The Elgin IL Half Dollar
Elgin, Illinois is not a city of particularly national importance. Nonetheless, Elgin became the subject of a US Mint-issued commemorative coin in 1936 thanks to the efforts of Trygve Rovelstad, a native of the town. Rovelstad, the son of Norwegian immigrants, sought to erect a memorial sculpture in Elgin honoring the city’s earliest settlers. He was familiar with the concept of commemorative half dollars, which were commonly issued at that time to raise funds for a specific cause. In 1935, Rovelstad was successful in lobbying his Congressman to introduce legislation authorizing a half dollar with the intent of raising funds for his memorial.
El Paso, TX-based coin dealer L. W. Hoffecker, who would later become President of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), caught wind of the pending legislation from an issue of the ANA’s industry journal. He began correspondence with Rovelstad, offering advice on how to work the bill through Congress. Hoffecker had previous experience in these matters, as he was leading a commemorative coin committee of his own in El Paso, one tasked with the distribution of the Old Spanish Trail half-dollar.
Hoffecker and Rovelstad collaborated in the process of getting the legislation passed and the design approved. The coin’s obverse displays a bearded settler facing west. This same character also appears on the reverse among a family of settlers; the reverse design was Rovelstad's concept for the actual memorial sculptures to be funded through sales of the coin. Though the half dollar was ostensibly issued in commemoration of the city’s centennial, the date 1836 does not appear anywhere on the coin; the obverse instead contains the date 1673, the year of the Joliet-Marquette Expedition into what is now Illinois.
Despite Rovelstad and Hoffecker’s preference for a lower mintage (as this would restrict the available supply and allow for greater profits), Congress authorized 25,000 coins. Hoffecker advanced the money to pay for the full issue to Rovelstad; in return, he would receive a commission of thirty-five cents on every coin sold. The Elgin half-dollar was released in the summer of 1936, just as the market for commemorative coins was at its most fervent point, and the frenzy began to die down soon after. Nonetheless, the coins sold steadily through Hoffecker’s mailing list, with nearly two-thirds of the mintage sold by November. Sales dropped off quickly after this point, and ultimately 5,000 pieces were returned to the Mint to be melted.
The profits generated from sales of the coin were insufficient to fund Rovelstad’s planned sculptures. He was unsuccessful in efforts to obtain further funding from either the federal government or the state of Illinois. Rovelstad did go on to have a long and illustrious career in sculpting and design. During World War II, he did work for the War Department, designing many well-known military decorations including the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit. By the time of his death in 1990, he had completed plaster models of the Pioneer Memorial. A foundation formed after his death was more successful in raising funds, and the 8,000 bronze Pioneer Memorial sculptures in Elgin were finally completed in 2001.