After World War I, Kewanee’s population held steady – in 1920, it was 16,026; in 1930, 17,093; and in 1940, 16,901.
But between 1940 and 1946, our hometown’s population increased by 20 percent. The growth was fueled by Kewanee’s major manufacturers ramping up to produce war material and hiring more workers to achieve their war footing goals.
Because all industry was focused on the war effort, little or no new housing went up in Kewanee during the war. But after the war ended, men began to return home to their families or to start families. But the Fairview Apartments had a long waiting list, and there were few other options. Soon, Kewanee experienced a housing shortage.
But planning for the end of the war began as early as December 1943, when Philip D. Adler, Kewanee Star-Courier publisher, led the Committee for Post War Planning. Kewanee leaders recognized a need for housing. At the organizational meeting of the committee, Adler said “We have a lot of work to do. We need small homes . . . We have got to provide homes . . . .” The group also recognized that building those homes would offer employment to many of the returning veterans.
In 1944, the committee announce preliminary plans for at least 25 new homes to be built after the war ended.
In January 1945, the non-profit corporation, Kewanee Homes, Inc. was created. With Robert P. Hatcher as its president, Kewanee Homes initially was financed by local industry, merchants, and labor groups.
In March, Kewanee Homes purchased 19 acres of rolling terrain north of Windmont Park on which the initial 25 homes would be built. But the group would need more funding to proceed.
Money from the Illinois legislature’s 1945 Housing Grant Act, distributed through the State Housing Board, was funneled through the Henry County Housing Authority into the breach.
The goal was to build housing that would fit the budgets of returning veterans, with the hope of pricing the homes between $6,500 and $7,000. Design and planning began and continued through the spring of 1947.
But the land which Kewanee Homes had purchased proved to be a problem. Because of its rolling terrain, more suited for higher-end housing, the cost of preparing the land for building the homes drove construction bids to $9,000 per home and higher.
The authorities decided they need to re-think their initial land purchase. They decided to sell the originally-chosen land and purchase acreage more suitable to efficient and cost-effective building in order to stay within the budget. They found two parcels of flat land, totaling 15 acres in southeastern Wethersfield about a block and a half apart, at a price which would permit building homes closer to the proposed price range.
In the meantime, the size of the project grew. The builder who won the bid would construct 72 houses on the new land.
Each house would have identical floor plans but with five elevation options. Each would have two bedrooms, a combined living/dining area, a full kitchen, a bath, and a large utility room (in lieu of a basement). Storage space would be available in the attic, and 11 of the houses would have garages added.
Construction began in August 1947.
Eastlawn would have 48 houses while Westlawn would have 24 homes. (An existing house was purchased and remodeled, for a total of 73 houses in the developments.)
Soon, people were going out to the sites to track the progress of the construction. But while there was enthusiasm for the project, there also some negative reviews – too small, no basement, low quality for a high price. Those criticisms affected sales, particularly the pricing complaint.
So the city acted to pick up some of the additional cost for the construction of the perimeter streets and also worked out some relief on expenses relating to water and sewer hookups.
There was a grand opening the week of June 6, 1948, with three of the homes completely furnished by local furniture and electric appliance businesses. The event was extended to a second week. But while 6,000 people eagerly toured the houses, only ten were sold.
The sales staff was increased, and it became clear that Federal Housing Administration and Veteran’s Affairs financing would eventually be available. But still, only 36 homes were sold by the end of July.
Then Kewaneean William Calhoun gave $10,000 to the project. Calhoun’s generosity was immediately followed by another $10,000 check from the Emerit E. Baker, Inc. endowment fund. That stimulated sales. By the end of the year, 69 of the houses were sold and 56 had been occupied.
The houses sold for between $7,275 and $8,100. Most of the homes had 60 ft. wide lots, while the higher-priced homes included the garages and were either on a corner or had a larger lot. 82 percent of the homes were sold to former GI’s.
Although there was still a need for more housing, Kewanee had stepped up to the plate in an exemplary manner to meet the needs of its returning veterans.