The St. Charles Public Library District (SCPLD) operates the St. Charles Public Library at One South Sixth Avenue in St. Charles. It has a collection of almost 275,000 books and other materials and serves a population of approximately 48,000 residents.
This is not to be confused with the St. Charles Public Library in St. Charles, Iowa, or the St. Charles City-County Library District in Missouri. The St. Charles Public Library has never been a municipal library, unlike a number of district libraries I have profiled. In 1906, the organization that is now the St. Charles Public Library District was founded as the St. Charles Township Public Library.
St. Charles is a Fox River Valley town in DuPage and Kane Counties, 35 miles west of the Chicago Loop. The SCPL states, “Although connected to the city by a commuter rail line in nearby Geneva, St. Charles strives to retain its small town heritage.”It forms the Tri-Cities area with Geneva and Batavia to the south.
The Pottawatomi Indians had two summer camps in what became St. Charles near a place where the Fox River was shallow enough to be forded and fishing was relatively easy. According to David Buisseret’s history of St. Charles for The Encyclopedia of Chicago and Chicago Neighborhoods and Suburbs, the area attracted White settlers because of the prairieland west of the river, the forests on both sides of the river up north, and rocky outcrops that supplied building stone. Also, creeks that ran into the Fox River provided water power for mills.
By 1836, the area sported a dam, a bridge, a gristmill, and a saw-mill. The village of Charlestown, founded two years earlier, grew on both banks of the Fox River. Just as I mentioned the residents of Xenia in Logan County changed the name of their town to Atlanta after they discovered there was a pre-existent Xenia, Illinois, the residents of Charlestown discovered there was already a town by that name in the state, so they renamed their town Saint Charles.
Although St. Charles was served by the St. Charles Branch Railroad as early as 1849, it did not receive what Buisseret described as “regular rail service” until the Chicago, St. Paul & Kansas City Railroad built a depot in town in 1871. St. Charles increasingly became an industrial town with the opening of an iron works, a paper mill, and a cut-glass factory. Workers, including hundreds of Swedes and lesser numbers of Lithuanians, Danes, and Belgians, came to work at industrial plants like the Cable Piano Factory.
In 1845, lawyer and abolitionist John Farnsworth settled in St. Charles. In time, he would serve the region as a congressman and lead local men into battle during the Civil War, rising to the rank of brigadier-general. He built a mansion in 1860 which he would later sell in 1879, when he moved his family to Chicago.
In 1885, a fire destroyed the interior, leaving just the stone walls. In 1891, Herbert Nicholson, manager of the St. Charles Condensing Company, bought the home and restored it.
The wooded lands north of St. Charles were cleared to make way for more farms and outlying residences by the end of the 19th century. Between 1900 and 1950, the population rose from 2,675 to 6,709.
Between the 1920s and ‘40s, St. Charles became a weekend resort town with the construction of the Hotel Baker and the Arcada Theatre. In this period, the town also began to benefit from the philanthropy of the same families who built the hotel and theater, the related Baker and Norris families of St. Charles, who had inherited the vast fortune of John W. Gates (1855-1911). They built the Baker Community Center, Baker Memorial United Methodist Church, St. Charles Municipal Building, Delnor Hospital, the Two Rivers Boy Scout Council building, the John Baker Norris Recreation Center,and the Norris Cultural Arts Center.
John “Bet-a-Million” Gates never lived in St. Charles, but he was tied to the community through his wife, Dellora (nee Baker). Gates had made his first fortune through involvement in the DeKalb-based barbed-wire manufacturing industry, and made his second fortune through investment in land in Texas where oil was discovered in 1902, which led him to found the Texas Oil Company (Texaco). In 1873, he met Dellora Baker, a woman of legendary beauty whose father was a farmer and merchant in St. Charles. Gates married her the next year.
Dellora and their only child, Charles Gilbert Gates (1876-1913), died not long after Gates himself died in 1911. Although Charles left behind a widow, Florence Hopwood (1887-1970) of Minneapolis, when he died in 1913, five years later the bulk of the Gates fortune was split between Edward J. Baker (1868-1959) and his niece, Dellora Angell (1903-1980), whose parents were Robert Frank Angell of St. Charles and his wife Lavern (“Vernie”) Baker Angell, sister of Edward J. Baker and Dellora Baker Gates. Dellora Angell would later marry Lester Norris, a commercial artist and cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune.
