BY MARGO DRUMMOND
Sunday dinner at the home of M.M. Secor often began with encouraging those at the table to “eat more lettuce boys.” Why? Because lettuce was something Secor grew in abundance in his gardens which encompassed a city block. There were also dozens of red and white rose bushes, a white rose selected daily for Secor’s boutonnière. Blue Mignonette and other flowers filled the area around an elaborate fountain which included goldfish in its basin. His favorite flowers were the red, white and blue China asters from which the estate, “Park Of China Asters,” took its name.
One census in the 1880s listed 28 people living at the Secor home on Milwaukee Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive)–Mr. and Mrs. Secor, their four daughters, two servants, a teamster, eight laborers, nine trunk makers, a bookkeeper, and a gardener. All but two were Bohemian.
Legend has it that Bohemian immigrants getting off the boat would ask, “Where’s Secor?” They were looking for the man who began as a harness maker in Darien, and after moving to Racine parlayed a cardboard trunk business run out of his kitchen into an international trunk making enterprise. He was respected as a benevolent employer who offered his employees a “13th month” extra paycheck each year plus any profit over 5 percent to his workers, about 95 percent of whom owned their own homes, a fact in which he took great pride. He was also willing to hire older workers who might have difficulty finding a job.
In 1890 M.M. Secor purchased the McClure Building at 245 Main St. On the building’s ground floor was located the First Bohemian National Bank of America. Secor had the building remodeled to also include white marble Turkish baths, later known as the Secor Medical Baths, for use by his employees before going to Secor’s home for Sunday dinner. After dinner games of dominos began, followed by entertainment provided by a dancing bear, one of two comprising Secor’s private zoo. In addition there were six deer, a coyote, several parrots, seven peacocks, and a white owl as well as numerous rabbits, mockingbirds, goats, and a cow.
When Jocko, the monkey, escaped from the zoo, he headed for a neighbor’s fruit cellar. After an all-day chase, Jocko was captured but not before trying to hit Mrs. Ritter, the home’s occupant, with one of her own fruit jars. Secor’s problems with animals at “Park Of China Asters” extended to children as well. One neighborhood youngster recalled poking clothes poles between the spokes of Secor’s carriage causing the carriage to lurch. An enraged Secor would swing his buggy whip in the air and yell at the pranksters but he purposely aimed so as never to hurt anyone.
Secor’s independent political attitudes and free-thinking religious ideas made him at once both colorful and controversial. In 1884 he sued the Chicago Tribune for libel over their reference to him as Racine’s drunken mayor. Secor won the $50,000 suit, settling for but $500 to purchase a four-sided illuminated clock which he donated to city hall. Because of that clock, he said, there would be no excuse for citizens not knowing it was midnight, the time that the saloons legally closed.
Known to frequent saloons himself, Secor’s favorite was “Little Bohemia” at the Moore Hotel. Rumor had it that Secor’s horse knew the way home well enough that “His Honor” needn’t hold the reins. A story about Secor, told by his workers, was that he would burst into a saloon where they were lingering a bit too long after lunch and demand that they go back to work. “But before you go,” he would say, “let’s have one more drink.”
In 1886 an assassination attempt was made on M.M. Secor’s life, the only one ever made on a Racine mayor. As Secor was driving his carriage across his own driveway, a string was supposed to be caught by the carriage wheels triggering a bomb. Instead Secor passed safely by, only to hear a loud explosion sometime later. Apparently the would-be assassin had returned to check on why the bomb failed, inadvertently detonating it himself.
Police traced the blood on the drive back to the home of Frank Palica, a former bookkeeper at the Secor factory. Inside they found John Jambor of Milwaukee. He was bleeding profusely. Despite his plea that he was simply passing by the Secor home on his way to the Chicago Northwestern Railroad Station, when the explosion occurred, (thus his wounds), Jambor was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His motive could have been rivalry with Secor as he and Palica had formed a rival trunk company shortly before the bombing.
A “Welcome Home” celebration was held in Racine on July 5-6, 1909, the idea being to encourage former Racine residents to renew memories and friendships by returning to the old hometown. Seven former mayors rode in the Homecoming Parade, one being Martin Mathias Secor. His white beard and hair, crowned by a tall silk hat, can be seen in a picture taken that day. Secor always wore a fresh flower in his lapel and often a periwinkle-blue silk vest. His six-foot frame and booming voice were familiar to Racinians, most of whom remembered him as a gentle and generous man, despite his outspoken public demeanor.
Mrs. Inez Carrigg described seeing him buying clothes for destitute children at a store along Main Street. And although he regularly denounced the churches, Mr. Secor sent flowers and vegetables from his garden to the local hospitals. After a disastrous cyclone killed many in 1883, Mr. Secor not only paid the funeral expenses for the families who couldn’t, but he also allowed services for the dead to be conducted from his northside home. His own funeral took place there following his death on Jan. 5, 1911.
Secor’s obituary mentioned affiliation with the Royal Arcanum, the Loyal Legion, the German Turners, and the Sokol Bohemian Gymnast Society or National Union which supported mental advancement, social intercourse, and support for libraries, Sunday schools, the sick, and the needy.
Joseph Kristerious, Secor’s loyal secretary and executor of his will, had been instructed to oversee placement of a monument at the Mound Cemetery gravesite, the inscription on which read:
This World Is My Home
To Do Good Is My Religion
Why Did A Good God
Create A Bad Devil?
Did Secor’s epitaph question God? Some local citizens thought so and asked that it be removed. It was not. Thus in death, as in life, Martin Mathias Secor continued to remain both colorful and controversial–just as he would have wished.
Margo Drummond’s interest in local history began when she became involved with Preservation Racine. For 31 years, she taught high school courses on Racine History and Death and Dying, Issues of Living and Life. She wrote two books, “Blessings of Being Mortal: How a Mature Understanding of Death Can Free Us to Live Wisely and Well” and “Here’s to Your Health.”