By CARL GREEN
Belleville – The best labor museum most people have never heard of may well be the Belleville Labor & Industry Museum, located just north of downtown in one of the city’s oldest and most historic buildings.
The place is loaded with displays about the industries of the past – stoves, coal, stencil machines, cigars, bottles, beer, steam engines, tool and die, pattern-making, foundries and more.
But the best display might be the two union guys who host most of the group tours – Don “Gus” Schmeder, a retired member of IBEW 309, and Mike Hutsch, a retired member of the Locomotive Engineers.
“We fit right in with the displays,” said Schmeder, of nearby Smithfield. “I guess we babysit this place. When one of us is here, it’s like both of us are. We don’t have any paid employees.”
Another important figure is Schmeder’s wife, Patricia, a retired St. Clair County employee who tells groups about labor leader Mother Jones and what women used to do at work.
“I’m a history bluff, and Mike is a collector and preservationist,” Schmeder added. “I just hate to see these kids today not knowing what their fathers did – or their grandfathers or great-grandfathers.”
The museum’s front room focuses on the role of unions, many of which sprang up as Germans flooded into the city looking for work in the burgeoning industrial sector in the mid-1800s. Schmeder is the specialist who discusses this room.
Next to it is a room focused more on the industries themselves, where Hutsch gives the story. Between them is the newest display – items from the old Belleville Commercial College, where generations of women learned shorthand and secretarial skills. That exhibit just opened four months ago.
A large room in the back is dedicated to the stove industry, in which several companies manufactured wood-burners, gas-burners, or models that could use either fuel. Stoves seen there include some specially designed for laundry rooms, fancy stoves for living rooms, and kitchen stoves that look like they could be connected to the gas pipe and used even now.
‘SHE’S HAD MANY FACES’
The very building that the museum resides in counts as a display in itself. It was built in 1837 by Conrad Bornman, a young blacksmith and one of the first of those German immigrants. The location, 123 N. Church St., is within the original town of Belleville, and the building is classified as a German Street House. It had two rooms on the main floor, a couple of small bedrooms upstairs and a cellar.
In 1840, Bornman sold it to another German immigrant, Charles Born, a shoemaker who transformed and expanded it into a machine shop, where he worked with his two sons. They in turn sold it in 1913 to Charles Beck, a member of the Cigar Makers Union.
Beck expanded the building to its present size and added a humidor and large oven to make cigars and both pipe and chewing tobacco. The business lasted until 1957, and the building went to Everett and Geraldine Sakasko, who operated Ed’s TV Repair Service and The Lady Orchid beauty salon there.
Said Schmeder: “The old gal – she’s had many faces.”
In 1995, the then-vacant building was bought by the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council to be torn down for a parking lot. Instead, the city and county governments worked with the Belleville Historic Preservation Commission to find a new use for the building. Talk of making it a visitor center gave way to creation of the museum, which is now controlled by its own board, while the city owns the building.
Hutsch is secretary-treasurer, Schmeder is vice president, and the president is another name very familiar to metro-east unionists – Bill Thurston, president of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council.
“He’s the driver,” Schmeder said. “He’s the one who makes this happen.”
Hutsch was one of the original volunteers when the museum board was formed in 1998. “They needed a sucker, so they asked me to come to a board meeting. I wound up the secretary-treasurer,” he recalled.
The museum was always a collaboration between both labor and management representatives. “Each side knew the other had to contribute to this thing, in order to get this done,” Hutsch said.
Volunteer workers gutted the building and searched for original materials, which now include restored floors and beams over some doorways.
The museum was dedicated and opened in 2002. Since then, local unions have always been ready to help with labor, materials or funding. “These guys have come to our rescue so many times,” Schmeder said.
Local historian Judy Belleville has worked with the museum as well, helping it develop a research center and data base. George Bassler operates the website.
While much has been accomplished at the museum, much remains to be done. The volunteers are proud of how many teachers have been bringing classes to the museum to learn about the world of work and the labor movement, two professors from Lindenwood University among them.
But it has been hard to win the general public’s interest. The museum’s public hours are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays only.
