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Westclox in the Roaring Twenties

I must preface this article with sincere apologies to those of you who have been anticipating a new Curator’s Corner article. I didn’t intend to take such a long hiatus between articles, and I certainly have not been lacking good subject matter, I simply underestimated the widespread interest in our museum and the number of visitors and artifacts it would bring in. In short, I have been too busy “taking care of business”. I hope to be more punctual next year – at least I’ll try.

On most days in the museum, I find myself feeling a bit like and old 1960s cartoon character my children used to be somewhat fond of – Hector Peabody, and andromorphic dog who claimed to be the smartest being in existence. Peabody also had an adopted human son named Sherman, and most importantly his Wayback Machine! With this machine, he could transport himself and Sherman back to any point in history to discover “Peabody’s Improbable History”. Well, O.K., I’m not a dog, and I would never claim to be the smartest being, but I am rather proud of some of the facts I have uncovered in my Westclox research. Instead of a Wayback Machine, I rely heavily on company documents, photos and those marvelous little time capsules – Tick Talk magazines.

So, I’m going to set my own version of the Wayback Machine and take everyone to a fascinating time in Westclox history – the Roaring Twenties. What, you may ask, could that include? Did the female workers wear flapper dresses on the job? Did they have wild parties in the factory? Not exactly, but you would have seen some of the fashionable new hair cuts and shorter dresses, and it was not uncommon to find noon hour dances in the cafeteria. More important was the real reason this time period was called the Roaring Twenties – a period of sustained economic prosperity.

In 1920, there were 1,527 employees – 20 time as many as 1895. These employees were producing 15,000 clocks per day – 39 times as many as in 1895. The factory floorspace covered 310,000 sq. ft. – 25 times as in 1895.

Development of Central Park was progressing nicely. You may recall me mentioning this residential park in an earlier Curator’s Corner dealing with roads that were built by Westclox. (June, 2017) What was nothing but a “worthless ravine” when Westclox bought it in 1918, was steadily becoming a well-groomed area. This past year, we were thrilled to receive a collection of photos documenting the development of the area from the collection of the late Burton Richards, longtime editor of Tick Talk. We have archived all of them into an album that our visitors can easily browse through.

Central Park BEFORE

Central Park AFTER

A survey of the parking area for the factory revealed that there were 70 bicycles, 8 motorcycles, and 30 automobiles. Most of those 1,527 employees either used public transportation on the electric street cars or walked to and from work “to save the carfare”.

The first Machinist Training School was started at Westclox.

In 1922, a new five-story building was constructed at the rear of the factory. This building can be seen easily from Water Street in Peru. It is the building that looks “slightly bent in the middle” and bears the name Western Clock Company. This building was constructed to allow train cars to pull right under it to deliver raw materials and pick up finished products.

1923 brought plans for more construction in the form of an L-shaped office building on the north side of Fifth Street, across from the main entrance of the factory. Other construction was going on inside the factory, and not visible to the public. That was the installation of 4 bowling alleys in the lower level (basement) of the eastern end of the factory! Naturally, Westclox bowling leagues were quickly organized and going strong after working hours.

Remember those noon-hour dances I mentioned? 1923 was the year that Westclox installed a player piano in the cafeteria, so that workers could enjoy dancing at that time.

1924 began with the first Employee Pension Plan going into effect on January 1! The museum proudly displays an original certificate from that pension plan, signed by the company president Ernst Roth. There were now 2,500 employees, but not all chose to participate in the pension program.

The much-anticipated new office building was opened this year, complete with a tunnel under the roadway to provide a safe connection the main factory. The office building is now owned by Carus Corporation, and the still-remaining tunnel is closed at both ends for security.

It was announced that an orchestra would play in the cafeteria for noon-hour dances.

October of 1924 brought a sad note to all of Westclox, with the passing of their much-loved president Ernst Roth.

In 1925, a baseball league was organized at Westclox. They played games on a diamond at a park across the street, that was maintained by Westclox and eventually boasted lights for evening play. The park also had horseshoe courts, to accommodate this popular pastime. In the winter months, the ball diamond was converted into a large public ice rink.

