New book by Library employees preserves era of Cicero’s Western Electric plant

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A pair of Morton College employees is preserving the memories of an industrial giant in Cicero.

Images of America: Hawthorne Works” by Dennis Schlagheck and Catherine Lantz tells the story of the Hawthorne Works Western Electric plant, which in its heyday, was the country’s second-largest manufacturing plant only to the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

“It was such an important place,” Schlagheck said. “In a lot of ways, it was the Silicon Valley of the mid-20th Century. Detroit was cars, Pittsburgh was steel and Cicero was telephones.”

Schlagheck and Lantz worked together as reference librarians at Morton College. They also gave tours of Morton College’s Hawthorne Works Museum.

“Dennis and I had talked for a long time about what a great story Hawthorne was and the amazing resources located in the museum,” said Lantz. “We thought it would be a great experience for us and a great way to preserve the memories/stories/pictures that we heard about every day working in the museum.”

The two were familiar with Arcadia Printing, a publisher specializing in niche history books. Their proposal was accepted in August of 2012 and the book will be available starting February 10th in the Morton College Bookstore and online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Arcadia’s publishing guidelines are simple. Books are 128 pages with about 180 pictures. Captions follow a specific word count.

“A big part of the book was writing it and then rewriting it,” Schlagheck admitted. “It was like a Rubik’s Cube. It’s ‘Images of America,’ so the concept is photo-based. You quickly had to get across what you wanted to say.”

“We organized the narrative by theme,” Lantz added. “It’s partly chronological and then we filled in the story with all of the pieces. The story in this book is really driven by the images. We selected the best quality images from the museum’s collection and found others to round out the story.”

“You could see how Cicero and Berwyn grew up around the plant,” Schlagheck said. “There’s a picture of a cow grazing of what is now a Walgreen’s on the northwest corner of Cicero and Cermak.”

Schlagheck did not want the book to be just a “gadget story.” Nor he did he want to just focus on the Eastland Disaster and the Hawthorne Studies, the two things most associated with Western Electric.

“It wasn’t just a factory,” Schlagheck said. “The place was a works. The devices created at Bell Labs were thrown over to Hawthorne Works for mass production. Everything came in as raw materials and went out as finished products.”

The relationship between Hawthorne and its employees was a special one.

“There was out and out warfare between management and labor in certain industries,” Schlagheck said. “They decided it would be in their best interests to have long-time employees who were content, educated, well-trained and taken care of. It wasn’t like Ford, where you had the spy department. Things were simply agreed upon.”

During his research, Schlagheck encountered many former Western Electric employees who were unassuming about their accomplishments.

“They were the best at what they did,” Schlagheck said. “They produced the best telecommunications system in the world.”

The two collaborated well together on the project, each bringing a different perspective to the table. Schlagheck is a fourth-generation Chicago resident whose father and grandfather worked for the Bell System. Lantz hails from Southern California and was introduced to Hawthorne Works her first week on the job in 2008.

Most of the images came from Morton College’s Western Electric collection, but many were gathered from outside archives or former employees of Hawthorne. Schlagheck did travel to the AT&T archives in New Jersey to conduct additional research.

“Dennis is definitely the primary researcher and writer on the project,” Lantz said. “He wrote and rewrote, and rewrote the majority of the text! I contributed to specific sections and chapters.  The bulk of the non-writing work was formatting the 180+ images found in the book.”

Both credited their peers in the Library for generously assisting.

“All the librarians and staff at the library have been instrumental in the book’s success, from editing, to Photoshop advice, layout recommendations, marketing suggestions,” said Lantz, who now works at UIC as a Reference Librarian & Liaison to the Life Sciences. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”