Elgin, the eighth-largest city in Illinois, was established in 1835 by two brothers, Hezekiah and James T Gifford, and named after an old Scottish hymn called “The Song of Elgin.”
Over the years Elgin has been home to several well-known businesses and their history and the story of Elgin is admirably documented at the Elgin Historical Society’s museum which is housed in an 1856 landmark building call Old Main, on Park Street.
Old Main was originally built as a private school, the Elgin Academy, and continued to be used for that purpose, despite a lightning strike in 1911 that destroyed the roof, until 1969 when financial problems and safety codes forced the Academy to close. The building was offered to the City of Elgin and, despite another fire in 1978, was restored to its former glory and leased to the Elgin Historical Society. Old Main’s interior was adapted for use as a museum and reopened as such in 1987.
Among its many fascinating exhibits there is a room dedicated specifically to one of Elgin’s most prestigious businesses, The Elgin Watch Company. From the late 19th to mid-20th century the Elgin Watch Company was the largest manufacturer of watches in the USA. Sadly, after employing many of Elgin’s residents for so many years, the company ceased production in the early 1960’s and the building torn down in 1965.
During its heyday Elgin was home to all kinds of commercial enterprises including Collingbourne Mills which at one time employed more than 700 workers; everything from pianos, cookers, clocks and coffee grinders have been proudly produced in Elgin. The Pelican Premier street sweeper, originally designed in 1914 is still manufactured in Elgin.
Another famous name associated with the City of Elgin is that of the Borden Dairy. It was here that Gail Borden established a condensed milk factory in 1866 and the Elgin public library is named in his honor. Being an avid reader and something of a bibliophile, one of the first things that I look for when I’m exploring a new town or city is the local library. Elgin, in my opinion, might easily lay claim to possessing one of the most splendid libraries in the Chicago suburbs. Among its many attributes, it can boast a most comfortable lounge with a scenic view of the Fox River.
Just behind the library on the banks of the Fox River is Veterans Memorial Park, one of many landmarks along the 35 mile-long Fox River Trail, a paved pathway that runs through Elgin, all the way from Algonquin to Aurora. Along this trail, in Pioneer Park, the figures in this sculpture by Tryvge Rovelstad appear to be gazing out at the Kimball Street dam.
Further along the trail stands the Hemmens Cultural Center, home of the renowned Elgin Symphony Orchestra, one of the largest orchestras in Illinois. Since 1969 this 1,200-seat theater has played host to many famous names including Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, B.B.King, Bill Cosby and Victor Borge.
The Hemmens overlooks Walton Island Park, situated in the middle of the Fox River. This 4.5-acre park consists of two islands linked to one other and the riverbank by a series of bridges and was created by the WPA program in the 1930’s.
After losing so many of its businesses in the 1980’s, Elgin enjoyed a revitalization of sorts when the Grand Victoria Casino finally docked along the Fox River in 1994. A portion of the riverboat casino’s revenue goes towards funding many community activities, as well as housing rehabilitation and educational and environmental projects.
Our last stop in Elgin, rather fittingly, is the 108-acre Bluff City Cemetery. When the old Elgin Cemetery on Channing Street almost reached capacity, the city purchased adjoining land on the southeast corner and opened this non-sectarian facility. Caskets from the old cemetery were gradually moved to the new site which has provided a beautifully tended final resting place for many of the city’s residents since 1889. Every year, in the autumn, the Elgin Historical Society holds a Cemetery Walk, complete with costumed characters, which is designed to provide insight into Elgin’s history and promote appreciation for the art, architecture and funerary symbolism in Bluff City Cemetery.
Ever since I was a young child and my father used to take me for walks around the old cemeteries in London on Sunday mornings, pointing out the beautiful monuments and telling me about the famous people who were buried there, I have had a fondness for such places and, although it may sound strange, wandering around Bluff City Cemetery brought back some very happy memories for me.