MONMOUTH, Ill. — We sometimes hear stories about how inventors of hugely profitable products failed to cash in on their success by failing to patent their invention. That was certainly not the case with a Monmouth inventor, who not only became wealthy off his patents but also founded two of the city’s leading industries, based on those patents.
William S. Weir was born under humble circumstances in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1835. His grandfather had immigrated from Scotland in the 18th century, and his father had learned the trade of a wool carder in Philadelphia before moving west and taking up farming. In 1838 when William was 3, the family moved farther west to Warren County, settling near Little York, where, in addition to farming, his father established a small factory for making woolen goods.
William attended the country schools of Sumner Township and initially followed in his father’s footsteps as a farmer, but his inventive mind would soon propel him to a new life in the city. Having experimented with a corn plow beginning in 1859, Weir invented and patented a two-horse cultivator in 1862. With $200 in capital, he moved to Monmouth and hired a contractor to manufacture 120 of the implements, which sold quickly. With the proceeds, he built his own shop on North C Street, in which he was able to produce 400, and the following year, 500 cultivators.
Soon, those quarters were stretched to capacity and a new plant was erected on South Third Street near the C.B.&Q. depot. In 1866, 800 cultivators were made by a workforce of 25 men.
In January 1867, Weir’s entire plant and the 1,200 cultivators were destroyed by fire, entailing a loss of $35,000, only $10,000 of which was covered by insurance. Not to be deterred, Weir immediately rebuilt the shops, turned out 2,000 cultivators and that fall organized the Weir Plow Company with himself as president.
In 1871 new shops were constructed, with floors covering more than three acres. By 1877, Weir employed 300 men and was turning out 10,000 cultivators, which were shipped extensively throughout the southwest and into Mexico. The company had grown into Monmouth’s premier industry, with $600,000 invested and manufacturing $5,000 worth of implements daily.
By 1885, the company was producing not only cultivators, but plows, harrows and cotton planters, and had branch offices in Indianapolis, Kansas City and Dallas. Upon Weir’s death in 1901, the Warren County Democrat would write, “From this small beginning grew the immense shops once the pride and glory of Monmouth, an institution that gave employment to hundreds of people and daily benefitted many hundreds more.”
Weir’s fertile mind was always looking toward new interests, and in 1886 he sold his interest in the plow company to enter the banking industry. With two partners, he established the Bank of Alexis in 1887. Taking an interest in that growing town, he built the Alexis Opera House in 1889. In 1890, he was instrumental in founding Peoples National Bank of Monmouth, of which he was elected its first president. The same year, he also helped found the Bank of Little York.
Ever the inventor, Weir patented a self-seal pottery canning jar in 1892, and in 1896 purchased a pottery company in Alexis, which he sold in 1899. In that year, he helped organize the Weir Pottery Company in Monmouth and was elected its president. A four-story factory was erected on South D Street, and soon seven kilns were in operation. By 1903, the pottery was not only producing his successful stoneware canning jar but also advertising premiums for the Sleepy Eye Milling Company which today are highly collectible. Also that year, it received a contract for 1 million jars from the H. J. Heinz Co. for packing preserves and apple butter.
Weir initially built a fine brick residence at 400 South Main Street, but in 1892 sold it to W. D. Brereton. He then constructed a sturdy 14-room mansion at 400 East Broadway, which still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While most of Monmouth’s upper class was then building elaborate Queen Anne-style homes, Weir had his house designed with exposed cross-timbers and stucco — an early example of the Tudor Revival style of architecture, which would not become widely popular until after the turn of the century.
Although retired from the plow business, in 1901 Weir took an interest in a new Monmouth plow factory being planned to manufacture a plow designed by W. T. M. Brunnerer on the site of the former Weir plant. He purchased a large quantity of stock and planned to serve as an adviser, but in November of that year he was struck dead by an unexpected heart attack.
Hundreds attended Weir’s funeral at the First Presbyterian Church, built on a site he had himself donated. His life was widely compared to that of fellow Monmouth entrepreneur William Hanna, who had died suddenly a year earlier. Both had been active in the manufacture of pottery and plows, while also contributing tirelessly to the economic development of the city.
Weir’s obituary noted that “Both ever had the interests and the welfare of Monmouth at heart. Their every public act substantiates this assertion. For every public enterprise their purses were open. In private charitable work none know how much they gave… Both are irreparable to the social, moral and business interests of the community.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.