Answer Man: The origins of Imbs Station

News-DemocratJune 3, 2013 

Q. How did Imbs Station and Imbs Station Road get their names? My wife and I use it all the time, and I see an old ARCO sign. Did this used to be a gas station?

-- C.H., of Columbia

A. So glad you asked because I wondered the same thing as I whizzed by innumerable times en route to Dupo to cover sports many years ago. Now, thanks to some dogged research by William Shannon IV, curator of the St. Clair County Historical Society, I have an answer for you.

As you probably know, the area's transportation landscape looked radically different here in the late 1800s. You couldn't just hop in your car and drive to Edwardsville or Chesterfield, Mo., for dinner and a movie -- mainly because there were no cars.

Instead, railroads provided the connection for transporting both freight and passengers. To take advantage of this vital link, depots or "stations" would pop up every few miles, often named for a prominent family living in that area such as Kern Station, Badgley Station and Wilderman Station, which you'll find today in old atlases.

Some have survived the test of time -- including Imbs (Station), a small settlement that today is situated on Imbs Station Road, about halfway between Illinois 163 and Triple Lakes Road. It is likely named for Joseph F. (or Joseph H., depending on the source) Imbs, a St. Louis milling magnate whom most Belleville residents will remember for the old Imbs Mill on West Main at Sixth Street.

Born in Alsace, France, in 1841, Imbs came to the United States with his parents when he was 10 years old. Before he turned 20, he had already formed a partnership and was engaged in the flour-making business in St. Louis, where he lived his entire life.

But by his early 30s, he had begun expanding into Illinois, where in 1872 he became president of Crown Mills in Belleville at Main and Walnut. In 1917, the J.F. Imbs Milling Co. took over the Harrison Switzer Milling Co. on Richland Creek at Sixth and Main.

Of course, if you're establishing a milling business empire, you'll need elevators to store the grain that may wind up at your mills. And, you'd want those elevators near railroad tracks for easy transfer to market.

Well, according to the 1881 history of St. Clair County, Imbs' Crown Mill owned three large grain warehouses along both the Louisville and National and Cairo Short Line railroads. One of those apparently became known as Imbs, according to the 1907 Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of St. Clair County Volume II.

In a short section on Stookey Township, it describes the township as a farming community with no towns or villages.

"Pittsburg (which today would be near the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows) is merely a railroad station on the Southern Railroad," it states. "In Stookey Township are also the Imbs elevator and the Phoenix Powder Mill (in west Belleville near the Country Club/Signal Hill area).

The tracks are gone today, but according to an 1892 railroad map, Imbs (Station) was situated on what looks like a spur of the old St. Louis, Alton and Terre Haute Railroad, which became the Cairo Short Line. It ran southwest out of Belleville, through Stookey, Summerson and Imbs and terminated in East Carondelet.

As people began to build homes around the elevator, it perhaps appeared for a while that the settlement might take off. According to "Illinois Place Names," an Imbs post office was established on Aug. 21, 1896. But it was discontinued nine years later and the 1958 Rand McNally atlas reported a population of just 75 in the Imbs area.

After putting in yet another day at his office at the St. Louis Merchants Exchange office, Joseph Imbs died Oct. 22, 1926, at 85. His Belleville mill, from where a childhood neighbor used to bring my family "test cakes," has been replaced by the modern Belleville Office Park. Now, only his name on a road and landmarks like the old ARCO sign (Atlantic Richfield Co. gas station) remain as lasting testaments to his legacy.

Q. I've heard that the post office is discontinuing flag stamps. Why? I think it's horrible!

-- C.S., of Freeburg

A. It would be "horrible" if what you heard were true, but it's not.

For starters, I just bought a sheet of the equality-justice-liberty-freedom series with the flag taking up about two-thirds of the stamp. Now I'm told the U.S. Postal Service has just issued a "A Flag for All Seasons" series with the Stars and Stripes proudly waving over backgrounds of spring, summer, fall and winter.

"So we do have stamps with flags on them flying prominently -- and probably always will," a spokesman told me.

Today's trivia

What was Oprah Winfrey's first name at birth?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Although it lasted only 17 months, Benjamin Towne's Pennsylvania Evening Post became the nation's first daily newspaper on May 30, 1783.

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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