“If we get two or three people, it’s good,” Hutsch said.
“Sometimes we’re surprised and we get eight or 10.”
The closing hour was rolled back from 4 p.m. “That was the longest six hours in the world,” he joked.
They have had 90 people with a family reunion, and one time about 50 teachers came out to see what was available to them, leading to many of the tours the volunteers now give.
BIG CHANGE COMING
Next year could see a change in the museum’s ultra-low profile, just in time to coincide with the city’s bicentennial. For the past three years, the board has been working on a large new annex just outside the museum’s back door to the west. It will house several new displays.
Said Hutsch: “We’re going to need more volunteers!”
The annex was designed by architect Randy Mitchell to look like an 1800s factory, complete with a raised ceiling and a street-level viewing window. Just inside the window will be the museum’s prize item – an 1895 steam engine built at Harrison Machine Works in Belleville and purchased by the museum from the Henry Ford Museum,
The massive engine, nicknamed “Jumbo,” was used to power belt drives for many purposes and could be driven wherever it needed to go, using heavy metal studded wheels, although the museum volunteers won’t take it out for a spin these days.
“We could do it, but the street department wouldn’t be too happy,” Hutsch said.
“Jumbo” – loaded safely on a truck – was a highlight of the city’s Labor Day parade, carrying museum supporters and showing its bright original colors of red, yellow and green.
GREAT AMERICAN STORY
Schmeder’s hope is that the museum will become known for telling a great American story – of entrepreneurs discovering a location that had unlimited coal, raw materials and both rail and river transportation, and of the people who flocked here to build lives working in the fledgling industries.
“It was all right here, everything they needed,” he said. “In the 19th century, it was the third-largest manufacturing city in Illinois.”
But the story also includes the decline of manufacturing and hard times for the unions that had so greatly enhanced the lives of their members. “You can see a direct link there, from what happened to the unions to what happened to the middle class,” Schmeder added.
That makes the story of the Belleville Labor & Industry Museum a lot more timely than the displays – and volunteers – found inside might seem to be.
“It’s a good secret, it really is,” he said.
He’s also proud of one more thing – that the museum carries no debt, which explains why its development has been slow but steady.
Said Schmeder: “When we get the money to do it, that’s when we do it.”
Mike Hutsch was an engineer for the Illinois Central and its successor railroads, eventually retiring from the Union Pacific.
Don Schmeder was also the father of Donny Schmeder, an up-and-coming leader in IBEW Local 309 who died of cancer in 1990 at age 30.
They can arrange tours of the museum and access to its research facilities; call 618-222-9430. The website is www.laborindustrymuseum.org.
To go to the museum, turn east from Illinois 159 at B Street and go three blocks.
Museum tells a story of stoves
Belleville – In Belleville’s manufacturing heyday between the 1870s and 1940s, no business was bigger than its stove-making industry.
The nation’s growing residential sector needed ways to generate some heat, and centrally located Belleville became the place that provided the products.
Many of the stoves were plain kitchen stoves that would burn wood or gas to cook dinner and warm up the room. The stoves became more sophisticated, providing burners and ovens.
Such stoves are much in evidence at the Belleville Labor and Industry Museum, some plain as an old hat and some in gorgeous colors and metal finishes. About two dozen are on display.
Belleville Stove and Range and Empire Stove led the business, but many other foundries joined in, and enamel makers supplied their outer finishes.
The museum also features specialty items such as stoves designed for laundry rooms that heated up large water containers in the days before home water heaters, and fancy stoves designed for heating gracious parlors.
One of the stoves was truly ahead of its time – the “Coin-A-Cook” that combined a gas stove with coin operation for use in public places such as parks. It was supposed to provide cooking for half an hour each time coins were inserted, but thieves kept breaking into the stoves and stealing the money, sometimes leaving gas pipes open and exposed.
Museum volunteer Don Schneder knows the Belleville stoves are still widespread around America because of the number of inquiries the museum gets from people seeking more information about their own stoves.
Logically enough, he said, the inquiries tend to come from Alaskans.