Elgin, Illinois is a city of approximately 110,000 people located northwest of Chicago on the Fox River. The city was founded in 1835 after Native Americans who had been living in the area for centuries had been forced to leave their ancestral lands following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Its subsequent history is uneventful, although it is considered to be an educational center for the area, and the city can count themselves among the fastest growing cities in the United States. It is also home of the Elgin Watch Company, known in particular for its pocket watches, which are highly regarded by watch collectors. Yet, it must come as a surprise to some that Elgin did in fact have a commemorative coin issued for the city, a reminder of the 1936 Commemorative coin craze, boom, and subsequent bust.
The city of Elgin celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1935. As part of the celebrations, local sculptor Trygve A. Rovelstad came up with the idea to erect a statue commemorating the first pioneers who came to the area. Funds for the statue, however, were difficult to acquire, and Rovelstad sought other ways to come up with the money that would allow him to erect such a statue. Commemorative coins were issued all over the country in the mid 1930s, and Rovelstad thought that it might be an excellent idea to issue a commemorative coin to be sold at a premium over face value, the surplus which would be used for funding his desired statue, named the Pioneer Memorial.
A bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on May 27, 1935 which called for a commemorative coin, the profits of which would be used by the Elgin Centennial Monumental Committee in “furtherance of the erecting of the Pioneer Memorial.” Initially, the bill failed to pass, however, Rovelstad would find surprising help in the form of L.W. Hoffecker, an El Paso businessman who had been responsible for the Spanish Trail Commemorative. Hoffecker had personally promoted his commemorative coin to President Roosevelt, and he planned to do the same for the Elgin Centennial Half Dollar.
Hoffecker had managed to convince Rovelstad to leave the distribution up to him, even though El Paso was quite far from Elgin, and the men expected to have 10,000 coins struck. When the Act of June 16, 1936, over a year after the bill was first introduced in Congress passed, 25,000 coins were authorized. This was the customary number at the time, meant to avoid speculation and a crazy after-market for commemorative coins, which was always looming. The coins were all struck at the Philadelphia Mint and offered to the public for $1.50 each.
Rovelstad, who had personally designed the memorial, also designed the coins. On the obverse is the head of a pioneer facing left, a detail from the leftmost figure in the memorial, which is found on the reverse. The figure is a bearded, rough individual wearing a fur cap, perhaps an idealized version of the pioneers. The word Pioneer is along the top portion of the rim. The head is flanked by the motto IN GOD WE/TRUST. Below the bust are the dual dates 1673 and 1936, a rather odd choice, as Elgin was founded in 1835 and celebrated its centennial in 1935. The 1936 date refers to the year the coins were minted, thanks to the time it took Congress to pass the bill authorizing the issuance of these coins. The 1673 date is more odd, and refers to the year that French explorers Joliet and Marquette first entered the territory as part of a French exploration, leaving nothing behind but making the world aware of that part of the world that would later become Illinois.
The reverse, as mentioned, shows the memorial that was to be erected in Elgin. Five individuals are seen, three men and a woman with a baby in her hands. The scene is not very detailed, to the extent that the baby has no face, and it’s not exactly clear what the people are doing. Above the group, widely spaced is the word LIBERTY, and above that is UNITED·STATES·OF·AMERICA. In the left field is PIONEER/MEMORIAL, and in the right field is ELGIN/ILLINOIS. Below the ground, slightly curved is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, and below that is HALF ·DOLLAR.
Sales of the issue were extremely poor. The coins were not struck until October of 1936, by which time the commemorative boom had gone bust, and few people were willing to pay a $1 premium for a half dollar when some commemoratives had become worth not much more than face value. A quantity of 5,000 pieces were eventually returned to the Philadelphia Mint to be melted, leaving a net mintage of 20,000 coins.
The Elgin Commemorative Half Dollar is now considered to be among the most common of all classic commemoratives, and most of the mintage is thought to still exist in uncirculated grades, with grades up to MS-66 easily acquired. MS-67 pieces are scarcer and in demand from commemorative type collectors, as are the handful of MS-68s that have been graded by the major grading services. Toned coins are not as common as some of the other issues, and truly spectacular toned coins are not easily found. Most tend to have satin luster with white fields.
The memorial that the coins were created for in the first place took some time to be erected. Despite efforts by Trygve Rovelstad and his wife Gloria Rovelstad the funds were never sufficient. It would take until 2001, over six decades after the commemoratives were issued and eleven years after Trygve Rovelstad passed away that the Pioneer Memorial was finally erected in Elgin, Illinois. The Pioneer Family Memorial now stands on the shore of the Fox River in downtown Elgin, never seen by its creator, but an important landmark for the city.