“The odor from the big ditch is one of the many things which the people of the North Ridge are favored with. Those working in the pickle factory do not notice it, as that is where it originates.” Evanston Index, 1874
In the early 1800s, immigrant farmers and wealthy Eastern investors purchased land in northern Illinois after the indigenous Pottawatomie were forced to leave by Indian Removal Act of 1830. The soil was well-suited to growing vegetables, and many small farms grew cucumbers, cabbages, tomatoes, and related crops. The produce was hauled by wagon into Chicago for sale. Ridgeville Township was established in the 1840s, spanning much of the area north of Chicago and named for the ridge of land that provided a natural route through the sometimes marshy region. The town of Evanston was platted by the founders of Northwestern University in 1854, after purchasing a large farm along the lakeshore for their campus and town. As the community was established, one of its first infrastructure projects was to dig the “Big Ditch” north of the ridge, to drain the unusable wetlands.
In the 1860s, William Wiswell and his wife Adelaide were living on the ridge, now Ridge Avenue, between the small communities of Evanston and North Evanston, in an area known as North Ridge. The William H. Wiswell Co. had offices in Chicago, but maintained its pickle factory in Evanston. Small cucumbers were salted or brined in large open vats of vinegar. Some vats were under the roofs of open sheds, while some vats were entirely exposed to the elements. All vats were uncovered to allow for the functioning of the fermentation process. The pickle factory was located on the south side of Noyes Street just west of Ridge Avenue, near the Wiswell home.
About 1855, Henry A. Dingee, a wealthy New York entrepreneur, bought several hundred acres of farmland north of Evanston. Two of his nephews, Squire and Samuel, moved here to manage the property, along with their sister Rebecca and her husband John Gedney Westerfield. Family histories state that a bumper crop of cucumbers in 1858 prompted them to “put some up”, that is, pickle the surplus cucumbers for preservation and later sale.
Pickles were becoming increasingly popular beyond the German immigrant population that historically favored them. In the days before refrigeration pickling was a safe way to preserve and ship vegetables. Responding to the success of their initial foray, the Westerfields founded the Northwestern Pickle Works. Squire and Samuel Dingee founded S. Dingee & Brother. The companies grew, particularly during the Civil War when the demand for pickles increased significantly, as they were a safe and economical way to supply vegetables to the troops.
Sometime in the 1860s Samuel left the pickle business due to ill health. He built a new family home north of Evanston in 1869. He and his brother-in-law J.G. Westerfield would plat and found the town of Wilmette there in 1872. His house still stands at 926 Lake in Wilmette and is a local landmark.
J. G. Westerfield left the business in the late 1870s. Squire Dingee moved further south and west to Bowmanville. Samuel recovered his health and decided to get back into the pickle business. In 1875, he purchased William Wiswell’s factory on Noyes and Ridge and established the S.M. Dingee Co., later known as S. M. Dingee & Son. The company passed to his son Samuel S. Dingee and eventually to the youngest, William Wiswell Dingee, a name that indicates there may have been a further connection between the two families.
The S. M. Dingee factory prospered and in the 1880s was processing 60,000 thousand bushels of pickles a year. Business was so good that in 1890 they built a new, larger factory just west of the train tracks and north of Emerson Street, on Ashland and Foster streets. It was designed by Evanston architect Stephen A. Jennings. The Evanston Index described it in enthusiastic detail:
“Among the many new buildings now in process of erection in Evanston, by far the largest is the factory of S.M. Dingee & Son, on the prairie west of the Montrose branch of the Northwestern road and north of Emerson Street. The simple fact that the plant covers an area of 170 x 400 feet gives an idea of the magnitude of the enterprise…”
The new plant was much more substantial and included a large brick office building. The article described the size and construction of all of the buildings, including a vinegar production facility, 66 salting tanks, 42 processing tanks for the various types of pickles, and a cooperage for the barrels in which the pickles were shipped. This new expanded factory employed “two to three times as many hands” as the old one.
The Chicago and Northwestern railway had come through Evanston in 1854, but in 1887 they added the Montrose spur, or Mayfair cut off, to handle freight trains apart from the increasing passenger traffic. The new pickle factory was strategically located next to this freight railroad spur, with a switch back railroad siding for loading the freight cars directly at the factory. This spur was decommissioned in the 1960s and demolished in the 1980s.
To supply the cucumbers for the pickles, over 400 acres of nearby farmland were put under contract. S. M. Dingee supplied the seed and the farmers delivered the cucumbers to the Evanston factory in wagons. Cook and McHenry counties lead the country in pickle manufacturing in the 1880s. Pickling was a laborious process, with large open vats of brine, or saltwater, used to soak the cucumbers, which would then be transferred to processing vats for dill and sour flavoring. A number of related products were also produced, including horseradish, sauerkraut and chow-chow, a pickled relish.
The new factory prospered until the Great Pickle Blight of 1914. A combination of insect-borne disease and lack of crop diversity essentially wiped out pickle production in Cook County. The Dingee factory closed and relocated to Wisconsin. The factory building was purchased by the Chapell Ice Cream manufactory about 1921. By the early 2000s, the site had fallen into disuse. After environmental remediation, the Emerson Square affordable housing complex was built and opened in 2013.
The Evanston History Center is happy to partner with the Evanston RoundTable to share the insights that our expansive collection of Evanston history provides. Public records, newspapers, letters, maps, photographs, and artifacts all carry messages from the past to inform our lives today. The differences and changes can be compelling, disconcerting, educational, but always fascinating and often downright funny.
Since history looks at the past but also influences the future, and today will be history tomorrow, we have titled this column “Dimensions.” We are living in a historic time, and you can help us tell future generations what it was like. We are located in the National Historic Landmark Charles Gates Dawes House at 225 Greenwood Street. Please visit our website, evanstonhistorycenter.org, to learn more about how you can participate and contribute to the collection.
What are you curious about in Evanston history? Let us know what you’ve wondered about! Send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eden Juron Pearlman, Executive Director