Lester Norris worked with architect Elmer F. Behrens to design the Arcada Theatre. Behrens also designed the Tivioli and Chicago Theatres in Chicago. The Arcada Theatre has a façade of tan-colored brick with terra-cotta trimming. When the Arcada Theatre opened on September 6, 1926, special trains brought out guests from Chicago, the film The Last Frontier received its premiere screening, and live entertainment was provided by Fibber McGee and Molly, dancers Ross and Louise, and vaudeville performers Lori Marie Harrington and her Gypsy Wayfarers.
Performers at the Arcada Theatre in the 1920s and ‘30s included puppeteer Edgar Bergen (1903-1978), cowboy-humorist Will Rogers (1879-1935), composer and conductor John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), and husband-and-wife comic team George Burns (1896-1996) & Gracie Allen (1895-1964) and dancers Ginger & Pepper – as in future movie star Ginger Rogers (1911-1995) and her then-husband Jack Pepper (1902-1979). As Vaudeville died out, the Arcada Theatre became a more focused entertainment venue as films were screened and plays were staged there.
E. J. Baker was 40 when he inherited $20,000,000 from his sister. Baker at one time owned eight separate horse farms around St. Charles. In 1938, his trotter Greyhound beat the record for fastest mile, and thus established a new record that stood for 38 years.
In 1926, Baker purchased land and erected the Hotel Baker,designed by the St. Charles architectural firm of Wolf, Sexton, Harper, and Trueax. Baker developed a riverside park that featured a flower garden, a rock garden, a pond, and statues of animals and gnomes. After his first wife, Harriet Rockwell Baker, died, Baker lived in the penthouse of the hotel until his death in 1959.
Hotel Baker opened on June 2, 1928 and quickly became a favorite of honeymooners. After Chicago’s second World’s Fair, A Century of Progress International Exposition (1933-34), closed, the Board of Directors gave Baker three Venetian gondolas. Hotel guests could rent the gondolas, along with singing gondolier, for use at night.
One of the major draws of Hotel Baker was the Rainbow Room, a two-story balcony-surrounded oval ballroom with a dance floor comprised of 300 glass blocks illuminated from underneath by 2,620 red, green, yellow, and blue lights. Entertainers who performed there included Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey. Famous guests of the Hotel Baker included Presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford; Illinois Governors Adlai Stevenson and Jim Thompson; Senators Everett Dirksen and Edmond Muskie; Bell & Howell Chairman and Senator Charles Percy; Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley; Reverend Billy Graham; and entertainers Jeanette MacDonald, Mary Martin, Edward Arnold, Tommy Dorsey, and Lawrence Welk.
Dellora Norris inherited the hotel and in 1968 she gave it to the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. It reopened in 1971 as a non-denominational retirement home. In 1996, St. Charles businessmen Craig Frank and Neil Johnson bought the building and after a $9,000,000 renovation, re-opened it as a hotel.
The St. Charles Municipal Building with its famous clock tower was designed by R. Harold Zook, constructed of white Georgia marble in 1940, and financed by St. Charles Charities, as a gift from Lester & Dellora Norris and Col. Baker. Lester & Dellora Norris also built, at a cost of $250,000, Delnor Hospital, which opened in 1940.
Designed by architect Edward Fairbanks, it resembled a Williamsburg manor house with its brick facade and white columns. The interior was planned by the famous interior decorator Dorothy Draper (1889-1969). In 1985, Delnor Hospital and Community Hospital in Geneva merged to create Delnor Community Health System.
By 1990, construction had begun on a new hospital facility on Randall Road in Geneva. Marion Joy Physical Rehabilitation Center took over the Delnor Hospital building. In 1994, it was sold. Subsequently, some portions of the building were demolished and the rest was remodeled to be transformed into a retirement home, Delnor Community Residential Living.
E.J. & Harriet Rockwell Baker built and established a trust to maintain the Henry Rockwell Baker Memorial Community Center in honor of their only child, who died of tuberculosis at age twenty-three and all the town’s veterans of World War I. This building at 101 South 2nd Street in St. Charles strongly resembles a Tudor-style manor house. It opened in May of 1926.
Since 1966, the Baker Community Center has housed the St. Charles Park District. The old teen center, The Keg and the Roundabout, which opened in the 1960s, evolved into an elder center. STC Underground, the new teen center, opened in 2001. The BCC also rents out rooms for club meetings.
