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A Montgomery 'Rags to Riches' Story

From very humble beginnings, Vine Alexander Watkins progressed quickly to more and bigger enterprises.

Vine Alexander Watkins came to Illinois sometime before 1850. He was born in Stockbridge, Vermont in 1825, the son of Miner and Anna Barr Watkins. The family moved to New York State for a time before heading west to Wisconsin. Vine stayed in Wisconsin for a time, working in a reaper factory. Eventually he made his way down to Elgin, Illinois.

Always searching for opportunities, he ventured down the river. He was a bright, energetic young man and when he reached Montgomery and began working for Daniel Gray, something clicked. Each man recognized something in the other, and both recognized the potential of the river to provide water necessary to power the factories and industries they both envisioned.

Vine Watkins bought the little Settler’s Cottage (which is now a museum) on River Street that was built by his father-in-law, Daniel Gray. It was purchased in 1854, a few years after his marriage to Catherine Gray. It is generally believed that he and his wife lived there after they were married.

Gray, who founded the village, built the cottage before the streets were platted. He used stones from the river for the walls of the basement. Whether he ever lived there is in question. He may have built it for his workman. Daniel himself lived on large house on Jefferson Street, which was on the stagecoach route.  There he would accommodate overnight visitors traveling between Chicago and Galena. He was busy with various enterprises including the tavern, a store, and post office and would soon build a mill on nearby property.

While Vine Watkins was an employee of Gray, it wasn’t long before a business partnership developed and the two men built the millrace and a big five-story gristmill (that still stands at the corner of Mill and River Streets) in 1851.

After the village was platted, Vine Watkins built other homes around the village.

In 1857, Watkins was listed in one Kane County directory as “speculator.” In fact one of the streets is named Watkins, a deviation from the tradition of naming the east west streets after early presidents.

From very humble beginnings, he progressed quickly to more and bigger enterprises. In 1860, he was elected president of the village of Montgomery. That same year he was in business with his brother-in-law, Azariah Palmer, manufacturing sash, doors and blinds.

In 1864, he is listed in the Illinois State Gazetteer as Watkins, Vine A., agt. real estate. His sash, doors and blinds company became a partnership with his brother Minor in 1867.

His holdings continued to grow and that year his name was listed with other prominent Aurorans incorporating The Fox River Hydraulic and Manufacturing Company, entitled to acquire, control or create on lands near to and powered by the Fox River and to engage in the manufacture of cotton, woolen, flaxen, hempen or other goods or machinery. This set the stage for his remarkable rise to success.

One year after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he was named a partner of Palmer, Fuller & Co. Chicago, sash, door and blind manufacturers. Once more he was in partnership with his brother-in-law, Azariah. Azariah died soon afterward, but the business continued to grow into one of the finest businesses in the city.

Other business opportunities presented themselves and he served on the boards of many banks and other organizations. It was during his term on the Board of Directors of Lyon Metallic in Chicago that he persuaded the owners to locate their business in Montgomery. The railroad had begun regular service and there was a steady workforce available to make it a very desirable location. During those years Vine and Catherine Watkins lived on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  In 1891-1893 they lived at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. The contrast between the tiny Settler’s Cottage and the elegant Palmer House could not be greater.

In 1891, Vine Watkins gave the village land at 649 N. Main St., in Montgomery, to build a school. Formerly called the Montgomery School, it was later renamed the Grace A. Nicholson School after a beloved principal. It became part of the West Side School District in 1955.

In 1899, they built a fine home on the corner of Galena and Chestnut Streets in Aurora. When Holy Angel’s built their new church near his home, Vine could not tolerate the sound of church bells ringing all hours, so he “generously” agreed to contribute $500 to the building fund if they would not put any bells in their steeple. There were no bells.

Vine Watkins died in 1906, several months after his wife. The couple had no children. He died a very wealthy man and the newspapers reported that he left millions to relatives. His was truly a “rags to riches” story.

A newspaper obituary at the time of his death painted a portrait of a man of unusual keenness and sterling character. He was known for his honesty, integrity and generousness. The Old Second National Bank of Aurora where he was a vice president and director closed its doors during the funeral hours, to honor his memory.

Mr. and Mrs. Watkins are buried in Riverside Cemetery where, while still living in Chicago, he had commissioned a large monument to be built in the family plot.

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