Q: Two things: Could you provide a list of all Belleville businesses that are still in operation after at least 100 years along with the city’s current unemployment rate?
Stephen Reinhardt, of Belleville
A: That’s certainly a fascinating combination of questions, so let me hit you with a fact that may amaze you as much as it did me: At the moment, there are no less than 19 Belleville employers who have done their best to keep the city’s economy rolling along for well over a century.
Before I began investigating, I figured there might be maybe a half-dozen — 10 tops. I mean, the big ones are obvious, starting with us. On Jan. 16, 1858, the Rev. Williamson Franklin Boyakin published the first edition of the Belleville Weekly Democrat, a political paper that advocated allowing new states to choose whether they wanted to enter the union slave or free. Now, 158 years later, we’re disseminating the news in ways that likely would dumbfound the Baptist preacher.
Several other major institutions are equally hard to miss. In 1875, three members of the Sisters of Charity came to Belleville from their motherhouse in Muenster, Germany, to open St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. There’s also the Belleville Public Library, which had its beginnings on June 26, 1836.
Eckert’s Orchards traces its roots to 1837, when Johann Peter Eckert immigrated from Dietzenbach, Hesse Darmstadt, Germany, and settled in Pittsburg to begin farming. In 1862, his son Michael began planting fruit trees on his Drum Hill farm near Fayetteville. In turn, his son Henry planted fruit trees in 1890 on his Turkey Hill farm, which is now the hub of the family business. In 1910, Alvin O. Eckert opened a small roadside stand on that farm and you know the rest.
Then, there was the farsighted business quintet of Adolph Knobeloch, H.E. Leunig, J.B. Reis, James Rentchler and William Weidmann. Despite having no experience in shoemaking, they hired 50 workers who began cobbling 50 to 75 pairs of shoes a day at the Belleville Shoe Co. at 601 E. Main St. in 1904. Within just a few years, their products were being sold coast to coast. Now selling more than 1 million pairs of boots annually, it remains the largest U.S. military boot provider.
But as I hinted at, we’re just getting started, thanks to the St. Clair County Historical Society, which celebrated its own 100th anniversary in 2005 by publishing a journal that listed every centennial business, cemetery, church, farm, civic organization and school it could uncover.
Several of those businesses are still operating under their original names. For example, Julius Liese, the second conductor of the Belleville Philharmonic Society, started his lumberyard in 1872 right about where it is today near Charles and East Main.
Egyptian Stationers has been providing office products and other stationery needs on West Main since 1885. In that same year, the Wangelin family began offering insurance products. Ehret Plumbing can trace its roots to 1903, and Belleville Supply opened its doors the following year. Dintelmann Orchards, now Dintelmann Nursery & Garden Center, began growing its fruit trees in 1891 on Louis Dintelmann’s 80-acre family farm.
If you want to erect a monument to any of these companies, try Tisch Monuments or Honer Memorials. Tisch has been in the downtown area (and now on the west end as well) since 1877. And although the Weiss family bought it in 1985, Honer, which started in 1901, is still the name you’ll find at 829 S. Illinois St.
You might overlook the final half-dozen unless you did some detective work to follow the name changes. In January 1982, the Peerless Enamel Products Co. (which started in 1928) consolidated with Premier Stove Co., which opened in 1912, to become Peerless-Premier Appliance Co., according to company records. It’s the last true vestige of what people once called the stove capital of the world.
Also still around is Empire Comfort Systems, which traces its beginnings to a small sheet metal shop founded by Henry Bauer in 1911. Formally incorporated on August 26, 1932, Empire Stove Co. produced sheet metal heaters that took advantage of the increasing availability of natural gas. The historical society journal traces it back even further to Snyder & Baker Foundry in 1877.
Other businesses have gone through similar evolutions, including Gundlach, which was founded in 1868, and Chelar Tool & Die, which operated as the Modern Machine Co. in 1905. In insurance, Heartland Insurance at 1112 Mascoutah Ave. says it began in June 1883 as County Mutual Fire Insurance Co., and Yaekel and Associates was started in 1897 by Arthur Niemeyer. The historical society also cites the morphing of First National Bank of Belleville (1874) into Magna Group (1983) into Planters (2002) and, finally, into Regions (2005).
There is one you’ll have to decide on. Charles Keil and Sons Hardware was a fixture at 26 E. Main St. since 1858. It’s now Keils Antiques and Collectables, but it’s under new ownership with a revamped format. A few others have died out after earning the honor, including Barnes-Styninger Funeral Home (1897), Hirth Plumbing (1904) and Keil/Forness (1899).
As always, lists like these make me nervous because despite the most careful research, someone invariably seems to be left out. So if you can think of a business that has been omitted, please contact me and I’ll note the oversight in a future column.
As for the unemployment rate, Belleville generally has been stuck in the 6 percent to 8 percent range for the past two years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After briefly dipping to 5.4 percent last April, the rate climbed back to 7.8 percent this past January. Most recently it stood at 7 percent (as of March 31) with 1,580 listed as unemployed. But this is a vast improvement over the 13 percent figure we hit in March 2010.
I’m about to take a break in the action. See you back here June 8.
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Most actors likely would consider it a major coup if they were nominated for an Emmy Award for playing the same character on two different TV series. Kelsey Grammer is the only actor to do it on three. His portrayal of Frasier Crane first earned him two nominations for best supporting actor on “Cheers” along with four statuettes and six more nominations for “Frasier.” But before “Frasier” even debuted, Grammer was nominated in 1992 as outstanding guest appearance for his part in an episode of “Wings.”