February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Nineteen hundred and eleven was a bleak year for the working people of Spring Valley, Illinois. Industry was drying up, and jobs were scarce. So, naturally, residents were delighted to see the billboard below—with its carefully painted bricks and its canny perspective—rise like a promise on a hill above the Rock Island tracks. Nor were they disappointed by the man who put it there—a smooth drummer named William L. Bessolo. From a platform at the depot, he told his hungry listeners that once the factory was producing his patented wrenches, prosperity would return to Spring Valley. All he needed was a little working capital.
Speaking in Italian to the largely immigrant population, Bessolo offered shares of stock. His wife sat beside him in silence, but helped his pitch by being, as residents recall, “a good-looking woman. ” The picture of her and Bessolo bears this out; the child was probably theirs.
When an official of a local land company began to accuse Bessolo of fraud, the inventor responded at a mass meeting: couldn’t people see that work had already begun on the factory? The townspeople backed Bessolo, and eventually gave him ten thousand dollars of their money. Then, one morning, he was gone.
Frank Martinelli, a retired plumber, remembers entering the Bessolos’ apartment after they had skipped. “All we found was a case of champagne. They were living high off the hog. I helped drink it. I wanted to get something for my two hundred dollars.”
That was all the satisfaction Spring Valley citizens ever got. They did press for extradition when word came through that Bessolo had been arrested for fraud in California, but the county supervisors couldn’t afford to spend any money on the proceedings, and the inventor went to jail on the Coast.
Our thanks to Herb Hames, editor of the La Salle, Illinois, Daily News-Tribune for sending us this cautionary tale, and to Mrs. Cyril Sweeney of Spring Valley, the owner of the photograph.
We continue to ask our readers to send unusual and previously unpublished old photographs to Carla Davidson at American Heritage Publishing Co., 10 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020. Please send a copy of any irreplaceable material, and do not mail glass negatives. AMERICAN HERITAGE will pay $50.00 for each one that is run.