By Tom Witom Contributor
John W. Gates, Edward Baker and Lester Norris.
Contributions made by these three civic-minded pioneers stand tall in influencing St. Charles as we know it today.
“They all exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit, at one time or another each starting his own business – and doing quite well,” said Natalie Gacek, museum director of the St. Charles Heritage Center. “All three left a fine legacy.”
Gates (1855-1911) grew up in Turner Junction (now West Chicago), attended Northwestern College in Naperville and married Dellora Baker, the daughter of Edward H. Baker, of St. Charles.
Putting a knack for salesmanship to work, Gates began amassing his fortune by successfully marketing barbed wire, a new invention, to initially skeptical Texas cattle ranchers. He started Southern Wire Co. of St. Louis and later merged it with a similar enterprise that ultimately was sold in 1901 and became U.S. Steel.
The steel magnate became an oil baron when he benefitted from a lucrative investment in Spindletop oil on his property in Beaumont, Tex., an oil company that was a forerunner to Texaco.
A colorful figure, Gates was an inveterate gambler who picked up the nickname of “Bet-a-Million.” One account has him bet (and lose handsomely) on which of two raindrops would slide down on a window pane the fastest.
Edward Baker (1868-1959) had a successful career as a farmer, hardware merchant and public figure. In addition, the governor of Kentucky anointed him with the honorary title of “Colonel” for his contributions to horse racing. Baker’s most famous horse Greyhound, acquired as a yearling in 1933, won 17 international records.
By 1918, John and Dellora Gates and their son Charles had all died, leaving an estate valued at $38 million to John’s brother-in-law, Col. Baker, and his wife’s namesake niece, Dellora Angell, who was a teen at the time. Dellora later married Lester Norris, a St. Charles native who worked as a commercial artist and cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune.
Lester and Dellora founded St. Charles Charities, later renamed the Norris Foundation, which provides grants to local not-for-profit groups. Two of the their five surviving children and their descendants still call the St. Charles area home.
Gacek said the Gates-Baker-Norris benevolence has left an indelible imprint on the St. Charles landscape.
The Baker Community Center, 101 S. Second St., was dedicated to the memory of the Bakers’ son, Henry Rockwell Baker, and all World War I veterans. Its basement initially held a swimming pool, then bowling alleys; after they were removed, the facility became home to its current occupant, the St. Charles Underground, a teen center.
Also part of the legacy were the stately Hotel Baker, 100 W. Main St.; the Municipal Building, a Registered Historic Place at 2 E. Main St. and the Illinois Street bridge.
In St. Charles the Norrises helped to finance the country club and to build Delnor Hospital on Route 25 in 1940; today that site is Delnor Glen, a complex with senior town homes and a senior care facility.
The Norris’ family fortune, in conjunction with Norris’ artistic abilities, led to construction in 1926 of the unique Arcada Theatre at 105 E. Main St. – a venue still used for live theater performances. Norris money also funded the Boy Scout Building, 415 N. 2nd St. and provided property for St. Charles East High School and donated land and money for the Norris Cultural Arts Center, 1050 Dunham Rd.
During the 1950s, Baker funded the building of the Baker Memorial United Methodist Church, 307 Cedar Ave., which was dedicated to his parents’ memory.
“All of these facilities are still standing and in use today,” said Gacek, adding that the generosity of the Baker and Norris families also provided a home for the Heritage Center in the Municipal Building from 1940 to 2000.
History buffs can discover more about St. Charles’ past by visiting the Heritage Center website at http://www.stcmuseum.org/. Gacek also recommends Ruth Seen Pearson’s 1976 book, Reflections of St. Charles: A History of St. Charles, Illinois, 1833-1976 for further study.