The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole, local philanthropists whose gifts helped shape the lives of the citizens of Chester, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.
Charles Briggs Cole was born in Chester in 1845. He was the son and grandson of the founders of the local Cole Mill, which used the excellent agricultural crops produced in Randolph County to make several brands of commercial flour. After earning a degree in manufacturing from Harvard University in 1867, Charles returned to Chester to join the family’s business. Under the direction of Charles and his brothers, the H.C. Cole Milling Company became a dynamic, innovative part of Chester’s growing economy.
The Coles built modern infrastructure and acquired new, state-of-the-art technology to improve the firm, including one of the area’s first electric generators. Charles also became a major figure in the local railroad industry, serving as president and general manager of the Wabash, Chester & Western Railroad, which stretched across Randolph County. As a founding director of state and national milling associations, he provided resources to other members of his trade. His leadership also extended into public service, including a term as a member of the Illinois state legislature and a lengthy tenure on Chester’s school board.
In 1869, Charles married Laura Layman, a graduate of Almira College in Greenville. They had four children before her death in 1878. (Charles remarried in 1882; he and his second wife completed the family with a daughter.) Charles and Laura’s eldest daughter, Alice Emily Cole, was born in Chester in 1872; she would go on to become an important companion to her father in his philanthropic efforts. Like her father, Alice received an excellent education, attending the Lasell Seminary for Young Women in Massachusetts.
Near the end of his life, the love of learning that Charles shared with Alice inspired him to make a generous gift to the people of his hometown. In 1927, he financed the construction of a new, modern public library for the town. The Chester Herald-Tribune lauded the gift, declaring that a “city is fortunate indeed, which numbers among its citizens, a man who has a vision to build for the future that which will not pay dividends in dollars and cents, but in education, culture and progress.” The new library was scheduled to open in March 1928, but Charles died of a heart attack before the planned dedication ceremony. Instead, the first public event held in the new building was his funeral service. The library building celebrates its 90th birthday in 2018.
After her father’s death, Alice continued her father’s legacy of philanthropy, helping to complete the family’s library gift. Five years later, she made a major gift of her own, presenting more than 50 acres of land to the city of Chester. The new Cole Memorial Park was dedicated in 1936, and it has become an important part of the lives of the area’s people in the decades since, providing them with a place to play, exercise, and celebrate. Alice remained invested in the park project throughout her life, even serving on the municipal park board. She died in November 1962.
Decades after Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole shared their riches with the citizens of Chester, the people of Randolph County continue to benefit from their generosity. For the Coles, charitable giving was a cornerstone of their family business. A profile of Cole relatives in Alton summed up the family’s philosophy nicely: “privilege carries responsibility, and philanthropy is its own reward.” Charles and Alice lived these ideals by kindly sharing their own prosperity, giving the people of Randolph County the opportunity to enjoy successes of their own.