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Rock Falls Mfg. Co.
Rock Falls Manufacturing Company, 1869-1883; Rock Falls, Illinois; 1883-1925; Sterling, Illinois 
Associated Builders
Keystone Burial Case Co., 1874-1877; Sterling Burial Case Co., 1873-1877; Sterling Hearse & Carriage Co., 1890-1900; Sterling, Illinois

Two famous hearse and carriage manufacturers, the Eureka Manufacturing Company and the Rock Falls Manufacturing Company - the subject of this biography - can trace their roots to a single individual, Thomas A. Galt.

Thomas Alexander Galt was born in East Earl Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on January 13, 1828 to William and Mary Ann (Thomas) Galt.

Galt was educated at a roadside country school located near the family’s farm, and following the sudden death of his father in 1842, Galt left home to become a clerk in Concord, Pennsylvania, after which he was employed as a salesman in Strasburg, Pennsylvania between 1845 and 1847. In 1848 he spent a year in Philadelphia with a wholesale dry goods establishment, then returned to Strasburg and purchased the business of his old employer.

After six years in the enterprise, he decided to relocate to Sterling, Illinois where he became a partner with David M. Crawford in a hardware store, organized in 1855 as Galt & Crawford. After two years he bought out Crawford’s share in the firm and brought in his brother, John M. Galt, renaming the firm, Thomas A. Galt & Brother est. 1857. Soon afterwards, Galt started to produce farm implements on a small scale, and in 1862 he decided to concentrate on manufacturing farm equipment and disposed of the hardware store.

In 1863 he became associated with George S. Tracy (sometimes listed as Tracey), the owner of a successful Sterling planing mill, as Galt & Tracy in order to manufacture farm machinery on a much larger scale.

The firm’s Keystone Corn Planter was well received, but tragedy struck in the spring of 1867 when a fire destroyed their factory causing a $30,000 loss. Although the firm continued the operations in a temporary facility, they elected to relocate their new factory in the neighboring town of Rock Falls, on land purchased from Rock Falls founder A.P. Smith. At the time water-powered machinery was in its infancy, and the new plant was an early adopter of the new technology.

Galt & Tracy was reorganized in 1870 as the Keystone Manufacturing Company, with a capital stock of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars and officers as follows; Thomas A. Galt, president and treasurer; George S. Tracy, vice president; and J.B. Patterson, secretary. Later that year the same group formed the Sterling Manufacturing Company in order to compete in the expanding field of sashes, doors and other millwork.

By 1881 Keystone’s Combined Corn Husker & Fodder Shredder, Hay Loader and “Victor” brand Disc Harrow were the firm’s best-selling products and to provide better service to their customers in the west, they established a satellite office and wareroom in Council Bluffs, Iowa at 1501-1507 South Main St.

Keystone participated in the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago, Illinois where they exhibited the following products; hay loader, corn planter, disc seeder, disc harrow, power corn sheller, corn drill and corn husker.

Although Keystone was Rock Falls’ largest employer, with over 400 hands, by 1903 they had been forced into bankruptcy and taken over by a group of investors headed by Eugene K. Butler and his nephew, Henry B. Utley, Keystone’s manager. Two years later, the National Harvester Company of Chicago purchased the former Keystone works for $340,000 in stock.  Utley would eventually become vice president of the International Harvester Company as it would later be known.

The subject of this biography, the Rock Falls Manufacturing Company, was formed by Galt and another influential Whiteside county resident, Augustus P. Smith (b. Feb 2, 1831 – d. October 1, 1895).

Smith was born February 2, 1831 in Cobleskill, New York and in 1848 moved to New York City to seek his fortune, relocating first to Cherry Valley and finally to Gloversville, New York in 1852 where he found employment in the region’s booming leather glove business. He married Elvira J. Champlin in 1855 and the newlyweds relocated to Sterling, Illinois a year later.

In 1849 the Sterling Hydraulic Company was organized to study the feasibility of producing water power and improving the navigation of the aptly-named Rock River. Work on the resulting 1000’x 15’ dam commenced in 1854 and the $7,000 project was completed in September, 1856. The availability water power prompted Augustus Smith to envision the manufacturing-based community of Rock Falls.

Initially accessible only by boat, the north and south banks had been joined in 1857 by a wooden bridge that had been destroyed by a flood. In 1863 the Sterling Bridge Company constructed a $30,000 toll bridge upstream of Sterling at the east end of Picnic Island.

