Morton College authors chronicle story of Hawthorne Works

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 11:26 a.m. CDT
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(Photo provided)
The Hawthorne Works in all its glory. At its peak, the factory complex employed more than 40,000.
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(Photo provided)
The water tower at Hawthorne Works in the winter of 1929. The Hawthorne Works water tower also served as the home for the security force, fire brigade and six steel tanks that held 213,000 gallons of water that were connected to the hydrant and sprinkler system.
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(Photo provided)
Construction begins on the iconic Hawthorne Tower in 1904. By 1905, the 600,000 square-foot Hawthorne Works was open for business.

CICERO – It was to Cicero and Berwyn what Ford Motors was to Detroit, U.S. Steel to Pittsburgh and what Firestone and Goodyear are to Akron, Ohio.

It was the vessel by which thousands of immigrants sailed into a better life full of hope, security and prosperity. It was a jewel in the crown of the ever-expanding Western Electric Co. For the masses of men and women hard pressed to make a living, the Hawthorne Works was the epitome of the American Dream.

Today, all that remains of the 200 plus-acre industrial complex that once held 100 buildings and more than 40,000 people walking through its gates daily, is a solitary brick tower standing stoically at Cicero Avenue and Cermak Road.

In its day, Hawthorne Works put the bacon on the table for thousands of families. It also had its own sports team and hospital, which the authors call, “a community within a community.”

Dennis Schlagheck and Catherine Lantz, reference librarians at Morton College in Cicero, have just published “Hawthorne Works,” as part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series.

It is much more than a story about the loss of a major employer in the area.

“We’re trying to preserve that time,” Schlagheck said. “Hawthorne told the whole story of the 20th century industrial America; where people of modest origins could be rewarded for their effort and move to a middle class life.”

For Schlagheck, the Hawthorne Works story is a familiar one. His Father worked there and his father’s father worked there. But there was still much of the story he didn’t know. It’s part of what prompted him to co-author the book.

“I realized I knew very little,” Schlagheck said. “I realized this was a huge story and that because it’s not here anymore, people were forgetting the story.”

The Hawthorne Works had a far-reaching effect on the suburban landscape as well. Hawthorne Works families that lived on the border of Chicago eventually prospered enough to move westward to other suburbs.

“I’d say the later generations of people were able to move upward and onward in their lives based on the foundation that was laid by their parents having worked at Hawthorne,” Schlagheck said.

This was a progressive company, Schlagheck added, offering pensions from early on, having a different outlook on employees, unlike Henry Ford or the meat packing industry.

“[Western Electric] always had the notion in its head that this was a partnership between rank and file,” he said. “The company was hugely profitable and if Western Electric would have stood alone, it would have been the 12th largest corporation in the U.S.”

Schlagheck and Lantz’s “Hawthorne Works” was released on Feb. 10. The book contains 128 pages of more than 200 black and white photographs, chronicling the work lives of it’s employees.

More information and copies of the book are available at the publisher’s website, www.arcadiapublishing.com.

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