History Cast in Iron at the Old Stove Works
The Rathbone, Sard & Company stove factory in Aurora kept hundreds of Montgomery residents employed in the early 1900s. A fire wiped out the building in the 1980s, but its legacy remains.
The border between the southwest side of Aurora and Montgomery has always been fuzzy to most people.
Children from this part of Aurora routinely attended Montgomery School, and Montgomery Catholics sent their children to St. Peter’s School in Aurora. So this story about the “Old Stove Works” contains a lot of Montgomery history, even though it was located nearby in Aurora.
Businesses in both Montgomery and Aurora drew their labor force from the same pool. The old-timers, whose breadwinner worked there, usually referred to the Rathbone, Sard & Company, as the Stove Works.
In the late 1800s, the company—located in Albany, New York and looking to expand—began scouting the area for a building site. Even in those days, cities were offering incentives to attract new industries, expecting the tax base would expand and pay dividends on those incentives. Probably much like TIF districts do today. Both Joliet and Elgin were competing for the factory.
A committee was formed to negotiate with the company. They came up with a plan, which included offering 15 acres of free land, $60,000 in cash and adequate railroad facilities. They also promised sewer and water mains, a streetcar to the door, gas mains, and good freight rates. In exchange the company would build a $350,000 factory and employ 500 people.
In order to raise the $60,000, the committee secured options on 150 acres of land on the CB&Q line. 15 acres of this was to be given to the stove works, 10 for other possible manufacturers, 10 for railroad sidings, and the rest divided up into 500 city lots to be sold for $200 each. These 500 lots would bring in $100,000 to offset the $60,000 offered to the stove company for other expenses.
In the first 30 minutes, half of the lots were sold, and by the next day all of them were gone. It was expected that after the factory was built, the lots would increase in value.
The plan was wildly successful. Throughout the country it became known as the “Aurora Plan.” It would be interesting to know if the citizens were initially in favor of this plan, or if they complained it was a waste of money.
The stove works was built in 1893 and did a flourishing business until 1925. Of course, Montgomery benefited from this factory, too. A fair number of its citizens drew a paycheck there. Early city directories give the names and occupations of the family members and among these names are Felix Michaels, who would later buy the store in Montgomery and—along with his brother Barney—operate Michaels Brothers Grocery.
Young Dick Mosley was 16 when he got a job in the foundry there. And even though he didn’t work there long, it probably helped him to buy the car he would use to court Eloise Messenger.
New technology was being developed and the demand for the coal and wood burning stoves declined. Soon the company began to manufacture gas stoves and a popular model had a side oven, and tall legs that brought it up to cooking height. They came in white porcelain, some trimmed with green.
There were no temperature gauges and the housewife had to judge the heat of the oven by putting her hand in it. It probably took more than a few burned, soggy biscuits before the right temperature was established.
Changing technology is always hard on the working man. To prepare themselves for the changing world, past generations of high school students studied such subjects as Foundry, Forge, Machine Shop, and Printing, in ‘boys only’ technical schools. Girls and boys both attended vocational schools to learn work skills.
Many of those subjects would have no application in today’s workplace. The next new technology is already here and the schools are scrambling to prepare the students who will determine our future.
Various companies occupied the “Old Stove Works” manufacturing complex over the years. There was a very eclectic mixture of small companies. Better Brushes was there in the 1940s, as well as Processed Plastics and Saunders Tool and Die. Added to the mix were Ralston Grocery Distributors, Lacone Plastics, Fitzwell Windows, and a company selling G.E. Products. These companies furnished employment for hundreds of area families.
Sadly, in later years many of the long-time foundry workers developed an illness they called Molder’s TB, and they ended their days in a tuberculosis sanitarium. Today it is identified as Mesothelioma, and precautions are taken to prevent it.
One Christmas Eve in the early 1980s, a raging fire wiped out the entire block. The huge timbers smoldered for days. The last factory to occupy the building at the time of the fire was J. B. Industries, manufacturers of pumps and valves. The last reminder of one of the world’s largest stove manufacturers was gone.
Antique dealers prize the big cast iron cooking stoves and the daintier parlor stoves with the Acorn emblem. (Check your garage and see if there is one hidden away in a back corner.) In good condition (and even not-so-good), they can be found on the auction web sites. One was recently listed for four thousand dollars.
Editor's Note: Our Rich History is moving. Look for Pat Torrance's column every Thursday, starting next week on Montgomery Patch.