It's an uncertain time for the king of condiments, as a for-sale sign has gone up in front of the Brooks Catsup Bottle.
The Collinsville landmark has drawn thousands of visitors since its restoration in the 1990s, featured in roadside Americana guides and offered as one of the top tourist attractions in the metro-east and St. Louis region. Billed as "the world's largest catsup bottle," a fan club coordinates events year-round to celebrate the 170-foot-tall former water tower that overlooks south Collinsville along Illinois Route 159.
But just as Mike Gassmann and the other volunteers were gearing up for this year's Catsup Bottle Festival, they got word that the owners of the property planned to sell the catsup bottle and the factory it sits next to.
"It's been a common misconception that the fan club owns it," said Gassmann, whose official title is "Big Tomato." "It's been privately owned by Bethel-Eckert Enterprises."
Bethel-Eckert operated a shipping and trucking business out of the warehouse adjacent to the catsup bottle, but that is now for sale, and the catsup bottle along with it.
Owner Larry Eckert said that after 42 years servicing military commissaries, Bethel-Eckert lost its contracts.
"We were taken out by three Fortune 500 companies," Eckert said. "We have no business going on in that building anymore."
At first Eckert considered selling the catsup bottle and warehouse separately, but after consideration, he said he decided it would be hard to separate the bottle off the property. "Whoever would be interested, you'd need the additional land anyway," he said.
Asking price for warehouse and giant condiment: $500,000.
A national historic place
Gassmann said Bethel-Eckert has always been supportive of the World's Largest Catsup Bottle Fan Club's efforts to care for and promote the landmark.
"Bethel-Eckert has been wonderful for us," he said. "They've been wonderful owners to work with, nothing less than fantastic."
Eckert said since the catsup bottle is on the National Register of Historic Places, he expects whoever purchases the property would be required to preserve it.
While it's an uncertain time for the volunteers who've worked all these years to promote the bottle as a tourist attraction, Gassman said they're hopeful whoever buys the property will also support their efforts. "Hopefully new owners will come in who are preservation-minded," he said. "We really hope someone with its best interest at heart comes along. ... We've been brainstorming ideas for redevelopment of that block for years: a welcome center, a museum, a cafe, a park. There are all kinds of great ideas on what that property could turn into."
A larger parking area would probably be the best safety point, Gassmann said; right now, people tend to stop alongside the road to take pictures of the catsup bottle.
Some discussion has taken place of doing a Kickstarter-type fundraiser to raise the money for the fan club to purchase the property itself. "It's not a bad idea, and we might look into that," Gassmann said. But between the festival 10 days ago and the upcoming concert on July 27, they haven't had time to assess their options, he said.
Structure dates back to 1949
The catsup bottle began life as a water tower for the Brooks Catsup Co. It was commissioned in 1947, designed in 1948 and construction was completed by October 1949.
Originally, the tower was used to supply water for catsup production and to run the plant's fire sprinkler system. But in the early 1960s, the Collinsville plant was closed and operations moved to Indiana. The plant was turned into a warehouse. But the bottle-shaped water tower remained.
The tower fell into disrepair over the years before eventually being restored in 1995, thanks to a grassroots funding effort. At about that time the owners offered to donate the tower to the city of Collinsville. But city leaders at the time declined to take the gift.
"The administration at that time didn't get it," Gassmann said. "They didn't want anything to do with it, so the offer was declined."
Current Mayor John Miller could not be immediately reached for comment.