Calendar showcases Speed Graphic images of Elgin in the ’40s, ‘50s
By Dave Gathman email@example.com December 17, 2012 9:06PM
In this "Elgin Memories — 2013 Calendar" scene, it is the late 1940s, and horses and riders are crossing the National Street Bridge on their way back to the South Street Stables after participating in a parade downtown. In the background at right note the Elgin National Watch Co. factory, which was the city's biggest employer for decades, and two trolley cars parked on the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway's electric-powered track, known to Elginites as 'the Third Rail."
Updated: January 19, 2013 6:05AM
ELGIN — Two years after City Councilman John Prigge stopped publishing his annual “Remembering Elgin Calendar,” the Elgin Area Historical Society has filled that niche by offering an “Elgin Memories 2013 Calendar,” with each month showing a scene from old Elgin in the 1940s or 1950s.
While Prigge published his calendars as a for-profit venture through his Prigge Auctions business, the historical society’s calendars are a fundraising project to help support the society’s local history museum in the Old Main building on the Elgin Academy campus.
From 1996 through calendar year 2010, Prigge had published a Remembering Elgin Calendars showing Elgin scenes from the 1940s through the 1960s. But he dropped the project two years ago because sales had gone down to the point where he was losing money on the project.
The Prigge calendar photos all were taken by an Elgin window washer named Bob Will, who carried around an old-fashioned cameras that took photos on 2.25-inch film, five times as large as the usual 35mm film. Prigge said Will often would come home from church on Sunday, file away that week’s church bulletin, then walk back downtown with camera in hand, looking for targets of opportunity.
Will sold Prigge his photos in 1995, eight years before the lifelong bachelor died.
Historical Society Director Liz Marston said that after Prigge announced that the calendar for 2010 would be his last, the society decided to fill the gap for 2011 by putting together 13 photos from its collection showing life in Elgin during the 1950s, when the city won the title of “All-American City” in 1956.
But for a 2013 “Elgin Memories” calendar, and likely for ones in future years, the society received a windfall: a collection of black and white photos shot between 1945 and the 1960s by professional photographer Ferris Moorhouse (1915-1998). Moorhouse’s adult children donated the collection to the historical society.
“The Moorhouse photo studio was on the second floor above Wilson’s Shoes in downtown Elgin, where Ferris did portrait photography and all his own processing and printing,” Marston said. “He considered his best work to be candid wedding photography and horse shows around Illinois. His work eventually involved insurance evidence, police work, commission work for businesses, political gatherings, schools and even house calls for family events.”
But his children told Marston that Moorhouse was not one to adapt to changing technology. He insisted on shooting everything with a Speed Graphic-brand camera, which required the insertion of a wooden film frame for each photo.
“With the development of new camera technology in the late 1950s, Moorhouse turned to other work and retirement, but never stopped loving photography,” Marston said.
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In one way, the Moorhouse images on the new calendar arguably are superior to those shot by Will on Prigge’s calendar’s: Just before selling his photos to Prigge, Will threw away his notations indicating when and where each photo was shot. So while looking at a crowd watching a parade in downtown Elgin on one Remembering Elgin calendar, for example, the viewer can figure out from the background and clothing about what time of year the photo was shot and approximately where. But exactly what year it was and even what parade they were watching would remain a mystery.
Also, Marston notes, since Will was a window-washer and shot most of his photos while strolling around the city on Sundays while businesses were closed, his photos are almost all exterior shots. “With Moorhouse’s photos, we wanted to take the viewer indoors and show what the insides of some Elgin businesses looked like, too,” she said.
The photo for January 2013, for example, shows the interior of Schickler’s tobacco shop in 1950, in its original location just east of the Chicago Street Bridge.
Other indoor photos show:
Eight customers gathered over milk shakes in metal cups in 1948 at Thompson’s restaurant and ice cream parlor, at the southwest corner of Liberty and Villa streets.
Some of the city’s first television sets for sale inside the LSK Radio Co. at 7 N. State St. in 1948. Price tags visible in the picture reveal that a table-model TV with a screen less than a foot wide went for $125 while a console radio/record player would set you back $299.95 and a wire recorder (a predecessor to the tape recorder) was priced at $149.50.
Prices also are visible in a photo inside the groundbreaking first Gromer’s Supermarket at 820 N. Liberty St. (now the Elgin American Legion Hall) in about 1950. In an era when one word had a different meaning, Moorhouse captured Grocery Department Manager Bill Scherf standing beside a display of Ohio Blue Tip matches “in gay boxes for every room in the house.”
Another photo shows back-to-school merchandise for sale at the S.S. Kresge “five and dime” store at 32-36 S. Grove Ave. A predecessor of today’s discount stores, it competed with the Woolworth’s store across the street, whose building now houses the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce offices.
A crowd of customers can be seen gathering for the first look at the 1949 Chevrolets inside Brotzman & Melms Chevrolet dealership at 227 S. Grove Ave., on what then was Elgin’s “Car Dealers Row.” The dealership since has moved to the new Car Dealers Row on far-east Route 19 and is still in business as Jerry Biggers Chevrolet.
In about 1945 “electronic blankets” are on display for $41.75 in the window at Leath and Co. Furniture, at 164 E. Chicago St. A closer look at the photo reveals that either a real man and woman, or lifelike mannequins, are lying in bed under the toasty warm blankets on display — tastefully separated from each other in twin beds, of course.
In the photo for December 2013, a school choir can be seen singing Christmas carols inside the second-floor windows of Barnett’s women’s clothing store at 10 S. Grove Ave. in the late 1940s. Marston said downtown stores then stayed open until 9 p.m. during the Christmas shopping season, and Barnett’s asked a different local school choir to sing in the window every Monday.
The calendar includes some outdoor pix, too:
The 1948 Fourth of July Parade passing the old YMCA on East Chicago Street.
The March photo shows more than a dozen equestrians riding horses across the National Street Bridge following a parade in the late 1940s. They are heading for a stable that then operated just a mile to the west along South Street near Wilcox Avenue.
The August photo shows some 20 joyous Elginites jamming into a newsstand on Aug. 14, 1945 to read the morning newspapers’ account of Japan surrendering and World War II coming to an end.
Chevrolets from 1939 and 1947 appear in a shot showing a typical neighborhood gas station – Indian Joe’s Phillips 66 station and used-car lot at 193 S. Grove in about 1947.
Marston said the Elgin Memories 2013 Calendar can be bought for $12.95 each at the Old Maim museum, at 360 Park St. in Elgin; at the State Street Market, at 701 N. State St. (Route 31) in Elgin; at the Ziegler’s Ace Hardware stores at 215 N. Spring St. and 1158 Lillian St. in Elgin; and at the Soulful Sparrow restaurant, on North Douglas Avenue in downtown Elgin. They also can be ordered online at www.elginhistory.org.