The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Martin Mathias Secor


Businessman, Democrat, Freethinker
and Friend to the Working Class

PHOTO: Martin M. Secor (right), sitting next to then-mayor Alex Horlick, prior to a parade in Racine in 1909. (Photo from Burckel, 1977)

Martin M. Secor was a two-term mayor of the city of Racine, Wisconsin during the late 19th century, at a time when the city was beginning to grow as a manufacturing hub. Secor, born as Matej Zika in Strakonice, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in February of 1841, came to the United States with his parents, Mathias (1807-1897) and Josephine (1813-1889), around 1851. His family consisted of his younger brother, Peter (born in 1850, before they came to the US), and his sister, Theresa (who married a man named Delamont).

Secor and his family settled in the lakefront city of Racine, where he took up the harness making business. In the 1850's, he married Frances H. "Fanny" Hayek, who was the sister of a friend and business partner. In 1861, Secor and the Hayeks (Joseph and Anthony) started the Northwestern Trunk and Traveling Bag Manufactory, producing distinct wall trunks for use while traveling great distances. The trunks had a distinct "hip roof" style, similar to the barns you would see in rural Wisconsin.

In 1877, the company's name was changed to M.M. Secor & Company, but within a year Secor regained sole proprietorship of the business, known now as Secor Trunk.

Secor was a tall, well built man, with a "six-foot frame and booming voice." His homesite at 1014 Milwaukee Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) was called by him the "Park of China Asters", with an extensive flower and vegetable garden, an orchard, a vineyard, and a private zoo. According to reports, he maintained a monkey, two bears, six deer, seven peacocks, several parrots, mockingbirds, a coyote, rabbits and a goat. The grounds had flower-lined walkways, two conservatories and a five-basin water fountain with goldfish.

The home was large enough that Secor would allow immigrants who had just arrived from Bohemia to live there, hiring them to work in his factory. The legend is that immigrants getting off the boat from Europe would ask, "Where's Secor? I want a job."

Before taking them in, though, Secor would have them bathe at the Medical Baths in the Bohemian National Bank (known also as the Bohemian Workingman's Building and Loan Association) building at 245 Main Street. The bank was started, according to Buenker in his chapter titled "The Immigrant Heritage" in Racine: Growth and change in a Wisconsin county (1977, Burckel ed.), due to the reluctance of banks to loan money to immigrants.

Once they were cleaned up and in his employ, they would work for Secor Trunk, helping to produce over 80,000 trunks and 9,000 satchels a year.

Secor was a noted Freethinker, rejecting organized religion that tried to impose moral views on others. Secor was part of a liberal intellectual group from Bohemia that included Karel Jonas. Secor took up the political cause in the 1880's, mostly over the issues of street paving and improved sewers for the city. The three main streets in the city – State, Main and Washington – were alleged to be nothing more than mudholes and in worse shape than many country roads, according to Murin (1977). The issue turned into a classic industry-versus-the-working-class battle, with Secor taking the working class side as a Democrat. Secor lost his first run for the mayor's office in 1883 by about 250 votes to Titus G. Fish, but easily won the following year by a slightly smaller margin over Republican challenger G.A. Rickeman.

When a tornado killed many in 1883, Secor paid for the funerals of many poor and indigent people in the city, even allowing services to be performed in his home. Secor also provided vegetables from his gardens to the local hospitals in the city.

Mayorial terms did not last longer than one year until 1891, so Secor did not remain on the job beyond his first term. However, his first term did see the paving of streets in the city, including the streets in front of his factory and his house.

Secor was very vocal in his opinions about the Temperance movement – and about wild dogs that had attacked and killed some of the exotic pets he kept at his estate. He actually threatened in print to shoot all of the dogs in the city's Fifth Ward (near his home) after a pack of animals killed seven peacocks belonging to him.

His controversial and eccentric nature led to an unusal instance of an assassination attempt while he was mayor. A bomb was placed under his carriage, but it did not detonate. The would-be assassin was intent on starting a rival trunk company, explaining the motive to some extent.

Secor survived the attempt and ran for mayor again in 1888. His stand against the Temperance movement helped him defeat Republican challenger J.G. Meachem, Jr. and Prohibition candidate J.P. Corse. Secor was insistent that prohibition and temperance against beer and alcohol was bad for the city, causing hundreds of thousands of lost revenues from licensing for the city. His stand had him pegged by some as a drunkard – an accusation levelled at him by the mayor of Chicago, whom he successfully sued for libel.

Secor continued to run his business and stay active in politics after his second term, printing broadsides (pamphlets) about various topics such as the hypocritical "bible-thumpers" that said one thing in the pulpit and another in practice.

