Better late than never might well be the message of the Elgin, Ill., half dollar as the monument it was supposed to help finance back in 1936 was finally dedicated in 2001. Even so, in the world of older commemoratives where the money sometimes disappeared, the good news is that Elgin finally has its Pioneer Memorial.
Of course there is a story behind the 2001 dedication. It goes back to the mid-1930s, a time when suddenly all sorts of ideas, both good and not-so-good, were getting approval for commemorative coins. Apparently the town of Elgin figured they too deserved a coin since they were going to celebrate their centennial. However, Elgin went a lot further than others. Instead of using the coin to help finance a beer tent and party to mark their centennial, Elgin wanted to erect a Pioneer Memorial.
Under the circumstances, you have to give the city credit. They were approaching this commemorative idea in the way it should have been approached by everyone. By itself it would be pretty hard to justify a commemorative for Elgin’s centennial, but with the proceeds going to finance a memorial statue, that changed everything.
The Elgin, Ill., half dollar showed signs of trying to appeal to a wider audience. The designs were prepared by Trygve Rovelstad and include the proposed Pioneer Memorial statue on the reverse, which was definitely novel. It gave the buyer an idea of what they were actually financing. The date 1673 had nothing to do with Elgin except in a broad sense: it was the date Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet entered the Illinois Territory.
Even with good efforts, in the midst of a flood of new half dollars it was expecting a lot that the Elgin commemorative would post large sales. As it turned, it did not do badly in terms of sales.
There are some small signs that, of the 20,015 coins that were not returned to Philadelphia for melting, there were at least some that may not have sold immediately. Certainly most appear to have sold, but the distributor L.W. Hoffecker is thought to have kept about 250 that he sold off over a period of time. There was also a hoard of a few hundred coins owned by Howard MacIntosh. Gloria Rovelstad, widow of the designer, had some examples, all of which were sold in the 1980s and 1990s.
The fact that some were saved and apparently cared for has probably helped the supply. Today it is at reasonable price levels of $265 in MS-60 and $355 in MS-65.
The best part of the story is how the dream of the Pioneer Memorial remained alive over the decades. In 1996 the statue was the highlight of a parade, and that seemed to help when it came to raising additional funds so that the Pioneer Memorial could finally be dedicated.
The Elgin, Ill., half dollar is in the midst of many stories that did not have such a happy ending, which is a nice exception in an era where almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.