It wasn’t until 1878 that the community-financed First Avenue free bridge was built joining Rock Falls and Sterling at their respective city centers.

In 1867 Smith made arrangements with the Sterling Hydraulic Company’s president, W.A. Sanborn, to provide his new settlement with water power via a raceway from the Rock River dam.

By January of 1868 Smith had acquired options on 65 acres for the development from Sanborn and others and registered the project at the county clerk’s office. Smith christened the new town Rock Falls and on March 15, 1868, the new community’s post office began operation.

As previously mentioned, the firm of Galt & Tracy had been destroyed by fire in the spring of 1867, and as they were eager to rebuild, they became the first industrial residents of Rock Falls. In 1869 A.P. Smith had established a small glove manufacturing enterprise of his own on East Third Street just off First Avenue. In 1870 Galt & Tracy was reorganized as the Keystone Manufacturing Company.

In the fall of 1869 Galt, Smith and James A. Patterson organized an entirely separate firm, the Rock Falls Manufacturing Company, in order to manufacture “cotton, woolen and flax goods, agricultural and mechanical implements, and any other thing.” The firm was incorporated with a capital stock of $50,000 and plans begun for construction of a new factory to be built on the south shore of the Rock River in Rock Falls.

A third Galt-controlled firm, entirely separate from the previous two, was organized at about the same time. Established to build school furniture, it was initially called Galt, Bunn & Co., after its two main investors, Thomas A. Galt and Dr. M.A. Bunn, a local dentist. The firm was soon reorganized as the Eureka Manufacturing Company, with Thomas A. Galt, John M. Galt, Dr. M.A. Bunn, Alexander McCloy and George S. Tracy as incorporators and with the following officials; John M. Galt, president and treasurer; Dr. M.A. Bunn, vice president; John G. Crawford, secretary; and Alexander McCloy manager.

Smith and Galt would later join forces once again in the organization of the Chicago & Rock River Railroad with A.P. Smith, vice president and both Smith and Galt as directors (Galt was erroneously listed as S.A. Galt).

The history of Eureka can be accessed by visiting the Eureka page by clicking here. The Rock Falls story continues below.

Louis Edwin Brookfield was born in Coleta, Genesee Township, Whiteside County, Illinois on June 5, 1860 to Ephraim and Harriet (Yager) Brookfield. Ephraim (d. January 10, 1876) was originally born in Genesee County, New York, and for many years had operated a general store in Coleta, before relocating to Sterling in 1874 where he established the community’s first bank. Louis was a graduate of Sterling’s noted Edward Seminary and had planned on attending college, however his father’s health began to fail soon after the move to Sterling and when he passed away on January 10, 1876, he was forced to sort out his father’s banking and business interests.

Louis soon discovered that he was now the major stockholder in the Keystone Burial Case Company, a firm organized in 1874 which was now facing insolvency. Rather than write off the loss, young Louis decided to take over the firm and with the help of a number of local businessmen he returned the casket manufacturing firm to prosperity.

Another local casket maker, the Sterling Burial Case Manufacturing Company, organized in 1873 with $40,000, was also facing insolvency, so Brookfield took over its assets and at the invitation of A.P Smith relocated both firms to Rock Falls in August 1877. Thomas A. Galt and A.P. Smith offered to underwrite the move, so Brookfield merged his casket works into Galt & Smith’s Rock Falls Manufacturing Company a dormant firm they had organized eight years previously (March 29, 1869). Under the direction of Brookfield the revitalized firm prospered and became well known for their well-built coffins and burial cases.

In 1883 Brookfield decided to enter into the manufacture of hearses and carriages and as the railroad hadn’t yet expanded to Rock Falls, a decision was made to move back to Sterling. The existing casket business moved into the 27,000 sq. ft. three-story brick Keystone Block, the former location of Witmer & Patterson’s general store. Directly across the street, another 27,000 sq. ft. building, dating from 1855, was acquired in order to establish the firm’s new hearses and carriage manufactory.

In 1884 Brookfield constructed the Brookfield Block on Main Street in Rock Falls for $10,000. The commercial structure contained three stores - one for hardware, one for dry goods, boots and shoes and one for a restaurant. Two years earlier, on September 15, 1882, he married Miss Helen J. Galt, daughter of Thomas A. and Catherine (Anthony) Galt, of Sterling. Their first daughter, Emily C. was born on June 14, 1883.

