St. Louis On the Air
Tue March 4, 2014
Belleville Celebrates Its Bicentennial
Updated following the show.
St. Louis is not the only local community celebrating an important milestone this year. Founded in 1814, Belleville, Illinois is turning 200.
The city is known for its early breweries, role in the coal industry, and manufacturing. It's the birthplace of Jelly Belly, houses one of the oldest libraries, and has one of the oldest continuously operating philharmonic orchestras in the country. City leaders are commemorating this milestone, in part, by updating the city's image with a new comprehensive plan.
The History of Belleville
From its founding, Belleville has been the seat of St. Clair County. In fact, the city was founded, in part, out of a desire to move the county seat from its current location in Cahokia to a more central location. After much debate the county seat was established in what is now Belleville on March 10, 1814.
“If you wanted to pick out a founding date that would probably be it,” said William Shannon, curator of the St. Clair County Historical Society. George Blair donated an acre of land for the town square and designated every 5th acre for government use. He also gave Belleville its name.
Perhaps Belleville’s best known ethnic group, the Germans, did not start moving into the area until the 1830s; though once they arrived they made a strong impact on the city.
“It would be incorrect to say that Belleville started out as a German town, but it certainly became one,” said Shannon. In 1837, Chris Eckert’s ancestors emigrated from Germany to the Belleville area and began farming the land that today is home to the Eckert's Country Store and Farm.
By 1860 two thirds of the population was comprised of German immigrants and their children.
In 1869, another German family made their mark on Belleville. Gustav Goelitz started a confectionery business called Gustav Goelitz Candy, the origins of what would become the Jelly Belly Candy Company.
Also part of the city’s German heritage is its brewery history. In 1832, Jacob Fleischbein founded the first beer brewery in Illinois near Belleville's town square. By 1860, Belleville had seven breweries not including the Fleischbein Brewery, which had closed by then.
From a farming community, the city transitioned to a center of manufacturing and mining. Coal mines opened in the area shortly after the civil war and operated well into the 20th century. For a time, the city was home to several stove manufacturers.
Planning for the Future
Manufacturing no longer plays as prominent a role in Belleville as it once did. As part of the metropolitan St. Louis area, many people commute to work. And with that change in economic structure has come a need to change how the city operates and perceives itself.
As Chamber of Commerce board member Chris Eckert put it: “It is a change in culture to go from that factory belt town of a 100 years ago or 50 years ago to more of a community of residents that commute out of the community to work.” Eckert is also president of Eckert's Country Store and Farm.
According to Emily Fultz, the director of economic planning and zoning for the city of Belleville, Scott Air Force Base is the largest employer in the area, followed by area hospitals and local colleges. Looking to the future, the city is developing a 20 year comprehensive plan.
“We’re addressing all things from mobility to infrastructure to economic development, our neighborhoods, our land use, and looking forward to our next 200 years,” Fultz said.
The city is currently seeking community feedback on the plan with an online discussion forum. Fultz encourages Belleville residents to share their thoughts.
“It’s not my plan, it’s not the alderman's plan; it’s our plan. So we rely on our residents, our business owners, anyone with a tie to Belleville to give us their feedback so we can shape those goals and objectives for the next 20 years,” she said.
With such a large milestone as 200 years come some celebratory events, a full list of which can be found on the bicentennial website. One big event is a festival weekend in September that includes musical guests such as the Beach Boys, historical demonstrations, a carnival, and vintage baseball. “There is just so much going on. It’s going to be a really fun year,” said Teresa Hessel, who is on the executive committee planning Belleville’s events. “We’re all volunteers. We’re just people who live in Belleville and want to have a phenomenal year and celebrate the town that we all choose to live in.”
Here's an excerpt from "History of Belleville," a book written by Alvin Louis Nebelsick and published in 1951, about the founding of the city. You can read the whole book here.
St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show was produced by Amanda Honigfort and is regularly produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.