Hawthorne Works in the Great War

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The Hawthorne Works manufactured this US Army field telephone (left) and portable switchboard during the First World War. These items are now on display at the Hawthorne Works Museum.

One hundred years ago this month, the nations of Europe stumbled into war. Each side thought its armies would win a glorious victory within months. But the Great War, as it would be known until surpassed by an even greater war, dragged on for four years. At its end, the old world was gone forever. Ancient monarchies collapsed, empires dissolved and millions of soldiers and civilians had perished, slain by frightening new weapons: machine guns, aerial bombing, tanks, and poison gas.
The US avoided the conflict until 1917, but once in, its industrial might and manpower shifted the course of the war, and Western Electric played an important role. The US Army Signal Corps called on the telephone maker to create, virtually from scratch, a battlefield communications system, everything from the wires and cables stitching it together, to the phones and switchboards sturdy enough to function under fire. Western Electric engineers devised, in three short months, the first air-to-air and air-to-ground radios for US fighter pilots. The Hawthorne Works, Western Electric’s sole manufacturing facility at that time, handled all the rush orders for military equipment. The workforce included 9,000 women who stepped in to take the place of men drafted into the service. Some Signal Corps units were made up entirely of Western Electric men. Thirty-one Hawthorne Works employees gave their lives.
In July 1918, the US government took control of AT&T and all its subsidiaries, including Western Electric, to oversee war production. AT&T executives had up to that time fought off efforts to break up or nationalize their enterprise. Many other nations had already done so. However, seven months after the war’s end, the Bell System was returned to private control.
Victory for the Allies in November 1918 brought independence to the homelands of many WE workers – Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and South Slavs. Postwar demand for telephone equipment doubled the Hawthorne workforce to nearly 40,000 by the end of the 1920s. Again in World War II, the US would call on Hawthorne to engineer and manufacture mass quantities of the most modern and capable communications equipment, an effort that dwarfed the output of 1917-18. 

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End of an Era

HawthSchadClosingLtr0001June 24, 1983
“MY FELLOW EMPLOYEES: As your general manager, it’s my responsibility to give you the sad news that the Hawthorne Works will be phased out of operation over the next few years. . . . Making the decision to phase out a manufacturing operation – and the jobs that go with it – is very difficult. I assure you that the company will do everything possible to ease the transition ahead.”
With these words, released thirty-one years ago this month, Hawthorne Works General Manager Virgal Schad informed his remaining employees of the end of an era. After three quarters of a century, the gates of the once-thriving complex would close forever. Only 4,200 workers remained to hear the news, just one-tenth the number of staff during the Works’ peak years – the 1920s, World War II and the early postwar period.
In its early years, the sheer size of the Works, with over 200 acres and more than 2 million square feet of floor space, enabled it to turn out the vast quantities of telephone apparatus needed to equip a growing national communications network. But as the years went by, the industry’s changing products and manufacturing methods rendered the Cicero landmark obsolete. No longer did the Bell System require the thousands of miles of copper wire or electro-mechanical switching equipment once turned out by the Works. Employment fell to 23,000 by 1970, and declined steadily through the decade. Twenty-two other Western Electric facilities around the country, newer and more adaptable, took on Hawthorne’s role, but even they were operating at only 55% of capacity by the early 1980s.
The Works’ closure reflected the decline of all American heavy industries, whose dynamism had supplied millions of blue-collar jobs through the 20th Century. Besides telecommunications, the once-powerful steel, automobile, coal, and textiles sectors all suffered losses in employment (but not necessarily in profits). Cicero alone lost 40% of its 56,000 industrial jobs in the 1970s.
But a greater loss could not be measured on the balance sheet. What also disappeared when the Works closed was the trusting partnership built between Western Electric and its rank-and-file employees. For decades employees had earned – in exchange for their earnest efforts – financial, educational and personal benefits rarely matched in any other workplace. A job at Western Electric had meant opportunity, advancement and some semblance of prosperity and security. A “golden age” had come to an end.

The Hawthorne Works closed in 1986, and most of its remaining buildings were demolished soon after. Today, only the former water tower remains, along with the former cable plant that now serves as a Cook County warehouse. The plant had even outlived its operator, Western Electric, which had been assumed into the new AT&T Technologies after the breakup of the Bell System in 1984.

Remembering Hawthorne Workers on Memorial Day

Over seven thousand employees of the Hawthorne Works served in the US armed forces in World War II. One hundred seventy-six gave their lives. The story of just one of these fallen soldiers illustrates the painful sacrifices they made, and the sorrow felt by those they left behind.

