John W. Tilton: A man of vision

Tom McDermott

Elijah Tilton moved his family to this area from Ohio in 1852. Elijah’s son, William, farmed and at one time was postmaster of Chana. William also owned the Tilton Livery barn on the southwest corner of 4th Avenue and Main Street in Rochelle. This is the first record of the Tilton family in this community. 

William and his bride had two sons, Floyd and Clarence. Both would become prominent in the Rochelle business community. Clarence built the first roller rink, owned a men’s clothing store and a cleaning/pressing establishment. 

Our story will follow the path of Floyd and his son, John. In 1895, Floyd served in the Spanish American War and saw combat at the battle of Puerto Rico. After his service Floyd was a member of Company M, Third Illinois Volunteer Infantry. 

Floyd J. Tilton moved into Rochelle in 1907 and opened a small law practice. During his time here he served as postmaster, city attorney and high school board president. He was also very active in the Elks, Masons and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). In the VFW he is credited with the re-founding of the organization. Floyd led the campaign to bring back the VFW in 1944. He was elected as commander and in 1948 the local was re-named, “Floyd J. Tilton Memorial Post No. 3878, Veterans of Foreign Wars of Rochelle.”

Floyd and his wife, Mertha, had five children; Mary, Catherine, Norval, Charles and John. For this piece it is John that draws the greatest attention. 

Born in 1911, John W. Tilton, lived his entire life in Rochelle. John attended Rochelle schools and received four varsity letters playing basketball and football for the Hubs. Rochelle was his home, and like his father, John was destined to have a major impact on the community. 

Two things happened in 1932 that had a definite impact on the trajectory of John’s life. John purchased the “Rochelle Home Journal”, a local newspaper, for $10. In typical John Tilton fashion, the check had to be held until the weekend, when John would have enough money to cover the check. Secondly, John, like so many other kids in their 20s, had a brush with the law. John was arrested and given six years of probation. 

John and his father Floyd published the first edition of the Northern Illinois Democrat on Feb. 9, 1933. Floyd was listed as editor and John as business manager. The name of the publishing end of the company was changed to John Tilton Industries. At the age of 22, John Tilton was now involved in two businesses. 

The major competition for the Tilton enterprise was The Rochelle News and this would lead to one of John’s biggest headaches. John was still on probation when he went to Hot Springs, Arkansas for medical purposes. This was a violation of his probation, and mysteriously, the event was reported to the authorities. John was arrested for violation of probation and sentenced to serve the final six months of his probation in jail. After five years of following the rules, John was now looking at time in a cell. Who turned him in? Well, it just happened to be the owner of the Rochelle News, his competitor. The community went into an uproar and petitioned that all charges against John be dropped. On Sept. 24, 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt granted a presidential pardon, clearing John of all charges. 

It was in 1943 that John received satisfaction. He bought the Rochelle News and ended the vindictive competition. 

During World War II, John enlisted and served in the European Theater. The war showed John a side of life that one can only understand if they were there. He saw action in Belgium and Germany. From the Battle of the Bulge to the release of the prisoners at Dachau concentration camp, John was witness to the cruelties of war. John, in a letter home said, “this war has aged me 10 years.” If anything, it matured him 10 years.

John returned home to Rochelle and built a business and philanthropic organization so diversified that it almost defies description. John bought the final newspaper in the community, “The Rochelle Leader” to corner the news and printing field. 

He then expanded into the construction field. In 1936, the first building project was started. In time over 4,000 homes were built in Northern Illinois and Wisconsin. Thousands of returning veterans found affordable housing due to the efforts of their brother in arms, John Tilton. In 1959 “American Home Magazine” awarded John Tilton with the “Best House for the Money Award.”

Mid-States Concrete Products Co. of South Beloit; Illinois Manufacturers of Flexicore, Midwest Painting Contractors, Tilton-Cameron Corporation and Leader Building Company all fell under the umbrella of Tilton Industries. 

John’s pet project was a hotel restaurant combination known as the Vagabond. In 1954, at the cost of $80,000, he bought the Vagabond and set out to make it the destination spot of Northern Illinois. Fires in 1970 and 1982 brought the fate of the Vagabond to the edge. Insurers refused to cover the complex if it was rebuilt as a wooden structure. With his background in concrete and Flexicore construction, John was unfazed. He rebuilt the entire structure out of concrete, adding floors for condominiums. 

The Vagabond featured acts such as, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, The Ink Spots and perennial favorites Dave Major and the Minors.

From the philanthropic side, John Tilton was second to none. In 1942, the Lincoln Hospital was preparing to close, leaving the community with no hospital. John purchased the building and allowed the city to rent the facility until such time as a new hospital could be constructed. 1948 saw the donation of $10,000 of land for the construction of the Floyd J. Tilton school on 9th Street. John donated money or land for the Floyd J. Tilton Little League fields, a shelter and sewer lines for Cooper Park. 

In 1958, John Tilton was awarded the Kiwanis Man of the Year award for his many contributions to the people and the City of Rochelle. John had a vision for his home and spent his lifetime helping Rochelle improve to fit that vision.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.