Cook County festival images resurface a century later

by Admin
Cook County festival images resurface a century later

The end of the school year was momentous, as all of them are.

The months of hard work and drudgery were highlighted by moments of mirth, friendships formed and the shared goal of looming summer freedom.

Graduations are great, but even those students and teachers who will be back for another go-around as autumn approaches deserve to celebrate their accomplishments, even if their feat was just surviving another school year.

The cusp of June became festival season, and in many areas the tradition is carried on by municipalities that hire traveling carnival ride outfits, hire local bands and celebrate summertime by building community.

Decades before the first Tilt-a-Whirl car circled its portable steel platform, the educators of Cook County took it upon themselves to celebrate the end of school with a festival.

And based on surviving photographic evidence from one of those festivals, most of the kids hated it.

A closeup of children’s faces indicates their reaction to events during a June 1916, Cook County School Festival in Thornton, from this image provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society. (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-76961)

A series of three images collected by the Wisconsin Historical Society capture scenes from a sunny June day in 1916, when students and teachers from throughout the area gathered for the Cook County School Festival in Thornton.

In one, a group of girls marches through tall grass — long before no-mow May became popular — carrying American flags as a large group of people young and old watch the procession.

A second photo depicts the crowd of smartly dressed youngsters, ladies in bonnets and sunhats and men mostly wearing straw boaters, assembled to watch an event at the festival.

In both images, nearly everyone is scowling.

A third photo depicts the brass players, percussionists and one kid on clarinet who make up the Dolton School Boys Band, that might instead be the Dolton Boys School Band. Their bass drum emblem is unclear on that, and I could find no online record of either the school or the band.

The event itself also is shrouded in time, though in a compilation of “interesting facts about the schools” compiled from “former students and records,” the Thornton Historical Society indicated the school festivals were an annual event “involving most of the South Cook County Schools.”

In some years, “students would march out of town on William Street to the Glenwood Woods,” the historical society page states. “Games, races, etc. were held with the schools competing and prizes were awarded.”

Other interesting facts compiled in Thornton indicate area students often were marched to various places in the vicinity in the days before school buses became commonplace, with all that marching offering a possible explanation for the pervasive scowls.

A group of schoolchildren from south Cook County watch events during a school festival in June 1916, in Thornton in this image provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society. (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-76961)
A group of schoolchildren from south Cook County watch events during a school festival in June 1916, in Thornton in this image provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society. (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-76961)

One of the images shows a handmade banner with a Union shield proudly identifying a Cook County contingent from School District 149, based miles to the north in Dolton and Calumet City. There is no word if the children were marched to the event south of Thornton.

Regardless, if not for those three photos, the scowling children and boater-topped teachers gathered in 1916 would be just another event buried by time.

So how did some random photos of a school festival over a century ago in Thornton end up in the collection of the state historical society in Wisconsin? That story starts with Chicago farm implement magnate Cyrus McCormick, whose mechanical reaper revolutionized agricultural practices and was the foundation of an industrial behemoth.

As a gilded age industry magnate, McCormick and his family were important, and when he died in the 1880s, “they set up a family archives to document his life,” said Lee Grady, a senior reference archivist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, a state agency housed at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company consolidated with several smaller firms to form International Harvester in 1902. It was even more of an industrial powerhouse which, by the 1930s, was one of the 10 largest companies in the world.

It had resources and, being it was the Progressive Era, they dumped some of that capital into an extension service, a corporate forerunner to state extension agencies that still offer good advice on a wide range of topics.

Grady said International Harvester hired a professor to run the operation and “had people who would travel to little towns and teach them proper ways of canning vegetables, scientific farming techniques, how to run clean and efficient schools.”

“They got into all kinds of things that are unusual for a company to get involved in,” he said.

A group of girls conduct a flag drill during a June 1916, Cook County School Festival in Thornton. (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-76962)
A group of girls conduct a flag drill during a June 1916, Cook County School Festival in Thornton. (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-76962)

The International Harvester Agricultural Extension Service was all about promoting the modern way of doing things, and “part of the modern way of doing things is buying International Harvester equipment — updating from your old horse-drawn plow and getting up to date with a tractor.”

They also took photographs at these events for use in lantern slide presentations to civic groups, and images from “anywhere International Harvester had a dealership or were showing off one of their trucks” would get sent back and filed away at the headquarters in Chicago.