By 1888 Rock Falls Mfg. had outgrown its existing Third Ave plant, so a new structure was erected at the southwest corner of East Third St. and Third Ave. In 1890 Brookfield created a new firm, the Sterling Hearse & Carriage Company, in an attempt to create a new line of upscale vehicles. Both Rock Falls and Sterling branded vehicles were exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

The December, 1893 issue of the Hub included the following review of the Rock Falls exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair):

“The Rock Falls Manufacturing Company of Sterling, Illinois exhibit five hearses and funeral cars, the prices for which range from $400 to $2,000. The most noticeable is the World’s Fair Car. It has a square body, with richly carved square corner pillars, and a rich hammercloth seat, and very fine silver mounted lamps. The roof is ornamented with four corner and one central urn, richly carved. The interior was fitted up with mahogany and heavy black cloth drapery, worsted fringe and tassels. The mountings are silver, oxidized. It is a neat and attractive vehicle.

“The ‘Sterling’ is another very attractive car, neat in all its details and rich and attractive in appearance. It is made up with the same care as evidenced on the World’s Fair Car, and though apparently massive, it is but little, if any, heavier than the regular hearse.

“A third is a ‘combined funeral car and hearse,’ having round ends, heavy corner pillars and sliding front doors. The drapery is of heavy black broadcloth, edged with heavy gold fringe; the mountings are gold. Their ‘imitation funeral car’ and square end hearse complete the exhibit, which as a hearse exhibit, has much to commend it, as all the vehicles, whether of the highest price or of more moderate, are well made and serviceable.”

In 1895 another building was constructed adjacent to the 1888 structure. In 1883 only twenty-five hearses were sold but by 1896 that number had climbed to over 200, with Rock Falls Mfg.’s total sales exceeding $250,000, hearse, carriages and caskets combined.

The 1897 Illinois State Attorney General’s report continued to list two separate firms;

Sterling Hearse and Carriage, manufacturer of hearses and carriages, 20 employees and Rock Falls Mfg., manufacturer of burial caskets, 41 employees.

Brookfield’s political allegiance was given to the Republican Party and in 1898 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the US Congress. Unfortunately Lewis E. Brookfield suffered a devastating stoke in the summer of 1899 which resulted in a partial paralysis. Despite a doctor-ordered relocation to Pasadena, California Brookfield grew gradually weaker and weaker, finally succumbing to the stroke on January 1st, 1900. A telegram was received the following morning by his father-in-law and business partner, Thomas A. Galt, announcing the sad news. Brookfield was only 39 years old.

Unfortunately Brookfield had run Rock Falls’ as a one-man-show, serving as president, treasurer and secretary, and no candidates from inside the firm were deemed qualified to run it. As Brookfield’s 7-year-old son, Edwin Galt Brookfield (b. Sep 11, 1892 – d. April 1969), was far too young to enter into business, Thomas A. Galt, his father-in-law and business partner, took over the firm with the assistance of C.E. Bensinger, Rock Falls’ assistant treasurer and W.A. Roe, its superintendent, until a suitable successor was located.

A Chicago native named Chauncey R. Hardy (d. 1931) was eventually hired to take control of the firm, and he was elected president of the firm at the next board meeting. The directors decided to dissolve the Sterling Hearse and Carriage Mfg. Co. whose product line was incorporated into that of Rock Falls Mfg.

Amos Daveler and E.C. Stewart, two Rock Falls wood carvers, were awarded medals for their work on a magnificent funeral car that the firm had on exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair (Louisiana Purchase Exposition). Hardy successfully brought the firm into the Motor Age and in 1907 married Emily C. Brookfield, the eldest daughter of the late Lewis E. Brookfield.

The May 16, 1905 issue of the Iowa City Daily Press including the following:

“A Superb Exhibit

“Rock Falls Manufacturing Co., of Sterling, Ill., Scores at Funeral Directors’ Convention

“A representative of The Press visited Smith’s armory today, and viewed the superb exhibit at the Funeral Director’s State convention of the Rock Falls Manufacturing Co., of Sterling, Ill.

