Eugene V. Debs’ connection to Woodstock’s Sheriff’s House will be recognized by the Illinois State Historical Society despite concerns the influential labor leader’s politics could scare away donors.
The Woodstock City Council approved the purchase and installation of a plaque for the city-owned Sheriff’s House May 16 that will commemorate Debs’ sixth-month imprisonment there in 1895.
Debs, a five-time presidential candidate who founded the Socialist Party of America, was sent to what was then the McHenry County Jail for violating a court injunction against the 1894 Pullman Strike as a leader of the American Railway Union. His incarceration in Woodstock “transformed Debs from a labor leader into a national political activist,” the plaque’s text reads.
In a letter to the City Council, William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, called the plaque “one of the most significant historical markers placed in the state within the last 20 years.” But a representative of the Friends of the Old Courthouse, a nonprofit that raises money for the restoration of the Courthouse and Sheriff’s House on the Square, said the group is wary of associations with Debs.
“While we acknowledge it is interesting Eugene Debs spent six months in prison here … the proposed marker can be viewed as celebrating socialism and labor unions,” said Julie Miller, a FOTOC board member.
The historical marker, with its references to contentious political issues, could discourage donations and potential users of the property and “hurt the transformation efforts for the buildings,” Miller said. She suggested the Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House receive a marker that recognizes their architectural history instead.
Kathleen Spaltro, who helped prepare the application for the marker, said those concerns were misguided. Debs is an important historical figure whose influence extends beyond partisan politics, she said.
“Debs is a lot more than a labor leader or a socialist,” Spaltro said. “He is highly significant in the history of the constitutional protection of freedom of speech.”
(Spaltro writes a column for The Woodstock Independent.)
Allen Stebbins, the former chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said a historical marker could attract tourists to Woodstock.
“To parse Debs down to the inability to raise funds, I think, is rather shortsighted,” Stebbins said.
The Illinois State Historical Society grants plaques to buildings and other locations where historic events of national or international significance occurred. Mayor Brian Sager said commemorating Debs’ history in Woodstock won’t prevent the Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House from receiving a different plaque recognizing their architecture.
“It is not this or that, it is not one or the other, it’s not this plaque vs. that plaque,” Sager said. “I think there’s plenty of room for inclusion and diversity of approach in this situation.”
The council voted 7-0 in favor of the marker, which will cost the city $1,500. City Manager Roscoe Stelford said he expects it to be installed within about six weeks.