In the late 1890s George C. Sexton of St. Louis purchased the vacant Fairfield Woolen Mills complex on outer west Main Street using local financing. The machinery was removed or updated and workers produced “jeans” cloth. The market slumped. Alternative products failed and Sexton’s brother-in-law, Hugh G. Ferguson, took over the operation. Reluctantly but fortuitously, he retooled to produce athletic underwear for men. Business took off with sales throughout the South. U.S. military contracts added volume. Ferguson was a driven businessman, eventually creating a “company town” of housing and shops that competed directly with the local businessmen who had financed the factory. The Sexton Manufacturing Company was a major employer, especially for seamstresses, for about 30 years. .
All the businesses on the south side of the 100 east Main from First Street to its central alley were involved in this catastrophic blaze. Castle’s Feed & Coal, the Baumberger Bakery, Harvey’s Millinery, Thompson & Rickard Grocery, and Brockett’s Furniture burned. N.E. Roberts’ business house including the Willis Jewelry store were partially damaged. All the cisterns and wells close to the fire were pumped dry and two teams of horses were used to haul water from additional wells. The block was rebuilt two years later. Of the destroyed businesses, only Castle re-opened in the old location
Cottages for Sexton workers: The Sexton factory employed a large number of women as seamstresses or in related work. To encourage a stable workforce, the company built a complex of cottages, a recreational center, and cafeteria beside the massive main work building on West Main. The cottages were in a fenced enclosure; a matron chaperoned the premises to insure decorum. The modest furnishings were modern and offered young women some independence. Rent was slightly less than their weekly salary. After Sexton Manufacturing closed, the cottages housed oil boom workers in the 1940s.Sadly, this classic community complex—a prime piece of social and community history—deteriorated and was demolished in the 1970s
1916--Frank Kirby, The Human Fly: Daredevil Frank Kirby was hired to climb the Wayne County courthouse steeple during a street fair event. As a large crowd watched, Kirby scaled the tower until he reached a recently-painted section of louvers on the clock tower. He slipped, fell, bounced from the lower roof, and landed on the ground. He was terribly injured and was carried to the Brown Hotel where doctors treated him for a few days in the front sample room. The location included a large front window where curious citizens could peer in at the invalid. In about a week, Kirby was loaded on a train for Flora where his family lived. Most people thought he died soon afterwards; however, many years later he again visited Fairfield and recounted his slow recovery. He noted that he never took such a risk again.
The automobile's growing popularity created the need for significant road improvements. In 1923 contracts were let to put down a solid cement surface between Fairfield and the Little Wabash Bridge east of town, then to Golden Gate and Edwards County. A brick road was being built from Albion toward Fairfield at the same time. Contractors picked up the road at the west edge of Fairfield and built toward Wayne City. A few of the main roads around the courthouse square, First, and Center Streets had been bricked by the Fairfield Improvements Board in 1916, and were gradually extended. But many residential streets remained dirt or oiled chat into the 1930s. During the Great Depression, WPA work crews were used to gravel many of the rural roads. (The term “slab” for concrete roads may be a carryover from the pioneers’ road improvements—“slab” sections of the bark of trees were created when reducing a log to lumber. The bark slabs were available in such large quantities during the timber-clearing era that surplus “slabs” were used to create a firm surface on the worst sections of dirt roads. )
Emanuel Steiner established his clothing business in Fairfield in 1874. He became a mainstay of the community. His 50th anniversary in business was celebrated by the biggest parade in the town’s history. The entourage began west of town, marched through the business district, and ended at the city park. Steiner had hired the best barbeque chefs from Henderson, Kentucky to prepare lamb, beef, and ham for the thousands in attendance. In a most unusual ceremony, Steiner—a Jewish immigrant—was given fifty roses by local Ku Klux Klan members to honor his milestone. The photographs of that memorable scene were picked up in some national newspapers. Steiner hired a St. Louis film crew to record the entire day and then showed the results in local movie houses. The film has been lost.
1926--The Opera House Block Fire: Yet another major loss came when fire destroyed the Pendleton & Boggs Opera House block. The 1870s two-story brick complex housed a general merchandise store, drug store, furniture store, and “opera” auditorium. The Masons had moved their quarters from the building shortly before the fire. The blaze began in the corner (E. Main and N.E. 2nd) on Christmas Eve and by morning the substantial structure was a pile of smoking ruins. Eventually the property was redeveloped with new businesses including Gus’ Candy Corner, Arnold’s Apparel, etc. In 2015 the old Opera Block houses the Chamber of Commerce office, Male Connection, Studio 117, and Carnaby Square apparel.
