Canton History

Since its founding in 1825, Canton has capitalized on hard work, the talents and entrepreneurial spirit of its residents to bring prosperity and pride to the community. Even in the face of devastating natural disasters (i.e., fires, floods and tornadoes) and downturns in the economy, Canton has shown its resilience and drive and come back from the fires like a Phoenix to rise again!

Pioneer industry 1822-1865

Of all the pioneer industries in Canton, and by far the most important which has survived for over a century and a quarter is plow manufacturing. Robert C. Culton, a native of Kentucky, came to Canton in 1836 and purchased the blacksmith shop owned by Ira Baker on the northeast corner of South Main and Pine Streets, the same location of Culton’s carding mill. In 1840, Mr. Culton began the manufacture of plows, the first being the old-fashioned Diamond Plow, which was the forerunner of the steel mould-board plow. Other early plows manufactured in this shop were the Carey Plow, and the Bar Share breaking plow. The Diamond Plow had a diamond shaped piece of iron which was curved with the lower edge sharpened.

Another pioneer manufacturer of agricultural implements in the area was Joseph H. Gardiner. While his importance as a manufacturer is no doubt slight, he was the first in Fulton County to produce threshing machines, reapers, and the Gardiner Cultivator. Gardiner Corners, just west of Canton was named for him.

William Parlin and International Harvester Company

The world famous International Harvester Company–Canton Works was started by William Parlin, a native of Massachusetts, who came to Fulton County on July 4, 1840.  He arrived at Copperas Creek landing with three hammers, a leather apron, and twenty-five cents in his pocket. Soon after his arrival in Canton he began working for R. C. Culton as a journeyman in his blacksmith shop which was located about 231 East Elm Street. His talents were soon recognized, and within a short time, he became a partner with Mr. Culton. The partnership between Culton and Parlin dissolved when Parlin went into business for himself. He purchased the foundry owned by Major Lewis Bidamon which was located on the northwest corner of Main and Walnut Streets. Many years later, this same corner lot contained the home of Canton’s pioneer photographer, William Seavey.

The first steel plow in Canton was made by William Parlin in this foundry in 1842. He continued making plows in this location until 1847, when the shop was destroyed by fire. Mr. Parlin soon set up shop in the foundry of John Culton, who had succeeded to R. C. Culton’s foundry. This was located on Elm Street between Second and Third Avenue–which became the future location of the International Harvester Company-Canton Works.

A Partnership is Formed within the Family

By 1852, the demand for Parlin’s plows had increased to such an extent that he took into partnership his brother-in-law, William Orendorff. This proved to be a winning combination, for Mr. Orendorff was the sales and office manager, while Mr. Parlin controlled the manufacturing and development of the business.This company was first known as William Parlin & Company until 1860, when the name changed to the Parlin & Orendorff Company, and incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois.

The newly formed corporation’s first successful products were the new Clipper Plows which were first advertised in 1865, and Parlin’s Cultivator, and cornstalk cutter. This cornstalk cutter, an invention of Parlin, was nothing more than a log to which cutting knives were attached.  Other inventions credited to Mr. Parlin were the disc harrow or disc plow, the double plow, known as the “lister”, or “double mouldboard plow.”

William Parlin’s contribution to the advancement of agriculture reached its climax on January 21, 1917, when his picture was placed in the Illinois Farmer’s Hall of Fame in Urbana, Illinois.

Parlin & Orendorff Company 1860-1900

During the forty-year period from 1860, when the Parlin & Orendorff Company was organized, to 1900, great manufacturing advances were made in this company. As it continued to grow, the surrounding land was purchased and new buildings were erected. In 1899, it was announced that an expenditure of half a million dollars resulted in an entire block being covered with new buildings. A new foundry, ninety by three hundred and thirty-five feet had been built, a malleable-iron foundry with large store houses had been added, a new wheel factory, and warehouse for wheel storage was built, and an electric plant with a capacity of five thousand incandescent lights was installed.

