It's difficult to determine with any certainty what Marengo’s first commercial business was. Was it Calvin Spencer’s hotel that was built at the corner of modern day Grant Highway and State Street? Or was it a “tiny shoe shop” as related by Arvilla Damon Coon in her work the Life and Labors of Auntie Coon. Coon briefly described the evolution of Marengo’s early business community in the days when the prairie gave way to a town. She wrote, “…after some time a tiny shoe shop was opened on the corner, later a drygoods and grocery store combined, and finally a post-office.” One thing is for certain, and that is that in the 182 years since the Marengo area was settled our community has seen its share of businesses (and industries) come and go.

Over the years I’ve written about the area’s pickle industry, ice industry, dairy industry, grain milling industry, the stove factory, and various businesses that supported horse and buggy transportation. This month I’m going to talk about several businesses that operated in Marengo in the days gone by.

When you buy cheese today it’s either wrapped in plastic or contained in a plastic bag. There was a time when the cheese container was made of wood and some of these these cheese boxes were manufactured in Marengo. The N.L. Jackson cheese box factory stood on the west side of State Street slightly south of Railroad Street. In 1871 the building was constructed to serve as a sash and blind factory. As the story goes with many commercial enterprises; after six years the sash and blind factory gave way to a cooperage where barrels were manufactured, and two years later in 1879 the business converted to the cheese box and butter tub factory. In 1883 the building burned in a fire that ravaged a portion of Marengo’s downtown business district. This was not Marengo’s first foray into the cheese container industry. Previously, in 1865, R.M Patrick operated a cheese box factory on State Street “at the foot of Woleban’s Hill,” but that business failed after a few years.

The Rural Mail Box Company operated for some time in Marengo. The early days of this business are somewhat sketchy, but it is fairly well documented that the company operated in early 1900’s. An article in the November 15, 1901, edition of the Marengo Republican News reported that the company was expanding its operations with the addition of new manufacturing space. It seems that business was brisk because the article stated that the factory was running day and evening and that it was behind on orders. Eleven “hands” were employed manufacturing rural mailboxes and it was anticipated that more workers would be hired with the recent expansion. Over the years the business was operated by George A. Bennett and S.B. Oakley, and owned the patent for the P.B. Englar rural mailbox.

Before electricity windmills were used to pump water from the ground and two Marengo entrepreneurs, Fred Smith and Thomas Bright, manufactured this essential piece of equipment. The firm was known as Smith and Bright and the product was the “Galvanized Steel Aermotor” windmill. The business was small and the windmills were made by hand, but nonetheless the business was profitable. The September 12, 1935, edition of the Marengo Republican News described the Smith and Bright windmills as having a “short tower,” but several contemporary articles that described the successes of the company mentioned that the windmills were up to fifty feet tall.

In 1923 the Marengo Specialty Company opened its doors in the Riley Building on East Prairie Street. The company manufactured a variety of clothing items to include raincoats, knickers, men’s trousers, sweaters, and sports coats. In its hey-day the business employed twenty-five women to make these products, but eventually cast them aside and specialized in “firemen’s raincoats.” The Marengo Republican News speculated that fewer than a dozen companies were involved in this type of business in the 1920’s and 30’s. The firemen’s raincoats were sold directly to firemen across the United States.

This is just a small glimpse into Marengo’s commercial past. There are many more businesses from Marengo’s heydays to ponder on, and they will definitely be discussed in these pages in the future!

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