Belleville is one of the oldest cities in Illinois. It was first settled after the Revolutionary War by veterans who received land grants. After the Civil War, manufacturing began to take hold in the community and changed the landscape of the city that we know and love today.
Larger local companies made nails, printing presses, gray iron castings and agricultural equipment. Smaller companies made cigars and candy. As immigrants came to the area, they struggled with language barriers, working conditions, pay scales and many other challenges. Soon, labor and workingmen organizations formed. Advances in quality of the workplaces and fair wages contributed to the creation of the middle class – a factor that spurred the local economy.
In the early 1800s, southern Illinois was home to many French settlers – Belleville means “beautiful city” in French. But since the mid-1800s, the major cultural influence here has been from Germany. In 1824, Gottfried Duden published a book about the area. Many well-educated and successful German citizens read the book and considered immigrating to southern Illinois. After the failure of the German Revolution in 1830, many chose to leave Germany. Giessener Gesellschaft was a German company that brought many immigrants to Missouri. Many moved in to Illinois in their search for a place where they could enjoy political and religious freedom.
German immigrants began settling in Belleville in large numbers during the 1830s. They brought with them their simple brick architectural designs – which can still be seen in the city’s older neighborhoods of Old Belleville District: Hexenbukel and Oakland, as well as their talents in beer brewing. At one time, there were as many as seven breweries in Belleville. German influences in law, journalism, education, science and industry were strong then and are still evident today.
Other advances began to make a more civilized and productive life for Belleville residents. The fire brigade was organized in 1840, and gas lighting was first introduced in 1856. During the 1850s, paving of city streets began.
Founded in 1867 as the German Library Society, the Belleville Public Library is one of Illinois’ oldest continuous subscription libraries. It began with German immigrants donating their books, which are still part of the collection today. The St. Clair County Genealogical Society is now responsible for maintaining ancestral records, genealogical publications and family histories at the library. By 1870, an estimated 90 percent of the city’s population was German – immigrants were graduates of and professors from German universities who came to be known as Die Lateiner or “Latin Farmers.” They began a German language newspaper and an organization for vocal music.
Meeting regularly in one another’s homes, they discussed and shared ideas. One of the Illinois’ first public school systems, including the first kindergarten, and the Belleville Philharmonic Society began because of the strong emphasis they placed on education and the arts.
One of the major industries in Belleville was stove casting for heating and cooking stoves. The first stoves arrived in 1834, and soon the Enterprise and Empire foundries were in operation. From the late 1800s to the 1940s, the city was known as the “Stove Capital of the World.” The first enameled stove was made here, and the “Jacketed Stove” was invented here. As the city prospered, the first street railway appeared in 1874, and electric lighting came in 1891.
Today, Belleville’s Labor and Industry Museum preserves the history of the city’s business beginnings. Photographs, artifacts, historical documents and products from the Industrial Revolution are housed in the restored Charles Bornman house. Bornman was a Blacksmith, strawberry farmer and brickmaker. Originally built in the German Klassizimus style, the house was 1.5 stories with gabled side walls and a cornice of brickwork across the front.
Among its many displays, one of the museum’s prize artifacts is “Jumbo,” the Harrison steam engine. The Belleville Heritage Society and the Belleville Historic Preservation Commission are dedicated to maintaining the German influences and architectural treasures of the city.
The St. Clair County Historical Society was established in 1905. It has restored two house museums that are open to the public. Victorian Home Museum is an example of an 1866 Greek Revival home with mid-19th-century furnishings. The society’s research library and gift shop, along with its offices, are located here. Emma Kunz Home Museum is a restored 1830s home, modeled after the 19th-century German street homes built in Europe. Furnished with antiques from the period, it is the oldest brick home in Illinois. The Society’s latest restoration project is the 1852 Gustave Koerner Home, which will also become a museum. Koerner was the first German-American elected to the Illinois Legislature and was elected in 1852 as Illinois’ Lieutenant Governor. He was also a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln.
The Belleville Historic Preservation Commission began in 1972, and one of its earliest accomplishments was having more than 700 of Belleville’s commercial, industrial and residential sites on the National Register of Historic Places. This continues to be one of Illinois’ largest historic districts. The commission is responsible for reviewing all exterior changes in the city’s historic districts and identifying and working to preserve places, areas and buildings with special historical, cultural or aesthetic interest.
The diversity of Belleville’s history and its impact as a center for education, industry and culture since the early 19th century are symbolized well in the Belleville City Flag. Designed in 1964 as part of Belleville’s sesquicentennial celebration, its colors are symbolic of the city’s strengths. Black represents the rich soil. Yellow shows the mineral wealth. Green symbolizes agriculture. White is indicative of culture and plenty. The posthorn stands for the blend of Old World pioneers who settled here and the city’s musical heritage.