Tom Kacich: Manufacturing once controlled C-U economy

Tom Kacich: Manufacturing once controlled C-U economy

Last week's big fire at the Wirco Inc. plant in west Champaign is an indirect reminder of a time when the Champaign-Urbana economy was manufacturing-based, not driven by a major public university and health care, as it is today.

For most of the last 75 years, the Wirco plant, located amid tree-lined streets in a residential neighborhood, was Alloy Engineering & Casting Co. That company began in 1941 as Alloy Casting Co., formed to provide high-alloy products for the Allied war effort. A flagpole on the south side of the plant still has a "V" for "Victory" at its peak. Wirco purchased Alloy Casting in 2005. But long before 1941 the oldest part of the Alloy/Wirco complex was the General Alloys Co. plant and before that, the Bonner Manufacturing Co., which opened more than 100 years ago as the first big factory in Champaign.

"Work has begun for the new factory buildings for the Bonner Manufacturing company, and it looks as if Champaign was to have a factory at last," the Urbana Courier Herald reported in August 1910.

"The location is along the Havana tracks (a railroad line that ran from Champaign to Havana, Ill.) of the Illinois Central, just east of the old Arthur farm. Corn stalks have already been mowed down, and the stakes set and several families have already shipped in their household goods."

The property also included 16 homes built for employees, many of whom moved from the company's first manufacturing plant in Chrisman in Edgar County.

"The company does not intend to have a row of houses all alike, the plan being to have a community of homes that employees and their families will want to occupy and which makes the factory addition one of the pretty ones of Champaign," the Champaign Daily Gazette wrote.

By 1912, the Bonner plant, which manufactured tool boxes for early automobiles that were plagued by bad roads and frequent breakdowns, was running at such a high level that it had to purchase more power from William McKinley's Urbana and Champaign Railway, Gas & Electric Company, which had a power house just north of downtown Champaign.

But just as quickly as the Bonner company soared to success it crashed to earth. In September 1914, the company declared bankruptcy. By 1916, it was out of business and banks and a lot of local investors — including George W. Fair for whom Fair Street, which borders the east side of the factory grounds, was named — were out of money. Fair declared bankruptcy in 1916, reporting assets of a little more than $20,000 and liabilities of $156,000.

In addition to the Bonner plant, major Champaign-Urbana industries included the Illinois Central Railroad; the Big Four Railroad in east Urbana; another steel supply firm known as the Burr Co.; McKinley's interurban, streetcar and utility companies; the Johnson Piano Co.; and the National Refrigerator Co.

Now for some bad news

As bad as the Illinois Legislature has behaved in the last week, we'll be reliving it this fall (at least those of us who watch television and listen to the radio).

Illinois Republicans wasted no time blasting House Democrats for ramming through a wildly unbalanced appropriations bill on two separate roll calls Wednesday and Thursday. The House Republican Organization unleashed "robocalls" on Democratic representatives in seven competitive districts and followed that up with digital ads. It's fairly easy to avoid those, but not as easy to bypass the TV and radio ads that are sure to be prevalent this summer and fall.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signaled again last week that he's ready to devote millions to competitive races. He gave $200,000 in personal funds to his Citizens for Rauner political fund, just for "marketing research and analysis."

There aren't many competitive races in East Central Illinois this year — mainly the 52nd District Senate content between Democrat Sen. Scott Bennett of Champaign and Republican Mike Madigan of Urbana — but there will be some marketing "bleed" from races in the Springfield area. The bloodiest political fights will be in the Chicago suburbs, where Rauner and state Republicans hope to unseat several incumbent Democrats.

There is no overstating how ugly this fall's political season will be: from the presidential race through the U.S. Senate contest to the legislative races.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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