Prehistory and history of the Schipper and Block building

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2014 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Prehistory and history of the Schipper and Block building

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In the files of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room is a newspaper clipping from the Jan. 13, 1994 Peoria Journal Star – an article written by Valari Hyatt, entitled, “Old stores haunt memories of downtown Pekin.”

The subject of the article is the old Schipper and Block building, which stands at the corner of Court and Capitol streets. “Rich in history, the building’s legacy dates back before its birth,” Hyatt wrote.

Once the location of a popular and successful clothing store, the Schipper and Block building’s history and “prehistory” reaches back to the period of the Civil War.

The business began in 1863 or 1864 as C. Bonk and Co., which ran a dry goods store with John H. Schipper as Bonk’s partner. After Bonk’s death, Henry C. Block joined the company, which became the Schipper and Block Co., located at 304 Margaret St., a block north of the corner of Court and Capitol which later would become its location. The 300 block of Margaret Street was then known as Smith’s Row, because that is where Dietrich and Teis Smith had their business operations, including their well-known Wagon Works.

In 1874, Schipper and Block moved their store to the corner of Court and Third streets – at 302 Court St., next to the post office. As their business thrived, they opened a second shop at 332 Court St., the corner of Court and Capitol streets, on Oct. 12, 1879. Some years later they opened a store in Peoria which soon after became the largest dry goods operation in Illinois outside of Chicago. The Peoria store became a Carson Pirie Scott in 1961.

The original Schipper & Block building at the corner of Court and Capitol streets opened in 1879, but was destroyed by fire in 1898.

Schipper died Sept. 25, 1893, in Louisville, Ky., while on his way home from Block Island near Rhode Island, where he had gone for a rest due to his ill health. Block continued to operate the business until the turn of the century, when the Pekin store operations consolidated at the corner of Court and Capitol streets.

That came about as the result of a fire in 1898 that destroyed the Schipper and Block store at the corner of Court and Capitol streets. A new structure was erected in its place. Then around 1900, Block sold a considerable amount of his holdings in the Pekin operation to George Ehrlicher, who had been Block’s right-hand man for many years. It was about that time that the decision was made to close the store at 302 Court St. and consolidate in the newer building at 332 Court St.

The second Schipper & Block building was erected in 1898 to replace the 1879 store after a fire, but the new building itself succumbed to flames in 1922.

The company’s name was changed to Block and Kuhl Co. on Jan. 1, 1914, when Theodore Kuhl became president – but the “Schipper & Block Co.” sign remained, so everyone continued to call it the Schipper and Block building. Another fire in Feb. 1922 destroyed the “new” building, but by December of that year the company had rebuilt at the same location. That’s the structure one can see at that corner today.

George Ehrlicher’s sons George Jr. and Arthur took over the business after their father, and they kept the business going until May 1962, when business reverses made it necessary for them to sell the store. George Jr. died in Sept. 1962, just four months after the sale. The new owners, Harold Whaley of Ottawa and William T. Malloy of Peoria, were unable to return the business to profitability, however, and the store went bankrupt in 1964, when a receiver was appointed. The store limped along for another four years, finally going out of business in March 1968. The Schipper and Block building would then remain vacant for 26 years.

The Schipper & Block building that stands vacant today is shown in this photograph taken by Ralph James Goodwin in 1966, two years before the store went out of business.

Though much of the glamour has faded,” Hyatt wrote in 1994, “the old Schipper and Block building – as it has been called for over a hundred years, no matter who owned it – still stands on solid ground. In fact, the city recently sold the property at 332 Court St. to Tobin Brothers, with a developer’s agreement. According to Lee Williams, city marketing director, the transfer of ownership occurred Jan. 4.

‘The Schipper and Block building is dear to the hearts of the mayor and (all of those on) the City Council. They had decided that the Schipper and Block building was definitely not going to be torn down . . . because of the historic background,’ Williams said, noting that Tobin Brothers is remodeling the three-story brick building for about $350,000.

Their goal is to put the building back to its original state, then lease the building to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and several other businesses.

More recently, the State of Illinois’ budget crunch led to the closing of the Pekin DCFS office. The old building once again went vacant and is for sale.

The official logo of the Illinois Bicentennial was officially unveiled at the Old State Capitol in Springfield on Jan. 12 of this year.

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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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Scandal: The Failure of the Teis Smith Bank

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in August 2014 before the launch of this blog . . .

Scandal: The Failure of the Teis Smith Bank

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In its account of the organization of Pekin’s first banking institutions, the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volume, pages 33-34, provides the following paragraph about a bank that popularly was known among the residents of Pekin as “the Smith Bank”:

“At about the same time that the first National Bank was organized [i.e., about the end of the Civil War], the Teis Smith banking firm was founded. The bank was located in the same block as the Smith wagon works, but it was conducted as a distinct and separate business. An interesting note in conjunction with the story of this operation is that upon the death in 1890 of Fred Smith, the senior partner who had taken over after his brother Teis died in 1870, Habbe Velde of the T. & H. Smith Company, Henry Block and John Schipper of the Schipper and Block dry goods establishment, and E. F. Unland of the Smith Hippen grain company (all of which are substantial businesses of old-time Pekin) stepped in as full partners to assure that the credit of the bank would not suffer greatly from his death.”

