From Fats to trivia's thinnest

News-DemocratNovember 29, 2013 

A few week-ending odds and ends I hope you'll find interesting:

The skinny on Fats: After my recent column on the history of the Fats Express building in Belleville, former Fats owner Ron Hoercher, of Belleville, was kind enough to call with even more detailed information.

Decades before Hoercher's parents bought the building at Monroe and Second streets, it apparently served as a railroad hotel for train crews chugging into the nearby Illinois Central depot.

"The people would be brought to the hotel and they would be fed and put to bed," Hoercher said. "Then, they went back to the depot and continued on their routes."

At the same time, the original Merchants Transfer & Storage Co. would haul goods from the train and store them in the large warehouse on the south end of the complex.

"From what my father (Roy) and grandfather (Gottlieb Hoercher) told me, (Merchants) would bring the goods by horse and wagon and unload them onto the big dock between the third and fourth doors. Then, the stuff would stay there until it was either picked up or delivered."

When Hoercher's parents bought the building before World War II, they used the bottom floor for the Fats offices and then rented out rooms on the upper two floors. (His Uncle Oliver was "Fats.") Then, a rules change in the mid-70s allowed over-the-road truckers to bring their freight directly into Belleville, which severely cut into Hoercher's business. By the time he closed in 1980, the number of drivers had been slashed from 30 to single digits.

"We really had a nice business," said Hoercher, now 77. "I had a bunch of marvelous employees. We did all the business in Belleville with Marsh Stencil and Ideal Stencil. We did a huge amount of business in St. Louis. So it was kind of a sad thing (to close), but I guess that's the way the world turns nowadays. There's room at the top for the big guys but everybody else is out the door."

Back to school: During a recent meeting in St. Louis, Dr. William Roba, the president of the Society for German-American Studies, serendipitously saw my column on the area's first kindergarten and weighed in with more info.

He confirmed that most researchers say the country's first kindergarten was started by Margarethe Schurz in Watertown, Wis., in 1856, long before Belleville's opened in 1875. Schurz was a student of Friederich Froebel, who coined the word "kindergarten," and her husband, Carl, was a Civil War major general and, later, a U.S. senator from Missouri and the 13th secretary of the interior.

When Roba's society holds its next symposium in St. Louis in 2015, you might find him popping up here. Roba, a professor of history at Scott Community College in Bettendorf, Iowa, says he now may visit Belleville Philharmonic Hall, the site of Belleville's first kindergarten.

Listen up, Pilgrim: My Thanksgiving column on the Mayflower brought warm memories to Paul Henning, of Smithton.

Henning is a native of Plymouth, Mass., where the Pilgrims established their colony in 1620 after arriving on the Mayflower. The original boat was scrapped soon after, but in the 1950s, people in England raised enough money to build a replica. The Mayflower II sailed into Plymouth in 1957 and now serves as a floating museum at the Plimoth (original spelling) Plantation three miles south of town.

"My grandmother was in a big parade as a Pilgrim to commemorate the arrival," Henning wrote. "I worked in a restaurant across from the Mayflower for four summers and have been on the Mayflower dozens of times. It is small to us modern people."

Imagine spending 66 days on rough seas with 101 other passengers on a ship barely 100 feet long and 25 feet wide.

Plugging the leaks: The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a new device to treat leaky mitral valves that was originally tested at Washington University in St. Louis.

The new device requires no major chest incision, making treatment far less traumatic for the estimated 4 million Americans with the problem. Instead, a small clip is threaded through the femoral artery to the heart. The clip then brings the two leaflets of the mitral valve together, which stops the leakage of blood back into the heart's upper chamber.

Patients with the problem have a higher risk of developing heart failure or death, yet many are often too frail to undergo open-heart surgery to fix it.

Today's trivia

Can you name all the Robert DeNiro movies that have a mammal in their titles?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: According to records compiled by PBS' "American Experience," Colleen Kay Hutchins, of Utah, was the heaviest Miss America, weighing in at 143 pounds on her 5-foot-10 frame in 1952. Of course, it was in her genes: She was the sister of NBA cager Mel Hutchins, the mother of NBA pro Kiki Vandeweghe and grandmother of 2008 U.S. Open girls singles winner Coco Vandeweghe. By comparison, New Jersey's Suzette Charles was the lightest at 100 pounds when she took the crown in 1984.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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