Entrepreneurs, innovators, and philanthropists, Charles Briggs Cole and his daughter, Alice Emily Cole, recognized the benefit of sharing their wealth to enhance the lives of the people of Chester and Randolph County.
Charles Briggs Cole was born in Chester in May 1845. He was the eldest of six children born to Hermon Camp Cole and his first wife, Emily Cocks. The Cole family was originally from New York, and Charles’s ancestors include Revolutionary War soldiers and Mayflower passengers. But in 1820, Charles’s grandfather, Nathan Cole, decided to head for the frontier, moving with his wife and sons to St. Louis. In 1837, Nathan purchased a large amount of land in Randolph County, Illinois, and two years later, he established a flour mill near the Mississippi River. Nathan died in 1840, and Charles’s father took over the milling business.
Hermon Cole kept the family’s milling business afloat in the years after his father’s death, finally turning a profit in the late 1840s. In 1855, he was able to construct a new, more modern mill, and the business flourished as a result. Hermon used his improved equipment and the fertile crops grown in the county to take his milling enterprise to even greater heights. George Washington Smith’s 1912 History of Southern Illinois explains, “With the new mill and the splendid wheat raised in the vicinity of Chester, he determined to make the best winter-wheat flour that good machinery and skill could,” and he succeeded.
Charles was destined from an early age to take a major role in the family business, and his education was designed to prepare him for his future with the company. After attending public schools in the Chester area, he headed east. In 1864, Charles enrolled as a student in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University. He graduated in 1867 with a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing, and he wasted no time in returning to Chester to begin putting what he had learned into practice. In 1868, at the age of 23, Charles joined his father and brother as a partner in the milling firm, which was renamed H.C. Cole & Company.
As he joined the family business, Charles’s own family also expanded. In the late 1860s, a family connection helped Charles meet the woman who would become his first wife. A cousin, Clementine Cole, was a student at Almira College in Greenville. She graduated in 1866 alongside Laura Amelia Layman, a young woman from Tennessee. Charles and Laura fell in love and married in 1869 in Montgomery County. The couple settled in Chester, where Charles continued his work with the family milling business. They had four children — Burt, Alice, Una, and Edna — before Laura’s death in 1878 at the age of 31. Four years after her death, Charles traveled to New Hampshire, where he married his second wife, Mary Ellen Palmer. They returned to Chester, where she gave birth to a daughter, Marion, in late 1882.
As Charles experienced both love and loss within his family, his professional life continued on an upward track. In 1874, Charles’s father had retired to the Alton area, where he died in 1875. Charles and two of his brothers, Zachary and Henry, took over the business, modernizing and constructing a new mill and new elevators. The company produced various brands of flour under brand names like Omega, FFFG, Sancho Panza, and Coles Mill Extra. By 1888, the business was officially incorporated as the H.C. Cole Milling Company, with Charles serving as secretary and treasurer of the firm. The mill was a crucial part of the growing town’s economy, and the brothers continued to bring new innovations to the building, including one of the area’s first electric generators.
In 1876, Charles turned to another enterprise to help improve the shipping and transportation of the family’s flour products, which were sent as far as Boston and New Orleans. He was appointed receiver of the Iron Mountain, Chester & Eastern Railroad, which ran from Chester through the southern part of Randolph County, with stops in Steeleville and Percy, and then into Perry County, passing through Pinckneyville before ending in Tamaroa. Significant conflict over the ownership of the railway had been brewing for some time, and according to a Chester-based correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, the people of Randolph County were overjoyed when Charles was appointed: “Upon receipt of the news of the appointment of C.B. Cole as Receiver, the Steeleville people demonstrated hugely; the Stars and Stripes were at once flung to the breeze, anvils fired, and bonfires built in honor of the change of management. At Chester a similar demonstration was contemplated, but prudence dictated wiser action, and our people bottled up their joy for the present, at least.” Charles was part of the group that bought the railroad in 1878 and reorganized it as the Wabash, Chester & Western Railroad. Charles became the vice-president and general manager of the company, which eventually owned track that extended from Chester to Mount Vernon, covering about 65 miles in total. He was later promoted to president of the railway, which operated until 1927, when it was purchased by one of the operators of the Pyramid Mine in Perry County and reorganized once more.
Charles was also a pioneer in two organizations that worked to provided resources for millers from across the state and throughout the country. He served as president of the National Millers’ Association, a non-profit trade association for the industry. Additionally, he was a founding director of the Millers’ Mutual Fire Insurance Association of Illinois. In 1927, as the insurance association celebrated its 50th anniversary, Charles was singled out with a special honor: the board of directors revealed that “a resolution in appreciation of his golden anniversary of service had been prepared by a special committee.” He received a golden pencil as “a souvenir of appreciation by fellow officers,” and an Alton reporter noted, “The recipient of the honor, a man active and alert despite more than four score years, made a graceful response and in a short address discussed the founding of the millers’ mutual companies of which the local mutual firm was the second in the country.”
