This is a slightly updated version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2012 before the launch of this weblog.
When ‘Zerwekh’ meant ‘ice cream’
By Jared Olar
Residents of Pekin today have several ways to satisfy their ice cream cravings, including at Dairy Queen on Second Street, Double D’s or the Sweet Spot on Eighth, and Steak ’n Shake or Culver’s on Court. But there was a time when all the ice cream in town came from one place: Zerwekh’s in downtown Pekin.
The Zerwekh family no longer lives in Pekin, but they were long a fixture of Pekin social life and business thanks to the Zerwekh Brothers’ bakery and confectionary at 20 S. Fourth St.
“Both Robert Hill and Albert Zerwekh were popular caterers,” says the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial. “Zerwekh’s three-story pressed-brick building housed a bakery and confectionary on the ground floor and basement, and the Masonic Hall occupied the second and third floors. The building was considered a major contribution to the beautification of the city, and today has come to be known as the Times Building, for it houses the operations of the local newspaper. Zerwekh’s was famous for its ice cream, delicate ices, and soft drinks.”
The name of Zerwekh appears in the very first Pekin City Directory, which was published in 1861: “Gottlob J. Zerwekh, proprietor of St. Louis Exchange, 87 Court St.” That was Gottlob Jakob Zerwekh, also known as Gottlieb, one of the many German immigrants who settled in Pekin in the mid-1800s. He and his wife Christiana F. Schnaitman were born in Württemberg. The 1860 U.S. Census shows Gottlieb and Christiana living in Peoria with their sons William G., age 3, and Albert, age 1. By the time of the 1870 census, they were living in Pekin, along with a daughter Bertha, age 3.
In that year, the Sellers & Bates City Directory lists “G.J. Zerwekh” as a “manufacturer of soda water” on Henrietta Street between Second and Third streets. Six years later, the city directory shows that he had entered into a partnership with Herman Karstedt. Their business, at the same location as in 1870, was “Zerwekh & Karstedt, manfr soda and mineral waters and ginger ale.” By 1876, Gottlob’s son William was a clerk at Schaub & Smiley’s, while Albert was a cook at Strader & Kennedy’s.
Albert next appears in the 1887 City Directory, listed as a baker and confectioner, with his bakery at 112-114 S. Fourth Street. Albert next shows up in the 1893 City Directory, having moved his bakery to 16-18 S. Fourth. That was about the time he built the Zerwekh Building at 20 S. Fourth.
According to the “Zerwekh Family Tree” published at Ancestry.com, Albert was born Sept. 22, 1859, in Tazewell County. On Aug. 30, 1883, he married Ida F. Maus (1864-1940), daughter of Charles T. Maus and Hattie J. Prettyman. Both the Maus and Prettyman families were among Pekin’s earliest settlers and are prominent in our city’s early history. Albert and Ida had two sons, George Ernest Zerwekh (1884-1959) and Edward Schenck Zerwekh (1886-1983).
The family tree states that Albert died of colon cancer on 10 April 1908 after an illness of six months. He is buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Pekin. After his untimely death, his sons carried on the family business at the same location. The Pekin Sesquicentennial says, “Before the Soldwedels opened their new factory [in 1920], grocers had purchased their butter directly from local farmers, and ice cream had been supplied solely by the Zerwekh Brothers at 20 South Fourth (presently the Times Building); ice cream was available year round in their store, and they also supplied the local drugstores in all but the winter months, when the soda fountains were covered with plywood and used for Christmas displays. In the 20’s Zerwekh’s stopped making ice cream, so the new Soldwedel operation assumed the responsibility on a much larger scale.”
Later, the second floor of the Zerwekh Building was a popular venue for young people in town, because it served as a dance hall where bands provided live music. In 1941, however, the Zerwekh Building was purchased by F.F. McNaughton, owner and publisher of the Pekin Daily Times, which had moved next door to Zerwekh’s in 1905-1906. The Zerwekh brothers moved to California, where they died.
As for the aged Zerwekh Building, as we recalled last week, its long and varied history drew to its end in early Oct. 2013. The Daily Times moved out in late Aug. 2012, and the Zerwekh Building’s new owner, Tazewell County, demolished it the following year to make a parking lot.