David Davis and Jesse Fell urged on President Timothy B. Blackstone the claims of Bloomington to such good effect that the shops were again built in Bloomington, after the citizens had voted $55,000 in bonds to aid in acquiring land for enlargement of the plant. The decision in favor of the bonds was practically unanimous. The rebuilt shops were much better than the old ones had been, and these remained almost unchanged until the next great enlargement campaign of 1910, when the citizens subscribed $165,000 to buy ground for additional shops and tracks, and the railroad company spent on its part nearly $1,000,000 for erecting modern and strictly up to date plant.

The Western Union Telegraph Company first established its lines into Bloomington about the time the Alton Railroad came. This was another factor in transforming the village into a city.

The rebuilding of the Chicago & Alton shops into the modern plant which the road possesses was accomplished by the action of the citizens of Bloomington in 1910, when by voluntary subscriptions in a campaign of 17 days' duration the sum of $165,000 was raised by the citizens, to be used in the purchase of additional land on which the Alton officials were to expand and rebuild their plant. In April, 1910, the then vice president of the road, George H. Ross, submitted to the Business Men's Association of Bloomington a written proposition in which the company promised to expend approximately $1,000,000 in improvements and enlargements of its works in Bloomington, providing the citizens would donate the ground which the enlarged plant would occupy. This proposition was taken under advisement by the board of directors of the Business Men's Association, and after carefully laying out plans for its public campaign, it set the date of May 16 to begin the actual canvass. On the day before this date, the newspaper published details of the proposed plans, giving vice president Ross' proposition verbatim and telling the people that it would require the sum of $156,000 to purchase the desired lands.

Alonzo Dolan was president of the Business Men's Asociation at that time, William Schmidt the secretary, and the offices were located in a single room on Jefferson Street, the west part of the Illinois Hotel Building. Here the headquarters of the campaign was located, and E. B. Cole was engaged as a special accountant to keep track of the subscriptions as received. The special committee appointed for the Business Men's Association to conduct the campaign was composed of Paul F. Beich, Benjamin F. Harber, Oscar Mandel, Henry Behr, Howard D. Humphreys, Edward Holland and Theodore S. Bunn.

Solicitors, both men and women, were appointed for every precinct in the city and a house to house canvass was conducted from May 16 to the night of May 31, it being stipulated that the proposition of the Alton company must be accepted before June 1st. It was considered that the acceptance of this proposal and the completion of the enlargements would forever set at rest any fear that the Alton shops would be removed to any other point along its lines.

The campaign was carried on with increasing intensity from day to day, and on the night of May 31, the officers of the Business Men's Association sent a telegram to vice president Ross, stating that his proposition was accepted and the money had been raised. The proposals embodied in the statement of the Alton company were as follows:

First- Erect a 44 stall roundhouse equipped with the new Sturtevant system. Second- Build new machine shop opposite present one, extending east from boiler shop with 20 stalls, increasing capacity of erecting shop by one half. Third- Enlarge boiler shops by additions south and west which will double the capacity of that department. Fourth- Enlarge wheel and axle and freight repair shops. Fifth- Add to size and capacity of other shops. Sixth- Enlarge switching yards, shop yards and roundhouse yards, rearranging entire shop plant system of tracks. Seventh- Enlarge main yards, laying third main from Bloomington yards through Normal. Eighth- Construct new union station to cost $75,000, to be used in Tupper stories for general offices for operating department.

It was estimated that the cost of the enlarged shops would be $750,000; of the necessary subways and viaducts at Chestnut and Seminary Avenue would be $75,000; of the new union station $75,000, and of the enlarged trackage $50,000, making the whole improvement cost close to $1,000,000.

It was a scene of rare excitement at the Business Men's Association rooms in the evening of May 31, when a final report was expected. President Alonzo Dolan reported that on the previous day the pledges had totaled $140,000, and about $15,000 had been turned in during the day. Then a gift of $2,000 was reported from Miss Susan Loehr, aged 94 years. Increases from previous subscribers brought the total to $162,500, and there it seemed to stand, until a letter from George P. Davis was read pledging another $2,500 additional to his previous gift of $1,500. The Davis pledge brought the total subscriptions to the $165,000 point, and then a great celebration broke loose. Cheers rang for several minutes, and then a round of speechmaking and felicitation was indulged in.

