Driving from Sycamore to DeKalb on the four-lane highway you might notice a large boulder with a bronze plaque facing the highway in front of Grease Monkey and the Bob and Dorothy Stanbery home. I have driven by it for many years but never knew its history.
Recently Jeff Strack told me about its origin and why it honors the memory of William Swinbank. He was born in England but came to America at age 10 with his parents. The family eventually located in Burlington, and Swinbank went as far as the 8th grade.
At age 25, he moved to Nebraska for a few years where he ranched and taught in a country school for three years. Despite the fact that he never went to high school he was so talented he “readily secured a teacher’s certificate by taking the required tests,” according to his obituary in the Sycamore True Republican on August 9, 1949.
He then returned to Sycamore, becoming owner of a greenhouse for 25 years, which no longer exists. Because he had extensive knowledge of plants and trees, he was hired as Superintendent of Grounds at Northern Illinois University, a position he held until 1945. The obituary said he provided advice to several garden clubs and hundreds of individuals over the years.
It added: “The marked beauty of the college campus evidences his outstanding ability.” I can imagine many of the trees now fully grown were planted under his supervision.
The bronze marker on the boulder placed there by the DeKalb-Sycamore Garden Club states: “A tribute to William Swinbank 1865 – 1949 for his service of civic
landscape gardening in DeKalb, Sycamore and this memorial highway.”
An article by Sue Breese in the September 2013 issue of the Joiner Room Journal explains that this section of Route 23 was named the DeKalb – Sycamore Memorial Highway in 1949 with a bronze marker near Hopkins Park that explained that the planting of trees along the highway was “dedicated as a memorial to those who served their country.” The marker has disappeared and was never replaced.
The area garden clubs and Rotary clubs purchased some 150 trees to plant on the state right-of-way between the two cities. Many of those are gone now due to commercial developments.
Getting back to the large boulder, estimated by Strack to weigh at least two tons –the boulder had been on the Norman Westlake farm north of Sycamore, then donated for use with the plaque. Strack suggests that a lone white pine tree be planted near it to shade the plaque.
Of course, the state highway department would have to give its approval.
Something found in the Jan.13, 1904 True Republican about Swinbank I found most amusing. The paper ran a story listing several eligible bachelors in the Sycamore area, he among them. It described him as “kindly, conscientious and sensible. Will never come home rollicking at 2 a.m. with a load. Instead he would be home so as not to keep supper waiting and would probably bring with him a bunch of flowers from the greenhouse.” In parens it added that “we have heard the little birds whisper that Will has strings tied to him.” On Aug. 11 that year he married Julia Rose in Sycamore. The little birdie was right.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at email@example.com or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. His past columns can be found on his website www.dekalbcountylife.com.