Happy 150th, Abingdon!

By Mike Hobbs

The Zephyr, Galesburg



       In a story that appeared in the July 28, 1957 issue of the Peoria Journal Star Abingdon historian, writer, and poet Mrs. Louise Simms explained why Abingdon was about to celebrate its second centennial.  She noted that on September 16, 17 18, and 19, 1936 the Abingdon Centennial and Central Illinois Horse Fair was held to mark Abingdon's founder Abraham Swarts laying out the original sixteen blocks of the town in 1836, but it wasn't until April 1, 1857 that the State of Illinois granted a city charter to Abingdon.  "Thus the 1957 centennial is being called 'Abingdon Charter Centennial'.", she wrote. 

       Mrs. Simms described the activities that were planned for the 1957 Charter Centennial:  "The four day Centennial celebration will begin with a horse show Sunday, Aug. 25 [at] the high school football field.  That evening there will be an outdoor union church service at the same location with all churches of Abingdon participating.  The amateur contest will be held Monday evening, Aug. 26, on Main Street; and Wes Holly and his barn dance crew from WHFB-TV Rock Island will present a show on Main St. on Tuesday evening, Aug. 27.  The Centennial parade is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 28, with $250 being offered in prize money.  The 4-H livestock auction will be held Wednesday evening.  Main St. will be roped off for the carnival and various local concessions during the four days.  Included will be a home economics show with prizes to be given in various classes of needlework, etc.  There will also be a display of antiques and old clothes.  There will be a booth where you may redeem the Centennial Souvenir Wooden Nickels which have been in circulation in Abingdon for several weeks . . . .There will be a judging of beards and the announcement of winners in the Baby Contest . . . ."

       This year Abingdon celebrates its Charter Sesquicentennial.  In a story that appeared in the March 29, 2007 edition of the Argus-Sentinel, it sounds like the 1957 and 2007 celebrations are going to have some similarities:  "July 19 through July 22 [2007] promise to be four days jam packed with fun things to do to help celebrate Abingdon's 150th birthday.  Everything from a beard-growing contest  to a beauty pageant to a street dance to an ecumenical church service has been suggested. . . .  There will be car shows, crafters and craft demonstrations, food vendors, music, and ice cream social and a box lunch, games for kids, and square dancing.  There will be a parade with floats and an antique tractor show."

       I am proud and grateful for having grown up in Abingdon in the 1950's and 60's.  It was a good city at a good time.  It was a time of optimism.  Parents confidently expected that their children would have better lives than they had had.  Good jobs were plentiful. Schools were good.  Businesses bustled on Main Street.  But the quality that stands out in my mind as the determining factor in making Abingdon a wonderful place to grow up was the character and goodness of the adults--parents, teachers, coaches, scout leaders, clergymen, civic leaders, community group members, and businessmen.  These were the people who had survived The Great Depression and had helped win World War II.  They had a can-do confident attitude that they would make things better for their community, their families, and themselves.  Among those many fine adults were the Bulkeleys, the children of Irene and Harry Clough Bulkeley who served as president and chairman of the board of the American Sanitary Mfg. Co. (known locally as The Brass) from 1918 until his death in 1948.

       The History of Abingdon published in 1968 by the Abingdon Publishing Co., Inc. details the history and significance of The Brass:  "The Brass was first organized in Detroit, Mich., in 1908 by Otto Ernst, who moved the plant to Abingdon in 1910.  Two years later, H.C. Bulkeley, soon to become president[,] was hired as sales manager.  By 1918 a group of Abingdon businessmen and farmers had purchased the controlling stock in the company . . . .Starting with the manufacture of plumbers' brass goods, faucets, drain fitting[s] and the like, the company expanded under the direction of Mr. Bulkeley and his family to become the largest manufacturer of swimming pool accessories and fittings in the world.  It was the first company to make a combination bath and shower unit and was the first to introduce the use of flexible copper tubing in supply lines to replace rigid brass tubing."

       The company grew from thirty to forty employees in 1918 to over 150 in 1968.  According to The History of Abingdon, "Plumbing products from the American Sanitary are shipped throughout the world and are found from Abingdon to Saudi Arabia. . . .  The famed Hilton Hotels all over the world use plumbing goods from the American Sanitary."  The military needs of the nation during World War II prompted The Brass to add to its product line.  "Chief among its wartime products was fuses for depth bombs.  Another wartime product from the Brass was based on a development by R.B. Eyre of the local plant, who originated a deep heat treatment formula for primer bodies that held TNT  charges. . . .  The brass also made castings for plants throughout the country that were engaged in government production."(The History of Abingdon).  For its wartime efforts The Brass was awarded the Army-Navy E Award.