The money was payable in three years, but a large part of it was paid during the summer of 1910. The Business Men's Association at once began the work of buying up the many parcels and lots of land which had to be acquired. Secretary William Schmidt carried on this work during that summer, and soon had many of the houses removed from the land, the titles turned over to the Chicago & Alton Company. Construction contracts were awarded in June and for the next year the shops site was one of the busiest building places in the state. The Alton carried out its part of the contract, the new three story union station and general offices being erected on the site of the old. The new roundhouse and machine shops were mammoth affairs. A foot subway under Chestnut Street was erected, and a steel and concrete viaduct over Emerson Street, instead of at Seminary Avenue over at first proposed. A great new concrete and steel viaduct was built over the Alton tracks at Front Street, at the south end of the new union station. Finally several years after, and not part of the original plan, a subway under the tracks was constructed at Division Street.

Aside from the Chicago & Alton shops, one of the most important factory operations carried on in Bloomington in the eariy days was that of Ewing and Flagg, located between Main and East Streets, where the Big Four station now stands. Before railroads came to this section, this concern, owned by John W. Ewing and William F. Flagg, employed 125 to 150 men in manufacturing a reaping machine and other kinds of agricultural implements. The reaper was a forerunner of the famous McCormick reaper, and in fact it was proved in a lawsuit that the Bloomington machine was in part an infringement on McCormick patents. Most of the raw materials for this factory, as well as its finished products, were carried by team to and from the Illinois River.

A kindred industry was the plow factory of Lewis Bunn and Abram Brokaw, which occupied the lots where the People's Bank now stands. These industries made their way in spite of the absence of railroads to aid them in marketing their output. If the railroads had come ten years earlier, the city might have become a factory town.

Brick yards were among the earlier industries of the growing city of Bloomington. The first one was where the German Lutheran Church now stands. Later the famous Heafer brick and tile yards were established in the southeast part of the city and turned out hundreds of thousands of brick for many years. In addition to the many brick buildings erected from 1850 to 1870, the railroads built many of their bridges and culverts with brick arches. One such, supporting a span of the Illinois Central road north of Bloomington over Sugar Creek, caved in during a flood season in 1858, and dammed the creek. The overflow of the bottom lands threatened serious consequences for a time, but the flood finally broke through the temporary dam. When the first building of the Normal University was under construction, there was a brick yard in operation just east, where the Normal Public School now stands.

Bloomington is credited with having laid the first brick pavement in the United States, this being done by Napoleon B. Heafer in 1877, on the south and west sides of the public square. Of late years, the brick put down in the pavements of Bloomington and Normal all came from other places where a better quality of clay for pavement brick existed.

Tile making as allied to brick making flourished as an industry in this city for many years, and the Heafer tile works in Bloomington employed many men and shipped hundreds of thousands of feet of drain tile. Nearly all the swampy farm lands of McLean County were thus tile drained in the period from about 1880 to 1900.

The making of tile had a large influence on the management of the farms of McLean and adjoining counties. There was much wet land in the prairie sections and these were thoroughly drained in the era when tiling was the principal business of the farmer. It is estimated that hundreds of miles of tile drains are still in use on the farms of McLean County. There were tile factories in several of the other towns of McLean County outside of Bloomington, and one of the last of these to continue in operation was the Tillbury plant at Towanda. Fenstermaker & Co. long operated a factory of this kind at Ellsworth. Pike & Castle ran a plant at Chenoa. One of the early tile factories was located at Funk's Grove and there was another south of Heyworth along the Illinois Central. The work of tiling added millions of dollars to the values of McLean County farm lands.

