Vanishing Texana Museum

We recently visited the business office of our new mayor, Randy Gorham. There, on a small table with other decorations, sat a Woodstock typewriter. It certainly piqued our interest as it was a Woodstock typewriter that was at the center of one of the most spectacular spy trials ever held in the United States. Could this be the same one?

The Woodstock Typewriter is named after the town where it was manufactured. In the early 1900’s Woodstock, IL was known as the typewriter capital of the world. First came The Oliver Typewriter Company when they opened a plant there in 1896. You may recall our Mysteries’ column about the #5 Oliver on display in your Vanishing Texana Museum.

Next came the Emerson Typewriter Company with the construction of a new $40,000 plant in 1909. Regretfully, sales of the Emerson typewriter were already lagging when the town of Woodstock offered them incentives to move there. Luckily, the Emerson Company drew the attention of a retail giant that was headquartered just an hour north of them – The Sears Roebuck Company. The owner of a national retail giant, Richard Sears, purchased Emerson Typewriter in late 1909 and put his close friend, A. C. Roebuck, in charge of the operation. Sears even changed the name of the company from Emerson to the Roebuck Typewriter Company. Roebuck didn’t like having a company he had not founded named after him and so the name was changed to the Woodstock Typewriter Company.

As a side note, Richard Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck started their business in 1886. In 1895, Roebuck agreed to sell his stock to Sears for $25,000. While today the company is commonly referred to as “Sears” its official name is still “Sears Roebuck Company.” Roebuck would continue to work for his friend as a manager and salaried employee.

Roebuck addressed the issues at Woodstock Typewriter and soon the company was ringing up sales and positive profits. After the end of World War I the company introduced its Number 5 model, the same model our mayor owns. The typewriter was marketed as a simple to use but durable machine. According to the advertisement, “The WOODSTOCK TYPEWRITER is so simple that no instructions are needed by one who has had any experience in operating a typewriter…” The Number 5 also boasted that it had six more keys to do additional functions that no other competitor offered.

So, how does this All American typewriter company end up at the center of the trial for one of Russia’s most successful spies, Alger Hiss.

The story begins in 1925 when a Mr. Whittaker Chambers joins the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). Chambers became the party’s journalist for their newspaper, the Daily Worker. In 1932 he is promoted to become editor of a literary journal, also published by the party, called “The Masses.” Shortly thereafter, he agrees to “go underground,” to become an agent of the Soviet Union. He delivered messages and photographed secret documents that had been temporarily removed by Soviet spies working in government positions.

Chambers eventually realizes that the totalitarian regime of Joseph Stain is not what he believed in. He quits the journal and is hired by Time Magazine eventually becoming one their key foreign correspondents. He writes very pointed anti-Soviet articles and fears the Soviets might assassinate him to protect the names of the spies he had dealings with. Finally, in 1942, Chambers, while meeting with Secretary of State Adolf Berle, reveals all he knows. Because the Soviets are fighting with us against Germany, no action is taken.

In 1945, the “Amerasia Case” along with the defections of Soviet code clerk, Igor Gouzenko, and Elizabeth Bentley, an American spy for the Soviets, reveals that Stalin had large and active intelligence networks in the United States. In July, 1948, Bentley testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Chamber, is also called to testify and so names Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy.

Hiss denies ever being a Communist, and challenges Chambers to repeat the charges in public, without the immunity given to him by the committee. Chambers appears on the radio show “Meet the Press”, tells his story, and Hiss immediately files a slander suit.

While giving a deposition, Chambers tells the court that not only is Hiss a Communist, but he is also a Soviet spy! To back up his story, he claims that, to protect himself from Soviet reprisals, he had hidden away microfilms, typewritten copies of secret documents, and notes written by Hiss himself. He produces everything but the microfilm which, for some unexplained reason, he hides in a pumpkin on his farm in Maryland. The microfilm is later retrieved by the FBI. This leads to all documents used in the trial to be called the “Pumpkin Papers.”

In the last half of the twentieth century, it was a legal standard that each typewriter was unique unto itself and so a Woodstock Typewriter becomes the star witness. The FBI is able to prove that it was Hiss’ Woodstock Typewriter, serial number 230099, which had reproduced the stolen documents. Hiss is convicted and serves 48 months in Federal prison.

It is believed by many that this famous Woodstock typewriter was accidently auctioned off while the government was disposing of excess property in the early 1990’s. So, is the typewriter that our Mayor and his wife purchased while out antiquing one day, the famous Hiss typewriter? Sadly, No. The serial number of the mayor’s typewriter is N444032 and was probably manufactured in 1936.

The mayor has generously loaned the museum his Woodstock typewriter so that we may all enjoy seeing it and hearing more about its history. Please visit your Vanishing Texana Museum any Thursday, Friday, or Saturday from 11 -4. Admission and parking at our 300 South Bolton location is free.

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