Saturday morning with Gus, Bob and Gary; more volunteers needed
By CARL GREEN
Belleville, IL – Being one of Illinois’ oldest and busiest manufacturing towns, Belleville has always been important to the unions that have operated there and continue to work there.
But at a time when unions are fighting to maintain their place in the modern world, the Belleville Labor and Industry Museum provides a crucial reminder of the Labor Movement’s history of improving the lives of its members and, in turn, the communities where they live and work.
Despite that importance, the mood is friendly and congenial on a recent, typical Saturday morning at the museum. Visitors stop by in a steady stream to see what the museum volunteers can show them and tell them.
In the main room, longtime volunteer Gus Schmeder – the soul of the place if anybody is – can be heard explaining what manufacturing has meant in the community to a group of students from nearby Central Junior High School.
“Who has ever eaten a Jelly Belly?” he asks. “They started right here in Belleville. They made the candy, and they distributed it by horse and wagon.”
Mill jobs, he tells them, went to the applicants with larger families. “If my family had six children and yours had seven, yours would get the job because it had more workers,” he explained.
Schmeder, an IBEW electrician retired for 22 years, takes the opportunity to try and turn them all into amateur historians.
“Let me ask you this,” he begins. “While you’re running around with those things sticking in your ears, listening to music or something, have you ever recorded your grandma or your grandpa or your mom or dad?
“Take that thing and put a voice recorder on it, sit down with your grandma and ask her, ‘What was your childhood like? Where did you go to school? What did you do for fun?’
“Ask your grandpa,” he continues. “He’ll tell you stuff you’ve never heard. But you can keep it forever. You’ll have the information and you can pass that on to your own children – what their great-grandpa said.”
Before leaving, the students ask about how they can help. Schmeder pauses a moment and then answers.
“We have a learning experience here,” he says. “Most of this stuff in this museum is old, like me. We’re strictly volunteers. If you wanted to come up some day and volunteer, we can put you to work.
“We can give you a feather duster, and you can go around here dusting off anything you want to. And while you’re dusting, you can read something and be educating yourselves.”
While Schmeder talks to the kids, a few of the museum’s regular Saturday volunteers are on hand, ready to step up if needed. There are six of them. And they do everything from showing and talking about the museum’s displays to repairing and rebuilding.
“From time to time, we have some physical endeavors that have to be done – moving stuff around, getting up on ladders,” Schmeder explains. His concern is that all but one of them are of retirement age – or well beyond it.
Some younger volunteers would be a big help. But it’s a big job, too, and it involves more than just fixing things or moving things.
“We want them to take over some of these spots here on Saturdays, but they have to take time out to talk about this stuff in here and know about it themselves,” he says. “They have to sit down and read about it, and listen to us who have been talking about it, and add their own stories. We need somebody who is interested.
“I spill my guts out when it comes to labor organizations, I do, because that’s where I came from, and I know the importance of it,” he adds. “And we’re getting our teeth bashed in and I hate it, and there’s nothing I can do about it – except when I’m up here talking to these kids about unions.”
The crew now includes Bob Poole, retired from the Navy and a former ROP member; Gary Meyer, active in Laborers Local 459 and the one working-age volunteer; his dad, Gary Meyer, Sr., former business agent for the Stove Workers; Jim Berger, former business agent for IBEW Local 309, where Schmeder was also a member; and Mike Hutsch, a retired railroad worker.
“It’s difficult getting people to volunteer,” Bob Poole notes. “People say they want to volunteer, but they don’t come back. First of all, you’ve got to find people who are interested in these things. If they’re not interested in history, for the most part, it’s just a one-time shot and that’s it.”
Then he spells it out. “We need some guys who are younger and have still got some strength in their arms and their legs.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
It now seems obvious and logical for Belleville to have a labor and industry museum, but it almost didn’t happen. The house it resides in was built in 1837 by Conrad Bornman, one of the very first of the many thousands of Germans who immigrated to the city. He was a blacksmith and went into the brick business. He sold the house in 1840 and it became a machine shop for the Born family and, in 1913, a cigar factory for the Beck family, until 1957. Its final use was by the Sakasko family, which had a TV repair service and beauty salon there.
In 1995, the house was about to be demolished for a parking lot when the city’s Historic Preservation Commission determined that it was the last remaining German Street House in the original town of Belleville, making it a prime subject for preservation. Community groups raised money to buy the house and transform it into a labor and industry museum, which opened in 2002. It is directed by a board headed by Bill Thurston, president of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council.
The museum also maintains a complete website that functions as a Belleville history website, including a treasure trove of more than 6,000 photographs that can be searched.
The museum’s quarterly, eight-page newsletter provides news, notes and photos, published by George Bassler, who is also the webmaster. The latest issue focuses on the Labor Day parade. The newsletter often includes writings by Judy Belleville, advisor to the Belleville Historical Society and collection coordinator for the museum.
Thurston often urges Council members to check out the museum – and other museums in the region.
“If you don’t make any of the rest of them, you really ought to make it to the Labor and Industry Museum,” he said at a recent meeting. “A lot of work has gone on there, and a lot of donations have come in. Make time and visit your museum. It’s got a lot of Labor in there.”
Thurston also noted that the volunteers group could use some help from anyone who may need to take on a new cause.
“Most of our people are getting a few years on them, so we need some younger bodies to come in and start helping out,” he said. “Anybody from Labor ought to be able to talk a good story for a little while about Labor.”
Back at the museum, Schmeder and his friends chat with Tanya Oakheart, a college student from the Alton area who has been enjoying the many displays and Schmeder’s stories.
“I think it’s a treasure,” she tells them. “People, especially from my generation, see this stuff and they just think it’s old or it doesn’t relate to them. They don’t realize that every piece in here directly affects their lives. They just don’t see the connection of how.
“So it’s really nice that you guys have preserved this information to make that connection for them. Because it is important that we remember the past and look to it to protect our futures.”
Schmeder says they could also use someone with computer skills to help his wife, Pat, with office work, and some younger volunteers to help and eventually replace the Saturday crew.
“Today was my Saturday, and when I got here, Bob had the place opened up, the flag flying and the coffee made,” he says. “It’s those kinds of people we’re looking for – who have an interest in trying to keep this place going.
“I’ve got so much time invested in this damn place that I don’t ever want to see it go under. If that means staying up here longer and longer and doing whatever … well, I don’t know where those people are.”
IF YOU GO
The Belleville Labor and Industry Museum is located at 123 N. Church St., just north of the downtown square. It is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Visits by appointment or volunteering can be arranged by calling (618) 222-9430.