The Bloomington Pressed Brick Company was established along in the '90's in a plant built alongside the McLean County Coal Mine. It used the shale from the coal mine to manufacture into a brand of pressed brick which was used both for building purposes and street pavement. The plant flourished for many years, but gradually other kinds of brick made in other cities got the edge of them and the use of the Bloomington pressed brick fell off. The plant was finally disposed of and the company went out of business.

After years of experimenting and expenditure of thousands of dollars in fruitless borings, a paying vein of coal was discovered near the city in June, 1867, and this was another event counting for much in the future prosperity of the city. The first coal mine was started in 1867 near the present city water works, but it proved a failure on account of the trouble with water. The next year the McLean County Coal Company was organized with Matthew T. Scott as its main sponsor. A shaft was sunk near the Chicago & Alton depot, and this mine has been in continual operation since that time. For many years it employed between 200 and 300 miners, but of later years owing to the opening of many mines further south with deeper veins of coal and easier of working, the Bloomington mine had gradually decreased its output. However, it furnished a large part of the supplies of coal used by Bloomington citizens, and during the World War served as a lifesaver to the community when coal was hard to obtain from distant mines. This year (1923) there were somewhere near 100 men employed at this mine. Lyman M. Graham, who served as manager of the mine for many years, gave up the active management during 1922.

For many years there was in operation in Bloomington a pork packing plant, located on South East Street just south of the Big Four Railroad. In the days of its prime, this plant bought and packed hundreds of hogs every day of the week, and its output in the course of the year amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in value. The buildings were later taken over by Campbell Holton & Co., the wholesale grocers, who now occupy them with several enlargements.

For the past fifty years or more Bloomington has had one or more stove factories. The Bloomington Stove Company occupied buildings along the Alton road south of Seminary Avenue for many years and did a big manufacturing business. A fire and other losses caused the plant to finally close down. On the east side of the city, at Empire Street, was long located the Co-operative Stove Company factory, now the Hamilton-Hayes Stove Company.

The latest important addition to the strictly industrial life of Bloomington was the establishment of the Meadows Manufacturing Company, which was secured through the activity of the Association of Commerce during the years 1921-22. The factory had its inception in McLean County, when the Rocked brothers first created a small shop for making grain elevators at the town of Meadows, east of Lexington. This grew until it was too large for the community of its birth, and it was removed to Pontiac, where a large factory building was erected and where it continued to expand for several years. Then its Pontiac quarters having been outgrown, a proposal to locate the plant in Bloomington was taken up by the Association of Commerce, with the result that a tract of land in the southeast part of the city was acquired and deeded to the company in consideration of locating the plant here. The company was reorganized with increased capital and erected on the land buildings costing upward of $300,000. In 1923, owing to after war conditions, the company went through a process of re capitalization, and is now on a substantial basis and doing a very large business in manufacturing washing machines, grain elevators and other articles of general use. The company employs a large number of skilled mechanics and other workmen.

A district east of the Illinois Central Railroad in Bloomington developed into an important territory of the city in an industrial way. The American Foundry and Furnace Company, established 30 years ago as the Soper Foundry, has become a well established business of wide clientage. It was founded by Horace W. and Clinton P. Soper and was carried on by the second generation of Clinton Soper's family. Leroy G. Whitmer is the president of the company, Horace A. Soper is the vice president, and Guy Haley is secretary. The plant occupies a half block of buildings, and employs 100 men or more.

The other industrial plant in the same vicinity is that of the Portable Elevator Company, which has grown from small beginnings for the past twenty five years, having taken over the factory formerly occupied by the W. R. White Gate Company. The Portable makes grain elevators and kindred products and has patronage extending from one end of the country to the other. G. Burt Read is president of the company; W. S. Harwood vice president, and L. G. Whitmer secretary.

Further north along the Illinois Central Railroad are located the plants of the Dodge-Dickinson Company, makers of mattresses and kindred products; the Hayes-Hamilton Stove Company, and the Davis Ewing Concrete Company, all doing a large business.