“As Mayor George W. Ball truly said, the impressiveness and beauty of modern undertaking paraphernalia rob death of its terrors, and make such a display alluring, rather than repellant.

“There was truly a handsome array of caskets, robes, funeral cars and the like. The beauty of the Rock Falls Mfg. Co.’s designs; the artistic conceptions; the tasteful elegance of the one hundred and one appurtenances of a modern funeral shown by that company take away fro death and the grave their horror, and replace it with a sense of sacredness and even attractiveness.

“The Press has never seen the equal of the Rock Falls Mfg. Co.’s display. The representative of this paper also had the pleasure of meeting H.H. Hendryx and A.H. Howard, who are in charge of the exhibit, and General Superintendent W.A. Roe, of the company.”

The September, 1912 issue of Carriage Monthly included the following:

“The Rock Falls Mfg. Co., Sterling, Illinois, has just completed three electric ambulances for the Illinois Steel Co., which are among the first of their kind showing side door for the attendant and patient. This was accomplished by making the front door a sliding door and is expedient, due to the short wheelbase in an electric chassis.

“The ambulances are complete in every respect. They have facilities for taking care of three patients at one time when necessary. The attendant’s seat is so arranged as to be converted into a cot when required.  There is a complete electric lighting system, operated by a push button at the driver’s seat.

“Special attention has been paid to the details of the hardware; the window sashes are of an improved style and particular attention has been paid to the elimination of rattling. The lower half of the ambulance is finished in dark gray and the upper half in a lighter shade of the same color.”

Another three electric ambulances were sold to the United States Steel Corporation's Mills at Gary, Indiana; South Chicago, Illinois; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Due to the dangers of steel production US Steel maintained small clinics at each of their three main foundries. The Rock Falls electric COE-style ambulances continued into production through 1914.

After his graduation from Lake Forest University, Edwin Galt Brookfield, joined the family business and married Ethel Roberts of Janesville, Wisconsin in September of 1913.

For 1915 Rock Falls turned to Velie for the chassis of their more expensive vehicles, although their own assembled chassis was still available. They also adopted the brand-new limousine style for some of their funeral cars.

Starting in 1915 Velie offered a purpose-built ambulance/hearse chassis equipped with a 6-cylinder side-valve Continental engine, and Rock Falls made it the basis of their premium-priced funeral vehicles.

The March 12, 1916 issue of Automotive Industries reported:

“Brookfield, Rock Falls President

“E. Galt Brookfield was elected president of the Rock Falls Manufacturing Co., this city at a meeting of the board of directors this week succeeding C.R. Hardy, resigned. The new president has been connected with the sales department for many years and is the son of the founder of the firm.”

By 1917 Rock Falls’ limousine style coaches had become more popular but they continued to offer conservative-styled carved-panel models with unsightly oversized carriage lamps. 1917 and 1918 Rock Falls limousine-style coaches included leaded glass panels located under the roofline that gave them a high-top look very much like coaches offered by Meteor.

In 1918 Rock Falls introduced a 7-passenger undertaker's limousine. Built on their 135" assembled chassis, the 52hp Buda six-cylinder engine featured a gasoline tank mounted under the left frame rail, whose filler cap and gas gauge protruded through the floorboard underneath the driver's feet. This new vehicle was engineered by W.H. Thomas and marketed to larger undertakers as a companion to the Rock Falls hearses, and was built through 1925 with various Continental 6-cylinder engines.

For 1920 Rock Falls introduced a new limousine-style ambulance with a new side-entrance and a leaded-window treatment that would remain popular for the next 15 years. A new carved-panel hearse appeared which featured etched beveled-glass panels mounted above shorter carved drapery panels. Their 1920 pallbearer's coach featured a new lower roof-line and a modern style that matched Rock Falls other professional car lineup. 

A 1½ ton truck was also manufactured between 1920 and 1923, but most of the vehicles built by Rock Falls during the early twenties continued to be purchased by funeral directors and hospitals. Their premium priced Velie-based funeral vehicles continued to be offered, priced approximately $1,000 more than their own assembled coaches.

According to Bernie DeWinter IV:

“One feature this firm had was unique, and that was its casket fastening device. Unlike other hearse builders, Rock Falls had an elaborate design that consisted of 4 bier pins that were connected to each other through an under-floor mechanism, activated by a hand crank under the rear door sill. Turning the crank tightened the bier pins around the casket, and it appeared to center the casket in the process; as each pin traveled diagonally in a track towards the center of the table.”

