Beginning in 1893, the Belleville Commercial and Shorthand College was the place to be for young people seeking better wages in the business world.
Located up two flights of stairs in the Belleville Savings Bank building at 18 E. Main Street downtown, the school opened just before the turn of the 20th century with 23 male students and three typewriters. As years passed, women joined the ranks. The school's 1918 catalog notes "ladies admitted on the same terms as men."
Enrollment was steady at 100 to 150 students at a time, according to old records, with courses including bookkeeping, accounting, practical English, business arithmetic, typing and shorthand.
"Actually, shorthand was the most sought-after" course, said Judy Belleville of the Belleville Labor & Industry Museum. It was a valuable skill in a time when dictation devices were rare.
A small exhibit about the college is now on display at the museum, with items donated by descendants of its founder, Joseph Foeller. They include a 1917-1918 calculating machine, typewriter, textbooks, enrollment records and homework.
"I remember we were all in one room, seated at long tables, and the teachers would go from one group to the next," said Angie Gundlach Briedenbach, of Belleville. The noisy typewriters were kept in the back.
She finished high school in 1941, destined for the Belleville Commercial and Shorthand College. By then, it was run by her uncle, Arthur Foeller. Her aunt, Adel Foeller, held the title of "Superintendent of the Shorthand Department." The founder was their father, Joseph Foeller.
Angie donated the archives from the college to the museum. Her cousin, Roy Foeller, of Belleville, who as a young man was in charge of sweeping, dusting and hauling trash, donated the equipment on display. The school closed in 1951.
Being related to the family running the school wasn't the only reason Angie ended up there.
"My two brothers were a year behind me and they would go to college," the 90-year-old said. "I knew I wasn't going to get a college education."
She was 17 when she began attending the school. After nine months of training, she took a secretarial position at the Belleville Chamber of Commerce.
"I was good at shorthand and typing," she said, laughing. "It certainly wasn't math!"
She stayed for six months, before moving on to Scott Air Force Base and its Red Cross office for six years, then working at her father's machine manufacturing business, T.J. Gundlach, as office manager.
Typically, students went to work in offices, banks, engineering firms and as office managers in the many manufacturing plants in the metro-east. Classes were available during the day and at night. The number of women attending swelled during World War II. Most were trained to be secretaries.
The school worked hand in glove with area employers when it came to hiring, advertising how highly educated their students were and how its "employment bureau" could save local businesses time by finding a qualified candidate for them. All employers had to do was pick up the phone.
"I even remember the number: Kinloch 574," said Angie.
Some records are missing, though the inside of an enrollment book notes that the May 10, 1928, school picnic, with 20 girls and 11 boys attending, cost $6.25.
The years have dimmed memories of how long students went to school there and what it cost. Roy Foller, 93, told the museum's Judy Belleville that in 1937 he took 10-week courses in typing and business correspondence. The cost: $10 per course.
The school's enrollment was an eclectic mix at various points in its history. Airmen and nurses from Scott were listed in the archives during World War II. Addresses show young men from both town and rural areas, perhaps hoping to get a foothold in a good-paying job at a bank or plant. And families who needed added income sent their children there straight from grade-school graduation so they could go to work sooner. (By 1925, child labor laws in Illinois said anyone age 14-16 had to attend school at least eight hours a week.)
Sue Henderson's mother and two aunts attended the college.
"My mother (Ethel Schiermeier Wegener) graduated from eighth grade in 1925 and went there. She was 13 1/2," said Sue, 70, a retired elementary school teacher from Belleville. "She wasn't allowed to go to high school. She had an older sister who didn't go and (their father) just didn't think it was necessary."
Ethel followed older sister Dorothy, who attended in 1923. A younger sister, Marguerite, came after her in 1928.
Sue thinks her mother took courses full-time for about two years.
"Mom enjoyed shorthand and she was a great typist," her daughter said.
When Ethel was 16, Orbon Stove Co., in Belleville, helped her get a work permit so she could become a secretary there. Sue said her mother worked for several of the top executives in the company, then moved to Premier Stove Co., "where Dad worked," and an insurance company.
By 1931, more than 5,000 students had attended the Belleville Commercial and Shorthand College, records indicate. But attendees don't recall receiving a certificate of completion or there being a graduation ceremony.
Enrollment started to dwindle by the late 1940s, when shorthand was the mainstay of the school and other courses were no longer taught.
"After World War II, the popularity of high school was on the rise," noted Judy Belleville.
Belleville Commerical and Shorthand College Exhibit
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and by appointment
Where: Belleville Labor & Industry Museum, 123 N. Church St., Belleville
Note: The museum is interested in hearing from anyone who has information about the college. Please call the above number.