October 18, 2019
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What's in a Name?

Read the full feature in Evansville City View.

New York City claims the Rikers and the Ellises. Chicago has the McCormicks and the Wrigleys. Louisville, Ky.’s, founding families include the Clarks and the Speeds. When foundations were laid for our cities, it was families who pioneered to make them great. Generation by generation, families form the continuous threads in Evansville’s history, too. Here are the stories of three families, strong still today in Evansville, whose ancestors lived here through four or more generations.

The Kochs

Philipp and Margaretha Koch arrived in Evansville from Albig, Germany, on Aug. 17, 1843, with their five sons: Jacob, Philip, Henry, George, and Andrew. The 18-day steamship trip was difficult for Margaretha — sixth son William was likely born the day the family arrived in Evansville. The family arrived in New York City, and traveled to Pittsburgh by train, where they boarded an Ohio River steamboat to journey to Evansville.

Margaretha’s sister, Maria Barbara Wick Heilman Weintz had immigrated to Evansville five years earlier. Mrs. Weintz was the mother of William Heilman, who served as Evansville’s mayor from 1910 to 1914.

Philipp Koch first farmed in Posey County then founded Eagle Brewery at the corner of Riverside and Fulton streets. While the business was profitable, his son George decided at age 14 to become an apprentice at the City Foundry. The apprenticeship lasted five years and ended with a trip down the Ohio River to Vicksburg, Miss. Still there at the start of the Civil War, George enlisted in the Confederate Army and was wounded twice — once at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee and again at Corinth, Miss. At the same time, four of his brothers were serving in the Union Army. “It was always their fear and their father’s that they might one day be pitted against each other,” according to Koch family history records.

After the war, George, his wife Anna Maria Schwink, and their two children moved to Evansville, where he opened the George Koch Tin Shop along the Ohio River on W. Pennsylvania Street in 1873. As George’s family grew, so did his business, which began making venting for stoves, gutters, and tin roofing. Of his three sons who lived to adulthood, Louis J. Koch was the first to work at the company full time. He later became general manager of the business after his father died on April 8, 1903. Louis’ two brothers, Albert and George W., then joined him in the business that came to be known as George Koch Sons. George W. was instrumental in organizing and was the first president of the West Side Building and Savings Association, which later became First Federal Savings Bank, on Franklin Street. He also was one of the organizers of the West Side Nut Club and served as its second president. The Kochs were instrumental in helping to stage the Fall Festival.

Louis (pictured at right) was a talented tinsmith mechanic. He designed and built a small amusement park in his backyard that featured a 100-foot roller coaster, swings, and a merry-go-round. His inventiveness later led him to open what is now known as Holiday World on Aug. 3, 1946. His son, Bill, became the head of the nation’s first theme park, Holiday World Theme Park and Splashin’ Safari Water Park, followed by Bill’s son, Will, who died unexpectedly in 2010.

These days, George Koch Sons is known as Koch Enterprises, Inc., a diversified privately owned corporation headquartered in Evansville with major operations in Mexico and England. The family’s generational generosity has made possible, among many other endeavors, the creation of the Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville and the Koch Planetarium at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science (closed earlier this year for the expansion of the museum and opening of the new Immersive Theater (see related story).

The Gumberts

The history of Evansville’s Jewish community began in 1837 with the arrival of the Gumberts family, who were said to be the first Jewish family in Indiana. Evansville was appealing because of the large number of German speaking people among its population of 1800, as well as the fact that Evansville was the terminus for the largest canal project in the world, the Wabash & Erie Canal.

Along with the parents, Marx and Rachel Gumberts, young Abram traveled from Bavaria, Germany, with his five brothers to Evansville, celebrating his first birthday on the boat. In his early adult years, Abram was known as a peddler, traveling mostly in Kentucky. Eventually he settled down in Evansville and began buying land, including property at the corner of Sixth Street and Washington Avenue which he purchased to donate as the site of the Washington Avenue Temple. Today the site is the home of Patchwork Central, a faith-based neighborhood outreach organization. The synagogue’s tower remains; a fire destroyed the building in 1983.

Abram became a clothing manufacturer with headquarters at First and Sycamore Streets. He and his wife, Priscilla Dinkelspeel Gumberts, had six children, among them, Ferd A. Gumberts. Ferd worked in a number of jobs before buying, in 1901, a furniture store on Main Street, which became Rosenthal and Gumberts Furniture Co. (Rosenthal was Ferd’s brother-in-law.)

Ferd married Florence Bitterman (whose family owned jewelry stores in Vincennes, Ind., and Evansville), and they had three children: Richard, Helen Gumberts Simon, and William.

Like most Main Street businesses, the furniture store, known as R & G Furniture, was a family operation. Ferd, sons Richard and William, and their uncles all worked in the store. In the 1930s and 1940s, Main Street bustled with shoppers and R & G beckoned them with a beautiful electrical sign, suspended above the sidewalk, featuring a rocking chair that rocked. It was one of the first moving electrical signs in Evansville.

Standing sixth from left is Richard Gumberts at Dade Park, now known as Ellis Park, in 1940.

