Imbs Mill boiler finds new home at Belleville Labor and Industry Museum

Illinois Correspondent

MAN MEETS ENGINE – When the volunteers at the Belleville Labor and Industry Museum needed someone to renovate this rare old vertical steam engine, they knew to call on Norbert Hohrein, 89, a St. Clair County farmer who loves to takes things apart and put them back together, which is exactly what he did with the vertical engine, with some help from the museum group. The engine had been used at Imbs Mill in Belleville to run a stoker feeding coal pellets into the furnace. – Labor Tribune photo

Belleville, IL – Norbert Hohrein, 89, still lives out on his farm near Lebanon, Ill., but these days he’s also the renovation hero of the Belleville Labor and Industry Museum.

When the museum crew came into possession of an unusual, vintage vertical steam engine that needed some work, they turned to the old farmer who loves nothing better than tinkering and fixing things.

“It’s been a few years ago,” related museum tour guide and financial secretary Mike Hutch. “A guy stopped in one day and told us he had a vertical steam engine that had been in Imbs Mill.”

Imbs Mill ground grain into meal in north Belleville for most of the previous century. The engine was used to power the stoker, which was what fed coal pellets into the mill’s boiler.

The donor, from Mount Vernon, Ill. and a former Imbs Mill worker, had come into possession of the venerable steam engine when the mill closed. He had wanted to sandblast it, fix it up and give it to the museum. But he never got to, so about 10 years ago he sent the museum a message.

“He wanted us to come over and pick it up. We brought it in and it sat for a while,” Hutch said. He noted that the machine would have been in use 100 years ago and could have been used up through the 1960s. 

Some time later, they realized what to do about it – to call on Norbert Hohrein, who is the ultimate tinkerer and has lived his life taking things apart and putting them back together. Hutch knew Hohrein from steam power shows, having taken the museum’s big steam engine to some of them.

“We talked to Norbert about getting it fixed up, and finally we got it up to him, and he did it. Now it’s all pretty, the shaft turns and the whole thing works,” Hutch said.

NORBERT HOHREIN, 89 (at left), the St. Clair County farmer who led the renovation of this rare vertical steam engine, now housed at the Belleville Labor and Industry Museum, shows it off to a group of museum union volunteers at its new location in the museum annex. With him are two museum volunteers who were invaluable assistants in the project, retired Monsanto chemist Kerry Brethauer (center), and retired electrician and IBEW leader Jim Berger. The museum’s highly prized steam engine can be seen behind them. It is to be connected to the overhead belt seen above them to operate a pulley. – Labor Tribune photo

Hohrein said he was just glad to get a chance to work on the vertical engine.

“They just wanted me to clean it up, and I said ‘I’ll do it, but you’d better get it out here in a hurry because I’m getting older,” he said in a visit to the museum last week. “I took it all apart, sandblasted it, painted it, checked the bearings, got it ready to go.

“I’m a farmer, really. I just love old stuff – anything that’s old,” he added. “I’ve got a lot of stuff out there myself. I’ve got a pretty good museum. I built the house when I got married and have lived there ever since.”

When Hohrein went to work on it, some of the museum crew was there to help. “We were just the backs. He was the brains,” said Jim Berger, the retired business manager of IBEW Local 309 who now volunteers at the museum. “He knew how to take it apart and put it all back together.”

At Berger’s bequest, and with help from lineman Loren Bergman, Ameren Illinois provided a truck to haul the engine out to the farm and then return it to the museum. “He provided all of his time – and their truck,” Berger said.

Kerry Brethauer, a retired Monsanto chemist and a museum volunteer who helped on the project, described the way the engine was used.

“You’ve got to start with the boiler. You fire it up with coal, and that makes steam, and some of that steam they would push into this engine here, which would turn a belt. That belt would run the stoker, which fed coal into the boiler. The stoker eliminated the manpower needed to fill the boiler with coal.”

To Mike Hutch, the vertical engine is just another way for the Labor and Industry Museum to share the story of workers and companies building needed goods and, at the same time, building a strong community. It will be connected to the museum’s overhead belt to operate a functioning pulley.

“That’s the way they ran it,” Hutch said. “They went from a belt on this engine up to the pulley, and that turned things – and made things happen.

“It was a part of Belleville, the industries and the economy,” he added. “That engine, it’s really a scarce one. There are still some around, but they’re very rare. We were really lucky to get it.”

The Belleville Labor and Industry Museum is located in an old industrial building in downtown Belleville at 123 N. Church St. It is open to the public for tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Saturday, or arrange a private tour by calling (618) 222-9430 and leaving a message. Its website is and it also has a Facebook page.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top