Pekin’s Chamber of Commerce makes it to 125

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last time we reviewed the history of the Tazewell Club, a men’s leisure group for Pekin’s professionals and business leaders that operated from 1893 to 1960. However, there is another Pekin business group that was organized at about the same time and is still going strong – the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce. Just as Illinois is celebrating its bicentennial, Pekin’s Chamber of Commerce is now preparing to celebrate its “quasquicentennial” – its 125th birthday.

Bill Fleming, executive director of Pekin’s Chamber, has graciously provided the Pekin Public Library with historical records and photographs illustrating the Chamber’s founding and history, which we’ll now review.

In October 1893, about a month after the founding of the Tazewell Club, a group of Pekin’s businessmen organized a group called the Citizens Improvement Association of Pekin, the original name for the organization today called the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce.

The association’s articles of incorporation – filed with the Illinois Secretary of State on Oct. 6, 1893 – state that the group’s purpose was “advancing the business interest and promoting the commercial growth of the City of Pekin.” It’s similar to the Tazewell Club’s purpose, except the Tazewell Club’s emphasis was on “the social enjoyments of the members of the organization,” whereas the Citizens Improvement Association of Pekin had more of a civic orientation and less of a recreational purpose.

While today’s Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce started out as the CIAP, the group went through several name changes and a merger before it reached its present form. In 1910 the organization’s members changed its name to the Commercial Club of Pekin. The following year, the Commercial Club merged with the Pekin Retail Merchants Association, which had been founded in 1900 with the aim of promoting better business practices among Pekin’s retailers.

In 1916 the Commercial Club became the Association of Commerce-Pekin, a name that stuck for the next 46 years, when in 1962 the name was changed to the Chamber of Commerce of Pekin. Sixteen years after that the Chamber, having broadened its geographical reach, made one final name-change, to “Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce.”

Five of Pekin’s leading businessmen signed the articles of incorporation on the Citizens Improvement Association of Pekin in Oct. 1893: Everett Woodruff Wilson, George Herget, Jesse B. Cooper, Henry C. Block, and Joseph Verdi Graff. All five men were active in Pekin’s economic and cultural development and advancement.

Coming from a family of Peoria distillers, Wilson later became a co-founder of the German American Bank in Pekin and first president of the American Distilling Company. He was also active in politics, serving as a Pekin alderman in the 1880s and being elected twice as mayor of Pekin in the 1890s. The grand home he built on South Fifth Street is now Abts Mortuary.

George Herget

In Pekin the Herget name has long been associated with banking. Like Wilson, George Herget was involved in distilling and later founded Herget Bank – but also invested in or headed various other companies, including the Globe Cattle Company, the Illinois Sugar Refining Company, and the Pekin Electric Light & Power Company. Herget was the first president of the Pekin Park Board and also was elected to the Pekin City Council, the Pekin School District Board of Education, the Pekin Township Board, and the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors. Herget also donated the site of the 1902 Pekin Carnegie Library.

Jesse B. Cooper

Cooper served as superintendent of the Tazewell County Poor Farm from 1872 to 1881, afterwards operating a 75-acre fruit orchard on the land northeast of 11th and Willow streets. He also served as Pekin Township Supervisor in the 1880s and 1890s, and in 1893 became Overseer of the Poor of Pekin Township as well as Township Treasurer.

Henry C. Block

Block came from a long line of merchants, working for dry-goods stores in Germany before coming to American in 1865, working for stores in Pekin and Peoria. As a valuable employee of Bonk & Company in Pekin, Block eventually became a partner in the business. After the death of the company’s founder he became head of the business, which was renamed Schipper & Block, a Pekin downtown department store that is still well-remembered.

Joseph V. Graff

Graff worked in the mercantile business in the 1870s while he studied law, operating a law practice first in Delavan and later in Pekin. At the time the Citizens Improvement Assocation of Pekin was founded in 1893, Graff’s law office was in the Marshall Building on Elizabeth Street, across the street from the Tazewell County Courthouse – the office is now occupied by the law firm of Kuhfuss & Proehl. Graff was also an inspector of Pekin public schools and later became the School Board president. In 1894, he was elected to Congress, where he served eight terms in office.

Next week we’ll take a look at two local community organizations that have both been around for 98 years – the Pekin Rotary Club, and the Pekin Kiwanis Club.

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Westerman’s Rose Villa and the Herget Mansion

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Recently we highlighted the somewhat tense and at times colorful relationship that noted Pekin distiller Henry P. Westerman (1836-1922) had with the local press. As we previously recalled, at one point Pekin editor and printer (and the city’s first historian) William H. Bates “was threatened at his very domicile by H. P. Westerman, the old head of the Pekin whiskey ring,” as the Peoria Journal mentioned on Nov. 3, 1881.

Westerman was of course known for much more than evading the federal whiskey tax and threatening the lives of newspaper editors. In fact, he and his wife Mary were prominent and influential members of the community, as one might gather from Westerman’s extensive and laudatory biography which was included in the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County,” page 38, among that publication’s lives of the “Old Settlers” of the county.

Another unmistakable sign of the Westermans’ exalted status in Pekin’s society was their impressive place of residence, a large Victorian-style mansion known as “Rose Villa.” Their mansion was located on Washington Street at the head of Buena Vista, at the street address today designated 420 Washington St.  A lithograph engraving of Rose Villa as well as an engraved portrait of H. P. Westerman himself may be found in the 1873 “Atlas Map.”