For Charles, having a full and varied career in business wasn’t enough to fulfill his need to be an active member of his community. He also sought out leadership positions at the county and state level. An 1894 biographical sketch notes that he was a “conspicuous figure in public and political life of the town and county for many years, and was elected to the Legislature on the Democratic ticket in 1886. As a member of various important committees while in the Lower House he was instrumental in bringing about much needed legislation to protect and advance the interests of the state and people.” Cole used his prominent status to advocate for Chester and Randolph County at the state level; in 1877, he was one of several Chester citizens who successfully lobbied for a new penitentiary to be built in the city. The Southern Illinois Penitentiary, now Menard Correctional Center, opened in March 1878. A lifelong interest in education also led him to serve for more than a decade on Chester’s school board. Charles even caught the eye of local cartoonist Elzie Segar, who immortalized him as “Cole Oyl,” father of Olive, in his Popeye comics.
Near the end of his life, Charles focused even more keenly on ways that he could use his fortune and influence to improve the lives of his fellow citizens through educational pursuits. The Chester Herald-Tribune reported that he had his eye on one project in particular: “He was always interested in bringing to Chester industries and civic improvements, his one greatest ambition being that Chester should have a magnificent library. One of his greatest delights was reading, and he spent hours among his books of the finest literature.” The paper observed 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.”
Chester’s community library, one of the oldest in the area, was founded in 1891 as the Tecumseh Public Library. In January 1927, Charles surprised the citizens of Chester by offering a generous gift: a large sum of money to construct a brand-new home for the library. The Daily Independent reported, “At the Chamber of Commerce banquet at the Royal Hotel a wonderful surprise was given the members and their friends assembled by the Hon. C.B. Cole, when he announced that he would build a library building to house the city library. Mr. Cole announced further that he had secured an option on the James Morrison property on Sparta Street [now State Street] and that he already has plans drawn for the building.” Charles’s plans were designed to provide the people of Chester with a state-of-the-art public library facility. “Mr. Cole asks that the citizens buy the Morrison property and that the city provide for the maintenance of the building and grounds and he will build the building and equip it. Although the cost of the building is not stated, it is estimated that it will cost between $40,000 and $50,000. The building is to be completely equipped with shelving, reading tables, and heating apparatus,” the Daily Independent added.
The generous gift attracted notice from other parts of the state. The Alton Evening Telegraph considered it a positive sign of a trend of philanthropic donations designed to improve communities. “The gift by Mr. Cole to his home city,” they noted, “is another bit of evidence of a growing interest in their home cities by men of wealth and a realization of responsibilities resting on them. Municipalities cannot raise enough money by taxation to provide much needed institutions and the only way open to achieve them is for people who have the means to make liberal gifts for the benefit of the public. Scarcely a day passes without some widespread announcement being made of a large gift by some wealthy person of money to found or to aid some institution. Big fortunes, which formerly were regarded by some demagogues as affording justification for attacking their possessors, are being regarded in an entirely different light, as more and more instances accumulate of these fortunes being used to public advantage.”
The new library took about a year to complete, and Charles, who traveled each winter with his eldest daughter, Alice, was prepared to return to Chester in time for a dedication ceremony for the new building. However, shortly after the pair made their way back to Chester, Charles suffered a heart attack. He died on March 13, 1928, at the age of 82. Instead of a celebratory dedication, the first event held at the new library was Charles’s public funeral service. In his eulogy, Dr. Frederick Roberts of Chester remarked, “There is a very impressive, if somewhat melancholy, sense of fitness to the holding of these services in this particular building — the building that will always stand as a beautiful tribute as well as lasting contribution on its part to the cultural forces … of this community. A feeling of regret and disappointment overtook most of us last Tuesday when the news of his passing was brought to us, in that he was not permitted to witness the formal opening and public dedication of this wonderful gift of his to the city of Chester.”
But, Roberts added, “I am wondering if, after all, our God does not know how to do things better, and in an infinitely more impressive manner than the best plans of men provide for. What a splendid thing it will be for the future generations of this city — the sons and daughters of Chester through the long, long years to come — to be able to say, as they point to this edifice, that it was not only the gift of Mr. Cole to Chester, but that also the first public services to be held within its walls were in honor of his passing into the presence of Almighty God.”