Harold J. McAnHawthMcAdrew was born in Chicago in 1918. He and his seven siblings lived on the city’s Northwest Side. His father John was employed by the Manufacturers’ Junction Railway, a subsidiary of the Hawthorne Works. Harold graduated from Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois, and attended night school at Loyola University while employed at the Hawthorne Works. In June 1941, as war threatened, he was drafted into the US Army. His unit, the 200th Coast Artillery, was sent to the Philippines in September. When war broke out that December and Japanese troops invaded the islands, Harold’s unit was among those outnumbered, isolated American and Filipino troops who put up a stubborn defense on the Bataan Peninsula. They finally surrendered on April 9, 1942 and were led on the infamous Bataan Death March. For six days, the starving captives endured beatings and random executions at the hands of the Japanese guards. Harold survived the ordeal and was incarcerated with his comrades at a hastily erected prison camp.

His parents had last heard from him in February. By late in the year they had learned of his POW status, but in May 1943 came the tragic news that their son, 24 years old, had died in the prison camp on September 21, 1942. His remains were finally returned home in 1950, and today he is buried with his parents at St. Joseph Cemetery in River Grove IL.

During World War II, the Hawthorne Works devoted its full strength to the nation’s efforts, turning out millions of dollars worth of radios, field telephones and radar units. But some members of the Works family made the ultimate sacrifice. Let us remember them with gratitude and reverence this Memorial Day.

Fifty Years Ago: The Picturephone

Image  Image  The smartphone in your pocket plays a familiar ringtone. You accept the call, and in a second you’re face to face with a close friend or loved one far away. It happens every minute of every day now, but go back half a century and such an idea was the stuff of science fiction or comic strips.
The Bell System introduced its experimental Picturephone at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Visitors there could place calls to another terminal set up at California’s Disneyland and exchange pleasantries or smiles with total strangers thousands of miles away.
After ten years of research and development at Bell Laboratories, executives hoped their latest innovation would revolutionize telecommunications and add to the Bell System’s long list of achievements. But, the public’s response proved less than enthusiastic. The future was not here yet. Why? Consumers surveyed found the device too big, its picture too small, its price too high and its controls hard to master. Most of all, users just didn’t feel comfortable being scrutinized on screen during a call.
Despite the negative reviews, AT&T launched limited Picturephone service later that year, and introduced an updated version in 1969 (above right). But Bell executives’ hopes were quickly dashed. The public stayed with its familiar voice-only telephones. The early video units were too expensive ($1500) and the calls over analog wires too high priced as well ($27 for a three minute call between New York and Chicago).
It would take another three decades and breakthroughs in digital technology before other telecommunications companies, the successors of the Bell System, finally made videophones practical and affordable. Once again, the Bell System had paved the way, but this time three decades too early.

Lewis Hine’s Images of the Hawthorne Works

HineVrastil2Lewis W. Hine never intended to be a photographer, but during his career, he snapped some of the most memorable images of the early 20th century. In a time when most photographers used their cameras to compose flattering portraits of the well-to-do or to capture tranquil outdoor scenes, Hine’s pictures documented the everyday lives of working Americans and raised support for labor reforms.

Born in Wisconsin in 1874, Hine trained to be an educator. In 1903, he joined the staff of the Ethical Culture School, a progressive institution in New York City. Its director encouraged Hine to take up the camera to document the school’s social research projects, and the young teacher quickly found photography to be a powerful force for social change. Early assignments included a series of portraits of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, and his skill and interest in photography grew with the experience.

In 1907, the National Child Labor Committee sent Hine on a cross-country mission to expose the abuses of the child labor system. Armed only with his bulky box camera, Hine sometimes assumed disguises to access workplaces and photograph some of the two million children laboring up to twelve hours a day in dangerous conditions. The project produced many of Hine’s most unforgettable images: soot-covered ten year-olds sorting coal, school-age girls bent over whirling looms, newsboys asleep on doorsteps. His work shed light on the grim realities of American industry, but child labor stubbornly persisted for years, especially in farm fields and cotton mills.

In the aftermath of World War I, Hine took on a variety of documentary and commercial assignments. He travelled to Europe for the American Red Cross to document the plight of refugees. Through his lens, those lost masses became individuals – hurt, vulnerable, but very much alive. He returned to America weary and ready to photograph more positive scenes, such as his Men at Work series, which portrayed laborers and their machines as equal partners in a creative process. In 1922, Western Electric hired Hine to photograph its employees at work in its factories across the country. He spent two weeks at Hawthorne in early 1923. Western Electric News published the resulting images, including this photo (left) of woodworker Frank Vrastil. The sepia tones preserve forever the simple dignity of the machinists, woodworkers, and cable splicers who made up the Hawthorne family.

