Benjamin Electric Plant Gave Way to New Industry, Homes
Once Des Plaines' largest employer, Benjamin Electric operated for 56 years.
Today, townhomes and R.G. Smith Equipment Company, 622 Northwest Highway, stand on the site of what was one of Des Plaines' primary employers. Like much of the U.S., Des Plaines long ago shifted from an industrial economy to service.
Benjamin Electric Company's operations in unincorporated Des Plaines began as the Royal Enameling & Stamping Works in about 1908, in a plant built about 10 years earlier for the short-lived Illinois Wire Company.
The plant stood at what is now the intersection of Northwest Highway and Seegers Road. It was later reorganized as the Royal Enameling & Manufacturing Company, and specialized in reflectors, signs, stove finishes, washing machine tubs and any other metals that would need a hard, smooth, and durable enamel coating.
Already a major employer in the small town, with a workforce of 200, the factory grew greatly after being acquired by Chicago's Benjamin Electric Manufacturing Company in 1918.
Benjamin Electric's operations began with revolutionary designs that may sound mundane today. Founder Reuben Benjamin's biggest invention was the "wireless cluster,” a cluster of electric sockets that required only two wires.
Before the wireless cluster, the low-wattage electric lights at the turn of the century required each socket to be individually wired, usually on a string. Benjamin's invention clustered as many as 20 sockets in a single fixture, making an intense light possible and cutting an hour-long wiring job to two minutes.
Hazardous electric arc lights were commonly used in industrial settings. This new economical source of bright light made working conditions better in factories nationwide.
Porcelain reflectors to direct light were a natural fit for Benjamin, and the rest of their manufacturing was soon moved to the Des Plaines plant.
By the mid-1920’s advertising boasted that 60 percent of porcelain reflectors in the world were made in Des Plaines, at what was claimed to be the "World's Largest Porcelain Enamel Specialties Plant.”
Benjamin's products were widely used, found extensively in railroad signs and shops, in gas stations, industry, and elsewhere.
Benjamin also developed early products to light sports fields. Porcelain reflectors can even be found today illuminating signs on the nearby S-Curve underpass.
Benjamin became an integral part of Des Plaines by expanding the plant, which spurred the development of the adjacent Cumberland subdivision. He donated land for Northwest Highway to be built, and pitched in water from their well in an emergency.
Benjamin became the single largest employer of Des Plaines residents between World War I to World War II, with as many as 800 workers at its peak.
By 1950, Benjamin boasted a product line of more than 2,000 items, with a focus on industrial lighting, floodlights, and signal systems. It produced many innovative designs for new fluorescent lights as well as electric socks, signal horns and porcelain chalkboards.
My great grandfather, Thomas Hedley Dobson, began working at Benjamin in about 1926, and his father followed later. He started as an assistant in the receiving room and unpacked parts to be enameled. Later, he became stock clerk, in charge of all stock items, and there met my great grandmother.
One day my great grandfather was offered the foreman position in the plating and finishing department, and, because his wife was pregnant with my grandmother, accepted. While he worked through the depression and war, along with a large portion of the city's residents, by 1947 he could sense changes at the plant.
The founding owners were retiring and being replaced by the younger management of their children. After 25 years, he left the company.
He proved to be wise. Despite the addition of an attractive modern Research Laboratory building designed by Perkins & Will in 1946, the company continued to go downhill. It was sold to Thomas Industries of Louisville in 1959, and in July, 1963, it was shut down in favor of a new plant in Sparta, TN, leaving 570 employees to find other work. Fortunately, O'Hare Airport and its related industries had diversified the local economy enough that the closing's impact was minimized.
In 1962, many vacant acres had been sold off to Littelfuse, which become another major employer as Benjamin was winding down.
Part of the land became a Ford dealership before being added to Littelfuse, all of which now awaits redevelopment.
Des Plaines Chrysler-Plymouth was built on the land at the corner of Seegers Road and Northwest Highway in 1967. In 2004 R.G. Smith Equipment moved in, offering a wide variety of truck equipment.
Portions of the Benjamin plant complex remained standing as recently as 2005. While most of the plant was demolished, three buildings remained in use.
From 1966 to 1996 Frederick (Teledyne) Post manufactured drafting and surveying equipment there. It then became Everflora Chicago's World Flower Center, a wholesale flower distribution center.
In 2005 most of this was demolished to make way for the 84-Unit Concord Commons townhouse subdivision, and the last Benjamin building fell two years later when the second phase of Concord Commons was built.