The above undated photo was donated to the Joiner History Room. On the back was one word, “Sycamore”. Because it was a picture with a prominent smoke stack that she hadn’t seen before, Sue Breese, County Historian, passed it around so the volunteers could help her identify it further. None of us knew about the old smoke stack . We love a mystery at the Joiner Room and so we set to work trying to identify what we could and trying to date the photo before adding it to our archives. Sue looked for “smoke stack” and Sheri looked for “green houses” in our Neat Stuff index. (Green houses can be seen in the original picture between the two buildings along Elm St.)
The idea of Neat Stuff can be credited to past historian Phyllis Kelley. When the Joiner Room was in its infancy, Phyllis and other volunteers read 150 years of the Sycamore True Republican newspaper. There were articles of interest that were collected that couldn’t be categorized into a subject folder or binder. Phyllis decided to simply call it Neat Stuff and current volunteers continue to add to this collection.
Since the downtown area held all the tall buildings, we first identified three shown in the background as being on State street. The green houses in the foreground were described in a newspaper article dated 30 Aug 1893 that reported Mrs. Partridge’s green houses on Elm street were very successful. That meant that the smoke stack was between these two streets.
Sue found an article dated 17 Aug 1889 describing the incorporation of the Sycamore Electric Light Company. Prior to this company, kerosene lamps provided illumination for stores, streets and homes. Capital stock of $10,000 was raised by nine stockholders. The article described updated methods of providing electricity at a most economical cost using steam. The plant was to be located “near the business portion of the city” and supply sixty arc lights and three hundred incandescent lights. Businessmen registered to receive one of the arc lights with a capacity of 2,000 candle power. The article ended predicting that the “electric light will in time supersede all others in the business houses as well as upon the streets.”
We now knew that the stack was probably part of the electric plant. Not satisfied to leave it there, we continued looking and found a short article describing a sixty-foot high, iron smoke stack being built for the company. Another article described a two-story brick coal house that can be seen to the right of the stack in the picture. Still another described the steam being generated as a source of heat in the downtown businesses and courthouse which would be supplied by metal pipes encased in wood. In 2001, during street construction in front of the courthouse one of these pipes was dug up and is now in the archives of the Sycamore Historical Society.
By using the online, searchable Sycamore True Republican newspapers the history unfolded. The Sycamore Electric Light Company was sold several times to enterprising businessmen. In 1902, the owner, Elry Hall, sold the company to another venture that was about to build an interurban rail between the cities of Sycamore and DeKalb. The name became the DeKalb-Sycamore Electric Company with “its object to build and operate electric light; power and railways and to produce heat in the counties of DeKalb, Winnebago, Boone, McHenry and Kane.” It offered shares of stock to raise approximately $200,000 to expand services. The city of Sycamore passed an ordinance making the new company the official provider for the city. In 1922, the Illinois Power Company bought the private supplier and the Sycamore city council briefly considered establishing its own steam and power plant when a dispute over costs arose. In 1930, the Illinois Power Company became a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Power Corporation which evolved into the present Commonwealth Edison.
By the time our research was complete, there was enough information on the Sycamore Electric Light Company to warrant its own subject folder. This is an example of what we do at the Joiner Room and we love doing it.