Answer Man: Belleville reigned the world of stoves

News-DemocratJune 21, 2013 

Q. When I helped a friend clean out her house, we came across an oldish looking stove made by the Belleville Stove and Range Co., Belleville, Ill. I have scoured the Internet and contacted some antique dealers, but nobody has ever heard of this company. All I know is the company name and that it's a Fairy Oak model with the number 413. I'm not terrible concerned about the stove itself, but I would like to know who made the thing and what happened to them.

-- R. Miller, of Colorado

A. Anyone even the least bit familiar with Belleville probably knows that one of the hottest industries going here a century ago was stove manufacturing.

Starting in the late 1800s, more than 50 companies opened their doors over the years, prompting Belleville to call itself "The Stove Capital of the World." And, according to a 1920 issue of the Belleville Daily Advocate, the oldest of the bunch was the Belleville Stove and Range Co.

Funny thing is that stoves weren't even on the minds of the Messrs. Marshall and Schultis when they founded the Belleville Pump and Skein Works in 1870.

Located at South Race and West Seventh streets (now 700 S. Third), roughly 20 employees initially turned out pumps and wagon skeins -- metal coverings that fit over the end of a wagon's wooden axle to serve as a wheel bearing.

For a while, it looked like the plant might go the way of so many startups even today. Schultis left the company shortly after it opened, and it had to survive a boiler house fire and two reorganizations in its early years.

But in 1885, it bought the Belleville Stove Works, and by 1896 the Daily Advocate was calling it one of the largest plants in the "West" with a workforce of 225 earning $2,000 a week.

"Their trademarks 'St. Clair' and 'Belleville' are known far and wide and are everywhere regarded as a guarantee of high grade and first class goods," the Advocate reported.

With a plant that by then covered three acres, the company had branched out far beyond the 27,500 cooking and parlor stoves it made per year. In addition, the firm was producing printing presses, mining and railroad equipment and house-raising screws as well as cider and cheese presses. It did its own nickel plating and japanning as well.

Its convenient location on the Cairo Short Line (later Illinois Central) railroad gave it an easy way to ship the roughly 70,000 stoves it was assembling every year by 1920. By then, the Advocate boasted, it had shipped stoves to every part of North America -- including being the first to sell stoves in Alaska via its company representative in Seattle. Some mining machinery sailed off to Australia.

From the start, its one Achilles heel was frequent flooding from nearby Richland Creek. In 1915, the situation became so dire that the company threatened to leave the city unless it did something to contain the unruly stream. But the plant was so important to the city's economy that the Commercial Club immediately stepped in to offer the company the site of an old glass company on higher ground.

The stove company never took the club up on its offer and went right on manufacturing at its flood-prone site. As local historian Judy Belleville noted, settlers in the still developing West relied on companies like Belleville Stove for such goods. Its parlor stoves, which came in hundreds of models, were extremely popular, which is why they're found all over the country today, she said.

But a million-dollar fire that destroyed six buildings and some financial hanky-panky eventually led to the company's demise. By 1928, the workforce was down to 90 with a payroll of $4,500. Then, as the country struggled through the Depression in the 1930s, lawsuits alleging embezzlement and cooking the financial books began to fly. On Jan. 12, 1932, William Lugge was appointed trustee to liquidate the "company's affairs." By 1935, the city was suing the company for failure to pay its franchise tax.

By 1939, the city directory listed 700 S. Third as the site of the Works Progress Administration's Belleville Recreation Center. Today it's the site of Belleville Supply Co.

Unfortunately, it was a sign of worse things to come. On March 4, 1939, former Belleville Stove President Arthur Spoeneman declared that Belleville had lost its stove industry to the South because of that region's nonunion wages and other advantages. So your stove, model 413 and probably made sometime between 1910 and 1925, is a lasting testament to the days when Belleville reigned supreme in the stove world.

Today's trivia

What was the full name of the V-2 rocket that the Germans fired at London and other targets during World War II?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: In 1997, fitness guru Richard Simmons (who will turn 65 July 12) published "Sweetie Pie: The Richard Simmons Private Collection of Dazzling Desserts" complete with a final chapter containing his six favorite outrageous desserts. Sound tempting? They're now available for as little as a penny (plus postage) at amazon.com.

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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