One of Hine’s later assignments tested his aging body and creative skills. In 1931, he hauled his equipment up the rising Empire State Building to photograph ironworkers riveting girders a thousand feet above the Manhattan pavement. The hard times of the 1930s left Hine scratching out a living. Few assignments came his way, even as New Deal programs hired photographers, artists and writers to document the nation’s trauma. Hine’s home in New York’s Hudson River Valley was foreclosed and he died impoverished in 1940.

A lively assortment of characters found their way to the Hawthorne Works and its neighborhood over its eighty year lifespan. The place impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands, who fed off its energy, and gained from the experience. Some went on to earn fame or infamy; most lived less celebrated lives, but none was untouched by their time in the shadow of the Works.

Upcoming Hawthorne Works Book Events

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On Sunday, April 13 at 2pm, authors Dennis Schlagheck and Cathy Lantz will discuss their new book Images of America: Hawthorne Works at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 W. Madison Street in Forest Park IL.

And, on Saturday, May 17 at 2pm, they will make an appearance at the Cicero Public Library, 5225 W. Cermak Road.

The authors will share their favorite Hawthorne stories, field questions, sign copies of their book, and hopefully learn more about the Works from guests. We encourage all interested to attend, especially those with personal or family connections to the long-lost Western Electric plant.

Completing the book has been an enlightening experience for both of us. Through discussions, interviews and museum visits, we have discovered how many lives were impacted by the Works, and what a special place it still occupies in the hearts and memories of so many local families.

Prchal’s Tower

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Charles Prchal in 1978

A young man leaves his Bohemian birthplace for America in the early 20th century. He settles in Chicago, furthers his education at night school, finds employment at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works, and builds a lifelong career there. It’s a scenario repeated thousands of times, a Hawthorne foundation saga, but it’s backed by fact, not legend. One who followed this path to success was Charles M. Prchal, designer of the Hawthorne Works’ most distinctive landmark.

Prchal was born in 1896 in Golcuv Jenikov, a small town southeast of Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in the Czech Republic. In August, 1911, he journeyed alone to America and made his new home in Chicago, where he worked days while studying architectural drafting and structural engineering. He joined Western Electric in 1918, just as the Hawthorne Works launched another of its frequent expansion projects. Prchal’s first big assignment was the design of the seven story tower at the northwest corner of the Works’ complex. The 183-foot-tall red brick spire housed the elegant executive offices on its top floor. At its dedication in 1919, Western Electric president Charles DuBois proclaimed the structure the symbol of Hawthorne’s past and future, created by “hard work of hand and brain, and square dealing with everyone.” At the Works Silver Jubilee in 1978, Prchal agreed that the tower had “always been a symbol of the promise of sixty years ago – the promise of a great manufacturing plant and its thousands of employees producing important equipment.”

Later in his career, Mr. Prchal designed the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove and the domed mausoleum at Chicago’s Bohemian National Cemetery. He also served for thirty-two years as the president of the American Sokol, an organization dedicated to preserving Bohemian culture and providing guidance to youth through social and athletic programs. Prchal retired from Western Electric after a forty-three year career but remained active as a lecturer, author and member of many social and fraternal societies until his death in 1980.

Although his most notable design has been gone since 1987, the image of Mr. Prchal’s tower still represents the Hawthorne Works to everyone who recalls its glory days. And his life story illustrates the accomplishments of the many humbly-born immigrants who found an outlet for their potential during America’s industrial golden age.

Western Gates

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The Hawthorne Works entrance gates in the 1960s (left) and today at St. James Sag Bridge

Set in the woods and hills near Lemont, Illinois, St. James at Sag Bridge Church and Cemetery are well-known local historic landmarks. They are among the oldest institutions in the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese, built to serve the Irish laborers who in the 1830s carved the Illinois and Michigan Canal out of the raw limestone southwest of Chicago. The stately wrought iron gates at the entrance to these grounds date from a much later time, but they possess a history of their own. From the 1930s until the 1970s, these sentinels greeted the thousands of workers who every day poured through the Hawthorne Works’ Entrance No. 1 along Cicero Avenue. When the Works foundry was demolished in 1975, the adjoining gates were salvaged by Fr. George Aschenbrenner, pastor of St. James parish, and installed at the cemetery’s Archer Avenue entrance. Still impressive, they are one of the last vestiges of the Hawthorne Works.