Answer Man: Reader asks about his mom's old Belleville home

News-DemocratNovember 22, 2013 

Q. When my mom was a baby, she lived in the building at 501 S. Second St., which abuts the old Fat's Express. With its beautiful wooden staircase, I've always wondered what this building might have been originally. Can you shed some light?

-- G.S., of Belleville

A. Unfortunately, Belleville city directories did not start listing properties by street until the early 20th century, so I haven't been able to find anything about its origins.

However, in 1915, 501 South Richland (as South Second Street was known then) was listed simply as "Michael Mulconnery, boarding," so my guess is that for its two or three decades it might simply have been a fashionable boardinghouse.

That changed about 1922. A decade before, R.E. Duvall, Arthur Eidman and several others founded the Merchants Transfer & Storage Co. By 1923, it had moved from North High Street to where your mom would spend her early years. Then, in 1935, it became Triangle Express & Transfer, but remained there at Second and Monroe streets.

During that time, German immigrant Gottfried Hoercher became a stockholder in the company and later got into the moving business himself with his three sons. One of those sons -- Oliver "Fat" Hoercher -- eventually became president of Fat's Express.

According to his News-Democrat obituary, the nickname suited Oliver. At 340 pounds, he had a "prodigious" appetite that saw him eat three times as much as other men and then finish off a meal with an entire pie, according to the obituary.

But, the obit noted, he could do the work of three men and loved to bowl, play baseball and work out at the local Turner Hall. He became president of the Motor Truck Transfer Association and was involved in the Belleville Fans Association, which operated the old Belleville Athletic Field at Cleveland and South Illinois streets.

For many years, the Hoerchers' business was listed at their homes on Church and Gass until 1943, when it could be found at 501 S. Second St.. In May 1942, Oliver died at age 41 of complications of diabetes, but Fat's continued until about 1984, when the listing changed to New Era Storage. In 1988, it became a storage facility for Geissler Roofing. Now there's a for-sale sign on the old boardinghouse.

Q. Your recent answer to a "Gunsmoke" question made me remember something I've always wondered about: Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty) left the show before it was canceled. How was she written out? Was she killed? Run away with a tall, dark, handsome stranger? Killed when the Long Branch burned down? Well?

-- C.F., of Belleville

A. If a star left a hit show now after 19 seasons, he or she might be the centerpiece of a weeklong series of two-hour episodes as a sendoff. But when Miss Kitty corked up her last bottle of Old Rotgut in the Long Branch, they didn't even get to tell her not to let the saloon doors hit her on the backside on the way out.

Actually, it was understandable. Blake made her decision to leave the show after that 19th season ended. Why? Even she found it difficult to explain. In an interview with Mike Douglas soon after she left (see it on YouTube), she said she loved the show and the people, but ...

"I just couldn't face it anymore," she said. "I was complaining all the time. I was becoming a person I didn't want to be. Here, I'm locked in this saloon all these years. There must be something else out there."

As a result, writers had no chance to do anything special for her final episode on April 1, 1974, her 568th. And, as she hoped, they apparently made no mention of her when the show returned for its final season with "Matt Dillon Must Die" on Sept. 9.

If you're curious, that final show -- "The Disciple" -- saw Matt Dillon get shot in the shoulder by a bank robber. When he realizes he's in for a long recuperation, he quarrels with Miss Kitty, turns in his badge and leaves town to become a drifter. Kitty's last act is to steer the bank robbers out of town when they come around looking to polish Matt off.

In 1968, Blake had become the third performer to be inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Hall of Great Western Performers -- after Tom Mix (1958) and Gary Cooper (1966).

Today's trivia

How many U.S. state capitals lie west of Los Angeles?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: When most people think of national parks, they probably imagine hiking through forests or driving through Yellowstone to see the many scenic wonders. But if you want to see Biscayne National Park in southern Florida, you'd better bring your boat and scuba gear -- 95 percent of its 173,000 acres are covered by water. Established by an act of Congress on June 28, 1980, Biscayne National Park was designed to preserve four distinct ecosystems: the shoreline mangrove swamp, the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, the coral limestone keys and the northernmost section of the Florida Reef, one of the largest coral reefs in the world. It offers some of the country's best diving and snorkeling.

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 618-239-2465.

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