Simpson Electric Building Mural Restoration

One of Elgin’s biggest 19th century factory buildings was demolished in the summer of 2011. The structure, located at the corner of Dundee and Slade Avenues, was built in 1890 and expanded over the years for the Illinois Watch Case Company. For many years, the “case factory” was Elgin’s second-largest industrial employer, producing cases that housed many of the watch movements made by the Elgin National Watch Company.

In 1898, the Illinois Watch Case Co. established a subsidiary, the Elgin American Novelty Co., to produce jewelry and lockets. In 1923 Elgin American entered the ladies’ compact field with a patented “powder box.”

During World War II, the factory was converted to war production. Erie Basin Metal Products was incorporated to make mortar shells, incendiary bomb nose units, and chemical shells. During the war, the workforce expanded. A large mural was painted in the lobby of the factory showing the workers making war munitions. The Elgin History Museum was allowed to salvage this mural before demolition.

The mural was cleaned and remounted by Judson University art students, and was unveiled on November 15, 2012 at the Harm Weber building at Judson University. The mural is currently on display. Here are details on the unveiling.

The plant was sold to the Simpson Electric Co., a division of American Gage & Machine Co., in 1959. Elgin American continued production in part of the building until closing in the early 1960s. In 1968, Katy Industries was created as a holding company for a railroad. In 1969 Katy merged with American Gage & Machine Co. Through aggressive buying and merging, Katy soon became a giant multinational diversified conglomerate. Katy moved its headquarters into this building in 1970, where it would remain until 1994, when it moved to Denver.

In the 1970s, Simpson Electric Co. was the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic measuring instruments and test equipment, employing 800 people in Elgin. By the mid-1980s, however, Simpson’s sales performance was faltering. In 1985, the Lac Du Flambeau Indian Tribe was able to acquire the firm from Katy Industries. Simpson’s fortunes continued to decline, and by the 1990s it was operating in debt. In the 1990s the Tribe explored the possibility of converting the Elgin plant to a casino or a mega-bingo facility. However, the political climate in Illinois was not receptive to the plan, and federal and city hurdles would also have to be overcome, so the idea was abandoned.

The building went up for sale in 2002. In 2003 the Tribe voted to retain ownership of Simpson, but move its Elgin operations to its reservation in Wisconsin. The plant was closed and demolished in 2011.