Leclaire: A Village of Progress

I have been exploring areas east of St. Louis lately. On Tuesday’s I have been going up to the SIU campus in Edwardsville to draw many of the Louis Sullivan ornament that is displayed in the Lovejoy Library. I then decided I was going to bike around a small part of Edwardsville called Leclaire for an hour or so.

I know the area pretty well and I wasn’t expecting to find opulent examples of Victorian or great examples of sleek Modern architecture. I didn’t even expect to find unique local examples of vernacular architecture that can’t be found anywhere else. If anything it just gets me out to take another look at the familiar and maybe see something in a different light or from a different perspective. Plus I was getting out and exploring, enjoying the weather and getting exercise. Typically I’ll stumble upon something or wander off from my planned route (Planned route is a very generous term because no route is planned. Planned route means, “I plan to ride around Leclaire.”).

leclaire-nelsonI started on one of the bike trails that sits on a former railroad bed and goes past the Old N.O. Nelson manufacturing Company Factory (currently is a campus of Lewis and Clark Community College and before that the SIUE Art Department resided here) and the water tower that says “Historic Leclaire”. Leclaire today is a neighborhood on the south of Edwardsville that straddles Illinois Route 159. However, it used to be it’s own village. It merged with Edwardsville in the 1930s. Leclaire is actually pretty modest with smaller wood frame homes built around 1890 to the early 1900s. At it’s core the roads are curvy, the lots are spacious.

I did venture out of that area and up to the area just east of downtown that is along Routes 143 and 157. Most of my ride was flat terrain but there was some hills just east of downtown. I came across a brick factory that still is creating bricks. It’s called Richard’s Brick and was founded in 1890. It was founded by a bricklayer named Benjamin H. Richards. He bought half of two local brickyards (Springer and Tunnell Press Brickworks). The business incorporated in 1905. It makes brick for mostly residential uses. It’s a place that is hard to miss – brick towers stacked everywhere and the bike trail goes right through it. I will note that there was a street that I rode on called Springer Ave so I am going to assume it had something to do with the brick company.

Overall it was a easy relaxing ride for the most part. The neighborhood and surrounding areas are pretty active and it’s in great shape. There were people walking their pets, exercising, playing at or around Leclaire Park. There was activity around the Children’s Museum which used to the the village’s school. There were people riding bikes on the bike trail, a baseball practice at the diamond, and activity at the college.

As for Leclaire there is a lot of information on the Friends of Leclaire website. I’ll leave it up to you if you want really detailed information. I’ll just skim and give out the basics.

The village of Leclaire was founded by industrialist, N.O. Nelson in 1890. It was founded as a cooperative village that offered affordable homes, clean environment, free education, areas for recreation, and N.O. Nelson Manufacturing Company claimed to provide more pleasant, humane working conditions for their workers. He offered profit sharing to his workers. The factory was designed so it had plenty of natural sunlight via skylights and large arched windows that would open to let in fresh air. All the buildings had electricity, sprinkler systems for fires, and had running water. The grounds were landscaped with grass and flowers and the village and factory were separated by a hedge of orange trees.

In a way Leclaire could have been just another company town but workers didn’t have to live there. The idea was to not just offer housing but to give the workers the means to owning their own home. This wasn’t a factory where the workers would live in tenements or old dilapidated houses in the overcrowded, dirty cities. That was part of the reason for building out away from the city. They are modest wood frame and typically one story homes were not opulent. However, many had running water, electricity, indoor pluming, and had heaters. Over time homeowners would add features or maybe more space. Today each house has it’s own character.

leclaire-houseLeclaire offered free education with a school and library. Students were encourage to stay in school. Older boys, in order to learn skills had the opportunity to put in light work in the factory or on a farm. They were even paid a small stipend. Older girls would learn domestic skills. Sometimes after they completed their education, many of the boys would have employment waiting for them at the factory.

Leclaire was a progressive experiment to remedy the social evils of the time. It was created by a businessman who not only was a capitalist but supported socialist ideas too. He believed in a middle ground. Later on there was inner squabbling in the company between him and others that didn’t believe in his vision and wanted a more traditional business model. The company also suffered great losses during World War I. Soon after they went out of business. Eventually in 1933 the village was absorbed into Edwardsville.

Today, most of these houses survive and there is much knowledge about many of the houses and those who owned the homes. The area is very well taken care of and the residents are proud of the history of their neighborhood. The old school is sill standing, the old manufacturing plant has been rehabbed and is now a campus in Lewis and Clark Community College system. Before that it was owned by SIUE and housed the art department. For a period of time it was in rough condition but is beautiful today.

The neighborhood isn’t a marvel in architecture but it is a marvel in it’s ideals. It is no surprise that Edwardsville today seems to value education with it’s good schools, the community college in town, and the Southern Illinois University campus.

This was a bike ride that shows me that exploring can spark a curiosity. When biking though here I am aware that it is a historic district (there are signs everywhere) and it has the look of a turn of the 19/20th century look. It has a simple charm that isn’t intimidating. It isn’t a wealthy neighborhood that seems exclusive. This was a ride that I didn’t learn about architectural styles or the typical stories of settlement. Leclaire is unique in how it came together and it’s history. I knew nothing about the ideals that lead to the founding of Leclaire but my bike ride and curiosity led to learning about the history here.

With bike riding, there is a connection to place – I am participating. It isn’t like driving where I am separated and are a spectator. It isn’t like driving in that I just pass through and listening to music or the radio that has no connection to the place. With bike riding I can say hello to people and experience a place with all my senses. I think by doing that I find myself wanting to learn more and I get more out of the experience. Basically what I’m saying is when visiting a place, get out the the car.

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