St. Charles Heritage Center is a museum located at 215 East Main Street in the historic McCornack Oil Company building erected in 1928. It is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and also from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sundays in summertime (June, July, and August). The phone number there is (630) 584-6967.
In 1851-52, the O’Connor brothers built the first St. Patrick’s Church. Today, St. Patrick’s Parish has two separate church buildings. The older of the two is the downtown church, built in 1912, at 408 Cedar Street, with an associated rectory and school. The newer church, which was dedicated in 1991, is located at 6N491 Crane Road. There is an ongoing capital campaign to fund the construction of a new parish office, rectory, and school at that location.
In 1907, the Sisters of St. Dominic purchased the Farnsworth Mansion and the surrounding property, remodeled the home to provide classrooms and bedrooms for boarders. Mount Saint Mary Academy opened on August 15, 1907. The 1926 Gothic- style addition gave the school more classrooms. At the time, it had girls from Kindergarten through 12th grade.
By the 1940s, Mt. St. Mary Academy focused on being a high school. By the 1970s, the school began to face financial problems. The last graduating class, in June of 1972, had 110 girls.
In September of 1972, the Lutheran High School Association of Greater Chicago bought the property. They opened Valley Lutheran High School, a co-ed high school, in 1974 with about 300 students. The Farnsworth Mansion housed a thrift shop that financially supported the school. Fox Valley Lutheran Academy, as it was later known, incurred financial problems, too, though, and closed in the 1990s, but has re-opened in Elgin.
In 1960, Lester & Dellora Norris donated 55 acres of wooded land so the Adrian Dominican Sisters could open a women’s college in St. Charles. Construction began in 1961 and St. Dominic’s College opened two years later.
Unfortunately, financial troubles forced it to close with the last graduating class in May of 1970. In August, the property at 1405 North 5th Avenue was purchased by the accounting firm Arthur Anderson for use as a training center.
The Farnsworth Mansion was razed to make room for a subdivision, but the real estate developer fell on hard times and the houses that had been built were auctioned off in 1997. Fortunately, the mansion had been dismantled, not destroyed, and the limestone blocks were acquired by the City of St. Charles. The historic Farnsworth Mansion may one day be rebuilt.
In 1988, the Glenwood School for Boys – which I previously mentioned in my profile of the Glenwood-Lynwood Public Library District – purchased 450 acres of farmland in St. Charles due to efforts by board members Frank Morgan; Frank Rathje, Jr.; Stan Enlund; and Claire Hansen to open a west suburban campus. Their hopes were realized in 1994 when the school opened a second campus in northwest St. Charles.
In 2000, the Glenwood School’s Board of Trustees voted to dedicate the West Campus in St. Charles as the Rathje Campus. [Not only was banker Frank Rathje, Jr. a trustee, but his father, Frank Rathje, Sr. (1881-1967), also a banker, had left a large bequest to the Glenwood School.] In 2004, the Rathje Campus enrolled girls in its residential program. Currently, the Rathje Campus sits on 120 acres of land and is comprised of eleven buildings, eight of which are residence halls. There is also an academic center with a library and computer lab, a field house, and a dining hall/office building.
St. Charles escaped the postwar development experienced by other towns to the east that went from being satellites of Chicago to suburbs. In the 1980s and ‘90s, however, suburban-type residential subdivisions appeared on both sides of the Fox River and both north and south of the old town. The population reached 27,896 by 2000.
The very first library in St. Charles was probably the one founded in 1860 by the local Odd Fellows lodge. Later in the decade, other Odd Fellows lodges would found libraries in Bloomington and Ottawa. Needless to say, these libraries were not open to the public.
In December of 1888, a group of about a dozen St. Charles residents met to establish a subscription library, and Mayor H. T. Rockwell became chairman of a committee to investigate incorporation. The St. Charles Library Association adopted bylaws on December 17, 1888, and it formally came into being in 1889.
The first librarian of the St. Charles Library Association was Miss Jennie Lewis, daughter of the first mayor of St. Charles. The annual membership fee was $2.00. The St. Charles Library Association’s first home was at 203 East Main Street (now housing McNally’s Irish Pub), formerly Judge W. D. Barry’s law office.
The subscription library operated for 17 years. By 1900, it had 3,000 volumes in rented rooms, and circulated about 200 volumes a week. Records of the St. Charles Library Association are part of the SCPL’s local history collection.