Commemorative Coins of the United States


The bill dragged on, and on June 16, 1936 Congress authorized the coinage of Elgin Centennial silver half dollars "to be produced at a single mint and of a single design in a quantity not to exceed 25,000 pieces." By this time the 1835-1935 Elgin anniversary date had passed. Officially, the issuer was the slightly renamed Elgin Illinois Centennial Committee of Elgin, Illinois.

On June 18th Hoffecker wrote to Rovelstad to suggest that if the coinage could be divided among the three mints this would make selling easier, but he noted that unless Congress overlooked something when it passed the bill the chance of having coinage from multiple mints was nil. Further: "In case you are compelled to take them all from one mint, ask her [Miss M.M. O'Reilly of the Mint] if you can get them from the Denver Mintas we can save $50.00 or $60.00 on the express, it being only about half as much from Denver here as it is from Philadelphia." Nothing came of either suggestion. All coins were eventually made in Philadelphia.

Following the passage of the bill L. W. Hoffecker drafted a new agreement with Trygve A. Rovelstad and his associates in Elgin, whereby Hoffecker was to sell the coins for $1.50 each, retaining 35¢ of this amount as his commission. As soon as the coins were ready for shipment Hoffecker was to pay the Mint for the face value of the coins plus die-making and express charges, the latter figures estimated to be about $500 total. "Hoffecker agrees to use every ethical means known to him to push the sale of these coins and to advertise and keep them on sale at least to Jan. 1st '37 unless sold sooner, and if the Commission decides they should continue the sale longer Hoffecker agrees to do so," it was specified.

The Design

Trygve A. Rovelstad, whose talents were superb, had designed the Pioneer Memorial group of statuary, intended to be cast in bronze and to measure 12 feet high. He made a model of the group and also a medal depicting it. Rovelstad prepared designs for the Elgin Centennial half dollar using the Pioneer Memorial as a motif, as specified in the legislation.

On the obverse was depicted the head of a man facing to the left (the head of the leftmost figure in the Pioneer Memorial) with the lettering PIONEER widely spaced above and the dates 1673-1936 below. The 1936 date referred to the year the coins were issued. The reverse design showed the entire Pioneer Memorial, a group of frontier people (four adults and a baby) who might have settled the area in 1835.

The entire situation was rather mixed up as the 1673 date, representing the year fathers Joliet and Marquette explored the area, does not seem to have anything to do with anything else on the coin. The 1936 date had nothing to do with the centennial of the City, which, as noted, was celebrated in 1935. Although profits were to have gone toward completion of the statue, the concrete base for which was laid in 1934, as of this writing the statue is still unfinished (see below).

On July 15, 1936 L.W. Hoffecker commented on a motif sent to him by the artist: "I like the sketch of your design, but if I was in your place I would not overlook putting the word 'Elgin' on your coin, as it would be a good ad for your city, and the coin is being known as the 'Elgin coin' all over the United States already."

In 1936 Elgin was known as the home of the Elgin National Watch Company and as the location of a milk condensing plant operated by the Borden Company, prompting one wag to comment that, if collectors didn't "watch" out, they would be "milked" by Hoffecker.

Trygve A. Rovelstad described his work in a brochure titled Beautiful which he gave to visitors to his studio in later years: "In the early '30s, after a brief study in the Louvre, Paris, France, I returned to Elgin to begin work on a Pioneer group. It grew from two-foot models to heroic 12-foot figures in clay-with the aid of government relief workers and sculptors. When funds ran short our Illinois congressman, Chauncey Reed, secured passage of the Elgin commemorative half dollar issue-which coins sold at a premium. Coin collectors throughout the world have, or seek to have, in their collections a copy of this half dollar which was minted from my design and models at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia."

In a later effort, Rovelstad went to Washington with a petition signed by 4,000 residents of Elgin to secure federal financing for the statue. When this failed he appealed to the Illinois State Legislature (in 1939), but that effort also came to naught. During the 1930s it was estimated that completion of the statue would cost $75,000 to $100,000, a sum far in excess of any profit anticipated from the sale of commemorative half dollars.

The Memorial and Its Sculptor:

A Local View

An account by Marie Doty, in the Daily Courier-News, Elgin, Illinois, October 2, 1989, (Reprinted in The Commemorative Trail, Fall-Winter 1990.) noted the following: "Some dreams take longer ... and others never do come true. For Elgin sculptor Trygve A. Rovelstad it must seem that his life's dream is fading. Trygve is now in a nursing home-Heritage Manor-and his Pioneer Memorial monument is still only cast in plaster of paris, hidden away in his studio. The sculpted figures-a scout, a father, a mother with babe, and a young man, the family's son have been completed and ready to be bronzed for years. 'It was his life's major work,' his wife, Gloria, tells me as we gaze upward at the towering figures.

"And this week I talked to Steve Youngren, president and director of the Pioneer Memorial Foundation, Inc. The organization's goal is to get the statue erected in Elgin. 'This is so important,' he said. 'Number one, it's a beautiful work of art and it's done by an Elgin sculptor, Trygve A. Rovelstad. It was basically inspired by early settlers to Elgin, especially James T. Gifford. And it really capitalizes the pioneer spirit ....

"Steve said that the proposed location of the Memorial is significant: Davidson Park at Villa and Chapel streets-the original site of Gifford's log cabin. 'The city has agreed to the site,' he said, 'and the foundation is in place.' Another sculpture, one commemorating a WWI soldier [by another artist], is already in the park. 'This is just a wonderful statue,' Steve said. 'The thing that is driving me is that it's currently in perishable form. I want to see it cast in bronze so it will be imperishable. We need to get this done so we'll have it forever."

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