Q: For many years, I have driven past two businesses near the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville without knowing much about them. Who owns or runs Empire Comfort Systems (900 block of Freeburg Avenue) and Hearthside Grill and Fireplace (418 South Belt East)?
M.D., of East St. Louis
A: Allow me to tackle Hearthside first because even though I’ve never had occasion to shop there, one of its owners still holds a special place in my heart.
It was 1936 when Andrew “A.J.” and Martha Urban opened Midwestern Propane Gas Co. at 423 S. 1st St. in Belleville. They began selling butane, a new fuel for cooking and heating, to consumers from Cairo to Chicago. The business quickly grabbed a loyal following, and the couple moved their headquarters in the early 1950s to its current location on South Belt East.
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As the market and technology changed, the business kept pace. In the 1960s, sales of gas grills and logs were added. By the mid-1980s, demand for other leisure products was growing at a rapid clip, and in 2000, the Urbans opened Hearthside Grill and Fireplace with a full line of wood, gas, electric and pellet stoves and fireplaces, grilling accessories from utensils to aprons — even an array of barbecue sauces, marinades, rubs and seasonings.
At the same time, the family passed the grills ... er ... torch to succeeding generations. Eventually, it was run by their grandchildren, Darrell Urban and my good friend the late Don Urban, a Belleville attorney, a president of the Looking Glass Playhouse and the nicest man you’d ever want to meet who died three years ago. Today, Darrell still runs Midwestern Propane while Mark Urban, Don’s nephew, owns Hearthside.
Empire, which Hearthside lists on its website as “our neighbor and friend,” has even deeper roots in Belleville. In 1911, German immigrant Henry Bauer opened a small sheet metal shop at 528 W. Main St. Eight years later he and Frederick Beuckman patented the Bauer/Beuckman Stove to help launch the legacy that continues today.
Demand for Bauer’s products grew so much that he and Ed Kaufman incorporated Empire Stove Co. on Aug. 26, 1932. Since then, it has been one innovation after another — an economy floor furnace in 1939, its first central furnace in 1954, its first vent-free heater with an oxygen depletion sensor in 1981, etc. To survive the World War II years, it produced bomb castings, which it resumed making during the Korean War.
The next sweeping change came in 1985 when Robert Bauer switched his family’s company name from Empire Stove to Empire Comfort Systems. Since then, the company has introduced a wide variety of grills, fireplaces and wall heaters.
“Our specialty is heating areas of the house, not necessarily the whole house,” Bauer said in explaining the name change. “We wanted to come up with a name that is more accurate, but that gives us the room to change. Our challenge is to make this thing go another 50 years. Our market is changing and we have to be able to change, too.”
So far, so good. Thirty years later, the company is into its fourth generation with Nick Bauer as the president and Jane Bauer as the vice president of government affairs. They along with parents Brian and Pamela Bauer own the company, which continues to take pride in products assembled in Belleville.
Name the two brothers who were nominated for president at the 1884 Republican National Convention.
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Today even relatively cheap personal computers come with hard drives that can hold at least a terabyte (one trillion bytes) of data. But that certainly wasn’t the case in 1956 when IBM shipped the world’s very first hard drive for its RAMAC 305 system. As large as two refrigerators, it used 50 24-inch platters and cost $50,000. And how much data could it hold? A puny five megabytes. But even that was a major advance over ENIAC, which many regard as the world’s first electronic computer completed in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania. With a price tag of nearly a half-million dollars ($7 million today), it weighed 27 tons (including 1,700 vacuum tubes), covered some 1,800 square feet and devoured 150,000 watts of electricity. Fortunately, computing has taken quantum leaps since then. In 1980, IBM introduced the first gigabyte hard drive, although the 550-pound behemoth was still the size of a refrigerator and cost $40,000. The first terabyte drive came along in 2007 from Hitachi followed by the 10-terabyte drive in 2015 and a 12-terabyte helium-based drive last spring from Western Digital, which promised a 14-TB drive by the end of the year.