Kendall County has never exactly been considered the artistic capital of the Fox Valley, but the time was, the work of a local commercial artist was sold nationwide. And as part of that process, jobs were created for many local residents at a time when cash was extremely hard to come by.
In the late 1930s, the Oswego Presbyterian Church was looking for a new pastor after the Rev. John Klein accepted a call to a church in Denver, Colorado. After a search, they reached out to the Rev. Horace Larsen who was then filling the pulpit at West Liberty, Iowa, inviting him to come to Oswego to see how he and the congregation liked each other. He spoke at the service in Oswego on the last Sunday in April 1938, and on March 8 the congregation voted to offer him the position.
When Rev. Larsen moved his family to Oswego, he also brought along the tools of his avocation as a commercial artist. For a few years, Larsen had been creating plaques with Biblical themes that he sold through religious supply houses. For each plaque, Larsen hand-carved the armature from which a latex mold would be made. Then the mold was filled with a relatively new, extremely hard plaster-like product called Hydrocal being manufactured by U.S. Gypsum.
Deposits of gypsum were discovered in the late 1840s along the Des Moines River near Fort Dodge, Iowa. Since mining began in 1872, millions of tons of the stuff have been removed from the extensive gypsum beds. First used to manufacture Plaster of Paris and as a soil additive, over the years U.S. Gypsum—now known as USG—developed a number of other gypsum-based products, including Hydrocal. The company still markets Hydrocal, advertising it as a “Multi-purpose gypsum cement ideal for both solid and hollow casting of lamp bases and figurines. High green strength minimizes breakage during removal from the most intricate latex molds. Achieves a stark, white color, making it ideal for accepting colorants.”
For Larsen’s purposes, Hydrocal was perfect. It’s drying time was not overly fast allowing easy removal from molds, and the plaques made from it dried extremely hard, durable, and dead white in color, which meant it was easier to paint them.
Larsen had produced plaques for a year or two in West Liberty, and continued to do the same when he arrived in Oswego. At first, he worked alone in the basement of his home, the church parsonage. As he chatted with members of the congregation, he found at least one who was interested in partnering in producing the plaques.
That was young Ron Smith, who was looking for a new career. After high school, Ron had decided he was interested in learning the undertaking business. So he joined Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home as an apprentice trainee. But it didn’t take long before he began seriously questioning his career choice.
Which is where the Dillinger Gang enters the story.
On April 22, 1934, gang members John Dillinger, John “Red” Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter were ambushed by law enforcement officers near St. Paul, Minnesota. Hamilton—nicknamed “Three-Fingered Jack” by the press—was seriously wounded by a rifle bullet in the back as the gang fled in their car. They headed to Aurora here in Illinois where one of the gang’s hangers-on named Volney Davis had an apartment with his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray. There they cared for Hamilton until he died, after which Dillinger, Van Meter, and Davis drove Hamilton’s body south along the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) to a spot just north of Oswego, opposite today’s Violet Patch Park, where they buried him in a shallow grave. To hide his identity, they poured lye on his hands and face to remove fingerprints and facial features.
Fast-forward to Aug. 28, 1935, when a team of FBI agents, finally learning of the location of Hamilton’s body from Davis, exhumed the corpse. Conferring with local lawmen, Hamilton’s badly decomposed body was removed to the Thorsen Funeral Home, where young Ron Smith was assigned to process and embalm it. Which was the point, Smith told me five decades later, that he decided he needed to make a different career choice.
Fortunately, Larsen arrived a couple years later looking for help, and Smith was willing, ready, and able to get involved in a new Oswego business that didn’t involve decomposed gangsters.
The pair called their new company the Christian Art House.
They began manufacturing their plaques in the parsonage basement, but it was soon apparent that more room was needed. So Smith conferred with his in-laws, Fred and Lettie Willis, and the operation was moved to a small addition to the Willis tin shop in downtown Oswego. But that space, too, was quickly outgrown and so Larsen and Smith again approached the Willises, who owned a vacant city lot on Polk Street that backed up to their own house on Washington Street. With local financial help the Christian Art House built a two-story concrete block building on the lot to serve as their factory. With an eye towards the uncertain future, especially given the on-going Depression, the structure was built as a factory, but was also designed by Larsen to be easily remodeled into apartments in case their plans fell through.
