Answer Man: Do you remember Feickert's Bakery?

News-DemocratFebruary 15, 2014 

My grandmother lived her entire life in Belleville. She was a good German who loved bakery bread and cherry danish. As a child, I went to Feickert's Bakery, which baked the wonderful Vienna bread, an open, almost airy bread with a tough, not flaky, crust. My favorite, though, was their peanut squares, delicate rectangles of yellow cake covered with a thin icing and rolled in chopped peanuts. What can you tell me about the history of Feickert's? -- Dawn Baggett

Just in time for the city's bicentennial, you ask about a Belleville bakery that for more than a century made lots of dough by making lots of dough at 101 N. Illinois St.

Little did 17-year-old Christian Feickert know that he would establish a metro-east favorite when he left Meisenheim, Prussia, in 1836. He first tried his hand at various occupations in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and other eastern cities before joining brother Jacob's bakery in St. Louis.

Then, in 1851, he decided to go it alone by moving to Belleville and building his own bakery at what is now the northwest corner of North Illinois and A streets. There, downtown passers-by would be lured in by the tempting aroma of fine breads and pastries for the next 120 years.

According to his obituary, Christian married a fellow German immigrant in 1849, and together they had eight children. Afer he died in 1886, his son, 16-year-old Christian Arthur Feickert took over without skipping a beat, ironically at about the same age his father had been when he left the Old World.

The young Feickert soon rose in baking circles as nicely as his bread. By 1906, he was selected as a judge for a National Bakers Association contest, and, in 1907, he helped found and was elected the first president of the Illinois Bakers Association.

But even away from his store, he was as hot as one of his ovens. In business, he would help incorporate the St. Clair Hosiery Mills and serve as an officer of Belleville Bank and Trust. He also was president of the Commercial Club, was appointed to the City Plans Commission, was elected to the school board and served as an officer with the Rotary Club and Philharmonic Society. As a member of the local Boy Scout organization, he would donate $1,000 in 1930 to erect a mess hall at the council's new Camp Wangelin near Waterloo.

Of course, it was the bakery that Belleville sweet tooths were most interested in, and he kept it going through good times and bad. In June 1912, for example, an early morning fire destroyed his ovens and a $1,500 carload of flour he had unloaded into his store the day before. Yet by December he was back in business, turning out 7,000 loaves a day, according to a Belleville Daily Advocate story.

And if you thought inflation is just a modern headache, think again. In January 1921, he made front page news when he said recent stories heralding the return of the 5-cent loaf of bread was "a figment of someone's imagination." Flour would have to dip to $4.50 a barrel to do that, and it still was running as high as $15.50.

"Belleville people have been fortunate," he said. "When bakers in other cities were charging 11 cents, we were charging 10 cents in Belleville and giving the same size loaves."

But mostly life was a piece of cake -- and how. In May 1923, he made headlines again when he and his employees took a week to design, bake and finish a 5-foot-tall cake in the shape of a pyramid for the 44th anniversary of the Saenger Mercantile Co. When finished, it weighed a reported 475 pounds and took eight men to deliver.

His baking skills apparently became known far and wide. In 1935, Feickert was invited to exhibit some of his wrapped treats in Atlantic City, N.J. It was the first time Belleville merchandise had wound up on the famous boardwalk, according to the Daily Advocate story.

His energy seemed to have no bounds. In 1923, Feickert bought out his entire square block, saying he was going to demolish some of the old businesses to establish a playground. Then, he announced that he was opening a filling station nearby. By 1928, he reported having 22 employees drawing a weekly payroll of $1,000 with capital totaling $110,000.

But in early 1938, his health began to fail. A heart attack the following New Year's Eve and a stroke three months later left him paralyzed and bedridden. He died Sept. 4, 1939, at the age of 70 in his home at 1217 N. Church St., but neither of his two children nor his two stepsons (his first wife had died in 1932) carried on the family tradition. Still, the bakery continued until about 1970, when the popular paradise of bread and sweets was razed and paved over for the city parking lot that is there today.

So, I'm sure many residents who remember that time would love to wrap their taste buds around a loaf of that Vienna bread or even a few crumbs from a peanut square. But nearly a half-century since it closed, I'm not sure if the original recipes still exist. If I hear otherwise, you'll be the first to know.

Today's trivia

When were the Winter Olympics first televised?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: It was a little out of season, but ice hockey was introduced at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, four years before the first Winter Games. Only seven nations competed. Canada beat the U.S. 2-0 in the semis before burying Sweden 12-1 for the gold. The U.S. went on to blitz Czechoslovakia 16-0 for the silver.

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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