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Local Column

Olson: 'Mooney property' up for auction was DeKalb's last barbed wire factory

The former auto dealership at 204 North 4th Street in DeKalb.
The former auto dealership at 204 North 4th Street in DeKalb.

Last week I wrote about the potential future of the buildings that were once home to an auto dealership that could now be up for a public auction Feb. 14.

Local historian Steve Bigolin called me Monday to remind me about their equally fascinating past. Although the bank-owned buildings known as the “Mooney property” on Locust Street and 204 N. Fourth St. have been home to auto dealers for most of their history, they also are where barbed wire was last manufactured in DeKalb.

Bigolin, says he owns a souvenir letter opener made from railroad ties that once led into the factory and has toured the buildings many times.

After Joseph Glidden sold his stake in the business, Isaac Ellwood collaborated with a Massachusetts-based manufacturer to construct the buildings over four years, with construction completed in 1881.

“It’s the building that put DeKalb on the map,” Bigolin said.

While Ellwood’s I.L. Ellwood Manufacturing had the rights to sell barbed wire west of the Mississippi, Worcester, Mass.-based Washburn and Moen took the territory to the east – and supplied the wire for the factory, Bigolin said. The operation was immense, and so noisy that a Methodist Church that had occupied a building where the Unitarian Church is today moved down the street to escape the noise.

The buildings, which would become known colloquially as the “Red Shop,” would later be acquired by American Steel and Wire, a subsidiary of J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel Corp. American Steel manufactured barbed wire at the DeKalb factory until the spring of 1938, when rumors that the local works were being shut down proved to be true.

Daily Chronicle reports from the time show that it was a staggering blow for the city, one that ushered in DeKalb’s transition from a rural industrial center to a university town.

Efforts of local union leaders were not enough to keep workers from being laid off indefinitely in May 1938. Some management employees were transferred to Joliet, where some work formerly done in DeKalb was moved. As many families coped with the reality of losing their sole source of income, and others with the complete loss of DeKalb’s iconic industry, leaders at the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce urged the 10,000-or-so residents of DeKalb to pull together.

“Although this city is at the moment feeling the effects in many ways of the reduction of operations of the American Steel and Wire Company, we are logically located and properly equipped ... to attract industries to fill the gap,” a piece credited to the chamber and published in the Daily Chronicle on June 8, 1938, read. “... Our first important factor in coping with our present day problems is for every one to be optimistic, avoid pessimism, and cooperate in the work of building up the town we live in, DeKalb.”

The lengthy piece outlined the many manufacturing interests still operating in the city – including the Wurlitzer Co., the Murray Hat Co., and the Creamery Package Co. – and pointed out that “the Teachers college” (now Northern Illinois University) had a $250,000 payroll and that students contributed $225,000 to the local economy a year.

The Chronicle’s report on the Chamber’s quarterly meeting that fall would focus first on growth at the “teachers college” and the growing economic importance of its students.

Meanwhile, American Steel and Wire set about selling off its holdings in DeKalb. David Katz, owner of Fourth Street Motors, purchased a couple of sections of the “Red Shop” and moved his dealership and employees into the space in 1940, according to Daily Chronicle reports at the time. Dealerships run by the Katz family, including David Katz, his brother Raymond and son Joe Katz, sold most of the vehicles in DeKalb and Sycamore for decades.

Joe Katz sold Fourth Street Motors in 1986 to Joe Daniels, who sold it in 1993 to Mike Mooney, who used it as an auto body shop and new vehicle lot until early 2002, when he sold the business – but not the building.

There are no known photographs in existence of barbed wire ever being made there, Bigolin said, and there are few indications of its former use. Yet there it is, a giant monument to DeKalb’s industrial history, with a largely hidden past to go with its uncertain future.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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