The time economic incentives to lure business actually worked…

So the ridge cap on the lower gable of the Matile Manse roof needs to be replaced. Actually, it’s needed to be replaced for some decades now, but it’s something I just never got around to. From the 1950s through the early 1980s, our television antenna was attached to the gable roof section over the small attic above our kitchen, bathroom, and side porch. During that period of time, windstorms knocked it down three or four times, and each time it crashed into the metal cap that runs along the ridge of the roof, denting it. Eventually, those dents became deep enough to fill with water during rainstorms and with winter snow, and gradually, the metal, which was zinc-coated steel, rusted through. And now we have the occasional leak when it rains hard.

As a result, I’ve been looking around for someone to craft about 17 feet of ridge cap, and other than a company out in New York State, have been unsuccessful, until today. I tried a local roofing supply company, and they suggested a second company that specializes in metal roofing parts up on Rathbone Avenue in Aurora. I took a drive up there today, and while dodging forklifts and flatbed semis as I drove down the street I recalled how Rathbone, and one of its main cross streets, Sard Avenue, got their names.

Until the 1890s, there was no Rathbone and no Sard Avenue in Aurora. And the way they got their names is a story of how even well over a century ago, “incentives” were important parts of economic development.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding providing financial incentives to lure businesses to states and municipalities. Some say they are harmful in the extreme, while others consider them a necessary evil. Most of the time, I agree with the “harmful in the extreme” side of the argument. But back in the day, Aurora came up with an innovative way to provide an extensive list of sweeteners at no cost to taxpayers.

In 1889, Rathbone, Sard & Company, manufacturers of the popular Acorn Stoves, announced they were planning to build a new factory in Aurora, Illinois. Based in Albany, N.Y., Rathbone, Sard & Company was one of the largest manufacturers of heating and cook stoves in the nation.

Landing the new factory was a major economic coup for Aurora. As John R. Marshall commented in the Oct. 2, 1889 edition of the Kendall County Record:

“Aurora is in high glee and the papers of the city are exceedingly puffed up. Why? It is now decided that the great stove works of Rathbone, Sard & Co. are to be moved from Albany, N.Y. to Aurora, and as these works employ about 1,000 men, the cause for all this joy is apparent. For some months, the struggle has been going on between Aurora, Elgin, Rockford, and Joliet as to which city should get the works, and Aurora has triumphed.

“The works will be located on the west side of the river near where the Aurora & Joliet railroad bridge crosses Fox River; 115 acres have been  bought, 15 acres will be donated to the stove company and the other hundred cut up into lots and sold at two hundred dollars each to citizens of Aurora to make up the necessary cash.

“So large a plant located only ten miles up the river from Yorkville and five from Oswego will certainly make property more valuable at these points.”

This 1897 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map shows the layout of the Rathbone, Sard & Company stove works in Aurora, Illinois. Aurora Public Library collections.

This 1897 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map shows the layout of the Rathbone, Sard & Company stove works in Aurora, Illinois. Aurora Public Library collections.

Actually, the company was not shuttering its Albany operation as Marshall intimated. Instead, the Aurora works were to be an addition to the prosperous company’s operations in other cities.

In order to lure the stove works to Aurora, the city put on a full-court economic press. According to Montgomery historian Pat Torrance, the city formed a committee to negotiate with the firm, eventually offering 15 acres of free land, $60,000 in cash, and the all-important access to railroad facilities. In addition, the city guaranteed the company they’d extend gas, sewer and water service, and add a streetcar line past the factory site. In exchange the company would build a $350,000 factory and employ 500 people.

Rathbone, Sard & Company's popular Acorn stoves and ranges were sold nationwide. When the firm moved to Aurora, IL, the city created an entirely new neighborhood to house the firm and its workers.

Rathbone, Sard & Company’s popular Acorn stoves and ranges were sold nationwide. When the firm moved to Aurora, IL, the city created an entirely new neighborhood to house the firm and its workers.

In order to raise the $60,000 needed to finance their portion of the plan, the committee secured options on 150 acres of land bordering the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Of the total, 15 acres would go to Rathbone, Sard & Company for their factory; 10 acres would be reserved for other manufacturers who, it was hoped, would be lured to Aurora by the stove works; 10 acres was designated for the rail line and sidings; with the rest being subdivided into 500 city lots. The lots were to be sold to defray the cost of the development at a cost of $200 each.

It was a brilliant success. The lots were all sold within a day, raising $100,000, which more than paid the city’s development sweetener. It was so successful, in fact, that under the name of the “Aurora Plan,” municipalities all over the nation tried to emulate Aurora’s success.

As the area was developed, the stove works was bounded to the north by the brand new Rathbone Avenue, to the east by the brand new Sard Avenue, and to the west by the CB&Q tracks and sidings.

Construction of the works was finished by 1893, and Acorn Stoves were produced there until the mid-1920s. The problem with the company’s products was that by the time the factory was built, wood-burners like the various Acorn models, were on the way out as first gas stoves and then electric stoves began to drive them off the market.

But for several decades, Aurora’s stove works employed hundreds of men and provided middle class lifestyles for their families.

Today, the area of Sard and Rathbone is still industrialized, although the old stove works buildings are long gone, destroyed by a spectacular fire on Christmas Eve of 1983. And those 200 lots still boast a large stock of vintage workmen’s cottages built to house workers drawn to the factory building Acorn stoves as well as to other companies who took advantage of the municipal services extended to the neighborhood.

And while my trip up to Sard & Rathbone in Aurora to see if ABC Supply could fabricate my ridge cap was unsuccessful, they did point me to another metal fabricator who likely can do the job so I can keep the roof on my 1908 Queen Anne right and tight.



Filed under Illinois History, Montgomery, Technology

3 responses to “The time economic incentives to lure business actually worked…

  1. Bert Gray

    Nice piece!  I had NO idea.  (How many times have you heard that?)


  2. Origins really fascinate me. And the more things change, the more they stay the same…

  3. Julie Danca

    If the metal fabricator you found does not work out, you should talk to Dave. I wish I would have read this story earlier!

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