Answer Man

July 26, 2014

Answer Man: Did Belleville have a giant ketchup bottle?

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

I was born and bred in Belleville, and I seem to remember there being a ketchup bottle on the old brick building that once stood next to the tennis courts when I attended Belleville Township High School (now Lindenwood University) from 1946 to 1950. Yet in all the recent stories about the Brooks Catsup Bottle water tower in Collinsville, the Belleville bottle was never mentioned, which leads me to wonder if my mind is going goofy. -- Pat Wegner, of Belleville

Don't worry, Pat, you're still one sharp tomato. In fact, there apparently were not one but two Belleville signs, but they paled in comparison to their Collinsville cousin, which is probably why they're seldom mentioned.

In the BND files, I found two circa 1948 photos with what looks to be a huge can of Brooks pork and beans in tomato sauce on top of the building. I can't tell you how long it was there, but it was gone in mid-1950s high school yearbook pictures.

However, that's probably not the one you and a couple of others have asked me about -- nor the one I remember. A few years ago Gerhart Suppiger Jr. assured me that a ketchup bottle had been erected there -- but it was nothing like the Collinsville water tower.

Actually, it was no water tower at all. Instead, it was merely a sign installed near the canning factory that Gerhart's father had opened in August 1927 in the old Midwest Range Co. at 2628 W. Main St. To the best of his recollection, the Belleville bottle was about 18 feet tall, stood on a 6-foot base and remained at the plant for just a few years.

"It was no big deal, really," Suppiger told me in 1999 before he died three years later at age 83. "Maurie Treesh (of Treesh signs in East St. Louis), who was a friend of ours, talked us into it. He had put up a couple of soda bottle company signs like that in St. Louis, so he talked us into putting that up in front of the building just for advertising."

Just about the time you were a toddler, Pat, that "old brick building" was turning out more than 2 million cans of vegetables a year. But you were right about the stink the plant could produce: In about 1934, it once put so much tomato waste into the sewers that they backed up and started producing a different kind of Red Sea in the sunken garden at the high school next door.

"I was a student there, and I was very embarrassed about the whole thing," Suppiger told me. "But it didn't last very long, so it wasn't too bad."

In 1933, Suppiger's dad purchased the Brooks Tomato Products Co. in Collinsville and the Brooks Food Kitchens Inc., gaining the Brooks brand name in the process. Proud of the fact he still spelled it "catsup," he decided on his big conversation piece in 1949.

"When he had to put up a water tank to provide water pressure for a sprinkler system, he had the idea that if we we're going to put a tank up, let's make the tank in the shape of a ketchup bottle. It only cost us $22,000, $23,000 for the design, erection, painting -- everything."

And, at 170 feet tall (the bottle is 70 and holds 100,000 gallons), it made that 24-foot Belleville sign look like a charm for a bracelet.

I am munching on some popcorn, and wondering why we couldn't pop other seeds -- wheat, millet, etc. -- in the microwave. All it takes is a little water in the seeds, right? -- Karen Busch, of Smithton

Do you remember those cartoons with the hard-headed man who would become so angry that his face would turn red and his head would swell or even explode?

In a sense, that's what helps put popcorn in a special class. Popcorn kernels have a hard outer hull. So, when the water inside the hull is heated, the resulting steam can't escape. Instead, like that cartoon man, the pressure builds up until the kernel explodes and turns itself inside out, producing your delicious snack, according to the Moment of Science folks at Indiana University at Bloomington.

You can't do that with regular corn or many other grains, because their hulls are too porous, they say. Like steam escaping from a cartoon guy's ears, not enough pressure can build up to burst the kernel.

Still, that doesn't mean you can't. If you pop over to www.beardandbonnet.com/how-to-make-grain-sorghum-popcorn, you'll find one mother waxing poetic about her kids' love for popcorn substitutes.

She started with amaranth for her blueberry, almond and puffed amaranth granola bars. Her experiments quickly blossomed into quinoa, millet and sorghum. And, of course, there are those puffed wheat and rice cereals from that Quaker cannon.

"Sorghum is easy to pop in the microwave or on the stove top, and it has a delicate nutty flavor that my family just cannot get enough of," wrote Meg. "Quinoa and millet don't burst open at all, but are still very tasty."

Interesting final note: The Indiana U. folks say the water content of popcorn must be close to 13.5 percent. Too little and the kernel won't pop; too much and you get dense balls rather than fluffy kernels.

Today's trivia

What relief pitcher once pitched a nine-inning no-hitter?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: When that giant foot came down with its resounding splat to end the "Monty Python's Flying Circus" title sequence, you were seeing Cupid's foot that animator Terry Gilliam adapted from Agnolo Bronzino's 1545 painting entitled "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time." Gilliam's drawing is now a troupe trademark while the painting remains in London's National Gallery.

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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