Secor ran for mayor again in 1895, but lost to Republican David G. Janes by over 350 votes. The see-sawing between the pro-business GOP and the working-class Democrats would be evident for most of the rest of the years prior to World War I. In a bit of irony, most of the city block where Secor's home and gardens were located were bought by the city and converted to a school building – named for Janes.

Secor did have one indirect but lasting effect on the city of Racine, as the building where his Turkish baths and Bohemian National Bank were housed became the home of the first public library in the city in 1897. Seven years later, a new library building was constructed at the corner of Seventh and main, now the home to the Racine County Historical Museum.

Secor's final bid for mayor was in 1907, as he turned 68 years of age. His opponent was Alex J. Horlick, son of the malted milk manufacturer William H. Horlick. By 1907, Secor was seen as someone who was less desireable as a leader and more of an eccentric character. He lost the election by 472 votes to Horlick.

Also by this time, Secor's trunk company was facing competition from several other firms in the city. There were actually five companies making trunks and valises in the city in 1900, according to U.S. Census figures.

In July of 1909, there was a reunion of sorts of the various men who were, at one time, mayors of the city of Racine. Secor was part of the parade honoring the men, wearing a tall silk hat, a fresh flower in his label and a periwinkle blue silk vest.

Secor died in January of 1911, and even in death he remained controversial. A large $2,500 granite monument was placed over his gravesite, engraved with the following inscription:




When the monument was erected, some of the "bible thumpers" of the city sought to have it removed. The city council actually voted on the issue, and chose to keep the monument as it is.

Secor's home remained a boarding house of sorts for many years, becoming in recent years a shelter for the homeless. The Homeward Bound program was centered in the old house, providing services as a women's shelter.

In 2005, HALO announced that they were moving the Homeward Bound project to an old warehouse elsewhere in the city, and that the old Secor residence would be razed. Though there was some complaint about the decision, the size and age of the facility made it a simple decision.

Over a century and a half after his arrival in the city, M.M. Secor's only lasting legacy is his monument in Mound Cemetery, where his family is laid to rest in the shadow of his controversial monument.

The story of M.M. Secor is not just a historical footnote to the city of Racine – at least not to the author. Secor's brother, Peter, not only worked alongside him at his trunk factory but raised his own family in Racine. His oldest daughter, Antoinette, was a beautiful young lady who charmed the heart of one Joseph M. Mertens, son of a German immigrant who had settled on the banks of the Root River just to the northwest of the city proper. The two were married in 1905, and had a son in May of 1906.

It's not known if Martin Secor ever saw or held his niece's son, nor is it known if he attended her wedding. It is not likely, since they were married at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Racine, and Martin's world view did not jibe with that of the Papal supporters. It is also unknown if he attended her funeral in December of 1909 – approximately one year before his own passing in 1911.

His niece's oldest son, also named Joseph, would move on to have his own family, meeting a lovely petite lady named Harriet James in 1933 and marrying her a year later. They had two daughters, one in 1936 and one in 1938. The youngest, Maryann, had a series of health problems, stemming from congenital heart disease that caused her to have a heart attack at 22 months of age.

Though she was never completely healthy, she managed to live to see her high school graduation and a career as a school teacher. In her college studies, she met up with a young man who was seeking a teaching degree of his own at Dominican College in Racine. They were married in 1963, and after having their first child die stillborn a year later, they finally had a son in October of 1967.

That son, named for his grandfather, did not know about his famous ancestor until recently. However, he has made up for lost time by writing this brief biography of the man.


–––. "Family Businesses". Chapter in The History of Racine and Kenosha Counties. Chicago, 1879: unknown publisher.

–––. Racine Walking Tour Guide. Pamphlet, published 1994; article submitted by Deborah Crowell.

Brettuns Village Trunk Shop website.

Buenker, John D. "The Immigrant Heritage". Chapter in Burckel, Nicholas C. (ed.). Racine: Growth and change in a Wisconsin county. Racine, 1977: Racine County Board of Supervisors.

Keehn, Richard H. "Industry and Business". Chapter in Burckel, Nicholas C. (ed.). Racine: Growth and change in a Wisconsin county. Racine, 1977: Racine County Board of Supervisors.

Murin, William J. "Politics and Government 1836-1920". Chapter in Burckel, Nicholas C. (ed.). Racine: Growth and change in a Wisconsin county. Racine, 1977: Racine County Board of Supervisors.

Reeves, Thomas C. "Education and Culture". Chapter in Burckel, Nicholas C. (ed.). Racine: Growth and change in a Wisconsin county. Racine, 1977: Racine County Board of Supervisors.

Sides, Phyllis. "Woman's wish to join family members granted in death". Racine Journal-Times, June 7, 2005.