MONMOUTH, Ill. — In a recent column, I wrote about how the Monmouth Commercial Club in 1912 borrowed an idea from the international YMCA and erected a giant “campaign clock” on the Public Square to call attention to their ambitious fundraising campaign. In May 1917, a clock would again appear on the square, but this time the campaign would be to erect a new YMCA building in Monmouth.
Remarkably, the $75,000 capital campaign ($1.4 million in today’s currency) was designed to be completed in just six days. It faced the additional challenge of the United States having declared war on Germany one month earlier, and the country’s attention was focused on raising funds for the war effort.
The idea of a “flash” campaign was pioneered by the YMCA, and had been used successfully in securing funds for virtually every new YMCA building since the concept was introduced in 1905 to complete a facility in Washington, D.C. In addition to the clock, the campaigns employed a paid publicist, fundraising teams and extensive pre-arranged newspaper advertising.
Monmouth’s YMCA was in dire need of new quarters. The local YMCA had formed following a series of revival meetings held at Monmouth College during the winter of 1881–82. The initial rooms were on the second floor of the Diffenbaugh grocery, 68 Public Square. By 1888, an effort was organized to acquire a new building. YMCA vice president Frank Brownell offered $500, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Chauncey Hardin, promised $1,000 for the beginning of a fund.
That campaign soon hit a dead end, so in 1889, Mrs. Hardin purchased the old Methodist Church at the southeast corner of East First Avenue and South First Street and donated it to the organization. The building was remodeled, with its steeple removed and a gymnasium added. A fire in 1905 burned the roof off the gymnasium, which provided the opportunity to enlarge the gym, with an extension built on the south side. A swimming pool and other interior improvements were added in 1908.
Eventually, though, age took its toll. By 1911, the old church building, which dated to 1861, had fallen into decay. The organization was deeply in debt and in October the doors to the building had been closed. Providentially, Ed Torley, a former resident who had become general secretary of the YMCA in McPherson, Kan., happened to visit Monmouth at that time and was shocked to see the YMCA closed. It was not long before he returned to his hometown, took over leadership of the YMCA and returned it to solvency.
In 1917, after having begun collecting funds for a new building, Torley left to become a partner in a new local hardware company. Citizens, appreciating the work Torley had done, determined to launch a campaign to finally erect a fine new building. On April 6, a large gathering of business leaders met at the Presbyterian Church for a banquet. Attorney R.V. Field of Galesburg spoke about the recent successful campaign there that raised $140,000 for a new YMCA and said there was no reason why Monmouth couldn’t follow suit and build a YMCA that was self-sustaining.
A goal of $75,000 was set and a virtual army of volunteers was organized. It was led by field marshal Joseph A. Scott, with a general staff of 21 businessmen. Two divisions, led by generals J.D. Diffenbaugh and Ed Torley, were divided into teams of 10, led by captains. A professional fundraiser, M. C. Williams of Oberlin, Ohio, was hired to direct the campaign.
Earlier that day, the 12-foot campaign clock was erected on the Public Square, the long hand indicating the amount of money raised and the short hand indicating the day of the campaign. Over the course of the next six days, teams infiltrated the community, bringing back reports of pledges, which were announced daily at noon luncheons. Cartoons advertising the campaign ran each day on the front page of the Monmouth Daily Atlas and editorials urged the community to get behind the effort.
Halfway through the campaign, less than half the goal had been realized. A third division of eight teams was formed — composed entirely of high school boys. Fraternal organizations and groups such as the women of the plow factory joined the fray. By noon on the final day, $11,000 was still unpledged. New schemes were devised, including one for married men to subscribe $5 for their wives, who would later be notified they should give up gum chewing or other bad habits until the $5 was saved. Phone calls and telegrams to Springfield, Chicago and Peoria were sent by the hundreds. Business leaders who had already pledged generous sums upped their gifts.
At 11 p.m., the campaign closed, with more than $83,000 in gifts received. According to the Atlas, “And the bells rang out and the whistles blew and telephones began to tinkle over the city with the questionings and rejoicings as the word went forth…”
Ten days later it was announced the old building would be sold for salvage and razed as soon as possible. At the same time, it was announced that the national YMCA was raising $3 million for recreational equipment for soldiers overseas and that the Monmouth “Y” members would be solicited for that campaign.
In May, the old YMCA was demolished and a contract to design the new building was given to architect C.D. McLane of Rock Island, who had designed the Galesburg and several other YMCA buildings. In July, detailed plans were released for a reinforced concrete building with separate entrances for men and boys. The Monmouth firm of Apsey & Fusch was awarded the construction contract.
The main floor would contain two lobbies, living and game rooms, a secretary’s office, club rooms, a gymnasium and a physical director’s office. The lower floor would contain a bowling alley, a game room, locker rooms with showers and a swimming pool. On the second floor would be large club and class rooms, a banquet room and kitchen, a ladies’ room and some men’s bedrooms. The third floor would consist entirely of bedrooms, bringing the total of such rooms to 27. Rented for up to $3 per week, it was expected that lodging would provide significant ongoing revenue for the building.
Opened July 1, 1919, just three days after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the YMCA announced that all returning soldiers would receive a three-month free membership. Even before the building was formally opened, it was put to good use. When the Presbyterian General Assembly met at Monmouth in late May, the Colonial Hotel was overflowing, so not only was the Y’s dormitory filled with delegates, but cots were also put in other rooms of the building.
The First Street YMCA would serve the community for nearly 60 years. Groundbreaking for the current YMCA on West Harlem Avenue occurred in the fall of 1977.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.