The 1949 Pekin Centenary, page 25, offers just a single sentence on the founding of this bank:

“That year [i.e., 1866] the Smith bank was established at 331 Court street, the First National bank at 304 Court street, . . . .”

“Pekin: A Pictorial History” (1998, 2004) has even less to say about the bank – just a single reference on page 92 to the fact that Teis Smith “also had interests in banking and railroads.”

Teis Smith, his brothers and other relatives were the founders of several prominent businesses in Pekin in the mid- to late 1800s, including a bank located at 331 Court St. This lithograph of Teis Smith was printed in the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell County.

Teis Smith, his brothers and other relatives were the founders of several prominent businesses in Pekin in the mid- to late 1800s, including a bank located at 331 Court St. This lithograph of Teis Smith was printed in the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell County.

Relying only on these brief notices in the standard works on Pekin’s history, one would never even be able to imagine the catastrophic circumstances surrounding the closing of the Smith Bank.

After operating for 40 years, the bank suddenly closed its doors on April 2, 1906, and the firm was then liquidated. When shareholders and depositors learned the reasons why the bank had closed, however, they went to the state’s attorney, who filed charges of embezzlement against the bank partners.

The story of that embezzlement trial – characterized in the Peoria Star’s contemporary reports as “the most sensational and deplorable affair that has ever come under the notice of Tazewell County residents” – is told in James A. Velde’s historical essay, “A Sensational Criminal Trial in Central Illinois,” a copy of which is in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.

This is how Velde explains the failure of the Smith Bank:

“After partner Frederick Smith, a younger brother of Teis, died in a railroad wreck in 1890, the wagon and plow companies were separately incorporated in Illinois to avoid the complications in settling a deceased partner’s interest. But the bank was not incorporated, perhaps because of a feared government interference in an incorporated bank. The bank partners were thus left with their personal unlimited liability for all the bank’s debts . . . Near the mid-1890s the three enterprises were adversely affected by nation-wide difficult economic conditions, including bank panics and years of business depression. There came a time when the payrolls and other expenses of the wagon and plow companies were financed by borrowings from the Smith Bank, whose managers and partners were officers and stockholders of the two corporations. When the loans became delinquent in large amounts, the corporations issued shares of capital stock in payment of the loans. This practice, since the stock had no market, depleted the bank’s liquid assets and led to its closing on April 2, 1906.”

On May 24, 1906, four of the six bank partners were indicted in Tazewell County Circuit Court for embezzlement, under an 1879 Illinois law that made it illegal for a banker to accept deposits when his banking company is insolvent. The four indicted partners were Dietrich Conrad Smith, youngest brother of Teis Smith, who was the bank’s president and vice president of Pekin Plow Company; Conrad Luppen, bank cashier; Ernest F. Unland, president of Smith, Hippen & Company; and Henry C. Block, president of Schipper & Block department store.

The case was prosecutors by State’s Attorney Charles Schaefer, owner of the land that came to be known as Schaeferville and later a Tazewell County judge, and Judge Jesse Black, who later successfully defended the Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies accused of torturing jail inmate Martin Virant to death in 1932.

The criminal prosecution stretched through the rest of 1906. Unfortunately, the issues of the Pekin Daily Times from that year are lost, but the indictment and trial proceedings were reported extensively in the Peoria Star (one of the predecessors of today’s Peoria Journal Star). The Star’s reports were usually sensationalistic and incendiary, often transgressing into libelous attacks on the personal character and even physical appearance of the defendants. During the course of the trial, as Velde shows, evidence was presented showing that the bankers had fraudulently been using depositors’ money to keep their troubled wagon and plow businesses afloat.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty against all four defendants on Dec. 15, 1906. However, defense attorneys almost immediately appealed the verdict and asked for a new trial, arguing that the conviction was not in accordance with a 1903 amendment to the 1879 statute under which the bankers had been indicted. In the end, both the trial’s judge, Leslie D. Puterbaugh, and State’s Attorney Schaefer agreed that the indictment had been a mistake, because the 1903 amendment had made it virtually impossible to obtain a conviction in a case such as the failure of the Smith Bank. The conviction was then set aside. Schaefer moved to have the indictment dismissed on April 15, 1907, and Judge Puterbaugh granted the motion.

With no attempt to disguise the dismayed at the overturning of the guilty verdict, the Peoria Star wrapped up its coverage of the affair with the comment, “Although the cases were stricken from the records, the memory of the wrecking of the Teis Smith and Company Bank by those behind it will linger for years to come.”

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