Tuesday, June 5, 2018

How the Hergets Shaped Pekin, Illinois

The Hergets, two immigrant brothers from Germany and their sons, enhanced the economy of Pekin through their enterprise and investments encompassing eight decades.  At the center of their local business empire was making and selling whiskey.  Nonetheless, a 1910 history of Illinois described the Hergets this way:   “The members of the family stand high in the social circles of the city, and are universally respected for worth and nobility of character.” 

The Herget brothers, John and George, hailed from Hergershausen, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany, the sons of Philip and Margaret (Reuling) Herget.  Their mother died while both boys were very young. Their father married again and had five more children. A former soldier, Philip was a wagon-maker who taught both sons the trade. 

John, born in 1830, was the first to immigrate to the United States, arriving in 1849 and finding his way to Gettysburg where he was engaged by a local wagon-maker.  His brother, George, born in 1933, followed three years later sailing from Le Harve, France.  He joined John in Gettysburg and was employed in the same wagon factory.

After a year George in 1853 decided to move west, traveling via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  He fetched up in Pekin, Tazewell County, Illinois, where he took a job with a local retail grocer.  Shown above, Pekin was a city with a large German population where George would have felt comfortable.  John lagged behind.  He had fallen in love with Ernestine Schreck, who had been born in Saxony near Saxe-Weimar.  After they wed in Gettysburg, John with his new bride joined George in Pekin.  John and Ernestine would go on to have eight children, five girls and three boys.  George Herget was married in Pekin in 1861 to Caroline Goehner, a native of Pekin and the daughter of George Goehner, characterized as an old settler and prominent farmer of Tazewell County.  This couple would have four children, two sons and two daughters.  

About 1860 (dates differ) the brothers opened their own grocery business on Court Street, called J. & G. Herget.  From the outset an emphasis was on liquor sales. Meeting with rapid success, by 1870 the brothers erected
a store twice the size of their original quarters.  It was located diagonally northwest from their first site and provided ample space for their wholesale grocery and liquor business.  The profits allowed the brothers — shown here, John is left — to branch out into other enterprises.

Key among those investments were distilleries.  In the fall of 1888 the Hergets built the Star Distillery in Pekin and two years later opened a second they called the Crescent Distillery.  In 1892 the family sold its interest in both plants to Samuel Woolner, one of the founders of the Illinois-based “Whiskey Trust.”  With the proceeds they erected the Globe Distillery, at the time the largest distilling facility in Pekin, having a capacity of mashing 5,000 bushels of grain daily.

By this time the Herget brothers had been joined by their sons in their enterprises.  George’s son, Henry, born in 1833, had been educated in both private and public schools in Pekin before being sent for secondary education at Elmhurst, Illinois.  Upon his return Henry, shown right, worked in the Herget brothers grocery, rising to manager.  In 1890 he was entrusted with supervising the erection of the Crescent Distilling Company and became its president.

John’s son, Carl, while following a slightly different career path, also was employed to further the family liquor interests.  Born in 1865, he was educated in local schools and subsequently entered the employ of J & G Herget.  After continuing there for some years, Carl, shown left, was dispatched to Mexico to look after his father’s extensive mining interests. Upon his return to Pekin he worked for the Star Distillery until it was sold and then supervised the construction of the Globe Distillery.  He managed that facility even after its 1898 sale to the Standard Distilling and Distributing Company. 

Having shut down their grocery and liquor business about 1891, the Herget brothers were free to pursue their many other business interests.  John was involved with the Pekin Steam Cooperage Company, Pekin Gas and Electric Light Company., Turner-Hudnut Grain firm, Globe Cattle Company, Farmer’s National Bank, the beet sugar factory, and was a large landowner in Tazewell County.  George was a major investor in the founding of the Illinois Sugar Refining Company; the Globe Cattle Company, and the Pekin Stave and Barrel Manufacturing Company, of which he was president. In 1905, with sons Henry and William, he founded the Herget & Sons Bank, shown right.

Additionally, the Herget brothers were active in Pekin’s community life.  John, a Republican, at various times was a city alderman, county supervisor, and mayor of Pekin in 1874 and 1875.  George served as alderman, supervisor, and a member of the Pekin Board of Education. He was elected the first president of the Pekin Park District.  He also assisted the city’s efforts to open a public library by contributing the land for the building.  Both men were among the founders of St. Paul’s Evangelical Church, shown here, and accounted generous contributors to its work.

Said to be “a man of stalwart physique” with excellent habits and good health, John Herget reputedly was struck down in September 1899 by malaria, a disease that was believed to brling on paralysis, causing his death at the age of 69.  In obituary it was said of this Herget:  “His life furnished an example to be emulated by all who wish to attain ideals of honest and manly citizenship.”  George lived another 15 years, dying at 80 in 1914.  “…His position in the financial world has been reached only by the exercise of sound business principles and unswerving integrity,” said one account.  John and George both are buried in Pekin’s Lakeside Cemetery, their gravestones shown here.

As the fathers moved off-stage, the Herget sons ably filled their roles in Pekin.  Henry became the president of Pekin Gas and Electric and secretary and general manager of Pekin Stave.  He also was vice president of the Doud Stock Car Company, shown here, operating 2,000 train cars for hauling livestock on multiple railroads.  He also had interests in beet sugar, a paper mill, two wagon companies, a leather product manufacturer, a race track, a daily newspaper, and large timber holdings.  Stricken with a stroke at 77, he died in 1943.  Of him an obituary said:  “Henry G. Herget was the builder of modern industrial Pekin.  Many believe that if he had not lived, Pekin would be a town of less 10,000 today, instead of the thriving, industrial city of 20,000.”

Henry’s first cousin, Carl, was equally involved in Pekin’s industrial life.  While continuing to manage the Globe Distillery even after its sale, he also was director of many of the enterprises fostered by his father and uncle as well as the American Brewing Company, a Pekin brewery founded in 1900. He also became a large landowner in the region of Tazewell County.

This Herget is best remembered in Pekin for his mansion built in 1912 at 420 Washington Street.  Now on the Register of Historic Places, the house, shown here, was designed in the Classical Revival style and occupies an entire city block.  Carl Herget died in 1946 at age 80 and is buried with other family members in Lakeside Cemetery.

The importance of the Herget family to Pekin can hardly be overestimated during the period of eighty years when they were actively involved with the city’s economy and growth.  Although little spoken of at the time, it is important to remember that profits from distilling and liquor sales fueled the growth of their Illinois business empire.

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