Marengo has been invaded! The signs of this invasion can be seen everywhere. Bright neon signs and large red flags shouting; “Video Poker”, “Video Gaming,” “Video Slots,” and “Play Here” are some of the messages that get people’s attention as they travel down the streets of our community. In the old days these invaders were referred to as one-armed bandits, but the modern version has no arm - just buttons. Marengo has survived this invasion before, and I’m sure that we’ll survive this one.

The predecessor to the modern slot machine was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1891, and within two years spread nationwide. The symbols displayed on these early machines were playing cards, and the gambler was paid on the strength of his five card hand. The machines didn’t automatically pay out, but the card combinations corresponded to a prize. Charles Fey, a mechanic from San Francisco, California, is credited with inventing the first slot machine. He took interest in the poker machines and designed the first poker machine that automatically paid out on a three card poker hand. In 1895 he retooled this invention to a three reel version, and he replaced the card faces with symbols. The combination that paid out the top prize of twenty coins was three bells – this machine was called the Liberty Bell.

The first record that I was able to locate that mentioned slot machines in Marengo appeared in the Marengo Republican News, November 8, 1901, edition which announced; “There are three penny-inthe- slot machines on the west side of State street where salted roasted peanuts can be had. They catch many pennies.” The machines mentioned in this brief announcement were called trade stimulators and allowed customers to participate in a game of chance – in this case the prize was roasted peanuts. Trade stimulators were looked upon with disdain because they were designed to bolster a merchant’s bottom line. By offering food or tobacco prizes store operators were able to get around established gambling statutes. In some cases trade stimulators were designed to be attractive to children.

Based on the lack of local newspaper articles pertaining to slot machines in Marengo it seems that they were not a problem in the public’s conscience in the decade of the 1920’s. The same can’t be said for the remainder of McHenry County as there were several mentions of raids and seizures related to slot machines throughout the county. It wasn’t until December 24, 1932, when an issue with slot machines surfaced. On that day McHenry County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Harold Reese and his men raided five Marengo establishments. Slot machines were seized at the Green Lantern, Hi-Way Café, White Café, Piske Restaurant, and The Hole.

It seems that things remained quiet for the next several years, and in 1936 an active crusade was led against the one-armedbandit by the Marengo Republican News. The Illinois Attorney General had previously declared that all slot machines were illegal – even the devices that dispensed food items. Finally, on December 27, 1937, Marengo Mayor W.L. Miller and Chief of Police Fred Nelson visited each business that formerly maintained a slot machine and confirmed that they were all removed. But, the onearmed bandit didn’t die peacefully – there was a seething tension still smoldering in the community over the drawn out fight, and it finally erupted at a city council meeting on January 4, 1938, when Mayor Miller accused the Marengo Republican News of “knifing in the back…” the city council. The following week the newspaper published a scathing editorial directed at the mayor.

On the county level the fight against gambling devices was led by Woodstock attorney and McHenry County judge Charles P. Barnes. In the February 10, 1938, issue of the Marengo Republican News Barnes published a letter which was labelled as a paid advertisement. In it he claimed that “slot machines and gambling devices have boldly run wide open, day and night in our county, with the full knowledge and without the slightest interference from either of our two Sheriff’s…” Barnes continued, “There have been rumors for many years that large sums of money were being paid for the privilege of running and operating slot machines in this county, and to put it perfectly plain, many argue that the rumors must have been true, or the machines would never have been allowed to run.”

In Marengo the saga finally came to an end on February 18, 1938, when a special city council meeting was called and gambling devices were made illegal in the city. The illegal slot machine was never completely eradicated from McHenry County. Stories of illegal possession sporadically appeared in local news over the next six decades. The slot machine lost many battles in its long fight to survive, but it finally won the war in July of 2009 when the Illinois Legislature passed the Video Gaming Act.

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