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Effects of the Stove Industry on Belleville

Jamie Ansley
Belleville Township High School West, Belleville

Few people realize that Belleville, Illinois, home to such notables as Bob Goalby, Jimmy Connors, and Buddy Ebsen, might well have been named the stove capital of the Midwest in the early 1900s. Ideally situated for industry near the Mississippi River and several railroads, Belleville saw some fifty foundries of the stove industry come and go before 1911.

The first Europeans to set foot on Belleville soil were seven men who camped out under a pecan tree in 1794. After that, more people migrated into the area, and a common misconception arose about the nationality of its founders. The truth is, Belleville was founded neither by French nor Germans, but by Americans who settled there for protection from the French.

Eventually the increasing number of Americans agreed there was a need for a more central location for their county government. George Blair, the original proprietor of the land on which the town would be established, declared that he would donate his land for the new county seat, which he believed would become one of the most beautiful cities in America. Hence the name Belleville, taken from the French meaning "beautiful city."

In 1819 the state of Illinois granted Belleville a village charter. After that, the population of Belleville grew steadily. The rural community gradually began to witness the establishment of industries. At first Belleville flourished due to its grain mills and breweries. Eventually a variety of other types of manufacturing were started in and around Belleville. They included nail, cigar, furniture, carriage, wagon, stove, and iron factories. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, it was the stove and iron industries that were the most numerous and most successful manufacturing businesses in Belleville.

Built in 1873, the first foundry to manufacture stoves was the old Pump and Skein. Eleven years after opening it manufactured twenty thousand gasoline stoves for a single St. Louis firm. The outgrowth of the old Pump and Skein Company was the Belleville Stove and Range Company, organized in 1885. It was the first large and exclusive stove foundry, manufacturing about 27,500 stoves annually by 1890. The success of the stove factory caused new foundries to appear in various parts of the city. The people of Belleville believed a great future existed in this industry.

Over time, fifty foundries were established in Belleville. As the years passed, many of these companies either joined with one another, went out of business because of depressions, or as in the case of Baker Stove Works, went up in flames. The fire that engulfed Baker Stove Works was one of the most spec-

The stove industry in Belleville brought growth and prosperity to the community. Belleville residents gathered in 1930 around the local swimming pool, just one of many community-sponsored amenities available in urban areas.
Belleville swimming pool

ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 1995 19


tacular ones in Belleville's history. Some early Belleville foundries and their dates of origin include: Rogers', 1878; Eagle, 1883; Baker's Stove Works, 1882; Enterprise, 1896; St. Clair, 1890; Quality, 1903; and Never Break, 1910. Empire, Harmony, Egyptian, Supreme, and Premier opened later.

Empire Comfort Systems, originally known as the Empire Stove Company, is one of the last of two stove factories in Belleville still in business today. When started in 1932, the company capitalized thirty thousand dollars and manufactured gas ranges, heaters, and furnaces. However, today Empire Comfort Systems manufactures only gas heaters. One of its organizers was Edward Kaufman, president of the Belleville Stove and Range Company. Due to the company's financial problems during the Great Depression, Kaufman joined Henry Baur to form the Empire Stove Company.

Although only twenty-eight men were employed in 1937, the plant expanded. Empire president Edward Kaufman purchased property from the Baker-Nagel Stove Factory on Freeburg Avenue, where Empire Comfort Systems stands in 1995.

Even though Empire has both sexes working now, it began as a male-dominated work factory. Not one woman had worked in the Empire factory until the frantic World-War-II effort was underway. At that time, one-fifth of the workforce was female. This change was difficult for the men, because they were not used to working alongside women. After the national crisis had subsided, women left Empire. Today the company employs two hundred workers, of which twenty-five percent are women. Empire Comfort Systems produces roughly 168,000 gas heaters annually.

At one time, nineteen foundries operated in Belleville, producing ranges, water heaters, and furnaces that were shipped worldwide giving the city the distinction of being the "stove capital of the world." At that time, with capital investment of over $2.5 million and an annual income of nearly $1.5 million, these foundries employed more than 1700 skilled workers—roughly one-tenth of the Belleville population at that time.

One can see the impact this industry had on the city during its formative years. It helped create a comfortable standard of living for Belleville's residents and helped make Belleville an important industrial center in the Midwest.—[From Gene Bernard, History of Empire Comfort Systems; "Empire Stove Co. Buys Buildings of Baker-Nagel," The Belleville Daily Advocate, May 28, 1937; "Empire Stove Firm Incorporated Here," The Belleville Daily Advocate, Aug. 27, 1932; Alvin Nebelsick, A History of Belleville; student historian's interview of Deanne B. Sehr, Sept. 19, 1995.]

20 ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 1995


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