       Judge Harry Clifford Bulkeley, my classmate (AHS Class of 1967), said that The Brass was a family operated business.  After his grandfather passed away in 1948 his eldest son Kenneth C. Bulkeley became president and chairman of the board of the plant.  Gerald C. Bulkeley was first vice-president and office manager/finance manager, Eugene C. Bulkeley was vice-president/purchasing agent, Philip C. Bulkeley (Harry's father) was vice-president in charge of sales, Bev Eyre (Harry's uncle) was plant superintendent, and Charles W. Reeder (Harry's uncle) was vice-president in charge of manufacturing and secretary of the board.  Note that the Bulkeley sons middle names all begin with the letter "C".  Their sisters Mary Cathryne and Irene's middle names also began with the letter "C", and all of that generation's children's middle names began with "C", a family tradition that Judge Bulkeley continued with his three daughters.

       Judge Bulkeley spoke of his family's commitment to giving back to the community where their business prospered.  His grandfather was mayor of Abingdon for two terms, was active in the Chamber of Commerce, and served on the board of the Abingdon Bank & Trust Co.  The History of Abingdon states, "In May, 1923 the Abingdon Rotary Club was chartered as Club No. 1441.  Harry C. Bulkeley who was instrumental in organizing the club was also its first president.  He later became District Governor, a member of the Board of Direcors and First Vice-President of Rotary International."  Judge Bulkeley said that his grandfather hosted the Lord Mayor of London, a fellow Rotarian, at his home.  A family story goes that the Lord Mayor and Mr. Bulkeley "took coffee and tea" while sitting in their pajamas on the front porch of "The Big House", the family residence on Adams Street. His sons and sons-in-law were also active in Rotary.  Harry's grandmother served on the board of The Baby Fold, a major downstate adoption agency headquartered in Bloomington and was instrumental in starting the Methodist Church Youth Choir in 1948.  Kenneth served on the board of directors of Illinois Wesleyan University and the Abingdon Bank & Trust Co.  Gerald was Indian Point Township Supervisor, was instrumental in organizing the Fall Festival Association in 1955, was involved with the Boy Scouts, and served on the Western Illinois University board of directors.  Eugene was active in the Elks Club, Red Cross, Easter Seals, the Abingdon Methodist Church, and was an alderman.  Mary Cathryne Eyre was a teacher and was involved with the Girl Scouts, PEO, and community clubs.  Her husband Bev served on the boards of the Boy Scouts and Knox College alumni affairs.  Irene Reeder taught for a year at the Indian Point country school south of Abingdon.  Her husband Charles was mayor of Abingdon.

       Judge Bulkeley's mother JoAnn's maiden name was Bower,  Her father was a pharmacist who operated a drug store in Galesburg at the northwest corner of Simmons and Cherry Sts. where Rich's Barber Shop is now located.  She and Phil Bulkeley met at the wedding reception for Sybil and Jim Stockdale, an Abingdon native who would later be held as a POW in North Vietnam for over seven years, be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and attain the rank of admiral.  The Bulkeley and Stockdale families had known each other for years, and Phil and Jim shared the common experience of serving as fighter pilots.  During World War II U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Phil Bulkeley had flown a P47 for "The Burma Banshees" in the Burma-India theater.  After the war he served as Kiwanis Club Lieutenant Governor and president of the Knox County YMCA.

       Harry has fond memories of growing up in Abingdon in the 1950's and 60's.  He recalls some of the fine adults who made it a fine community.  Mrs. Esther Stone was his junior high school English teacher who taught him about prepositions and how to diagram sentences.  He feels that the memory work that she insisted on in memorizing such writings as the poem Paul Revere's Ride by Longfellow helped him later in life.  Mrs. Verda Dahler taught him Latin for two years in high school.  He says a week doesn't go by without him recognizing Latin derivatives in the English language.  High School English teacher Tom Smith taught him how to write themes properly.  His teachers' efforts, plus the memory of the hot, dirty job of tearing out the loading dock at The Brass with his classmate Bill Peacock in the summer of 1967, helped him to persevere during his freshman year at the University of Texas.

       He said there was a "built-in conscience" derived from growing up in a small community like Abingdon.  If you acted up, your parents heard about it quickly.  He commented on a "spirit of succeeding" in Abingdon.  Jobs were plentiful in town and in Galesburg.  During the summers while he was in college he had trouble crossing the Hard Road to go to work at The Brass because of all the people going to work.  In earlier times he enjoyed going to movies at the Abby Theater, bowling at Abbey Lanes, shooting pool at Faralli's Billiard Parlor, and eating ice cream at Simms' Dairy Bar.  Carefree summers were spent playing baseball at the ball park.  He played for K of G in Little League and for the Yankees in Babe Ruth League.  His family's swimming pool got a workout during the summers as many Abingdon kids got to cool off there.  His mother taught some of them how to swim.

       About the 1957 Abingdon Charter Centennial Harry recalls that the kids in his neighborhood entered the parade competition as a group.  With the help of their parents they made cardboard cutouts of a locomotive, caboose, and railroad cars that fit over their bikes and gave the appearance of a train.  There was only one problem.  The cutouts were unwieldy and made the bikes hard to ride.  They repeatedly fell over as they rode along the parade route.