Jeff Rankin: Monmouth’s Post War Industrial Boom
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on January 1, 2018.
Our future economic prosperity may lie in technology and services, but in the decade after World War II manufacturing was still king and Monmouth was at the forefront of a boom in factory and warehouse construction.
Under the direction of Bob Albert, the energetic young WWII veteran who ran the Chamber of Commerce, efforts to bring a new industry to Maple City achieved their first major success in 1950 when Gamble-Skogmo, the merchandising Minneapolis company, plans to build a huge warehouse on 18 acres north of the city limits. The plant consolidated offices and warehouses in Chicago and Marshalltown, Iowa, and became the paint and hardware distribution point for hundreds of stores in Illlinois, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa. It housed the regional offices and employed 190 people.
Less than a year after construction was completed, the Gamble warehouse was razed to the ground by fire in September 1952 and suffered a loss of $ 2.5 million. The city immediately took action and relocated the office staff to the armory building, while a completely new plant was being built on the site. The new building was ready for occupancy in July 1953.
The summer of 1953 was a notable period of construction in Monmouth, with an estimated 400 construction workers working on new and remodeled facilities.
South of the Gamble plant, on the west side of the North Main, the Mayrath Company built a plant on five acres of land. As a manufacturer of grain and hay lifts, the company constructed a 50 by 120 foot tall one. Factory that employed 20 people.
Meanwhile, a new Formfit factory was built east of the Gamble factory. The lingerie maker had moved to Monmouth in 1947 and was based in the Colwell building at 211 South A St. While it employed 200 workers, the new plant employed 350. It was more than 50 meters long and included a cafeteria and lounge and changing room.
The new factories joined an existing range of manufacturing industries including Western Stoneware (375 employees), Bersted’s Hobby Craft (45 employees), and grain processor Ralph Wells & Co., which exempts $ 1 million worth of soybeans from farmers annually the area bought. Other agricultural industries included de-calf seed corn, which employed 150 people during the dry season; Roy G. Miller Inc., which manufactured automatic feeders for pigs and chickens; Nichol’s Hatchery, which produced 1.5 million chicks annually; and the headquarters of Brown Lynch Scott, which operated 35 farm and home stores in Illinois and Iowa.
Bowman Brothers Shoe Stores were headquartered in Monmouth and served 14 shoe stores in Illinois and Iowa. Several small manufacturers with fewer than 25 employees also flourished.
It was fortunate that Monmouth’s industries were booming as one of its largest employers – Illinois Bankers Life Assurance Co. – recently consolidated and closed its Monmouth headquarters, cutting 225 jobs and a local payroll of $ 460,000 .
But back to the building boom of 1953. In downtown Monmouth, the Monmouth Trust and Savings Bank underwent a complete renovation. Originally a three-story bank dating back to 1865, it was reduced to two stories and operations moved to the ground floor, which also contained space for the new McCrery Drug Store.
A new building for Ernie Crow’s radio store was built on South First Street and Market Alley, and a new Kroger grocery store was built in South Main and West Third. The old First Christian Church on First Street and Second Avenue was razed to make way for a modern church on the site, while the Church of the Nazarene built its new place of worship on West Broadway and South C Street.
Monmouth’s retail economy flourished in 1953. An estimated 40,000 people lived in the trading zone, which stretched 20 miles north, 15 miles west, 15 miles south and 8 miles east. Edwin M. Bailey took advantage of these favorable numbers this summer to buy the Bijou Theater on the South Main and convert it into a dry goods store.
Jeff Rankin is editor and historian at Monmouth College. A lifelong resident of Monmouth, he has been researching local history for more than three decades.