Belleville: First in beer and books? Maybe -- maybe not

News-DemocratJanuary 27, 2014 

I hope you can verify or debunk two facts about Belleville I came across on the Web: Did Belleville have the first library and first brewery in Illinois? -- Jim Klenn, of Belleville

You might want to pop the tab on a cold, frosty one (from a more modern brewery, of course), because this gets a little messy. I don't want to pull a Clinton on you, but the answers may depend on how you define "first" and "Illinois." And even then there's some uncertainty.

If you're looking for the state's oldest continuous library still in operation, Belleville is likely the title holder.

In 1836, residents were clamoring to read Jared Sparks' "The Life of George Washington." But even volume one of this multivolume work cost $21, a hefty sum back then and out of reach for many. However, they figured that if they pooled their resources, they might gradually acquire a collection of books that could be made available to all.

So, on June 26, 1836, a group of educated German immigrants, whom we now call our "Latin farmers," decided to donate their books and house them in a place accessible to the public. At his farm three weeks later, Anton Schott and 15 others formed the German Library Society of St. Clair County, according to a history compiled in 1936 by former librarian Bella Steuernagel.

Each founder coughed up $3 to get the library off the ground. By the end of the first year, they also had donated 346 books, most in German. Schott was appointed librarian, and the collection was kept at his home.

By 1853, there were nearly 2,000 books, and the collection was moved to the Odd Fellows Hall in Belleville to make it more convenient. Seven years later, the library society merged with the Belleville Saengerbund to expand even more.

By 1883, residents were able to choose from 7,000 books. Noted educator Henry Raab had started allowing children to exchange books from 10 to 11 on Sunday mornings. Even women were allowed membership starting in 1873.

Finally, on Feb. 5, 1883, the City Council voted to acquire the collection and levy a small tax for its upkeep. In 1916, the current Carnegie Library building was dedicated. So, just as the Belleville Philharmonic claims to be the nation's second-oldest orchestra in continuous existence, Belleville appears to have the state's oldest library.

But first library? Possibly not. Edwardsville says it had a free public library as early as 1819, the year after Illinois became a state and 17 years before the Belleville library society formed. It was chartered in 1823 and consisted of 121 items and a single librarian, John H. Randle. The original book catalog of this library has been preserved and is still viewable today, according to www.edwardsvillelibrary.org.

However, this library lasted only a short time, forcing "a group of dedicated women" to preserve the collection by moving it to various locations around the city. The library finally was rechartered in 1879 and moved into its new Carnegie home in 1906. But even then, the collection consisted of only 600 books and a membership was 10 cents a month.

So, as I said, it depends how you want to define "first" -- and even then it's a bit iffy. In researching the Belleville library for its 175th anniversary back in 2011, Belleville historian Bob Brunkow found that there were "plenty" of other libraries in Belleville before 1836, but they all disappeared. So the city probably should hang its hat on "continuous." (If you were wondering, the Chicago library did not get rolling until immediately after the great fire of 1871.)

Tracing the first brewery also might lead you to drink. In 1844, the Belleville Daily Advocate reported that an F. Fleischbein had opened the first brewery in Belleville in 1829.

"There is (now) an extensive brewery which supplies the public with all kinds of beer, from London Stout down to mere colored water," the paper noted on Sept. 19, 1844.

Decades later, the Advocate claimed that his was the first brewery in Illinois, Brunkow said. (A history of Chicago says the Windy City's first brewery wasn't established until 1833.)

"I have not researched either claim," Brunkow told me. "I simply note that if the date is accurate, the brewery came into existence before the great German migration."

But if you're talking about the area's entire history, Fleischbein was a Johann-come-lately. According to numerous brewing histories, after the Jesuits moved into Kaskaskia in the early 1700s, they established the first brewery outside the original 13 colonies. It's a fact George Washington Smith notes in his "A History of Southern Illinois," a three-volume set published in 1912:

"The Jesuits were suppressed in France in 1764 and in 1766 their plantation, brewery and cattle in Kaskaskia were all sold by the French government ... The public buildings evidently became the headquarters of the British army when it moved from Fort Chartres in 1772."

Today's trivia

How did vitamin K get its name?

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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