For the citizens of Chester, Charles’s death was a major loss. However, another member of his family – his eldest daughter, Alice Emily Cole – was ready and willing to take up his philanthropic mantle. Alice, who was born in Chester in January 1872, inherited her mother and father’s love for education, as well as her father’s desire to give back to the community. Because of the prosperity of her family’s business, Alice was afforded an excellent education, attending schools in St. Louis and in Massachusetts. By 1892, she was a student at the Lasell Seminary for Young Women in Auburndale, Massachusetts; she was one of two dozen women from Illinois in attendance. A contemporary news article describes the curriculum as progressive and useful: “Lasell was the pioneer school to give a practical turn to a girl’s education, and now all the young ladies are expected on graduation day to be able to cook a dinner, make a dress, mend a torn garment, and the fellow that gets a Lasell girl for a wife is pretty apt to be satisfied.”
From the start, Alice had a strong sense of independence, something illustrated by an episode that happened in Chester when she was seventeen. After a minor quarrel with her stepmother, Mary Ellen Cole, Alice departed the family home, ostensibly to take a walk. However, she secretly embarked on a trip to St. Louis, boarding a steamboat and disappearing into the crowded city. When the family discovered that she was missing, Charles hurried to St. Louis, working with detectives and the chief of police to try to find his daughter. In the meantime, Alice had taken her livelihood into her own hands, applying for work as a domestic servant. She was hired by a family looking for a housemaid, but it quickly became apparent that she was an inexperienced worker, although the Post-Dispatch noted that she “showed by her earnest endeavors that she was doing the best she knew how.” When St. Louis newspapers began running stories about her disappearance from Chester, the woman who had hired Alice confronted her, and Alice admitted that she was indeed the missing girl. She was reunited with her father and returned to Chester with him.
When he found out that Alice had fled from home, Charles reportedly suspected that she had run off to join a convent. Although she was not raised as a Catholic, Alice was fascinated by the pious, charitable lives of nuns. “At every opportunity she would read of their consecrated life and acts of charity, and nothing pleased her more than to listen to the tales told of these missionaries of mercy,” the Post-Dispatch reported. Eventually, Alice converted to Catholicism, becoming a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Chester. Though she never married, Alice decided against taking religious vows. Instead, her time was spent in opening doors for other members of her community, through sponsoring local organizations like the Chester Choral Club, and in broadening her own horizons, as she traveled the world. Alice’s own home in Chester was located at 246 Young Avenue. Often called the “Alice Cole Mansion,” the home features a large staircase “up and down which Miss Cole had her trunks hauled for her yearly trips abroad.”
Alice always was, according to her father, “a girl of strong mind.” That clear sense of self was coupled with a strong desire to share her wealth with the rest of her community. She served as an important companion and confidant for her father near the end of his life, and she was a significant influence on his philanthropic activities. In one article on the library gift, the Southern Illinoisan notes that the entire Cole family, “primarily Charles Briggs Cole and his daughter, Alice,” was involved in the decision to build Chester’s new library. At the April 1928 dedication ceremony for the new library building, which had been rescheduled following Charles’s untimely death, Alice stood in as her father’s representative. During the ceremony, “Miss Alice Cole turned over the deed for the library to Mayor E.H. Wegener,” officially completing the family’s gift to the city.
But Alice’s own great gift to the city of Chester was still to come. Five years after the C.B. Cole Memorial Library was dedicated, Alice had a surprise of her own for the community. In December 1933, the Daily Independent announced that “Miss Alice Cole has offered 50.9 acres of woodlands to Chester as a park site. The area adjoins the Chester city limits. It is the plan of the donor that the site shall be improved for a city park and used as such and she will so stipulate in the deed thereto.” Christened Cole Memorial Park, the site was officially dedicated in the summer of 1936. The rolling hills of the park have become an important part of the lives of Randolph County’s citizens in the decades since its opening. Countless local children learned to swim in the park’s swimming pool, and the grounds have hosted baseball games, horse shows, circuses, birthday picnics, anniversary commemorations, graduation parties, carnival rides, homecomings, Easter egg hunts, Halloween parties, and holiday light displays. If the Chester Public Library has nurtured the minds of the people of Chester, the park has provided them with important opportunities for exercise and celebration. Alice remained invested in the park project throughout her life; she was still serving on Chester’s municipal park board well into her seventh and eighth decades. She died in November 1962, at the age of 91.
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. The library that bears C.B. Cole’s name celebrates its 90th birthday in 2018, and the beautiful hills, trails, and forests of Cole Memorial Park are open for everyone to enjoy. 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.” After Charles’s death, one tribute identified a trait that he shared with his eldest daughter: “He was loyal to his friends, and of large and generous impulses, and one is reminded of Edgar Guest’s definition of success: ‘Success is being big of heart, and true, and broad of mind; it’s being faithful to your friends, and to the stranger kind.’” 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.
Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole were inducted into The Randolph Society in 2018.