1935--Chefford-Master Arrives: On July 8, Ben Frankel and associates joined the Chefford Automotive Parts, Inc., in Brooklyn, NY, the MasterParts Mfg., and General Fabricating, in Chicago. The result was Chefford-Master which located in Fairfield after vigorous lobbying by a determined group of local businessmen. The company name is based upon making parts for CHEvrolets and FORDs=Cheffords. The arrival of the new plant was a crucial turn-around event after the Sexton Company faded and the short-lived Wood Heel company folded. The full corporate history of this vital industry has yet to be systematically documented, except for extensive newspaper features on milestone anniversaries. After WWII, the Air-Tex division became the focus and the company was re-worked and renamed.
Born in Jasper Township in Wayne County, William E. Borah was educated in rural schools and the Enfield Academy before reading law and moving west. He eventually married the daughter of the governor of Idaho and settled into law practice and politics. He was elected senator for the state and entered into national politics. “The Lion of the Senate,” Borah was one of the most powerful senators and eloquent speakers of his era. He espoused isolationist principles powerfully enough to be credited as a factor in President Woodrow Wilson’s failure to convince the Congress to join the League of Nations. In 1936 Borah became a candidate for the president of the United States. He made a celebrated overnight visit to Fairfield as part of his campaign. After meeting a large crowd of admirers, Borah gave a short speech on the courthouse grounds. He did not get the nomination and died in 1940. His place in political history was assured when a statue of Borah was commissioned for the hallways of the U.S. Capitol building to commemorate his principles and his eloquence.
Electricity was not widely available in the rural areas until three decades after it was installed in Fairfield. Depression-era governmental programs helped support the project. The Wayne-White Electric Cooperative steadily lit the countryside, farm after farm, transforming all aspects of country life from electrical appliances in barn and home to electric lights in one-room schools and radios in the parlor. In particular, the farm wife’s domestic workload was lifted as washing machines, kitchen appliances, and fans eased chores.
The search for oil in Wayne County began as early as 1907 when a dry hole was drilled. The Leach brothers of Golden Gate used their mechanical genius to devise a drilling unit in the early 1930s. They were unsuccessful. Oil was struck in increasingly close territory by the mid-30s, especially in the Clay County area. Leasing escalated. The oil boom finally arrived in Wayne County in March, 1937 with the Bradley Discovery Well #1 halfway between Geff and Cisne. Within weeks leasing extended throughout the county. Oil companies from Oklahoma and Texas moved in rigs, workers, and families. Oil became a key economic force transforming communities. Schools, churches, civic activities, subdivisions, and businesses all benefited turning the post-war 1950s into a “golden age” of progress.
From the pioneer era until the 1940s Wayne County’s population was fairly evenly spread between town and country. Country schools were the main source of “common school” education for most children. As the small farm was absorbed into larger holdings and the automobile defined transportation, rural schools closed or consolidated. There were around 150 rural schools—mostly one-room buildings—scattered throughout the county as recently as the 1930s. Teacher shortages in WWII as well as increasing state regulations caused another marked shift toward consolidation. Superintendent of Education Lyman Talbert made a concerted effort to consolidate and modernize county schools during the 1940s. Busing students allowed consolidated units such as Rinard, Merriam, Jasper, Cisne, Golden Gate, Johnsonville, and Mt. Erie to absorb dozens of smaller schools. The last one-room school closed in 1956. A few original rural school buildings remain, but only one is intact. The Olive Branch School was moved to the French Park in Fairfield and is now a museum.
A major civic dream came to fruition with the dedication of the Fairfield Memorial Hospital in 1950. The hospital cost over $1,200,000, one-third of which was local funding. Governor Adlai Stevenson gave the dedicatory address. The hospital had 84 beds, surgery, obstetrics, lab, emergency services—a fully equipped hospital. Emmitt Hoffee, local car dealer, initiated the idea and the fundraising in 1942 when he served as president of Fairfield’s Chamber of Commerce. L.A. Blackburn and a core group of dedicated citizens continued the campaign. Large donations from Press editor E.H. Childress, business magnate B. Earl Puckett, Mrs. Mattie Borah Rinard, and Chefford-Master sparked extensive local donations from the area. The hospital was—and remains—an indispensable institution to the community
Pat Bruce, a Fairfield native and FCHS graduate, was successful in several local and state beauty pageants including the Lions’ Club Miss Fairfield contest. As Miss Illinois, she became the state’s entry to the national Miss America contest in Atlantic City, during the pageant’s most popular era. There Pat Bruce was chosen as Miss Congeniality by her co-contestants. It was the first year the iconic beauty contest was shown on television. Pat’s Miss Illinois and Miss Congeniality trophies are on display in the Hanna House Museum in Fairfield
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