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Elliott Donnelley Biography

Elliott Donnelley 1903-1975

Elliott Donnelley was a third generation Chicago printer (R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company) who lived in Lake Forest from his boyhood until his death in 1975.   He had a life-long enthusiasm for trains, and after study at Dartmouth College he went into the railroad modeling business, for amateur model makers in the early 1930s.  This small industry boomed in the radio era when families listened to programs but had their eyes and hands free.  Donnelley in 1933 took over American Model Engineers, Inc. Under the corporate identity of Scale-Models, Inc. the firm created “Scale-Craft working models,” according to an ca. 1938 brochure, and his renamed Scale-Craft brand operated in Chicago, Libertyville and Round Lake until the 1950s (by then television was capturing the eyes as well as the ears of its audience), when the firm was sold and moved to Michigan. The model kits came with large-scaled plans with instructions for assembly and placing custom signage.  According to Janet Souter in her book, Lionel: America’s Favorite Toy Trains, Donnelley’s Scale-craft was a pioneer in OO-guage modeling (p. 63).  So good were his replicas that Lionel was employing them, but putting on their own decals.  After Donnelley discovered this at F. A. O. Schwartz in New York, Lionel began paying Scale-craft a royalty.  Donnelley wrote many still-notable educational and enjoyable articles on modeling for his catalogs and in Scale-craft’s newsletter, Blow Smoke (See entries for “Donnelley, Elliott,” “Scale-craft” and “Scale-craft Blow Smoke” [periodical] in the library catalog.) 

As the steam era ended in the 1940s and 1950s, Donnelley became active in preserving Shay locomotives at railroad museums such as the Illinois Railroad Museum (Union, IL; see correspondence with Donnelley and relating to a Shay steam engine in the Crosby collection) and at the Hesston Steam Museum, in northwest Indiana. He also was active in live steam large-scale model railroading, and for two decades led a regular live steam “club” on his estate off Waukegan Road in Lake Forest. In the 1950s and 1960s Elliott and Ann Donnelley sent out annual holiday greetings in the form of reproductions of both nineteenth century lithographic prints of American locomotives and also of modern paintings of locomotives and trains by artist Howard Fogg, a selection of which are represented in Special Collections.  The originals of the nineteenth century lithographs were donated to The Newberry Library, Chicago.    



Elliott Donnelley’s interests included live-steam, which refers to small-scale, rideable engines and trains for outdoor use.  Donnelley is shown on his west Lake Forest estate with its train and track layout, shed, and crew of fellow enthusiasts. 


From the 1930s to the 1970s Donnelley amassed a substantial railroad library of books and periodicals, some of them rare.  After his death in 1975 his family donated these to the Donnelley Library (now Donnelley and Lee Library), Lake Forest College.  This became the nucleus for a much larger collection today. 

Elliott’s parents were Laura and Thomas Elliott (T.E.) Donnelley, who built their Clinola estate and country home on Green Bay Road in 1911.  Second-generation, Yale-educated T.E. Donnelley grew the family business substantially from the 1890s well into the twentieth century.  He also launched in 1903 the annual holiday-time gift books, the Lakeside Classics, for clients, employees and friends.  In his early adult and married years Elliott Donnelley and his spouse, Ann Steinwedell Donnelley (Hardy), lived in various small houses in Lake Forest on Wildwood and Atteridge Roads. In 1934 The Donnelleys built a home, designed by architects Frazier & Raftery, on Ridge Lane in Lake Forest, originally with a train room in the basement.  Donnelley’s model train set-up later moved to the nearby basement of Lake Forest’s City Hall. In 1955 the Frazier firm again designed for the Donnelleys a new International Style home on former J. Ogden Armour estate land on Waukegan Road.  (These houses are discussed and illustrated in detail in Walter Frazier: Frazier, Raferty, Orr, & Fairbank Architects Houses of Chicago’s North Shore, 1924-1970 (2009), a book on the firm’s work in the community.)  Again, there was a train room and also a shop for his live steam train operation, at full steam Saturdays and for visiting groups. 

The personable and very down-to-earth Elliott Donnelley later was vice chairman of the family-led printing firm, R. R. Donnelley & Sons, complementing his more patrician brother, Gaylord, who was chairman, and facilitiating good relations with the company’s (non-unionized) line employees.  His people skills led him to be a leader in various arenas, including as mayor of Lake Forest from 1954 to 1957.  He was a significant leader in the Chicago Boys’ Clubs and in Trout Unlimited.  Donnelley’s interests in the town and in trains came together again when he gave a talk in the early 1970s to the 1972-founded Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society on the subject of local railroad lines; this was published by the Society in 1981 as The Tracks to Town, illustrated by Vic Turner. 

Donnelley was a trustee of Lake Forest College beginning in 1942, leading to a new commitment to the College among local estate families over the next three decades.  (See “Back on Track with Elliott Donnelley” in 30 Miles North…, the College’s history, 2000, p. [145]; see also the photo on p. 135.)  He served as chairman of the College’s Board of Trustees from 1967 to 1971, and played key roles in the building of two major structures on campus, the Donnelley Library (1964-65, since 2004 the expanded and renovated Donnelley and Lee Library) and the Sports Center (1968).  Donnelley also donated landmark rare books to the library and also funds for such purchases on an annual basis in t he 1970s.  He played a crucial role in the difficult late 1960s period in student participation on campus, and personally led face-to-face, all-hours negotiations with students to resolve issues in that dynamic environment.  During the interim between College presidents in 1969-70 Donnelley was active in working with troubled students, “sentenced” to Saturday mornings working with the chairman on the trains on his estate.  At the end of such work sessions where nothing was said about the occasion of the visit, Donnelley is reported to have said in his characteristic stutter, “Now, you-r-‘re g-go-ing to try harder t-to g-get along t-this w-week, aren’t y-you?”  His recidivism rate was remarkably low.  In the 1970s he was awarded a special honorary degree by the College, and in the last Commencment Week before his death he and Mrs. Donnelley hosted all of the graduating seniors at his home for a barbecue supper and a chance to ride the trains with himself at the engine controls. 

After his death in 1975 a bronze head was sculpted in his likeness by Art Professor Michael Croydon, with its label cut in slate by British calligrapher David Kindersley.  It was dedicated in December 1977 in the library lobby stairwell.  By 1983 this head was relocated to an adjacent Elliott Donnelley Room for the newly created Special Collections unit in the library, which had just undergone an interior renovation.  Since the 2004 major renovation and expansion of the building this sculpted head is located in the Buchanan Family Archives and Special Collections Reading Room, along with the Currier & Ives rail-themed “Across the Continent…” hanging there in honor of Elliott Donnelley and his railroad collection. 

Arthur H. Miller

September 4, 2009; rev. March 4, 2012 and March 29, 2013