Colonel Brinton: The mayor, the mansion and the mausoleum

Colonel Brinton’s mansion is now a private residence.

DIXON – On this day, April 19, 1911, one of Dixon’s most beloved mayors took office: William Bradford Brinton.

Although he lived in Dixon only 15 of his 87 years, he left a legacy that has endured for more than a century.

William B. Brinton in his later years.

A diamond in the rough

Born in 1850 in Indiana, he established himself in the small town of Tuscola, Illinois, as an enterprising and hardworking young man of keen intellect. One day, working as a hotel clerk, he so impressed the visiting Charles H. Deere, John Deere’s son, that Deere offered Brinton a job as a traveling salesman for Deere’s Moline Wagon Co.

From 1876 to 1893, William B. Brinton’s sales expertise, inspiring personality and direct communication skills brought him substantial wealth and status, not only in business but in politics, as well. His sales job took him “to almost every city and town” in Illinois, which allowed him to become politically connected throughout the state.

Political prowess

By the late 1880s, Brinton was serving a powerful role on the Democratic State Central Committee, orchestrating the moves of the party throughout the state. Ever the sales professional, he also became friends with leading Republicans wherever he went. It’s likely a Republican governor gave him the honorary title of colonel.

In 1890, the Mattoon Gazette described him as “omnipotent, all-prevailing, everywhere” in his political dealings and influence. “There are some big men in Illinois,” the paper added, “but Brinton has overshadowed all and stands alone.”

In 1893, Brinton left the Moline Wagon Co. when he was appointed by President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, as U.S. marshal for southern Illinois, a political position in law enforcement.

Back to the plow

But when the Democrats lost the White House to McKinley in 1897, Brinton left the U.S. Marshal’s Office and purchased an interest in the Peru Plow and Wheel Co. in La Salle-Peru, becoming its president. Peru Plow then had about 400 employees and was considered one of the largest of its kind in the U.S.

As a confident hard-charging, decision-maker, Colonel Brinton led the company to prosperity. At the same time, Brinton continued his influential role on the Democratic State Central Committee, retaining his post as treasurer, a position he had held since 1887. He also accepted political appointments – from Republican governors – to short-term commissions.

Coming to Dixon

At age 55, Brinton came to Dixon in 1905 after purchasing a controlling interest in the Grand Detour Plow Co., which then employed “several hundred men” at its sprawling 5-acre site in Dement Town, just north of the railroad station.

Brinton quickly became one of Dixon’s leading citizens in civic and political circles. In less than a year, he was elected chairman of the Lee County Democratic Central Committee.

In 1906, he bought the majestic Greek Revival mansion at 217 E. Everett St., which would later be known as the Masonic Temple. The 1860 residence was and is one of the oldest and most impressive in northwestern Illinois.

In addition to its signature 25-foot exterior columns, the home’s interior featured wide hallways of terrazzo flooring, marble stairs, marble drinking fountains, a mahogany room, a club room, a ladies’ parlor and a huge dining hall with a copper-backed music shell, a sprung floor for dancing and an organ loft.

His honor, the mayor

In 1911, after 30 years of political leadership, William Brinton finally allowed his name to be placed on a ballot in a public election. Although he had been here only six years, the citizens of Dixon elected him their mayor.

A drawing of William Brinton, probably etched during his years as Dixon mayor, 1911 to 1915.

Described by the Telegraph as “conservative, careful and conscientious,” he enacted a flurry of projects that upgraded the city’s infrastructure. Seven miles of brick streets were built, along with 1 mile of concrete streets, 2 miles of sewers and an extension of the Sterling-Dixon interurban streetcar line.

Through it all, the city budget stayed in the black with no increase in taxes. Under Brinton, Dixon was hailed as “one of the most hustling up-to-date little cities in the Mississippi valley.”

His crowning achievement was using his political connections to bring the State Epileptic Colony to Dixon (the “State School”) in 1914. The move brought $1.5 million in immediate state funds to build the facilities and infrastructure on more than 1,000 acres, with much more funding and economic activity for decades to come.

The citizenry was amazed. Some old-timers remarked that Brinton accomplished more in those four years than in Dixon’s previous 50 years.

Nonetheless, when his four-year term concluded in 1915, the Colonel chose not to seek reelection, citing growing business commitments.

Brinton’s gubernatorial bid

However, on July 25, 1916, Brinton announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor, opposing the incumbent Democrat, Gov. Edward Dunne of Chicago. The Telegraph, which had always leaned Republican, wholeheartedly supported Brinton’s candidacy, citing his “great ability” and being “one of the best mayors the city ever had.”

Avoiding a mudslinging campaign, Brinton kindly introduced Dunne at a gathering at Dixon’s Assembly Park in August. The entire park was abuzz with compliments for Brinton’s graciousness. The Chicago Tribune later quoted Brinton as graciously wanting to give Dunne “a fair chance.”

However, when all the ballots were finally counted, Brinton commanded only 28% of the statewide vote. His loss was attributed to Dunne’s strong support among labor unions and Brinton’s late entry into the contest – only seven weeks before the election.

Back to the plow

In 1919, the Telegraph publicly urged Brinton to run again for mayor, citing “virtually unanimous demand” for his return. The paper touted his “fearless championship of the city’s interests regardless of his personal interests … and his wide acquaintanceship among men of statewide and nationwide prominence.” But Brinton declined.

A couple of months later, Brinton sold the Grand Detour Plow Co. to the J. I. Case Company of Racine, Wisconsin. At the time, Brinton’s company was said to sell “more tractor plows than any other organization in the world.”

Gone but not forgotten

In 1920, he was considered as a Democratic nominee for U.S. senator from Illinois. But at age 70, he did not run. Instead, the retired executive traveled extensively and moved to Arizona.

But Dixon did not forget Brinton. In 1922, the Dixon City Council voted to change the name of North Crawford Avenue, which ran by his stately home, to Brinton Avenue. Even though Brinton had been out of office for seven years, the petition was signed by “practically every resident on the street.”

And Brinton did not forget Dixon. In 1927, the Brintons graciously donated their impressive mansion to the Dixon Masonic Lodge, where he was one of its 650 members. The home then became known as the “Brinton Memorial Masonic Temple.”

The Brinton family mausoleum, the only private mausoleum at Oakwood Cemetery.

The 77-year-old icon explained his donation, saying, “There comes a time in the life of any man … when he should do something to show his appreciation for the things which that community has done for him.”

He died Dec. 19, 1937, at age 87. Although he had lived only 15 years as a Dixonite, he chose to be buried in Dixon. His body was entombed at the private Brinton mausoleum, the only one of its kind at Oakwood Cemetery.

While few in Dixon today remember William Brinton, we all should know that, at one time, “There were some big men in Illinois, but Brinton overshadowed them all and stood alone.”

  • Dixon native Tom Wadsworth is a writer, speaker and occasional historian. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament.
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