Sunday was E.E. Baker's 150th birthday

By DAVE CLARKE Regional Coordinator
Published: Monday, April 11, 2005

 

Sunday marks the 150th birthday of one of the greatest men in Kewanee history -- Emerit E. Baker. His friends, employees and colleagues affectionately called him "Double E." No one has ever found what his middle initial stood for.

Baker was one of America 's "captains of industry" in the early 20th century -- a man of humble birth who rose through the ranks to the pinnacle of success, excess and philanthropy.

Today, his most visible and only remaining singular legacy is Baker Park.

Earlier this week, Larry Lock of the Kewanee Historical Society presented a program to the Kewanee Rotary Club on the man who was a charter member of their organization and its first president.

E. E. Baker was born on a farm near Aurora on April 10, 1855, the son of a farmer who had moved from New York state to Illinois.

According to Lock's research, he left school in 1870, at age 15, and went to work as an office boy in the Chicago office of Anderson Steamer and Heater Co., a small company founded two years earlier in a booming little village down the tracks called Kewanee. The firm made boilers to heat hog feed and, in 1871, produced their first boiler for home heating.

He didn't know it at the time, but boilers were destined to shape Baker's future and make him a very wealthy man.

Six years after going to work for Anderson, the office boy from Aurora, now 21, moved to Kewanee. Anderson had been purchased by William Haxtun in 1875 and the company was now Haxtun Steam Heater. Baker came to Kewanee as a bookkeeper and general handyman, and within eight years, by 1884, he was on the board of directors and treasurer. In 1875, Haxtun employed about 30 people. In 1884, that grew to 500, and by 1890, there were 1,100 employed. Besides steam boilers, the firm also produced apparatus for steam heating systems, including radiators, pipes or tubes, valves and fittings.

The plant was located south of the tracks and north of the Eagles Club, on the east side of North Main Street.

In 1890, the roots of what would be Kewanee's two largest industries began to grow from one seed. Upon the retirement of William Haxtun, "a significant interest" in the firm was purchased by the National Tube Co. of McKeesport, Pa., a subsidiary of U.S. Steel.

Named the new president was John H. Pierce who, like Baker, had grown up on a farm near Aurora and moved to Kewanee as a young man to join his brother in the hardware business. He had joined Haxtun in 1876 and by 1880 was on the board of directors and the No. 2 man in the company. Baker was named vice president, but not for long.

National changed the name of the company to Western Tube in 1891 and the following year decided to get out of the boiler business and concentrate on producing pipes, fittings, radiators and other items for steam heating systems.

"Double E" saw an opening.

Along with several associates, the boiler production line was purchased "on nerve alone," and in 1892, Kewanee Boiler was founded as a separate compan. It continued to operate in the Western Tube plant, which would later become the Walworth Company.

Starting with 80 employees, Kewanee Boiler had grown to 200 in 1900 when it needed more room, left the Western Tube plant on North Main and built a new factory along the tracks about a mile west of downtown, a site the firm would occupy until 2002. By the 1920s, Kewanee Boiler had hit its peak employment of 1,300 and was sending boilers around the world. By rail and truck they left Kewanee for government buildings, schools, factories, homes and even the Statue of Liberty.

E. E. Baker would remain president until his death on Jan. 1, 1929.

Even though Baker is considered one of the founding fathers of Kewanee's industrial era, it was his interest and involvement in civic projects that stand out.

Before his marriage to Jennie Hallin in 1900 at age 45, "Double E" served as village president, a member of the volunteer fire department, the Kewanee Commercial Club, the Masons, and was quite an outdoorsman, enjoying hunting, fishing, golf and trap shooting.

Baker helped organize the Kewanee Rotary Club in 1917 and was close friends with Rotary International founder Paul Harris. He was also its first president and served in various capacities. His devotion to the ideals of the organization are evident in the large Rotary wheel which can still be seen on the side of the house where he lived on the northwest corner of West Prospect and South Chestnut streets.

When he heard that Kewanee's National Guard unit, Company K, which was on its way to France in World War I, was ill-equipped, Baker wrote out a check for the needed supplies. boots and blankets.

His ultimate legacy, however, is the Kewanee Park District. He announced at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1919 that he would donate $50,000 toward a park system if the people of Kewanee would pass a referendum to establish a park system and match his donation by authorizing $50,000 in bonds.

The issues both passed and Baker was elected first president of the park board.

Northeast Park was the district's first acquisition, followed by Chautauqua Park in 1922 and Baker Park in 1924. Baker also donated money to build a small park across the railroad tracks from the Boiler plant on a triangular piece of land. It was called Liberty Park and later moved to the north end of West Park and the original site became a parking lot.

In 1924, Baker established a foundation known as E. E. Baker, Incorporated and funded it with $400,000 in stocks and bonds. The interest was to be used primarily for upkeep of the parks, but also to support the crippled children's clinic established by the Rotary Club and taken over later by the Elks Lodge, and "to assist worthy boys and girls through college."

When he died in 1929, Baker, who had no children, left nearly his entire estate to the foundation. According to reports, nearly $2 million was dispensed over the 35-year span of the foundation. When it was dissolved in 1947, following the death of Mrs. Baker, the foundation board made three donations to set up three separate trusts -- $20,000 to the Elks Crippled Children's Clinic, $20,000 to the Kewanee Public Library; and $200,000 to the Kewanee Park District. According to Long, the park district trust, managed by the Kewanee Park Board since 1947, is currently valued at $1.3 million.

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