Later in life Westerman moved to California, where he died. The block on which Rose Villa stood was acquired by a member of another of Pekin’s prominent German families, Carl Herget, who replaced the old Westerman frame mansion with his own brick Classical Revival structure, known today as the Herget Mansion, now 103 years old and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. The blueprints and specifications for the new building were drawn up on July 15, 1912, by the architectural firm of Hewitt & Emerson, 321 Main St., Peoria.

It should be noted that Rob Clifton’s “Pekin History: Then and Now” (2004) has an incorrect statement regarding the relationship between Westerman’s Rose Villa and the Carl Herget Mansion. “Then and Now” says, “Around 1912 George Herget bought and then converted the house to its current appearance.” George, founder of Herget National Bank and donor of the land on which the Pekin Public Library was built, was Carl Herget’s uncle. The 1912 construction of the Herget Mansion was the erecting of a new structure from the ground up, not merely a major remodel of a previously existing structure.

RoseVilla

This engraving of Rose Villa, mansion of Henry P. Westerman, was published in the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.” The Carl Herget Mansion on Washington Street stands on the site today.

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A man, a bank and a library

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in May 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

A man, a bank and a library

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The Herget name has been prominent in Pekin’s history since the 1850s and 1860s, when the Herget family left Hesse-Darmstadt in Germany and came to America. Of that family, the immigrant brothers John, George and Philip each played significant roles in the development of Pekin. Evidence of the continuing legacy of the Herget family is found today in the name of the Herget House (or Herget Mansion) at 420 Washington Street, and, of course, in Herget Bank.

Another of the indications of the prominence of the Hergets in Pekin’s history and community life may be found in the 1894 “Portrait and Biographical Record of Tazewell and Mason Counties, Illinois.” Included in that volume were the biographies of four members of the Herget family: the three immigrant brothers John, George and Philip, and John’s second son John H. Herget.

The lives of the three brothers were intertwined, as they often partnered in various business ventures. The eldest, John, also served as Mayor of Pekin in 1873 and 1874. Rather than presenting an account of all three brothers, however, this column will take a look at the life of George Herget, relying chiefly on the account of his life in “Portrait and Biographical Record,” page 384.

George Herget

This photograph of George Herget was preserved in the 1902 Pekin Public Library cornerstone time capsule. Herget donated the land on which the library was built that year.

At the time that biography was published, George Herget was president of the Globe Distilling Co., president of the Pekin Electric Light Co., and president of the Pekin Steam Coopering Co. The biography said that he “ranks among the most prominent and successful business men of central Illinois, and has not only sustained the reputation of the family name, but by his honorable and worthy life has added to its lustre,” praising him for his “superior intelligence, sound principles and noble character,” and commenting that, “he is always an earnest advocate of the cause of justice and right, and has exerted a beneficial influence in the community with whose interests his own have long been identified.”

The biography continues, “Born May 9, 1833, the subject of this sketch is a native of Hergeshausen, Kreis Deiburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany . . . . In his native land he spent the days of boyhood, and learned the trade of a wagon-maker. In 1852 he took passage at Havre, France, on a sailing-vessel bound for America, and after landing in New York, proceeded to Gettysburg, where he engaged in the trade of a carriage-maker until the fall of 1853.

“Coming west at that time via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Mr. Herget settled in Pekin, where he became a carriage-maker in the T. & H. Smith Carriage Works. In 1858 he embarked in the retail grocery business, and two years later he was joined by his brother John.” Together, John and George founded J. & G. Herget Inc. of Pekin, wholesale sellers of groceries and liquor.

The sketch continues, “In 1870 he built a block containing two stores, and there, since 1871, he has conducted an extensive business, being for some time in the wholesale grocery and liquor business, but now devoting his attention wholly to the latter line of work.

“In 1888 Mr. Herget assisted in the organization of the Pekin Steam Coopering Company, and has since been its President. In the fall of 1892 he built the Globe Distillery, which was completed and opened in April of the following year. This concern is situated on the Jacksonville South-eastern Railroad, and has a capacity of five thousand bushels per day, being the largest distillery in Pekin. In addition to these enterprises, Mr. Herget is interested in the Globe Cattle Company, which owns about thirty-eight hundred head of cattle. In the organization of the Electric Light Company he was a prominent factor, and has been its only President.”

It was George’s nephew Carl Herget, son of John, who built the Herget Mansion on Washington Street in 1912. One the most significant parts of the Herget family’s legacy, however, was the establishment of Herget Bank on April 17, 1905. George Herget and his sons Henry G. Herget and William P. Herget founded the bank as George Herget and Sons, and were among the bank’s original board of directors. The bank was chartered nationally in 1910, when it became Herget National Bank of Pekin, Ill.

Another lasting legacy of George Herget was the construction of the Pekin Carnegie Library in 1902. Herget played an important role in the events leading up to the library’s construction. When Mary Gaither had begun to drum up support for a Carnegie Library, Herget responded favorably, writing in a letter of Nov. 8, 1900, “I will be pleased to give to the City of Pekin a site for a Library building according to the terms of a certain letter to you from Mr. Andrew Carnegie, dated October 8th., 1900.”

Copies of that and other related letters were included in the library’s cornerstone time capsule in August 1902. Also included in the time capsule was the title deed conveying the land for the library from George and Caroline Herget to the city of Pekin, along with a photograph of George Herget.

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