Q: I have an old business promotional item that advertises the Henry Reis Lumber Co. at Main and Race streets in Belleville. I have been told that this may have been one of the most prominent lumberyards in Illinois. What can you tell me about the history of the company and its location? I’ve never heard of Race Street.
Steve Reinhardt, of Belleville
A: I can’t vouch for its state ranking, but when it came to lumber in Belleville, it’s a wonder the Reis family didn’t change its name to Wood.
For nearly a century, area residents needing building supplies could find a treasure trove of material at its lumberyards, first at Henry’s store at 301 W. Main and later at brother Valentine’s establishment four blocks down the street. There was even a different Henry Reis who moved here briefly but later opened lumberyards in St. Louis and Wood River.
And that’s just the start of how ingrained (so to speak) the Reis name became in Belleville history. Over the years, Reises became directors of local banks and helped incorporate numerous businesses, including nail plants, planing mills and the Belleville Shoe Manufacturing Co. Michael Reis even served two terms as mayor in the 1880s.
In fact, it was Michael — not your Henry — who seemed to get the family lumber biz rolling. Born Nov. 25, 1831, in Biblis, Germany, Michael in 1862 arrived in Belleville, where he teamed with Joseph Hanses in November 1866 to open a lumberyard at what is now South Third and West Washington. But just three months later — Feb. 7, 1867 — Michael struck out on his own, apparently convincing his brother Henry (who was still living in Minnesota) to help him open the M&H Lumber Co. on the northwest corner of Race and West Main. (Race Street, thought to have been the site of horse racing in the city’s early days, became Third Street during a radical change of city street names in 1918.)
For the next 40-plus years both the business and the Reis family flourished as Henry finally joined his older brother here in 1881. Henry involved himself in everything from directing First National Bank and Belleville Steel & Iron Nail Works to leading the local branch of the Illinois Humane Society. In addition to a raft of other business pursuits, Michael apparently became popular in political circles in a jiffy, jumping from his first term as alderman in 1883 to taking the mayoral seat when Herman Weber stepped down in the summer of 1885. He was then elected to a full term in 1887.
When Michael died in 1908 at age 77, his brother reorganized the business as Henry Reis & Sons Lumber Co., bringing George and Charles Reis into the fold. He remodeled the buildings, putting all of the lumber under one roof at 309 and abandoning older structures at 307, according to a 1910 Daily Advocate article.
Neither he nor his customers had long to enjoy the changes. In 1911, Reis suffered a severe intestinal problem one Sunday night and died hours after surgery four days later. The sons apparently did not have the same fervor about the wood business that their father and uncle did. By 1919, the Overland Auto Co. had taken over the address.
Meanwhile, at 700 W. Main, the Joseph B. Reis Lumber Co. was still going strong. Sometime in the 1870s, Valentine Reis had established a planing mill, which he eventually turned into a lumberyard with sons Joseph and Valentine Jr. After Val Sr. died in 1892, Joseph took over the business and, on April 11, 1925, brought in his own sons John and Edwin to incorporate the J.B. Reis Lumber Co.
Like the previous Reises, Joseph was a local business magnate, becoming the president of Citizens Building and Loan Association and president of Belleville Shoe, just to name a couple. He also was a director of the local Knights of Columbus and the Belleville Men’s Club and assisted in incorporating Green Mount Cemetery.
With those many connections, it’s little wonder the business thrived, something not even a fire could destroy. At 9:23 p.m. June 27, 1940, calls started to pour in about a fire at the Reis Lumber Co. For the next three hours, thousands jammed into the area to watch firefighters battle a blaze that could be seen for miles. As roofing paint and gas from company trucks fueled the flames, there was little firefighters could do but try to keep the fire from spreading, although window frames on the Reis office building across the street were singed.
Thought to possibly have been started by “hobos” cooking their supper in a dump at the rear of the building, the fire destroyed the yard with losses initially estimated at $25,000. According to reports the next day, it had been the city’s third lumberyard fire in three years, but it still couldn’t stop the Reises. They rebuilt and continued to operate for another decade before the 1950 City Directory listed the company for the last time.
But that’s still not the end of the Reis story in the metro-east. In 1939, Ralph Reis received permission from his father, a St. Louis lumber dealer, to open a branch office in an old East St. Louis sauerkraut factory. Today, East Side Lumberyard Supply Co. is into its fourth generation, serving 400 lumberyards and home centers in five states.
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Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Today most people use “casket” and “coffin” interchangeably, but it wasn’t always that way. In the 1400s, a casket was a “small box for jewels,” probably deriving from the Norman French word “cassette” or “casse” meaning “case.” It was usually four-sided. On the other hand, a coffin was what people came to call a receptacle to bury the dead. It comes from the Greek word “kophinos” meaning “basket.” Early on, it was often six-sided, wider at the shoulders before tapering down to the feet. However, experts think, the sound of “coffin” was too morbid for the newly bereaved, so morticians began using the more euphemistically acceptable “casket.” The fact that coffin/caskets are now four-sided like the jewelry box helped cement use of the synonym.