In addition to clocks and pocket watches, 1925 was the year that Westclox helped to develop and build the “Zero Hour Torpedo”. The name sounds ominous, but this was not the kind of torpedo you would expect to be fired from a submarine. This bomb was created to shoot oil wells. The inventor of this “time bomb” device had asked Westclox if they could provide reliable, accurate pocket watches to serve as the timing mechanisms for his invention. Westclox rose to the challenge and worked with Mr. Bleeker to develop this explosive device, timed by none other than Pocket Ben. Westclox good-naturedly referred to this project as “Pocket Ben’s Suicide Club and noted that none of these watches would ever be returned for repair! The museum has a later version of the torpedo, redundantly-timed by two wrist watches, on display.

1925 marked the first year that the factory was closed for Memorial Day.

1926 brought another big first to Westclox, as a Sickness Benefit Plan (Sick Pay) was initiated. This was another revolutionary idea for American manufacturers.

Homeowners were continuing to move into the Central Park development.

Mrs. Adele Blow and Mrs. Eda Matthiessen (daughters of the late F. W. Matthiessen), large stockholders of Western Clock company, donated $400,000 toward the building of a new high school. Voters approved payment of the additional $200,00 needed to complete the job. (Mrs. Blow and Mrs. Matthiessen later donated the magnificent Matthiessen Memorial Auditorium at the school.)

In 1928, Westclox purchased the Sterling Clock Co., of Meridan, Connecticut, and moved it to the Peru (LaSalle) facility. The Sterling division was used to manufacture automobile clocks.

Construction of another 30,000 square-foot building, to house the buffing and packing departments was started.

Thanks to efforts of Westclox employees, another connecting road between the towns of LaSalle and Peru was opened to traffic. This road through Central Park was literally constructed by Westclox employees from the buffing and spring departments and others normally employed on regular clock making operations in the factory. Due to economic conditions during the spring and summer, there was not enough work in the factory to keep them busy, so Westclox paid them to be road builders. The new road made it possible for people to cross directly from the McKinley School neighborhood (near Twelfth and Pulaski Streets) to the district around Ninth and Chartres Streets in LaSalle, or vice versa. This new street also closely tied a large section of peru, commonly known as “Piety Hill” (between the eastern edge of Central Park and the western limits of LaSalle) to the rest of Peru. Before this time, there was no roadway directly connecting the two. It was necessary to go through LaSalle (even the Peru fire department had to do this) to get to the other parts of Peru.

1928 marked the closing of the Girls” Dormitories, a boarding house for girls employed at Westclox, which opened during World War I, and the opening of a new recreation park just east of the dormitories.

Other recreational opportunities were provided by the building and opening of tennis court, west of the new office building, and horseshoe courts north of the plating department and east of the new park. Bridge lessons were also offered for card players.

In 1929, Westclox had 3,058 employees and an annual payroll of $3,700,000. Another new addition of 24,750 square feet was started.

This is the year that another residential park, Grove Residence Park, was planned, initially as a place for the company executives to build homes. This area, north of Shooting Park Rd. in Peru, was formerly known as Halligan’s Grove and was used as a picnic grove. Westclox had put a lot of effort into drawing up plans for this modern development, with the aid of several professional architects, landscapers and engineers. In their request for annexation into the City of Peru, Westclox promised to install and maintain all roads and utilities in the development and to pave Shooting Park Road from Walnut Street east to the western border of the City of LaSalle. Westclox kept its promises. Local residents still affectionately call this area of Peru “the Grove”, but not many of them know that Westclox started it.

Westclox had had its own in-house volunteer fire department since the turn of the century, but the volunteer firemen utilized a hand-pulled hose reel and other hand-carried equipment. They had wished for a real fire truck for a long time. Finally, the company agreed to purchase a 1929 Ford truck chassis and to allow the maintenance department to try to turn it into a fire truck. Those maintenance workers worked magic! They started by cutting the chassis apart to re-size it, then they fenagled ways to obtain all of the materials they needed. The result was a real fire truck that was able to drive down any aisle in the factory and, if necessary, could ride up or down in the freight elevator! Members of the fire brigade formally introduced their pride and joy in June of 1929.

Westclox, along with the rest of the nation was really roaring along during the twenties, but that roar was quieted abruptly on Thursday, October 24, 1929. Known as “Black Thursday”, this is the date of the most devastating crash of the stock market in the history of the United States. That crash and the subsequent panic rush on the banks ushered in a period to be known as “The Great Depression”.

How did Westclox fare during the Great Depression? That will be the subject of my next Curator’s Corner – sometime in early 2019.

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