They were called “Latin farmers,” but they weren’t Latin and only a few farmed.
Local historians are inviting people to a Belleville Museum Open House on Saturday to learn about an interesting group of German immigrants who helped shape the city.
“It was a game changer,” said Will Shannon, St. Clair County Historical Society curator. “This area looked completely different after they came here (in the 1830s) than it did before.”
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The immigrants were educated, wealthy, independent and conscientious. After escaping German political repression, they wanted to live in a community with free speech and other democratic ideals.
“They were progressives,” said Larry Betz, president of Belleville Historical Society.
They brought books from Germany, some in Latin, and purchased acres of land to either farm or divide into lots and sell, thus the nickname. They became engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, merchants and politicians. They built roads and erected buildings. They were big on publishing.
“Between 1826 and 1886, 38 different newspapers covering all aspects of life were published at Belleville,” according to an exhibit at the Belleville Labor & Industry Museum.
“Many newspapers targeted specific audiences. Campaign papers promoted political agendas and/or candidates, agrarian or transportation issues, slavery, pro or con, internal improvements, pro or con.”
“The Latin Farmers” is the theme of the Belleville Museum Open House from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Museums include the Victorian House Museum, Emma Kunz House, Belleville Labor & Industry Museum and Gustave Koerner House.
People also can get a sneak preview of the Ebeling-Maurer House, a brick building at 11th and Main that was in danger of being condemned until the Belleville Historical Society acquired it four years ago.
Betz and other volunteers have begun renovating the building. They hope to make it the centerpiece of a restored and redeveloped West Belleville Historic District.
“The home was built in 1876 for a German immigrant coal miner,” said local historian Bob Brunkow, who has done extensive research on West Belleville. “So it has the look of the brick cottages (known as ‘German folk houses’) that the German working class favored.”
The Latin farmer’s movement grew out of German civil unrest in the early 1800s. Many lived in Frankfurt, a hotbed of liberal thinking and the location of protests that landed some in jail.
Friedrich Engelmann, 25, led the first group of about 20 Latin farmers to St. Clair County in 1833. They settled in Shiloh Valley, east of Belleville, rather than continue west into the slave state of Missouri.
Theodor E. Hilgard, one of the immigrants, later platted the village of West Belleville, which eventually was annexed by the City of Belleville.
“I think the story (of the Latin farmers) has been told, but maybe not in an organized way,” said Jack LeChein, restorer-in-chief at the Gustave Koerner House.
The Belleville Museum Open House is being sponsored by Belleville Bicentennial History and Archives Committee, which held a similar event last year that was deemed a success.
On Saturday, the two St. Clair Historical Society museums (Victorian House and Emma Kunz) will host a scavenger hunt for Latin farmer artifacts. Belleville Labor & Industry Museum will spotlight five people in the movement.
Koerner was one of the Latin farmers, so his home is by definition relevant. The Ebeling-Maurer House will present talks on Hilgard, neighborhood walking tours, trapper demonstrations and German songs from the 1800s.
“You can see all the buildings at one time,” said Judy Belleville, collections coordinator at Belleville Labor & Industry Museum. “There’s no guessing. We’re open and ready for people to come and see us.”