Jack Klasey: Cooking the ‘E-Z-Est Way’
The first cook stove manufactured in Kankakee was assembled in 1915 in a former sewing machine factory on the northwest corner of Station Street and Main Avenue. The West Kankakee location would remain a manufacturing center for kitchen appliances for the next 67 years.
That first stove was turned out by the E-Z-Est Way Stove Works, owned by mail-order giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. Sears had purchased E-Z-Est Way, originally located in Chicago Heights, in 1914. The vacant Kankakee building that the stove manufacturer moved into at Station and Main had been erected in 1902 by the Foley & Williams Manufacturing Co.
Foley & Williams successfully marketed sewing machines under both its own name and the Domestic brand name for more than a decade. In 1914, however, the sewing machine firm declared bankruptcy, and its building was purchased by Sears.
E-Z-Est Way manufactured an extensive line of stoves, portable baking ovens, parlor heaters and chick brooders sold to customers through Sears’ huge mail-order catalog (Sears didn’t open its first retail store until 1925). The products were sold under two brand names: E-Z-Est Way and Leonard.
Cooking stoves (or ranges, as they were called) were available with either gas or kerosene oil as a heat source. A 1928 profile of the company in the Kankakee Republican reported that the gas stove line was available in 32 different styles; while oil-burning models totaled 15. “These ranges are all made in accordance with the most approved design ... and are an ornament to any kitchen,” noted the newspaper. “They are manufactured from the very best materials and by workmen who are specialists in their line.”
The same article reported that a “valued relic,” the first stove order received by the company, was framed and displayed in its office. The order, for one 3-burner Blueflame kerosene oil stove, was received from Tom Myers, of Triplett, Mo.
By the late 1920s, the stove manufacturer was one of Kankakee’s largest employers, with a workforce of 450 and a payroll of more than $600,000. Sales of its products in 1927 brought in more than $2,000,000; January 1928 was recorded as “the greatest in the history of the company in output and sales.”
Only a year later, however, the E-Z-Est Way and Leonard brand names disappeared from the factory’s products. In 1929, the business was purchased by the Florence Stove Co., of Boston. Over the next three decades, most of the gas ranges produced in Kankakee would be marketed as Sears Kenmore brand (although the stove manufacturer was no longer totally owned by Sears, the retailer was Florence’s biggest customer).
During the World War II years (1942-45), the Florence plant — like other Kankakee manufacturers — changed emphasis from consumer goods to products needed by the military. Armor plating for tanks and literally millions of brass 55 mm artillery shell casings were produced by Florence Stove.
After the war, the American economy boomed, and so did the stove plant in Kankakee, which grew to cover 35 acres. It housed one of the world’s largest stove assembly lines, manned by a workforce numbered in the thousands (in the 1960s, shift change times at the plant created major traffic jams on nearby streets).
The name on the factory changed again in 1958, when Florence merged with the Geo. D. Roper Corp., a stove manufacturer based in Rockford. Roper’s manufacturing operations (and its brand name) were moved to Kankakee.
In 1972, Roper responded to rising labor costs and aging production facilities in Kankakee by opening a 500,000 square foot stove manufacturing plant in LaFayette, Ga. Over the next decade, stove manufacturing was gradually shifted from Kankakee to LaFayette.
On June 17, 1982, Roper Corp. board chairman Max Hoover announced that the Kankakee plant had permanently closed. It was the end of an era. For nearly 35 years, the sprawling plant on Kankakee’s west side stood empty and silent. Finally, late in spring 2016, bulldozers and cranes with wrecking balls began a demolition project that would cost an estimated $1.38 million. By August, the site that had been a stove plant since E-Z-Est Way moved here in 1915 was an empty field surrounded by a chain-link fence.