Kane County History: Today’s Drivers Owe a 'Thank You' to The Elgin Motor Club

Kane County History: Today’s Drivers Owe a ‘Thank You’ to The Elgin Motor Club

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was researched and written by Elgin History Museum Educator Rebecca Miller.

Elgin has always been a town on the go: trains, planes, trolleys, bicycles and, of course, cars.

Cars and bicycles were made and raced here. Trains and trolleys connected us to towns near and far. Planes no longer land at Elgin’s airfields, but they still crisscross the sky above town.

Town founder James T. Gifford worked to bring the railroad to Elgin in 1850, but could not have known that it was the car that would have the greatest lasting transportation impact.

Elgin Before Cars

When George Richardson brought the first locally owned auto to Elgin in 1900, it arrived in a city designed for horse and wagon traffic.

The city streets, if they were paved at all, were mainly covered in brick or cedar blocks which worked well for cleaning up after the horses and to bear the heavy wagon wheels.

Horse and wagon traffic did not need much guidance. Everyone knew where they were going, generally speaking, and had no concerns with waiting their turn to travel up and down the street. Neither human nor horse seemed to mind the sluggish pace of wagon travel.

In the rural areas outside of town, the roads were unpaved and very susceptible to the weather. Heavy rains would puddle on the dirt roads. The rain could leave, in the best case, mud that would eventually dry up, or in the worst case, potholes and washouts that could break a wagon axle.

The roads outside of town were not uniform in their width and frequently had no shoulder. The road might be little more than a set of parallel ruts beaten through the weeds and might drift unexpectedly around trees or other obstacles.

Human and horse traveled with a general sense of direction, since country roads were not marked. There were neither warning signs for dangerous conditions nor directional signs to help you find your way.

Country roads often had no official name and were just called by the name of the nearest farmer. Guess who lived on Russell Road? The Russell family did, of course! Speaking of farmers, it might be a good idea to have a friendly relationship with a few along your route, since they were your only chance for help or shelter in the event of an accident or emergency.

All of this was fine for horse and wagon traffic — or at least the people of Elgin were used to it — but with the coming of the automobile, changes were needed.

Twelve years after the arrival of the first local car, there were about 500 privately owned vehicles in Elgin. As more cars came to Elgin, drivers wanted to hit the road on pleasure trips. Area businesses also saw the benefits of catering to drivers or those wanting delivery of goods and services. Most Elgin families would have a car by 1920. Elgin was becoming a car town.

Motor Club Beginnings

The Elgin Motor Club was founded in 1903, soon after automobiles became widely available. The Elgin Motor Club was more than a social club, it worked to make driving more enjoyable for its members.

As newly-minted driving enthusiasts, the club members knew firsthand what was needed to make Elgin a drivable city. There was no AAA or roadside assistance to call in the event of an emergency, so club members pledged to never pass by a fellow club member who needed help.

Members of the Elgin Motor Club received a metal emblem to display on the front of their car. In addition to emergency roadside assistance and free service at local garages, members of the Elgin Motor Club received a monthly newsletter with car care tips and information on driving routes. Emblem from collection of the Elgin History Museum and photographed by Ira Marcus Photography.

Careless drivers sped through downtown at reckless speeds topping 8 miles per hour, so the club sponsored a schoolboy safety patrol and pushed for posted speed limits. Not wanting the local police to take that rule a bit too far, the club also lobbied against speed traps. To limit downtown congestion they advocated for time limits on street parking in the commercial district.

The Elgin Motor Club’s primary goal, though, was to get member’s cars out of the mud and onto a network of good roads stretching from Elgin, east to Chicago, south to Aurora and north to McHenry. The club pressured township road commissioners to improve road maintenance and even held work days for club members to help spread gravel on rural roads.

The club also erected directional and cautionary signs to aid drivers and passed out free road maps. Soon the Elgin Motor Club had 1,200 local members and Elgin had 94 miles of paved roads.

In 1925 the club sponsored the Pageant of Progress to highlight Elgin’s place as a modern city, a city that included cars, of course. The 6-day festival included a merchant and manufacturer’s exhibition, rows of new cars on display, a carnival, and a nightly musical review.

The highlight for some was the Miss Elgin Pageant which sent Lucille Burns, an EHS graduate and clerk at Swan’s Department Store to Atlantic City to compete for the title of Miss America. Miss Burns was eliminated from the competition in the first round, but returned home to much acclaim.

Lasting Impact

Elgin Motor Club clearing a country road of rocks and debris, 1913. Photo from the Elgin History Museum collection.

The Elgin Motor Club saw the importance of bringing major county and state roads through Elgin. In 1914 the Fox River Trail, now IL Route 31, would become the first major paved road in Kane County.

The original plan called for the road to skirt the edge of Elgin, following current day McLean Blvd. The Elgin Motor Club worked to divert that traffic into Elgin’s downtown for the benefit of Elgin’s commercial center. In 1919, the club also brought Grant Highway, now U.S. 20, through Elgin rather than its original proposed route through Dundee.

The club had several ideas that were ahead of their time. In 1926 they called for a third downtown bridge, 14 years before the Highland Avenue bridge was built. In 1931, they called for a Hwy 20 bypass, 29 years before it was completed.

The Elgin Motor Club disbanded in 1952. All remaining members were folded into the Chicago Motor Club. The club did not end due to falling membership so much as it ended because the current membership could not generate enough money to finance their always ambitious projects.

The Illinois Line

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Elgin Motor Club was its simplest. Elgin Motor Club President Theodore J. Schmitz conceived of the line down the middle of a road to divide the pavement into two lanes for traffic going in opposite directions.

In the early days of motor cars, sharing the road was easy, you may travel for miles without seeing another motorist. The road was narrow and the shoulder not well defined so driving down the middle of the road was fine. Plus, you might be dodging those potholes on unpaved roads. When (if?) you encountered another driver doing the same, you would both pull to the side and pass safely.

As cars became more common, this strategy would not work. A line down the center of the road was necessary for safety. Theodore Schmitz shared his idea with the superintendent of highways for the northern district of Illinois.

The idea came to be known as the “Illinois Line.” The idea, so simple and so necessary, quickly spread throughout the United States and all around the world.

Everyone wants a piece of a great idea and timely inventions often develop at the same time in different places. The Michigan Department of Transportation’s website reports that the use of a centerline is a Michigan invention.

One can’t help but wonder: Then why is it called “The Illinois Line”?

Want to Know More?

Car fans should check out the 48th Annual Model T Car Show at the Elgin History Museum on Saturday, Aug. 21.

Beauty pageant fans can learn more about 1925’s Miss Elgin in Jerry Turnquist’s Brown Bag Lunch presentation on Thursday, Aug. 19.

Check the museum website calendar for more information on both events.

About The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum is housed in an 1856 landmark building known as Old Main that was once part of the Elgin Academy campus. The Elgin Area Historical Society, which was founded in 1961, is a thriving organization that operates within the museum. The society has a board of directors with a mission that is driven to preserve and educate the community about Elgin history.

The Elgin History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Two floors of Elgin history exhibits pull you back in time to remember how the community developed from 1835 to today.

For more information, visit elginhistory.org.

Feature Photo Caption

George F. Sills of 570 Park Street and two passengers, perhaps wife Mabel Sills, pose in a Ford touring car near the Wing Park Pavillion. George’s life insurance office was at 18 River St., now North Grove Ave. Notice the pocket watch shaped emblem of the Elgin Motor Club hanging on the car’s radiator. Photo from the Elgin History Museum collection.

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