Some Belleville residents wonder why a man in a barbershop-style straw hat is leading tours through their neighborhood, pointing to old buildings and talking up a storm.
The man is Bob Brunkow, and he’s trying to drum up interest in the Town of West Belleville Historic District.
“This was Ernest Weissenborn’s dry goods store,” said Bob, standing outside a two-story brick building at 1110 W. Main. “He was the town weigher, so when somebody came in to sell hay or coal, he would go out to the scale to weigh the wagon.”
The mid-1800s storefront now houses Kevin Kubitschek’s law office and wife Sindy’s book and card shop. They’ve turned the backyard into a shady courtyard with plants, a fountain and white twinkle lights.
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On this sunny afternoon, Kevin was sporting a bow tie. He greeted Bob and Larry Betz, president of Belleville Historical Society, who is spearheading the effort to restore and revitalize West Belleville.
“They’re trying to get rid of me. That’s how they’re going to revitalize the neighborhood,” Kevin joked.
New on National Register
The historic district is in City of Belleville, roughly bounded by West E Street, South Ninth, Illinois Central Gulf Railroad and 16th Street. But West Belleville operated as an independent village from 1852 to 1882.
History and architecture earned it a place on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places last year, boosting the spirits of Bob, Larry and fellow historian Jack LeChien.
“We’re all hoping to see the social and business life be rejuvenated,” said Larry, a retired health teacher at Belleville West High School. “We want to create a sense of community like there was 100 years ago.”
Sharon Egler wants to help. She and her daughter, Michelle McIntosh, opened Miscellanea House last year in a 1907 building at 1111 W. Main.
The coffeehouse and cafe takes customers back in time with its 10-foot-high tin ceilings, massive woodwork, hardwood floors and antique pump organ. The space originally served as a dentist office. Sharon, 62, lives upstairs.
“We’re hoping they can keep the integrity of the buildings and really promote (West Belleville) as a historical district with small shops and bistros, kind of like St. Charles or Lebanon,” she said.
Besides West Main, the village had another commercial hub at 11th and A streets with the West End Saloon and train depot and now boarded-up Kaltwasser’s grocery store.
There’s also a vacant butcher shop and attached home, which the Historical Society bought recently, just to halt deterioration. Larry envisions selling it to a restaurateur who could make use of the intricately-carved wooden meat locker.
German immigrant plats village
The history of West Belleville goes back to Theodor Erasmus Hilgard in 1835. The high-ranking judge wanted to escape political oppression in Germany and build a new life for his family in America.
“He bought 134 acres,” said Bob, a retired historian for the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. “He paid $3,000 for it.”
Theodor began farming, platting a village and selling lots, which reportedly doubled his wealth. He offered 12-percent interest on mortgages.
By the 1850s, the village had expanded to include homes, businesses, coal mines, breweries, a school and government services, including a fire department.
“Eleventh Street was like Belleville’s Illinois Street,” Larry said. “It was the main north-south corridor. It was called Silver Street back then.”
West Belleville is considered the birthplace of the American Miners’ Association, the first coal miners’ union, formed in 1861 to protest wage cuts. Its first platform called for a minimum working age of 12.
By the time residents voted to merge with Belleville in 1882, the village covered about a square mile.
Today, the historic district’s centerpiece is an 1876 German folk house on the old town square. The Historical Society saved it from demolition four years ago with plans to turn it into the Ebeling-Maurer House museum.
“We have the original parlor set (in storage),” Larry said. “It’s a walnut, five-piece parlor set that was in this room when the Maurer family lived here, beginning in 1887.”
Historic buildings tell story
Bob doesn’t have time to point out all the significant buildings in the neighborhood on his 1 1/2-hour walking tour.
One that made the cut is a circa-1900 storefront that houses West Main Kutz & Fadz at 1121 W. Main. It became Belleville National Bank in 1928.
“They billed themselves as the first bank on the West End, and they ran into some problems,” Bob said. “It was too much of the Wild West. The bank was robbed twice, and one of the officers was convicted of embezzlement.”
Another notable structure is a row of small apartments on 11th Street. It served as a “tenement house” during the Civil War. The brick now is covered with yellow siding.
One of the nicest streets in West Belleville is Voss Place, an addition carved from the original Hilgard estate, which included a vineyard and winery. Theodor’s neo-classical brick home at 210 Voss Place was once known as “the Little Castle.”
A few doors down, Theresa Fritz is known for her colorful, well-kept flower beds at Voss and D streets. She and her husband, Ron, moved into their 1927 brick bungalow more than 30 years ago.
“We just liked the older houses and the tree in front,” said Theresa, 65, a homemaker. “I think it’s a swamp oak or a white oak. We’ve had more postal carriers give dibs on what kind of tree it is. One said it was a bur oak.”
High hopes for neighborhood
A half-block away, the old Humboldt School on C Street has been converted into Cedar Terraces apartments. Two World War II-era Quonset huts on A Street serve as headquarters for Bethany Place, an AIDS service organization.
Still standing is the the 1850s home of whiskey distiller Frederick von Schrader and 1927 factory of Beno J. Gundlach Co., which produced shingle and flooring cutters.
One of Bob’s favorite buildings is a modest 1870s brick home, painted white, on Eighth Street.
“It’s just a good showing of this very characteristic style of German-American folk houses,” he said. “It’s a later version of it with the elaborate dentil cornices.”
Small sections of brick sidewalks remain in West Belleville, and Bob always points out the iron disks that look like man-hole covers in front of businesses. They actually were coal chutes with underground storage vaults.
Parts of the neighborhood show severe urban decay. A few people are renovating historic homes and businesses, including a firehouse on 12th Street built in the late 1890s.
“(The owner) had the building tuck-pointed,” Larry said. “He has put a lot of money in it already.”
Bob will lead Historic West Belleville Walking Tours on May 9 and May 30, beginning at 10 a.m. at 1106 W. Main. The $10 fee will benefit Belleville Historical Society.
The organization hopes the tours will get more local residents interested in living, working and supporting revitalization in the historic district.
“The Soulard area (in St. Louis is an example of) what we think could happen here,” Larry said. “People have bought some houses here and fixed them up and they look nice. We just need more of them.”
At a glance
What: Historic West Belleville Walking Tours
Who: Belleville Historical Society
When: 10 a.m. May 9 and 30
Where: Meet at 1106 W. Main St. (Ebeling-Maurer House) in Belleville
Information: Contact Bob Brunkow at 618-236-7481 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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