Last time, I shared some stories with you about how Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery was established and the people buried there. I’ve got even more for you this week. This first grave marker is another example of what happens when you get curious and start sniffing around for answers. I often come up with something I wasn’t expecting.
This small monument caught my eye because it was made for a child and because it looked a bit unusual. Children’s graves usually feature lambs or cherubs. But this pillar marker is for Fern Wilder Metcalf, who was born on Feb. 10, 1895 and died of scarlet fever on Feb. 13, 1898 to parents Maynard Mayo Metcalf and Ella Wilder Metcalf.
Fern’s zoologist father has a special place in history. Maynard Metcalf was the only scientist allowed to testify on the stand as a defense witness at the 1925 Scopes anti-evolution trial. The likes of famous orator William Jennings Bryan (who died five days after the trial ended) and attorney Clarence Darrow were part of this history-making event in Dayton, Tenn.
The Metcalfs did not live in Elgin, but spent much of their time in Ohio when Maynard taught at his alma mater, Oberlin College. Fern died in Baltimore, Md. when Metcalf was teaching at Goucher College there. The Metcalfs did have another daughter, Mildred, who lived to adulthood. Maynard and Ella eventually retired to Winter Park, Fla. where he died in 1940. The couple is interred there at Oaklawn Cemetery.
Fern is buried near Ella’s parents so it’s my guess that the Metcalfs felt it was a proper place to bury her at the time. While Fern was only three when she passed away, I have no doubt they never forgot her.
Birth of the Elgin Watch Co.
I don’t know how I stumbled upon Augusta Gronberg’s simple grave since it’s flat against the ground and not flashy in any way. But like Fern’s, it was different and made me want to know more.
Born in Sweden in 1858, Augusta Storm emigrated to America in her early teens. She eventually went to work in the finishing room at the Elgin Watch Co., a mainstay of the community. The company was first incorporated in August 1864 as the National Watch Company.
Elgin was chosen as the factory site and the city was asked to donate 35 acres for that purpose. A derelict farm was chosen but the owners refused to sell unless the city purchased their entire 71 acres for $3,550. Four Elgin businessmen agreed and donated the required 35 acres to the watch company, which was re-organized in April 1865. The factory was completed in 1866 and the company officially changed its name to the Elgin National Watch Company in 1874.
Finding Love on the Job
Augusta’s factory boss was a man named Oscar Gronberg and apparently, they hit it off. The couple wed in 1879 and would have at least six children together.
By 1888, the factory was producing about 7,500 movements per week and employed roughly 2,300 people.I learned that they were split 50/50 between men and women but not so in their pay. The women earned about $6 per week while some of the men earned as much as $3 per day and this was for a six-day workweek.
In 1896, Augusta contracted the tuberculosis that would eventually end her life at age 42 on April 25, 1900. Oscar remarried a year later to Ella Reed and they had a daughter, Grace. He died in California in 1929 but was brought back to Illinois for burial at nearby West Aurora Cemetery.
During World War I, the U.S. Army had the Elgin factory train more than 350 men to make the precision repairs required in the battlefields. During World War II, all civilian work stopped and Elgin made military watches, chronometers for the U.S. Navy, fuses for artillery shells, and altimeters/instruments for aircraft. The company was awarded 10 Army-Navy “E” awards, for fulfilling contracts ahead of schedule.
In 1964, the Elgin Watch Co. moved operations to Blaney, S.C., and the town was renamed “Elgin.” The original factory in Elgin, Ill. was demolished in 1966 and manufacturing was discontinued in Elgin, S.C. in 1968. By 1972, it was all over for Elgin. But the company had made a lasting mark on Elgin and the watch-buying world.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
In the past, I’ve shared with you a number of tree-shaped markers in different sizes and shapes (from tiny stumps to enormous trees) at various cemeteries. Elgin has a number of them, too. The ones I’m featuring here don’t have the words “Woodmen of the World” on them, but some of the men had ties to the fraternal organization.
One of the most handsome is for New York-born dairy owner Phineas H. Smith (1811-1872) and his wife, Jane (1811-1902). Phineas was among the first Elgin residents to begin selling and shipping milk to nearby Chicago businesses in the 1850s. I’m not sure when this tree was made but I suspect it might have been after Jane died, not Phineas.
Then there’s the Henry family’s tree, which has individual log-shaped markers for the family members. I don’t know if any of the men were Woodmen members but the inclusion of an axe and mallet motif indicates at least one might have been.
Tree stumps tend to indicate a life cut short but among the four Donaldsons buried at Bluff City Cemetery, none died particularly young. Steven Donaldson (1840-1904) hailed from Sweden and worked as a carpenter, so you could say he already had sawdust in his blood.
There’s even a small twig-themed “D” marker in the family plot.
The Gale monument, while it has no Woodmen seal, is (at least to me) a WOW one because of the axe in the top, along with the mallet and the dove above the inscription. All are WOW symbols. Ward Gale worked at the Elgin Watch Co. factory and I suspect he was a member of good standing in Woodmen of the World. He married Ida Keller in 1881 in Indiana, but they had no children together. Ida died in 1900 at age 42 and Ward died a year later at age 43.
Pioneer Log Cabin
Right in front of the Gale monument is a lovely rarity that I’ve yet to see before, a log cabin-shaped monument. Walter S. Arnold (the Elgin sculptor I met with before visiting this cemetery) has actually found 40 cabin-style monuments, mostly located in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan. He mentioned it to me as a “must see” at Bluff City Cemetery and he was right.
I don’t know who created this amazing monument but it was built as a replica of pioneer Benjamin Burritt’s 1837 cabin located in Hanover Township (now Hanover Park). That’s about 10 miles east of Elgin. Benjamin was born in 1796 and died in 1880. So the cabin and its individual logs with initials on them were moved from the old Channing Street Cemetery to Bluff City Cemetery.
Benjamn Burritt held several civic positions in Elgin and acquired a good bit of land during his life. He and his wife, Katy, married in 1814 and had six children. Son Peter’s second wife, Rebecca McBride, was later known as the wealthiest woman in Elgin. At the time of their marriage, he was much older than she was. At the time of his death in 1892, she was only in her 30s and inherited his considerable real estate holdings. Peter is buried in Bluff City Cemetery.
Although she remarried to William Gilbert in 1894, Rebecca started construction of a downtown Elgin building as a tribute to her first husband in 1914. However, except for the street level, the upper floors of the Burritt remained unfinished for over 75 years. It wasn’t completed until the 1990s.
Another of Benjamin and Katy’s children was Josiah, born in 1820. He became a doctor and married Ellen Whitney in his 40s. Together, they had three children that lived to adulthood. A towering tree monument marks the graves of Josiah and Ellen.
I still have one more installment coming in my Bluff City Cemetery series. I hope you’ll return to learn more about this special burial ground.