“It was partly for PR, but they did hire people I think who honestly thought they would be doing good,” Grady said.

One place they thought they could help was at the Cook County School Festival in 1916 in Thornton.

“It has nothing to do with farm equipment in this particular instance,” he said. “But they took photos. If you look at other agricultural extension photos from that collection, there are all kinds of photos. There’s kids playing in sandboxes, vegetable gardens, people demonstrating canning, people sweeping and scrubbing floors demonstrating how people can keep things clean. There’s ones demonstrating how flies can carry disease.”

One of his favorites depicts “a toddler with a hammer in his hand next to a bench where there are shotgun shells and other things that are dangerous” that was probably used in a safety presentation.

The Great Depression helped end International Harvester’s altruistic endeavors in the 1930s, though the Agricultural Extension records remained at the office in Chicago. In the 1940s, Cyrus McCormick’s surviving daughter Anita McCormick Blaine decided to donate the family archives — millions of documents related to the McCormick Harvesting Machine business along with family papers and records — to a major research organization.

The Wisconsin Historical Society went all-in to acquire the collection. Not just focused on its own state, Grady called the organization a North American history library and archive. Among its holdings are “one of the best collections that documents the American Civil Rights Movement” and an extensive catalog of artifacts related to Hollywood films.

The letters Rosa Parks wrote to Martin Luther King, the papers of Civil Rights activist Daisy Bates, an original script from “Casablanca” and Edith Head’s costume designs all now reside in Madison.

“Why would Wisconsin have that? People are shocked when they find that out,” Grady said.

The society was so interested in acquiring the agricultural history in the McCormick collection that they agreed to create new positions and hire the family’s personal archivists, Herb and Lucille Keller, to oversee the documents. As a state agency, that required legislative approval. That put them over the top, over other finalist institutions, such as Northwestern University, Grady said.

The initial McCormick papers were followed by more archives from the company.

“When International Harvester was shutting down the old McCormick reaper factory on the west side in 1960, they were going to tear it down,” Grady said. “We acquired a real big batch of International Harvester stuff, a whole truckload, and we had an ongoing relationship from that point forward.”

International Harvester became Navistar in the 1980s, and moved from Chicago to Lisle after that. Waves of documents and photos and other material from the company drifted to Wisconsin.

In the 1990s, Grady became the McCormick collection archivist and started digitizing a sampling of the vast holdings. Among those samples were the images from the school festival in Thornton.

A group of girls conduct a flag drill during a June 1916, Cook County School Festival in Thornton. (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-76962)
A group of girls conduct a flag drill during a June 1916, Cook County School Festival in Thornton. (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-76962)

The collection now is curated by Sally Jacobs, but it still exemplifies one of the favorite parts of Grady’s job.

“I can put up this photo of Thornton and have it connect with people who are never going to travel here, and would never think to look here,” he said. “For lots of people, local history matters more than the names you read in history books. They’re trying to make sense of the place around them. Every little piece like this is important.”

For one thing, the image of the bandmates from Dolton School offers a connection to the village’s past, one that’s not as different from today’s political climate as it might seem, according to local history author Marlene Cook, who compiled a book’s worth of Dolton vignettes in her compilation “Dolton Tattler: Fact, Fiction and Folklore” published for the village’s 100th anniversary in 1992.

Three years after the Dolton musicians were photographed in Thornton, a Dolton Concert Band operation requested the Village Board to erect a grandstand for them to perform. Dolton politicians agreed, but when they charged the band rent for rehearsal space at Village Hall, the band picked up and moved to Harvey, Cook wrote.

New people were in charge in 1932, when Dolton adopted a “band ordinance” and created a municipal band, going so far to purchase $900 worth of instruments, including a $180 sousaphone. By 1934, citing the economy, the Village Board disbanded the band. In 1935, the instruments were donated to School District 148, but interest among students was intermittent, and in 1943, the village sold the instruments to Lyons Band Instrument Co. of Chicago for $680.

“The Dolton band era was over,” Cook wrote.

By then, the Cook County School Festivals had likely run their course as well. But at least one of the events lives on long after anyone who might have been there is gone thanks to a giant Chicago company and a historical archive in Wisconsin.

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at

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