This period of success in the development of farm equipment manufacturing was marred by a disastrous explosion which has been the worst in the history of the plant and of Canton. At 7:10 a.m. on Saturday, December 16, 1882, a dull thud was heard all over the city. Windows rattled, and as people looked outside, they could see a cloud of steam rising over the Parlin & Orendorff Company. The boilers in the shop had exploded, tearing out walls of the engine house and hurling various sized pieces of iron for many blocks around. Nine men were killed in this blast; seven were killed outright and two died as a result of their injuries. This was a great catastrophe for the City of Canton, as well as for the victims and their families, and within a very short time following this disaster the citizens had organized benefit concerts and other fund-raising drives to aid the families. The Parlins and Orendorffs contributed a substantial amount of money to these events.

A thorough investigation was conducted following the disaster, and the verdict of the jury stated that the explosion was accidental and unaccountable, with no blame being placed upon any person or the Parlin & Orendorff Company.

International Harvester Company 1900-1930

The progress of the Parlin & Orendorff Company was one of continuous growth from its beginning in 1860. At frequent intervals it was necessary to purchase more land, or to ask the City Council’s permission to close streets and alleys to accommodate the ever increasing need for more space. In 1895, the old Babcock house, located on the site of the former Canton College was purchased, remodeled, and used for many years as a part of the shops. In 1903, a new water tower was erected to supply the increased demand.

By 1910, more power was needed, and a modern power plant was built, with a brick smokestack which was 225 feet in height, the tallest structure in Fulton County at that time. Over $300,000 was spent by the company that year for improvements. In 1919, the Parlin & Orendorff Company was sold to the International Harvester Company, and when it was announced in the Canton Daily Ledger that the factory had been sold, U. G. Orendorff stated: “In my belief and judgement the sale of the P & O plant and business to the Harvester Company is bound to be beneficial to the business and industrial interests of Canton….We are convinced that this change will be satisfactory in its effect to the business interests and people of Canton, as to our customers and to our employees here and elsewhere.”

For ten years, the local plant carried the name of P & O Shops, and at the end of that time the name was changed to Canton Works, International Harvester Company.

Great Depression to the Great Inflation: International Harvester Company 1930-1966

The early 1930’s had the same effect upon International Harvester Company in Canton as was experienced in all industry throughout the United States at that time, reduced production, lay-off of personnel and complete shut-down during the summer months. By 1937, the country was just emerging from the greatest Depression in history, and employment was beginning to show marked improvement in the local Canton Works, when on June 29 of that year a disastrous fire destroyed the paint department with a loss of $275,000.  Plant operations were suspended for two days; then at the end of that time twenty-three of the thirty-three departments were able to resume work, and within one week all departments were in operation.

The first union for the plant was formed on April 19, 1937, when it was announced that Secretary of State Edward R. Hughes had issued a state charter to the Canton Employees Association. Within 48 hours after a membership drive had started, 60 percent of eligible employees had signed up in the union. By June 5, 1937, the union won official recognition by the International Harvester Company and over 2,000 employees had become members of the organization.

By 1961, more changes were in store for the plant, including consolidation of several departments and more improvements.  Production in the gray-iron foundry was transferred to other plants, making room for approximately 125,000 square feet of space for other types of production.  Work continued at the plant which served as the life-line of the community, providing more than 2,000 jobs for area workers.

Industry in Canton: International Harvester Destroyed by Fire 1966-1997

More difficult times struck “the shop” in 1979, as the union forced a company-wide strike. Lasting over 170 days, the walkout was then the longest running strike in UAW history.

In 1983, the company reported a $165 million loss and later that year officials of IH announced the plant would be closed “as part of its overall strategy to return its agricultural equipment business to profitability.” Officials said the Canton plant would be closed effective October 31, 1983.  The economic blow to the community was profound. Unemployment rose to double-digits, families moved away to find work, and stores closed. The downtown became almost deserted, and historic buildings fell into disrepair. It was a very, very difficult time for the Canton community.

 Sixteen years later, the International Harvester Plant was destroyed on August 6, 1997, by a raging fire that ripped through the four block area and spread black ash throughout the city. Emotions ran high as memories came rushing back to many residents while they stood by and watched a longtime Canton landmark burn. The fire started in the south side of the plant in an area near the warehouse, and was reported at 4:03 a.m., according to Canton Police Chief Mike Elam. Around 4:45 a.m., a column of soot and smoke shot hundreds of feet into the air as flames engulfed the elevators and warehouse portions of the plant.