But the plans did not fall through, and in May, 1940, the new factory was completed.
The May 8, 1940 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that “In February of this year a building permit was granted and the erection of a new plant began. It is a two-story structure, sturdy and attractive, made of concrete blocks and built in such a way that it may be converted into living quarters in later years if desired… The building, designed by Dr. Larsen, will adequately care for the increased volume of business and make possible a more efficient service to the trade.”
Manufacturing plaques began almost immediately.
Larsen hand-carved each plaque’s armature. On plaques with relief carving (which was virtually all of them), he was careful to make all angles slope inwards so the latex molds made from the master could be easily removed, the plaques themselves easily slipping out. On an edge of each plaque, he added an incised copyright notice along with his name, “H.A. Larsen,” the plaque’s item number, and the place the plaque was made, either in West Liberty or Oswego.
After Larsen produced a master carving, it was taken to the factory where molds were prepared by spraying the master with a mold release and then spraying liquid latex onto the master. The latex was allowed to dry and was then peeled off the master, and another mold was prepared the same way.
The latex mold was sunk into a shallow box filled with liquid Hydrocal™, which was allowed to dry, thus providing a firm base for the mold. This was especially important for the larger plaques because the weight of the wet Hydrocal™ could distort the mold and ruin the plaque.
After the plaques dried, they were removed from the molds and taken to the drying room. There, they were allowed to cure in the room’s elevated heat and lowered humidity.
After the plaques had thoroughly cured, they were taken to the paint room and were sprayed with a brown tinted antiquing paint. The plaques were then ready for final decorating, a job that was done by local women who worked at the Christian Art House part time.
During the late depression years and the immediate pre-war years of the late 1930s, the Christian Art House offered local women rare chances to earn cash wages without leaving town. While wages were only about 25 cents an hour, that was a fair amount in those years when a loaf of bread cost a nickel.
According to interviews with former paintresses, a specific color was painted each day. For instance, on a given Monday, everything green on whatever plaques to be decorated was painted. On Tuesday, blue portions of the plaques were painted, and so on.
Besides it’s women employees, the Christian Art House provided jobs for a number of men. Men worked in the actual plaque production, as well as in other jobs that required heavier manual labor. In addition, part-time male workers were employed from time to time for such labor-intensive tasks at unloading railcar loads of Hydrocal on the siding at the Oswego Depot. The men not only earned cash for this work, but were also sometimes also given complimentary plaques, a practice that spread the decorative art throughout the community.
Besides the firm’s Oswego factory, plaques were also reportedly lately produced in Chicago, where female students from the Moody Bible Institute were employed part-time as paintresses. Also, the firm had a Toronto, Canada factory during the 1940s.
Christian Art House wall plaques were marketed on nationally-broadcast radio programs such as “The Lutheran Hour.” In addition, they were sold through religious supply houses including Zondervan Publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Larsen’s designs included both relief and incised schemes, and almost always featured familiar Bible verses. Along with Bible verses, each plaque included various familiar Protestant religious images. These included the empty Cross, signifying the risen Christ; oak motifs, including leaves, twigs, and acorns, relating back to the cross, which was thought to have been made of oak; lilies; open books representative of the Bible itself; and others.
Besides purely religious imagery, however, Larsen also experimented with a variety of other motifs, including the globe and also tried out various textures. He also combined standard motifs, such as small scrolls, with others, such as crosses, to come up with compound motif plaques.
The smaller plaques made inexpensive gifts, and were often given by Sunday school teachers to their students. Larger plaques were given as gifts and purchased as home decorations.
The Christian Art House business was finally dissolved in 1958. But even today, more than a few Oswego homes still sport some of Horace Larsen’s plaques. In total, his output still stands as probably the largest body of work by any Oswego artist.
Today, you can see some examples of Larsen’s work at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, which currently has an entire exhibit dedicated to Larsen and the Christian Art House.
One response to “How Presbyterians, John Dillinger, and the Depression helped create an Oswego business…”
I have recently purchases a plaque and love it! Glad to know the history. Sounds like it was a very good business back in the day and helped support the community by providing a good job and some income.