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Remembering Our Patriarch

A century ago, Westclox lost its patriarch. F. W. Matthiessen, who had faith in a fledgling, floundering clock factory and saved it from the clutches of near-death passed quietly away on February 11, 1918 at the age of 82. He had been ill for about a week, following a stroke. His condition was serious, and at times the doctors held little hope for his survival. He improved greatly in the few days before his death, and on that morning, as his nurse prepared to serve him breakfast, he said that he felt much improved. Two minutes later he was dead.

According to Mr. Matthiessen’s wishes, his funeral was strictly private – a simple service in his home for his family. The next morning his body was placed on a special Rock Island rail car and transported to Chicago’s Oakwood Cemetery for cremation and interment. The only public recognition was a closing of all LaSalle and Peru businesses and schools from 11 a.m. to noon, by which time his body had arrived at the cemetery.

A surprising number of visitors to the Westclox Museum are still astonished to hear that Mr. Matthiessen was connected to Westclox. In fact, he was connected from the very beginning, when he invested in Mr. Charles Stahlberg’s new company – United Clock Company – as it began operations in Peru, Illinois.

Yes, it was Mr. Stahlberg who patented a new method for casting some of the clock parts, brought 6 trusted men with him from Waterbury, Connecticut, incorporated his company in late 1885, and began construction of a brand new factory. (Until the factory was completed, the workers set up shop in the backroom of Brylski’s General Store.) Mr. Matthiessen was among a number of Peru and LaSalle businessmen and residents who invested in the company by providing start-up cash. Unfortunately, that cash did not outlast poor management practices, and the company was bankrupt by 1887.

Mr. Matthiessen rescued the company, reorganized it as Western Clock Manufacturing Company, and installed a very competent general manager to oversee operations and ensure that sound business practices were followed. He personally provided additional cash to meet payroll for three years, until the company was stable and making a profit. The rest was history!

Western Clock Company, later known as Westclox, was not Mr. Matthiessen’s only business interest. He had come to the United States with his good friend, Edward Hegeler, in 1856. They established a zinc smelting business, Matthiessen and Hegeler Zinc Company, in LaSalle, in 1858. He became a very successful businessman, and generously gave back to his community in philanthropic efforts and community service. At the time he assumed control of the clock factory, he was president of Matthiessen and Hegeler Zinc and was also serving as Mayor of the City of LaSalle. Around this time, he also acquired the LaSalle Tool Company, which he eventually merged into the clock factory.

Throughout his lifetime in LaSalle-Peru, he acquired numerous parcels of land. Most people though some of these parcels were unusable and wondered about the logic in acquiring them. Eventually, many of these became an extremely valuable part of the community.

While he was busy running several businesses and his hometown, he never stopped seeing the need to do more. He was very concerned with infrastructure and proper upgrades to benefit the residents of his town and those who would follow. He established the first public water system in LaSalle, and paid for the original water pump, which was still working well at the time of his death. He followed this with a proper sewage system and electric lighting program., again personally paying a large portion of the cost. When he found the City of LaSalle handicapped with debt, he personally paid and cancelled about $46,000 of outstanding bonds.

He next turned his attention to education. He saw to it that a proper, state-of-the-art high school was built. When the limits of the bonded debt for the school placed limits on construction, it was F.W. Matthiessen who quietly went to the building company and told them to use the highest quality of bricks instead of an inferior grade that fit the budget. He simply told them to send him the bill for the difference. When he later saw the need for a manual training and domestic science building, and when voters turned down a proposal for such a building, he built the building on his own property near the school, fully equipped it, and gave it to the township for $1.00.

A few years before his death, his growing concerns about public health led him to establish, in 1914,

the Hygienic Institute to serve LaSalle, Peru, and Oglesby. He funded an endowment that provided $12,000 to build a building with an office and laboratory, $5,000 for equipment, and $16,350 annually for staff salaries and maintenance.

Space here does not allow me to mention the many other gifts provided by Mr. Matthiessen and later by his family members, but some very obvious reminders of this generosity are constant reminders: LaSalle-Peru Township High School and Matthiessen Memorial Auditorium, Hygienic Institute, Matthiessen Park in LaSalle, and Matthiessen State Park. The latter two of these were literally where Mr. Matthiessen lived. His city home on Ninth Street, LaSalle (adjacent to this zinc factory) was demolished in 1932 and the land given to the city for use as a park. The state park was his summer estate, which he called Deer Park. He always was willing to share his magnificent grounds with the public for hiking, picnics, etc. After his death, the property was eventually given to the State of Illinois to be used as a public park. His mansion on the site fell into ruin and was eventually torn down. Thousands of people enjoy the beauties of this natural park every year.

F. W. Matthiessen’s death was met with great sorrow by all who knew him, but most did not worry about the fate of his companies and other philanthropic ventures. He left everything in the capable hands of those he entrusted to carry on the day-to-day business at hand. For Westclox, the transition was as smooth as if he hadn’t left at all.

General manager Ernst Roth (who soon became president of the company) carried on, following the policies that he and Mr. Matthiessen had established. Those who followed Mr. Roth, including Mr. Matthiessen’s son and grandson, also followed the same sound business practices. The company prospered and grew to be the largest clock factory in the world!

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