Answer Man: Abend's Malt Shop a fixture in Belleville years ago

News-DemocratMay 20, 2013 

Q. On the wall inside the White Cottage on Lebanon Avenue is a black-and-white picture of Abend's Malt Shop in Belleville. Nobody I ask remembers this shop or where it was located. Please help, because it is really starting to bug me!

-- Tammy Swank, of Belleville

A. Considering your address, it's obvious you weren't living there on July 24, 1958, or you would have never forgotten where Abend's Malt Shop was.

I certainly haven't, because that's the day a simple flush of your toilet could have turned your house into rubble. At least two people wound up with burns, including an 18-month-old toddler. And any hamburgers you would have ordered at Abend's that morning would have been char-broiled beyond recognition.

It began about 10:30 a.m., when reports from west Belleville started flooding emergency switchboards about a series of fires and explosions and the strong odor of gas emanating from water fixtures in homes and businesses.

Norman Klotz said his mother's home at 308 S. 20th sustained extensive damage to the kitchen and bathroom after he flushed the toilet. Carl Shannon at 2020 Roosevelt -- two blocks from where you live -- had his back door blown off its hinges. Alice Hasenstab at 421 S. 20th and little Bradford Kronenberger at 1816 W. Main suffered burns to the face, hands and back in similar explosions, resulting in hospital visits.

And just after Frank Boucher had finished cleaning and left the restaurant, Abend's Malt Shop, a popular teen hangout at 1609 W. Main St., also exploded, resulting in extensive damage to the kitchen.

About an hour later, all people who lived or worked between 15th and 21st streets were asked to open doors and windows, turn off utilities and leave their homes and businesses immediately. Six years old at the time, I still remember spending the afternoon with my mom in our backyard, wondering if I was going to see our house explode before my eyes.

Fortunately, by 5 p.m. the all-clear was sounded without further catastrophe. Two days later the cause was uncovered: Workers at Commercial Transport on South 20th Street had decided to flush a propane gas tanker before doing some welding repairs. Even though the tanker was empty, they didn't realize that the gas pressure inside the tank was still greater than the pressure of the water coming in from the 2-inch pipe. The miscalculation sent the remaining gas fumes into the city's water line.

Over the next few days, the jangled nerves of residents calmed quickly, but it was the beginning of the end for Abend's.

In 1927, Willis and Charles Abend had teamed with Wilmer and Homer Liebig to form the A&L White Lily Dairy. According to the Belleville Daily Advocate, it was the first Belleville dairy to be approved by the state Department of Public Health.

About two years later, Willis opened his ice cream shop near 17th and West Main, where it became a Belleville institution for 30 years. But after the explosion, Abend's quickly disappeared from the city directory. According to his obituary, Willis instead bought a Burger Chef franchise and opened it at 1601 W. Main in the summer of 1960.

By 1961 Willis, who quickly sold his Burger Chef to Don Kaffer, was listed simply as a property manager in the city directory. He died in 1989 at age 84. By 1962, Abend's had been replaced by a new Piggly Wiggly supermarket, which is now a Family Video. The Abend family sold its dairy to Sealtest.

Q. You can buy postal money orders at any post office. Is that money order redeemable at any post office or is it a one-way transaction?

-- C.J., of Cahokia

A. hose money orders can be redeemed at not only any post office, but also at banks and other financial institutions as well, according to the usps.com website.

One caveat: If the money order is for a large amount, I'm told a post office may not have enough cash to cover it, especially early in the morning, so you may wind up going to a bank. Otherwise, you can buy them for amounts up to $1,000, they never expire, they can be replaced if lost or stolen, and they can be cashed in 29 countries.

Today's trivia

Who was the first actor/actress to win two Academy Awards -- and the first to win them in successive years?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Pete Rose is the only major leaguer in history to have played more than 500 games at each of five different positions -- first base (939), second base (628), third base (634), right field (589) and left field (673). (Totals may vary slightly depending on the statistician.) In contrast, his son Pete Jr. played in 11 games with Cincinnati in 1997, batting .143 in 16 trips to the plate in his entire Major League Baseball career. He did toil 21 years in the minors, before finally hanging it up in 2009 at age 39.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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