PART II—MESKER, a fashionable word used by Mt. Carroll residents in the 1889’s had mostly faded away by the turn-of-the century, it being replaced by such activities as Bicycling or Roller Rinks and later the Spanish American War with expanded horizons such as Manila, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba, all ceded to America by Spain—for twenty million dollars, that is. Admiral Dewey and Theodore Roosevelt were names that overshadowed Mesker Brothers by 1900.
Radio, which soon would become the nation’s favorite entertainment, even to replace vaudeville, was just beginning to be a well-used appliance. How to transmit the human voice by radio waves had been discovered by R.A. Anderson. It would be a while before radio, radon, radium would be common conversation, however.
Perhaps, in that first decade of the twentieth century the Olympics had some following by newspaper, that is! Ray Ewry won eight medals. Young boys and young men would have followed his career. W.G. Grace retired from the British cricket field after scoring 54,000 points. That was worth talking about even if you didn’t know what you were talking about.
Among all the national new words, like automobiles, there were local rumors that Joe Peterson was selling out on the corner, he the county’s premier clothier.
The White Store brought trade from all the surrounding area. What to do without Peterson’s? Joe Peterson had run the store for several years and just as worry was about to replace anxiety, news came that a George Kraft store would buy the stock and merchandise, update it and in so doing Mt. Carroll’s would become a “chain” store, part of a franchise, “Kraft Associated Stores.” What a feather in the commercial bonnet of the town. There were about twenty Kraft stores at the time but eventually there would be fifty throughout the Midwest. They flourished because of their quality merchandise at a competitive price and the service, excellent.
The name “Kraft” is painted on the east exterior wall of the store in this view taken from the Hotel Glenview, looking west down Market Street one rainy day, it would have been snapped after 1908 when the new ownership began. This and informative material came from the “Mirror-Democrat” which devotes much space in promoting Mt. Carroll. We thank them and Randy Stadel who is just one of the devoted workers restoring the building to its former glory. Thanks to all.
In November of 1907 Kraft took possession of the store, bringing in Charles Odell who was managing a store in Brooklyn, Iowa. Being successful there, Odell made manager, cast about for a clerk who would bring to the store the good reputation built up at all the other facilities. After a few temporary clerks were put to test, Odell enticed a young man then working in a local grocery store, Al Kessler, a native of Mt. Carroll who since a boy had worked in retail gaining experience. Odell was satisfied he’d made the right decision and a short time later Kessler became a copartner in the store, “Kraft-Kessler” was the new name on Main and Market.
The arrangement of a local manager to keep a finger on the pulse of the host town along with the corporate entity to supply depth of inventory and overall experience was how the Kraft stores carried out their business ... A copartner of hometown and corporate perspective.
In January of 1925, two clerks were asked to become co-owners also, W.R. Kromer and Nelson Gsell. They are pictured here with A.R. Kessler, an illustration from one of the interesting supplementary of the Mirror-Democrat of the 1920’s that lists businesses and history of Carroll County. This one is dated 1930.
Kromer was also a native of Mt. Carroll, married with two children. He was energetic and a “square shooter,” account related.
Nelson Gsell was born in Shannon but had lived in Mt. Carroll for several years. He was described as reserved but had “lots of pep when it came to business.”
The three, it is written, made a success of the Kraft store, increasing sales and drew customers from a large surrounding area. The slogan, “If it comes from Kraft’s it must be right,” filled the bill.
A newspaper item printed in 1967 noted the chronology of the businessmen in the Kraft store’s history at its sixtieth anniversary in business. The Mesker brothers store front was just one part of its story, a background, it could be said, for the events taking place locally. In a 1920’s article it said of the store, “it had persisted through good times, ‘war and slump’.”
By the late 1970’s action began to grow slowly to recognize the numbers of buildings in downtown Mt. Carroll for the high percentage of “Victorian” store fronts, the highest ratio of Mesker fronts in one town of any in the State of Illinois.
By the 1970’s desire began to slowly grow for the main street fronts to be recognized and in subsequent years application was made to be on the National Register of Historic Places which ultimately was granted, the first of three steps. Membership in the National Main Street program was rejected then, however.
Committees and the Mt. Carroll Council have worked tirelessly through the years to promote, restore, preserve the many historical aspects of the city especially the most visible, the “Victorian” store fronts that time, whether, interference by nay sayers and lack of funding. It’s a slow process.
Other owners made their mark on that business address. “Fashions on Main, with JoAnn Palmer’s proprietorship was the last in the long line of “clothing and furnishings.” A fire took a high toll on the building in 2006. Following the considerable destruction ideas were exchanged and slowly the plan grew to restore it as original as possible. Volunteers stepped up, funding was sought and after much of the old-fashioned elbow grease, the “Kraft” building has been nicely refurbished, inside and out. A committee to direct its renewal has had the brunt of decision-making in seeking funding and so forth, until today several vendors are under the roof of the former White Store along with the “Brick Street Coffee,” a bistro with specialty coffees, food, a stimulating experience, a welcome for everyone. “War and slump,” indeed, caused ups and downs in the town’s economy and new words in each period replaced Mesker like Doughboys became G.I.’s, Okinawa took the place of Havana and Manila, atom bomb changed conversation, the Charleston and Two-Step came before the Jitterbug, Sailor boy collars faded and the Zoot suit with a Reet pleat became the talk of the town though not commonly seen! Facebook and e-mail takes the conversation lead instead of Mesker store fronts today, but you can see Mesker still, however, on most of the stamped metal main street coverings ... A nameplate might point out the manufacturer of that long ago sensation. One may be seen a few doors south of the corner of Main and Market.
Thanks again to all the worker bees, volunteers who gave time in a variety of ways to preserve one of the many quaint aspects of the county seat. You know who you are and lest an “outsider” miss someone’s name, we trust you know and will thank them also.