At dawn, a huge, black cloud of smoke could be seen from all over the county and beyond. By 5 a.m., the heat was so intense, Chief Elam ordered knocking on doors of residences on Walnut Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues to advise residents of the potential danger. Residents on Walnut from Second through Fourth Avenues were also evacuated and moved north to Chestnut Street.

The fire indirectly led to the fatality of one woman, Betty Carley. The sixty-nine year old resident of Sunset Manor nursing home was pronounced dead at 7:50 a.m. after being struck by a van while the nursing home was being evacuated.

Mayor Don Edwards said at the time that the six-story warehouse glowed in flames and the old, dry, 12 to 18 inch square timbers in the warehouse were helping to fuel the blaze. Every fire department in Fulton County was activated. In addition, fire departments from Pekin, Bushnell, Macomb, Trivoli, Havana, East Peoria, and others were reported to be on the scene.

As the fire continued to burn into the third day, the famous IH whistle was found. The whistle, which blew regularly seven times a day, was found late on August 7, in the powerhouse of the plant. For many years, the whistle blew off a trail of steam as it announced times for workers to take a break, lunch time, and the beginning and ending of shifts.  Local resident Tom Simas said the whistle blew for 17 seconds and would be pulled every weekday before 6 a.m., 6:52 a.m., 7 a.m., noon, 12:22 p.m., 12:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. The whistle could also be heard on special holidays such as New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve.

Fire Chief Michael Jackson said crews continued to be on the scene around the clock. At approximately 9:45 a.m. on August 8th, flames were visible through the windows of the building just west of the main gate.

On August 10th, using the smoldering IH building as a backdrop, officials from the City of Canton and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) held a press conference to confirm what many local residents already suspected — the fire still burning at the plant was the result of arson.

On May 20, 2002, after a five-year investigation, Police Chief Mike Elam and other officials held another press conference to announce the arrest of a suspect in the arson of the IH plant. Chief Elam confirmed a sealed Federal indictment was obtained for the arrest of Jerry A. Sprabary, 41, after he was interviewed by Chief Elam and Lt. Dean Putman in Ft. Worth, Texas. Sprabary was later tried and sentenced to federal prison for the crime.

A Fresh start: A New Spark 2008-Present

In 2008, the Mayor of Canton, Kevin Meade, and Mark Rothert, then the city’s economic developer, traveled to Bloomington, Indiana to meet with Bill Cook, a man raised in Canton, and now the owner of the largest privately held medical device manufacturing company in the world. It was a meeting that would forever change the future of Canton, and provided a spark that has touched of a small Renaissance of development.
Bill Cook, who passed away on April 15, 2011, had a very special interest in historic preservation, and was a driving force in the restoration of downtown Bloomington, Indiana, where his company, Cook Group, Inc. is headquartered. After meeting with Meade and Rothert, he purchased the Randolph Building, a once beautiful building on the southeast corner of the square more than a century old, and the building next to it. Dilapidated, nearly un-salvageable, Cook’s engineers, architects and contractors, as well as local craftsmen, spent months restoring the buildings to their former glory. They now house prime retail space on the street level, and high-end loft apartments on the second floors.

Almost as if Cook’s interest in his hometown was a catalyst, a $400,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to improve the facades of downtown businesses was received in 2009. Within eighteen months, 13 local downtown businesses had taken advantage of the funding, and the city’s center square once again was surrounded by historic buildings beautifully restored, lending a Norman Rockwell feel to Canton’s primary business district. The transformation is astounding.

Perhaps because of Canton’s initiative in forming Canton Main Street, combined with the effort to find funding to invest in the preservation of historic buildings lost to neglect and hard times, Bill Cook announced plans in 2008 to locate a manufacturing plant on the old International Harvester site. The announcement was emotional balm to the Canton residents who had once worked at “the shop;” seeing a new facility literally rise out of the ashes. The economic impact has been astounding. 

Cook Medical opened in May of 2010. Directly behind now stands Cook Polymer Technologies, a very specialized manufacturing facility that produces a coating for catheters and other medical devices that Cook manufactures. There are less than five such facilities in the world.

Unlike many small, rural towns Canton is growing, and once again beginning to thrive — due to the generosity of a benefactor who chose to offer a hand up to his old hometown, but also to the will and vision of community leaders, and the determination and energy of its residents.  Canton is a place that visitors will find charming, interesting and a perfect place to plan an extended stay. Welcome!