The Paul F. Beich Company, owners and operators of a very large candy making plant in Bloomington, is one of the well established and best known industries of McLean County. Mr. Belch, the founder, began operations in a small way when he was a young man, in a room on Front Street. Later he acquired the Lancaster Caramel Company, which occupied the building near the Alton station which had been originally built for a buggy factory. Eventually Mr. Beich gained control of the whole company and its plant, and the Paul F. Beich Co. was incorporated. Several additions to the building have been made in the last fifteen years, the last of which was erected in 1923. The company manufactures a great variety of candies, and its sales cover the whole country and many foreign countries. The same concern operates a factory in Chicago, but the main offices are in Bloomington. The factory here employs scores of people, many of them young women. The officers are: Paul F. Beich, president; Frank E. Sweeting, vice president; Ernest H. Black, secretary.

The MaGirl Foundry and Furnace Works, located on East Oakland Avenue, has been in operation for many years successfully manufacturing a line of furnaces and other similar products. It was founded by Patrick H. MaGirl now deceased. The manager at present is James D. MaGirl.

The Bloomington Canning Company is one of the important industrial plants of the county. Its plant is located inside the corporate limits of Normal, just north of Division Street. It has been in operation for about twenty five years, and each season it gathers and packs hundreds of thousands of cases of sweet corn which is grown on its own leased farm lands or bought from farmers with whom contracts are made at the beginning of each season. The active canning season is carried on for only about six or eight weeks beginning about the middle of August and running into late September each year. While packing is in progress, the factory employs several scores of people in the various operations. A smaller force of employes are in the plant the year round for the purpose of boxing and shipping out the product as ordered. The sales of the goods from this factory cover nearly every part of the country. The company was owned and managed for several years by Peter Whitmer, R. F. Evans, William L. Evans and J. O. Willson, all now deceased. The present officers of the company are: Ira S. Whitmer, president; Leroy G. Whitener, vice president; Charles D. Myers, secretary.

For the past 20 years Bloomington has been known as an important point for jobbing interests. This has been especially true in the line of wholesale grocery establishments, of which there are three larger ones. Each of these handles hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of groceries in a year, having large establishments.

J. F. Humphreys & Co. for many years occupied a building at Grove and East, but lately bought the large warehouse on South Main, formerly used by the Illinois Moline Plow Co. The officers are: Howard Humphreys, president; R. O. Ahlenius, vice president; Rogers Humphreys, secretary treasurer.

The Campbell Holton Company, wholesale grocers, have a large warehouse and shipping plant on South Gridley Street, formerly the plant of the Continental Packing Company. It has been remodeled and enlarged for the use of the Holton Company and is a modern plant in every way. The officers of the company are: Campbell Holton, president; H. W. Kelly, vice president; C. A. Stephenson, secretary; E. M. Evans treasurer.

The Cumming Wholesale Grocery Company occupies the building on South Center which is a part of the Johnson Transfer Co. plant. It was formerly known as Hawks, Incorporated, having been founded by E. B. Hawks and his associates and transferred last year to the present corporation. The officers are W. H. Cumming, president and treasurer; Egbert B. Hawk, vice president; L. W. Bosworth, secretary; directors, W. H. Cumming, Charles F. Scholer, E. B. Hawk, L. W. Bosworth and Charles F. J. Agle.

In years gone by, the nurseries of the county formed an important factor in its business. They were located mostly in the vicinity of Normal, where the era prior to the Civil War several very large nurseries, they being among the largest in the central west, in fact. They were the Overman nurseries, the Mann nurseries, the Phoenix nursery, the Augustine nurseries, and Home nursery, the Corn Belt, and several others. Changes have taken place in that business as in all others in the last generation, but the nursery business still forms an important part of the general business and industrial activities of the county. The last city directory of Bloomington and Normal indicated that there are eight nurseries now doing business here, some of them of many years' establishment, and others having come upon the field of comparatively recent date.

The manufacturing and industrial interests of Bloomington and McLean County include very many smaller plants both in the county seat, at Normal and in several towns of the county. The products of these plants are widely distributed, and the money coming in from them forms one of the factors of the prosperity of the county and its people.

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