Earnest Elmo Calkins- Sounds of Silence

by Terry Hogan

Often the ''movers and shakers'' of yesteryear were too busy ''moving and shaking'' to take good notes. Such was the case with the founders of Knox College and the early settlers of Galesburg. As a result, the unattended task of recording the early history was picked up and attended to by Earnest Elmo Calkins. When he wrote They Broke the Prairie in 1937, he planted the seeds of history for Galesburg, while sowing silent fields. Carl Sandburg wrote of Earnest Calkins: ''Šhe wrote a book, They Broke the Prairie, one of the most interesting histories ever written about a small American townŠ.'' (Always the Young Strangers, 1953).

Calkins was born in Geneseo, Ill. on March 25, 1868. His parents were Mary Manville and William Clinton Calkins. William Calkins was an attorney. As a result of childhood measles, Earnest Elmo Calkins lost much of his hearing by age 6, although it was not recognized until he was 10 years old. He ultimately lost all his hearing and mastered lipreading. But, like most successful people, Calkins encountered the right people at the right time. One of these, Calkins recalled, was a high school Latin teacher, Ida Miller McCall. Ida told Earnest ''I want you to succeed, not in spite of your deafness, but on account of it.'' Calkins graduated from high school.

Calkins attended and graduated from Knox College in 1891 with a BA degree. Education was a challenge, given his hearing loss. The printed word became all the more important to him. It came to him, unblemished, unimpaired. He initially wanted to be a journalist but found this was difficult without hearing.

Calkin's first taste of success in the relatively new field of advertising came while he was working for a local newspaper. The manufacturer of a carpet sweeper offered a $50 prize for the best advertisement for his sweeper as a Christmas gift. To be qualified for consideration, however, the ad had to first appear in a newspaper. Calkins prepared an ad and it appeared in the paper, touting the Bissell Sweeper for the G. B. Churchill Company. Calkins' effort paid off, being selected out of approximately 1,433 submittals.

From this start, Calkins launched a professional career that took him to Peoria and then to New York, developing and expanding his advertising abilities. While in New York, he became friends with Ralph Holden who was, at the time, an unhappy employee of the freight department of the Baltimore Railroad. Holden became a fellow employee with Calkins. Both worked for Charles Austin Bates. Bates was the judge that selected Calkins' sweeper ad as the winner, a number of years earlier.

In 1902, Calkins and Holden formed their own advertising business. They expanded the concept of what advertising businesses did for their clients. Their prospectus announced ''Two men with an idea.'' They were well suited for each other. Calkins had the talent, and Holden had a clear speech that allowed Calkins to easily read his lips. Additionally, Holden had the business and sales sense to make the new business grow. They developed their own in-house art departments. Their efforts succeeded. They represented large and well-known clients, including Squibb, H. J. Heinz, and Thomas A. Edison. They also did promotions for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and McClure's.

One of their clients was Force Breakfast Cereal. Their campaign, by current standards, seems quaint but proved successful. It portrayed the change in character of ''Jim Dumps'' to ''Sunny Jim'' after eating Force cereal. Ads were placed on billboards, magazines, newspapers and yes, even street cars. Too bad they didn't have the foresight to come up with the phrase ''May the Force be with you.''

Calkins retired from the advertising business in 1931. With the development and success of the radio and with Holden's death a few years earlier, Calkins felt that his deafness had become too much of an impediment in the advertising business.

On the bright side, the closing of the advertising door was the opening for Calkins into an interest in history and writing books. His They Broke the Prairie, published in 1937, covered the grand and the minute of Galesburg and Knox College. Some of his observations on the change of Galesburg, and of small Midwestern towns, in general, seem more eloquent today than they were over 60 years ago. Calkins reflected on how the Midwestern towns in general, and Galesburg, specifically, had changed over a 100 year span.

Not content with the success of his book in preserving the successes and failures of early Knox College and Galesburg, Calkins wanted to put in place an on-going historical perspective. On June 11, 1944, Calkins could be found speaking before a small collection of elderly Knox College graduates. The site was at the home of Knox College trustee, Jane Grieg Post (class of 1894), in Oneida. These 25 or so elder folks were graduates of Knox from the class of 1894, or earlier, thus being out ''in the real world,'' as they say, for at least 50 years. From this small start, the Fifty Year Club was created for Knox College. The purpose of the Club was to preserve and record Knox College's (and Lombard College's) history. From its humble start, Knox College now reports that the club has over 2,000 members.

Ignoring his deafness, Earnest Calkins stepped forward to record and to preserve both the early history of Knox College and Galesburg. In that process, he has carved out his own place in that history.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online January 3, 2001

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