Monmouth’s industrial building boom of 1953
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Our future economic prosperity may lie in the tech and service industries, but 70 years ago manufacturing was still king, and Monmouth was on the forefront of a factory and warehouse building boom.
Led by energetic Chamber of Commerce executive secretary Bob Albert, the effort to bring new industry to the Maple City got its first big win in 1950 when Gamble-Skogmo, the Minneapolis merchandising firm, announced plans to build a massive warehouse on an 18-acre tract, just north of the city limits. The plant consolidated offices and warehouses from Chicago and Marshalltown, Iowa, and became the distribution point for paint and hardware for hundreds of stores in Illlinois, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa. It housed the regional offices and employed a staff of 190.
Less than a year after construction was completed, the Gamble warehouse was leveled by fire in September 1952, sustaining $2.5 million in losses. The city immediately pitched in to help, moving the office staff to the armory building while an entirely new plant was erected on the site. The new building was ready for occupancy in July 1953.
The summer of 1953 was a remarkable period for construction in Monmouth, with an estimated 400 construction workers working on new and remodeled facilities.
South of the Gamble plant, on the west side of North Main, the Mayrath Company erected a plant on five acres of land. A manufacturer of grain and hay elevators, the company constructed a 50 x 120-ft. factory that employed 20 men.
Meanwhile, just east of the Gamble plant, a new Formfit factory went up. The manufacturer of women’s foundation garments had come to Monmouth in 1947 and located in the Colwell building at 211 South A St. While it employed 200 workers, the new plant would employ 350. More than 170 feet long, it included a cafeteria, a lounge room and locker room.
The new factories joined an existing array of manufacturing industries, including Western Stoneware (375 employees), Bersted’s Hobby Craft (45 employees), and cereal processor Ralph Wells & Co., which annually purchased $1 million worth of soybeans from area farmers. Other agricultural industries included DeKalb seed corn, which employed 150 men during the drying season; Roy G. Miller Inc., which produced hog and chicken feeders; Nichol’s Hatchery, which produced 1.5 million chicks per year; and Brown Lynch Scott headquarters, which operated 35 farm and home stores in Illinois and Iowa.
The general offices of Bowman Brothers Shoe Stores were located in Monmouth, serving 14 retail shoe stores in Illinois and Iowa. Several small manufacturers, employing fewer than 25 workers, were also thriving.
It was fortunate that Monmouth’s industries were on the upswing, as one of its largest employers — Illinois Bankers Life Assurance Co. — had recently consolidated and closed its Monmouth headquarters, eliminating 225 jobs and a local payroll of $460,000.
But back to the building boom of 1953. In downtown Monmouth, the Monmouth Trust and Savings Bank underwent a complete remodeling. Originally a three-story bank built in 1865, it was reduced to two stories and its operations were moved to the main floor, which also included space for the new McCrery Drug Store.
A new building for Ernie Crow’s radio shop was constructed at South 1st Street and Market Alley, and a new Kroger grocery store was built at South Main and West 3rd. The old First Christian Church at 1st Street and 2nd Avenue was razed to make way for a modern church on the site, while the Church of the Nazarene built its new house of worship at West Broadway and South C Street.
Monmouth’s retail economy was thriving in 1953, with an estimated 40,000 people living in the trading area, which extended 20 miles north, 16 miles west, 15 miles south and eight miles east. Taking advantage of those favorable numbers that summer was Edwin M. Bailey, who purchased the Bijou Theatre on South Main and converted it to a dry goods store.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 40 years.