Coal may have brought Streator's first residents, but Owens-Illinois glass factory was the key to its further development.
The first factory opened at the location of the Streator High Athletic Fields in 1880 before quickly outgrowing the location and opening a second plant at their current location in the 1930s; evidence of the current location’s impact can still be seen despite the city’s current demographics being much different.
The Owens-Illinois "Line-O-Nine” books, archives of the factory’s weekly employee newspaper, lists more than 3,000 employees at the Streator plant in 1965 and an article two years later from The Times-Press said there were more than 500 workers at the plant who had been there for over 25 years.
“They used to kid that everyone in town worked at Owens, Thatcher’s or Anthony’s,” said Patricia Breen, who worked at Owens-Illinois for 42 years, also referencing other glass factories in the community formerly known as the Glass Container Capital. “Your entertainment and your work was all together. It was all in the same place. Wherever you worked, you usually had a regular group.”
Breen also works at the Streatorland Historical Society putting together the Unionville Dispatch, among other activities.
Breen said the office groups were the Letter Lieutenants and the Quota Boosters, separate male and female groups that often interacted with each other outside of their everyday jobs.
The Letter Lieutenants would regularly spend their Saturdays taking the train to Chicago to see a play or the company would plan a dance or a picnic at their lodge and invite the families of all their workers.
“It was a big family,” Breen said. “Your after-hour things were all connected with the place where you worked. That was your friends, and that was your entertainment and that was your work.”
Owens-Illinois also had their own recreational athletic leagues for basketball, bowling, golf, baseball and more; Breen played on the golf team.
“We had a lot of fun in those times; it was never just hard work,” Breen said. “Owens even had their own baseball field but a lot of that stuff went away when people would get hurt. They stopped having those extra things because they didn’t want to be responsible.”
Owens-Illinois has been a generational employer.
City Councilman Ed Brozak spent his summers as a college student working every hour he could stacking beer bottles in order to pay his tuition.
Brozak worked there for four summers and it completely paid for his tuition.
“I’m the third generation of Brozaks that worked there,” Brozak said. “My mother’s family came from France right after World War II and my grandmother and grandfather worked at Owens.”
Brozak said his family came to Streator because they needed work and glass was an industry they’d worked in before; Streator made a good home because it was beginning to grow and Owens-Illinois needed all the labor they could get.
The growth of industry in Streator led to a lot of other businesses springing up in the neighborhood surrounding the factories; businesses like Satch’s and Muffy’s (formerly the 820 Club) on Shabbona Street got their start because there was a need for business in these heavily populated neighborhoods.
“After you got done working, everyone would go to the tavern and see their friends,” Brozak said. “It was a sort of social network back then, you’d have to go out and see what was happening around town.”
Owens-Illinois may not employ the thousands it did in the 1960s but its heyday left fingerprints all over Streator. For example, Bulldogs, which serves Trapp’s beef, originated in a tavern down the block from the factory or Streator Onized Credit Union, which started as a section within the Owens-Illinois offices and grew to be a separate entity with five branches in four different towns.
While Owens-Illinois in Streator hasn’t produced beer bottles in several years, it still produces liquor bottles for brands, such as Jack Daniels and Cruzan Rum.
To tell if a bottle came from the Streator plant, check the bottom of the bottle for the identifier ‘O-I no.9’.