Frank H. McWethy: International Manufacturing Leader
2009 West Aurora Alumni Hall of Honor Induction
Born in Aurora on April 25, 1882, Frank McWethy was the son of Henry McWethy, one of three brothers who traveled here on horseback from New York in 1871. The family tree shows that Frank’s mother, Lydia, was a direct descendent of U.S. Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Also among the family archives is an engraved invitation sent by President Theodore Roosevelt to Gertrude Erickson, the adopted daughter of a Michigan senator who became Frank’s wife.
At West High School, Frank was president of his class and manager of the football team in 1900, and a member of the debate team in 1901. His father, Henry, was a long-time member of the Board of Education. According to the yearbook, the team manager was responsible for securing the games, and Frank was saluted for scheduling 10, only 1 of which they lost. For a debate at Oak Park High School, his topic was the “liquor problem in the United States.”
Frank and his wife, Gertrude, were married in Escanaba in 1906, shortly after he graduated from the University of Wisconsin. A newspaper account of the wedding said, “Frank is a fine, genial young fellow, with considerable business ability in spite of his apparent youth…this ability being demonstrated by his success as New York manager for Stephens-Adamson and Company.”
Thanks to the catalytic influence of railroads, industry flourished in Aurora during the first half of the 20 th century. This community was truly unique…one of the few in the country where several locally owned industries were producing goods for the world market. Stephens-Adamson was one of those first stellar firms and a founding company in 1902 of the organization that would become the Valley Industrial Association.
As vice president and sales manager, Frank obtained the government contracts to manufacture in Aurora the excavation equipment needed to build the Panama Canal. Frank later involved the company with the Pennsylvania Railroad. During World War II, it supplied Seal-Master ball bearings for numerous military vehicles and ships. (In recent years, architect John Cordogan retrofitted the old office and used some of the conveyor belts left at the plant to create a 3-story staircase with glass steps at the entrance, a fine tribute to its historical past.)
Construction of the Panama Canal was one of the largest and most complex engineering projects ever undertaken. The French were first to try in the 1880s. The U.S., under President Teddy Roosevelt, bought out the French and began work in May of 1904, around the same time the president visited Aurora. Despite countless problems with malaria, complicated locks and dams, and landslides, the canal officially opened in 1914.
When President Roosevelt was ready to begin, Aurora’s U.S. Senator Albert Hopkins gave a speech, 40-pages long, to win approval for the project from Congress. Frank McWethy, liaison for Stephens-Adamson, then brought home the contracts and employment for thousands in Aurora building the equipment that would help build the Panama Canal.
After returning to the Fox Valley, Frank built a home on Calumet Avenue, which has endured as a one-of-a-kind showcase house. Styled after the Renaissance manor homes of Western Europe, it cost about $32,000 to build in the years preceding the Depression. It was one of the first to have an attached garage with fire-safe sliding metal doors separating the garage from the kitchen. One of the city’s aldermen lives there today.
Early in his life, Frank distinguished himself at golf, and won several local titles. He was a founder and early president of the Aurora Country Club. Interestingly, the plaque at the front door of this clubhouse is engraved 1914, the same year the Panama Canal was opened.
Frank McWethy died suddenly from a massive heart attack in Chicago on December 21, 1944. He was attending a meeting of the Conveyor Association, a national organization for which he continued to serve as Secretary.
Connections do matter and respectful friendships must always be valued…some of the international acclaim earned by the city of Aurora in the early 1900s was the direct result of the vision of a eager president, the prodding of an influential local Senator, and the business acumen of a young college graduate lucky enough to get a job in the New York office of a firm from his hometown.