What do butter, watches, toasters and street sweepers have in common? The answer is Elgin, Illinois, the featured destination for WGN Radio’s Your Hometown series. Tune-in January 26 to hear more about the people and places in Elgin.

Elgin is located about 35 miles northwest of Chicago along the Fox River in both Kane and Cook counties.

The Potawatomi were part of the first inhabitants of Elgin, but indigenous people were removed from the area by 1832. Early white settlers were of Scottish origin and in April 1835, New York settlers and brothers James Talcott and Hezekiah Gifford founded Elgin as a stop on the stagecoach route between Chicago and Galena, naming it after a Scottish hymn and a town of the same name in Scotland.

Elgin, once called the “butter capital of the world”, was a major butter and dairy producer. In 1865, Gail Borden established the Elgin Milk Condensing Company and by 1881, his company heavily contributed to Elgin’s reputation as a dairy center. Today, an historic marker stands near the site of Borden’s plant (North Grove Avenue and Symphony Way) and the Gail Borden Public Library (270 N. Grove Avenue), established in 1892 by Borden’s stepsons, is named in the dairyman’s honor.

In 1871, the Elgin Butter Company began production using the surplus milk from Borden’s factory. The Elgin Butter Company used a butter press, the Elgin Butter Cutter, to standardize the shape and size of butter in four equal parts. Today, butter sold on the East Coast is packaged as long and skinny sticks known as “Elgin” or “Elgin sticks”, compared to the short and stubby butter sticks made on the West Coast.

A 35-acre site in Elgin was chosen as the location for Chicago’s National Watch Company. Renamed the Elgin Watch Company, it was the largest producer of fine watches in the US and Elgin’s largest employer from 1865 to 1968. The company built the Elgin National Watch Company Observatory in 1910 to use the stars to set the time for its watches and clocks. The observatory was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and today is part of the Elgin School District U-46 Planetarium (312 Watch Street).

In 1914, Elgin resident John Murphy invented the world’s first machine that automatically picked up street debris and the Elgin Sweeper Company (1300 W. Bartlett Road) has been cleaning roadways with Murphy’s sweepers ever since. In 1938, the McGraw Electric Company opened a plant in Elgin to manufacture Toastmaster, the popular automatic pop-up toaster invented in 1921, and well as other product lines.

The Elgin Historic District, listed in 1983 on the National Register of Historic Places, encompasses part of the original town laid out in 1842 by James Gifford. Many homes in this district were owned by executives of the Elgin National Watch Company and in the Queen Anne style. The all-brick First Universalist Church (55 Villa Street), built in 1892 by those with ties to the watch factory, was designed to resemble a pocket watch enclosed in a case. The church was individually added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Elgin also has several Sears catalog homes dating from 1908 to 1940. Begun in 1982, the Gifford Park Association organizes an annual historic house tour for the public to view the interiors of homes within the district.

Notable buildings within the historic Elgin Downtown Commercial District include the 15-story Art Deco Elgin Tower Building (100 E. Chicago Street) built in 1929 and the Gothic Revival Elgin Professional Building (164 Division Street), completed in 1928 and the city’s oldest skyscraper.

Founded in 1839, Elgin Academy is the oldest coeducational and non-denominational affiliated college prep school west of the Allegheny Mountains. “Old Main” (360 Park Street), built in 1856 in a Greek Revival design as part of the Elgin Academy campus, is home to the Elgin History Museum.

Gifted to the city of Elgin in 1893 by the Lord family, the 108-acre municipal Lords Park offers a plethora of amenities for Elgin residents, including the Elgin Public Museum, the oldest building in Illinois built as a museum and still operating as a museum, an historic Pavilion, Lords Park Aquatic Center, picnic shelters, nature trails, baseball fields, tennis courts, and the Lords Park Zoo, home to bison, elk and deer.  

Your Hometown featuring Elgin is sponsored by the Illinois Lottery – Doing Good and Supporting Illinois Communities. And by McDonald’s.