A New York Times story I found from December 1913 reported that 88-year-old John Stewart of Elburn, Illinois, was giving away huge sums of money, including $50,000 to improve the Lincoln Highway. He asked that markers be set at each end of the road section that his donation improved. Were those markers ever placed?
Elburn is a small town some 40 miles west of Chicago, and just west of Geneva, nestled between the original Lincoln Highway (still called that but better known as Keslinger Road) and IL 38. A 1921 shortcut connected Keslinger Road to IL 38 via Elburn’s Main Street, and a few years later, Keslinger was bypassed entirely. Though rural, suburbia continues to fan out from Chicago; check out this planning map to see how quickly the landscape is changing.
Stewart was in Europe at the time, but the article was datelined Chicago, so it began as a local story. No wonder—he also gave $100,000 to granddaughter Esther Richards as a wedding present, and to all his grandchildren, he bequeathed his estate valued at $750,000. My favorite inflation calculator says that alone is the equivalent of $15.1 million today!
I checked with some town planners and officials, but no one has heard of the markers. What they didn’t say was that the local elementary schoool is named for John Stewart! Or that the town has preserved his mansion!
The Great Lakes Leadership Campus on IL 47 occupies the Stewart estate. Director Annette Sheehan (who graciously OK’d use of the photos here) says, “To my knowledge, there are no markers bearing his name on Route 38 through Elburn. I don’t know if there ever were—I’ve never heard about any such markers.” The GLLC website says the 15-bedroom Victorian mansion was built in 1897 for John, Martha, and their 5 children. Its lavish appointments like hand-cut lead glass windows, tiled fireplaces, inlaid wood flooring, wooden ceilings, and in all a hundred types of wood led to the home being featured on a 1908 postage stamp. John Stewart served three terms in the state legislature, and interestingly, funded the paving of Elburn’s Main Street.
I asked Kathleen Dow at the LHA archives at the Special Collections Library, University of Michigan, if Stewart shows up in their holdings. She found nothing in LHA minutes, correspondence (particularly checking the pledges), or brochures of major expenditures and donors. Could it be that, since the LHA never reached its goal of $10 million, pledges didn’t have to be paid? Kathleen replied, “From what I’ve seen in the LHA correspondence, some pledges were contingent on the pledge goal being reached before any checks were cut (many of the donors, or would-be donors, were businessmen, of course). So, yes, I think a number of pledges were never kept. I think there were also some quibbles about businesses, both small and large, pledging 1% of a year’s profit (I believe that’s what was initially solicited).”
So was the $50,000 ever donated? If so, were markers erected in Elburn or elsewhere? Or did the LHA not get the funds because they never reached their $10 million goal?