Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Interview With: Steve Bigolin

Steve Bigolin sits in front of his "DeKalb wall" in his DeKalb home. An original photograph of Jacob Haish hangs above his right shoulder. | Photo by Jessi LaRue
When one thinks of barbed wire and DeKalb County history, one name usually comes to mind: Steve Bigolin.

Not only is he a collector of historical items and documents, but he's a collector of facts, as well: just one question about local history can have him rattling off dates and anecdotes without hesitation.

Bigolin first toured the Ellwood House in the 1970s, and that visit kickstarted his interest in DeKalb County. He studied history at Northern Illinois University, and in the years since has written historical columns for the Daily Chronicle, helped save local historical buildings, guided countless bus and walking tours, and much more.

He's also been studying Jacob Haish for more than 40 years. 

A portion of our conversation is below.

Jessi: Where does your interest in Jacob Haish come from?
Steve: I first fell in love with Haish, purely and simply, because of his house. (Editor's note: Bigolin never got to see the mansion when it stood; he arrived six years after it was demolished.) It was a tremendous work of architecture. It was such an exuberant example of Queen Anne style architecture. 

About that same time, I saw Haish's barbed wire factory at Sixth and Lincoln, which became the Nehring Electric Works factory in 1916. (A McDonald's sits at that location today.) When I realized the history behind this building I said, 'I'm gonna help save it!' and I contacted Paul Nehring. His father was still living at the time, although in extremely poor health, so I was never able to meet him unfortunately. But in the spring of 1979, just before demolition began on the building, we took the suit to try to stop the city from tearing it down to U.S. District Court in Chicago. The judge ruled he didn't have jurisdiction in the case. Paul thought he was bought off. 

The more I learned about Haish, his background and everything, the more I just came to adore him. I really thought he was the underdog in the barbed wire business and didn't deserve to be!
Steve Bigolin shows Jacob Haish slides on a projector in his DeKalb home. | Photo by Jessi LaRue
Jessi: What are your thoughts on the demolition of his mansion?
Steve: He missed one thing in preparing his will. He left the house for lifetime use to his housekeeper Anna Anderson. He didn't think beyond when Anna Anderson would die. By the time she did in the 1950s, the trustees of the estate needed to liquidate all the assets of the estate to make the Jacob Haish Memorial Hospital a reality. They had the right to sell it. 

In 1961 both Ellwood and Haish house were on the market for sale at the same time. Haish estate had sold to Lutheran Church for $25,000. The church was trying to get $25,000 back from it. Ellwood House was for sale at asking price of $100,000, but was in much worse physical condition and all the out buildings were in shambles. At one point Mrs. Perry Ellwood had offered the house to NIU for use as the president's home, and they turned it down because of the condition it was in and how much was going to need to be spent to make it usable again. Richard Nelson, who was president of NIU from 1971 to 1978, told me that story.

Jessi: Why do you think Haish deserves more recognition?
Steve: Much more so, especially than Glidden, he was involved in so many activities. Glidden was basically DeKalb-centered. Jacob not only gave monies when he died to the Masonic Temple and other local groups that he was with, but even before he died, he had given money to a manual training school in Colorado. There are a number of Western states where his wire was more sought after for use than Glidden's.

Steve Bigolin holds an image of Jacob Haish that once hung in the Haish School in the 300 block of south Ninth Street in DeKalb. The school was demolished in 1975, but the Haish Gymnasium is still nearby. | Photo by Jessi LaRue

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