The October 29, 1923 issue of the Sheboygan Press (Wisconsin) included the following:

“New City Ambulance Is the Last Word In a Comfort Car.

“The city’s new ambulance is here, and it is a classy affair.

“Schneidewind & Zehms, Sheboygan automobile dealers, delivered it Saturday afternoon. I had a pretty rough trip from Rock Falls to this city, and it had to have a bather before arriving here. Ernest Zehms of the Schneidewind & Zehms company, and Joe Bentz, who will drive the car, went down after it.

“The ambulance is completely equipped. The interior contains a steel moveable cot on rollers. There are two comfortable side seats for those accompanying persons taken in the ambulance. Two cabinets are provided for carrying first aid materials. The car is automatically heated by the motor of the engine and an even temperature is maintained as the result of a thermometer installed for that purpose. An electric fan is provided for use in cases where necessary. A speaking tube is installed for use in giving instructions to the driver. The inside is finished in oak.

“The exterior of the car is finished in white and black, the lower half being white, and the black finishing is above the windows, which are about a foot and a half from the top and are longer than they are deep. Red Crosses are painted in each window.

“On each side of the car is the gold lettering: “City Ambulance,” and a panel with the word “Sheboygan” in raised letters on it is fastened to each door.

“The car has a Red Seal Continental six-cylinder motor, having a safety speed of sixty miles an hour. A police alarm bell is attached to the right front side of it. Westinghouse shock absorbers on the car make it an especially comfortable one in which to ride. This is a special feature of the ambulance.

“The car was purchased from the Rock Falls Manufacturing company of Rock Falls, Ill., through Schneidewind & Zehms of this city, at $5,000.

“The police patrol wagon, which has in the past been used both as a patrol and ambulance, will now be used for patrol work only.”

Rock Falls president, E. Galt Brookfield, was also an investor in the short-lived 1923 Crossland Steam Car whose four examples were purportedly built at the Rock Falls Manufacturing facility.

In 1921 Harry Crossland Pfaff, an engineer whose credits included stints with Ford, GM and Maxwell, began development of a 2-cylinder steam-powered automobile engine which powered the Crossland automobile, which debuted at Chicago’s Congress Hotel during the January 1923 Chicago Automobile Show.

The Crossland was financed in large part by Edwin Galt Brookfield, who helped organize the Crossland Steam Motive Corp. of Chicago in order to produce it. At the Chicago press conference Pfaff boasted that car could operate for 500 miles on a single tank of kerosene, 800 miles per tank of water. The attractive touring car garner lots of attention, but few orders, and only four examples are though to have been built. A single 1923 Crossland Phaeton is known to have survived.

The financial drain of the failed Crossland Steamer ultimately took its toll on Brookfield’s finances and by mid-1925 Rock Falls Manufacturing closed its doors. Some of the firm’s assets were acquired by its neighboring cousin Eureka and Edwin Galt Brookfield and family moved into his family’s winter home in Pasadena, California.

The factory was put up for sale and was later purchased by the city of Sterling for $25,000 in order to provide a building site for the new Sterling Coliseum which was dedicated on May 8, 1931.

A number of Rock Falls vehicles are known to exist. A restored 1884 hearse resides at the Marsh Funeral Home in Luckey, Ohio, and a restored 1921 Carved-panel hearse is on display at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas.

© 2004 Mark Theobald - with special thanks to Bernie De Winter IV and Thomas A. McPherson






William W. Davis - History of Whiteside County, Illinois from its earliest settlement to 1908: illustrated, with biographical sketches of some prominent citizens of the county - Chicago: The Pioneer Publishing Co. 1908

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Thomas A. McPherson - American Funeral Cars & Ambulances Since 1900

Carriage Museum of America - Horse-Drawn Funeral Vehicles: 19th Century Funerals

Carriage Museum of America -  Horse Drawn - Military, Civilian, Veterinary - Ambulances

Walt McCall & Tom McPherson - Classic American Ambulances 1900-1979: Photo Archive

Walt McCall & Tom McPherson - Classic American Funeral Vehicles 1900-1980 Photo Archive

Walter M. P. McCall - The American Ambulance 1900-2002

Walter M.P. McCall - American Funeral Vehicles 1883-2003

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