Ferd’s children were interested in the arts and culture — Richard and William each toured Europe in high school (Richard in 1925; William in 1927) and reveled in the museums, concerts, theaters, opera, and architecture. As an adult, William worked to promote what was then the Museum of Fine Arts and helped establish the Evansville Civic Theatre Association. William served in World War II, and upon his return continued to encourage the arts, serving on the boards of the Evansville Museum and the Broadway Theatre League. He also was president of the board of Family and Children’s Service and a member of the Mayor’s Human Relations Commission. In 1969, he commissioned architect Keith Knapp to design a two-story home with six round towers at 22 Chandler (twice featured in Evansville Living, most recently in November/December 2013). In March 1981, William Gumberts was named the first winner of the Mayor’s Arts Award. He died in 1983.

Sister Helen Gumberts Simon, who moved to New York too, was a benefactor of the arts; The Helen Gumberts Simon Trust has funded numerous museum acquisitions.

Richard, the oldest son, was tapped to serve as president of R & G Furniture when his father died in 1960. The firm operated until 1967 when urban renewal led to its closure. With an active retirement, Richard worked primarily in social service fields. He married Susie Wells, in 1937, at the McCurdy Hotel. Wells’ family lived at the elegant McCurdy after relocating from Louisville, Ky., to establish the Wells Cloak and Suit Company on Main Street.

Richard died in 1994, and in 1996, Susie disclosed that she had bequeathed $1 million and her North Side home to the University of Southern Indiana Romain College of Business. For years she had watched the university grow, and she was “engulfed in it,” she once said. Today, the gifts fund the Richard A. and Susie Gumberts Business Scholarship and the Anna B. and Eugene J. Wells Business Scholarship, as well as the Richard A. and Susie Gumberts Endowed Presidential Scholarship.

Susie (pictured at right) was a founder and lifetime director of Keep Evansville Beautiful and a master gardener. She also was a self-taught cook who penned a column, “Alphabet Soup,” in the 1960s and 1970s for the Sunday Courier and Press. Susie Gumberts died in 2004 at the age of 88.

The Reitzes

Few families in Evansville history are associated more with philanthropy and remarkable structures than the Reitz family. The patriarch, John Augustus Reitz (pictured at right), was born in Dorlar, Prussia, in 1815 to a family owning large estates. His ancestors were noted for their longevity; his grandmother, it is reported, lived to be 116. After her husband’s death, when she was 81, she overtook management of the family’s salt manufacturing business, and successfully ran it for 30 years.

When he was 21, John Augustus left the family estate to come to America. Many German immigrants were attracted to Southern Indiana by the hardwood forests, but Reitz came because of the clay, which he had heard was excellent for pottery.

He soon learned there were not enough residents to support the pottery industry, and so in 1845, he built his own sawmill on Pigeon Creek near the Ohio River. By the 1880s, Reitz’s mill produced more feet of hardwood lumber than any other in the country. It has been reported that the mill operated 22 hours a day, six days a week. Reitz became known as “The Lumber Baron.”

In 1839, Reitz married Gertrude Frisse, also a native of Prussia. Between 1841 and 1863, the couple had 10 children, including Francis Joseph Reitz.

Reitz’s magnificent home at S.E. First and Chestnut streets was completed in 1871. His family then consisted of Francis Joseph, Christine, Josephine, John Jr., Wilhelmine, Mathilda, Louise, and Edward. Two daughters, Julia and Mary, married in 1864, and were already in homes of their own by then. Ten years after the house was built, John Jr. married and moved into a home of his own. None of the other children ever married; they continued to live in the house together.

Today, the family home is a museum – The Reitz Home Museum, and is noted as one of the country’s finest examples of Second Empire architecture and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Branching out into banking, Reitz organized the Crescent City Bank in 1856 and at one point served as president. He was one of the incorporators of the Evansville, Carmi & Paducah railroad and was president of the company, which later became the St. Louis division of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. He was also a director of the Nashville division of the same system from Evansville to Nashville, Tenn., and was instrumental in advancing the interests of the Evansville & Crawfordsville Railroad. When the town of Lamasco was incorporated in 1846, he became its CEO and managed its affairs until it was annexed into Evansville.

Reitz’s diverse business interest made him very wealthy. According to historian F.M. Gilbert in his “History of the City of Evansville and Vanderburgh County,” John Augustus Reitz was “permeated with the leaven of charity.”

After John Augustus’ death in 1891, son Francis Joseph (pictured at right) managed the family estate, where it continued to grow. Taking on his father’s ideals, he, too, became a philanthropist. For more than 50 years, he was a leading figure in Evansville business retiring in 1924 as president of National City Bank (known most recently as Integra Bank). After he retired, he devoted his time to disposing through philanthropy the vast wealth he had accumulated.

Francis Joseph died in 1930 at age 89. He attributed his longevity to seldom worrying, keeping regular habits, refusing to discuss business at home, and getting nine hours of sleep each night.

The Reitz family helped finance many facilities in the Evansville area, including Reitz Memorial High School, Little Sisters of the Poor, the original Sacred Heart Church, Francis Joseph Reitz High School, and Evansville College, today the University of Evansville.

Saint Joseph Cemetery is the final resting place for Francis Joseph Reitz, his parents, and six of his siblings. Agreed upon by experts as one of the most extraordinary private family burial monuments in the U.S., the Reitz Memorial Monument is located at the highest point in the cemetery, overlooking the entire grounds, as well as part of the West Side of Evansville. It was erected in 1919 by Francis Joseph Reitz to commemorate his parents and siblings.

Though Francis Joseph and six of his siblings never married, Evansville address records today count more than 50 households with the name Reitz.

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