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Evansville
Wednesday, December 7, 2022

What’s in a Name?

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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Families That Made Evansville Tick

By Kelley Coures

Igleheart. The Igleheart Family, known for their long running flourmill operation and Swans Down Cake Flour, was descended from Levi Igleheart, born to a German immigrant family in Maryland. Levi married and moved his family to Warrick County in 1823.  His eldest son Asa had a natural love of learning, and eventually became an attorney and then judge, with national renown.  Asa and his brother William, formed Igleheart Brothers Flouring Mill in 1855 to take advantage of what was predicted to be the successful Wabash and Erie Canal that had its terminus in Evansville. The Mill was more successful than the canal, however.  The Mill itself was sold to General Foods in 1926, but the Igleheart family name still is widely known, and the descendants are known today for their charitable works in the community.

Haynie. The Haynie family extends back many generations in Evansville. Gilmore Haynie owned a drug store that stood at the apex of Second Street and Adams Avenue from 1895 until it was destroyed by a fire in 1946 (then Wood’s Drug Store). Gilmore Haynie, a long time advocate for the Parks system in Evansville, especially Mesker Park Zoo, along with his wife Mildred Smith Haynie, founded what became an internationally known travel agency headquartered in Evansville. The name “Haynie’s Corner” still identifies the area where his physical presence long ago disappeared, testifying to the impact the family name had on the neighborhood.

Boeke. Henry Boeke Sr. was a farmer who settled in early Vanderburgh County in the German immigration wave of the mid 19th century. The farm was very successful and his son, Henry Boeke Jr., who operated the farm and later the Arden Dairy on the northeast side, was elected a county commissioner in 1888. Boeke served a number of elected positions before his death in the 1930s. The last surviving sibling of the original Boeke family, Matilda died in 1967 at the age of 89. Their home at the corner of Morgan and Boeke roads was physically relocated to the corner of Vogel and Boeke roads shortly after Henry’s death. At one time, along Boeke Road, one could see more than 65 hereford cows in the large field operated as the dairy farm.

Bosse. Benjamin Bosse (1875-1922) was a politician and business entrepreneur of the first decades of the 20th century. He began his career in the furniture industry, which was beginning exponential growth in Evansville at the turn of the century and made a fortune with what became known as “Globe-Bosse-World Furniture.” He was a consummate politician and was elected mayor in 1913, 1917, and 1921. At the height of his political power and prestige, Bosse died of infection April 4, 1922. His funeral in Downtown Evansville was a major event. His large scale projects were the baseball field that bears his name in Garvin Park, and Bosse High School on Washington Avenue. His motto still is repeated today by those who know the city history well: “When everybody boosts, everybody wins!”

Orr. Samuel Orr, an Irish immigrant to Evansville, opened a small blacksmith shop in 1835, which over a period of years grew into an iron-manufacturing center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Orr’s grandson, Robert (1917-2004) served as Indiana’s Lieutenant Governor and Governor. Orr Iron’s headquarters stood on what is now the Lloyd Expressway near Fulton Avenue from 1912 until it was demolished in 2008 due to expansion and relocation of part of the expressway. Robert’s work to secure an interstate highway bypass for Evansville culminated in the construction of Interstate 164, or what is now known as the Robert D. Orr Highway.

Weinbach. William Weinbach (1842-1929) was a carpenter and later a general contractor who built homes in what was then the far eastern edge of the city limits. Land owned by the Weinbach family was sold to developers who eventually named a street after the family name. Weinbach Avenue became a major north-south corridor in the eastern edge of the city, and lent its name to a variety of businesses that opened along the corridor including the former Weinbach Pharmacy, in the basement of which existed one of the largest and most popular cafeteria eateries in the city.

Wesselman. Albert Wesselman (1894-1962) operated Wesselman’s supermarkets from 1933 until his death in 1962. Wesselman’s legacy was established while he was State Senator from Vanderburgh County in obtaining the land now known as Wesselman’s Park and Nature Preserve. The Stockwell family originally owned the land but farmed instead of cutting timber, which preserved for all time the forest. Mary Stockwell, the matriarch of the family in the 1880s sold the land when the nearby State Hospital opened, as she feared inmates might escape and enter her property. A Republican, Albert Wesselman served eight years in the Senate.

Mesker. Pressed metal storefronts bearing the name “Mesker Steel” can be found across the United States. Mesker Steel in Evansville was owned by George L. Mesker, son of a prominent stove manufacturer. George’s brothers, Frank and and Bernard, had relocated to St. Louis where they operated a rival company called, “Mesker Brothers.” Beginning in the 1880s, his products included staircases, tin ceilings, and fire escapes. George Mesker left Evansville in the early 20th century and died in New York City in 1936. He bequeathed $500,000 in the form of the Mesker Music Fund to his hometown to be used to help the parks system. Both Mesker Park Zoo and Mesker Amphitheatre are named for him.

Dress. William Dress was the Mayor of Evansville from 1933-1942 and then again from 1948 until his death in office in 1949 from cancer. The depression era mayor was responsible for many public service works financed by the Roosevelt Administration’s WPA system. The two projects that had the greatest impact on Evansville were the Dress Plaza along the Riverfront, which still bears his name and Dress Regional Airport, which is now known as Evansville Regional Airport. Dress was particularly interested in public works projects, which included the removal of all streetcar tracks throughout the city when buses replaced the old electric traction cars in the late 1930s.

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The Intersecting Lives of the Evans Brothers, the Gumberts, John Augustus Reitz, and the Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville

By Kelley Coures

Monday, Jan. 7, 1861, was a chilly evening in Evansville. A formally dressed crowd of prosperous citizens gathered at the Evansville Opera House, located on Lower First Street (where Vectren’s parking lot is now), for a belated New Year’s Eve ball. The band played, and hoop skirts swished across the dance floor.

During the evening, two brothers from a prominent family — Robert M. Evans and John Paul Evans, grandsons of the late Colonel Robert Evans for whom the city was named — entered into a raucous argument over unknown issues, but witnesses admitted both were in a serious state of drunkenness. As the disagreement heated, both men threw punches and then drew guns. Party guests hid behind pillars and doorways. The brothers fired 15 shots. John Paul was shot in the head and died instantly, but not before he had lodged two bullets in Robert’s chest and stomach. The shots killed him 20 minutes after impact. A stray shot slew 18-year-old Solomon Gumberts, the son of a prominent family. Someone ran to the Evans home to alert a soon-to-be-broken-hearted mother, Saleta Evans, who rushed to the scene.

Saleta spent the rest of her life devoted to temperance. In 1878, she raised funds to construct Evans Hall on the site of the present Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville (cMoe). Evans Hall provided meeting space for the growing Women’s Christian Temperance Union. At its peak, the organization boasted 200 members, but that number dwindled after Prohibition ended in 1933. John Augustus Reitz was a liberal contributor to the building and maintenance of the hall.

Evans Hall was the largest public gathering place in the city until 1916 when the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Coliseum was constructed at Fourth and Court streets. It was demolished in 1930 for construction of the Central Library which served the reading public until the current library opened in 2004 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Today the Saleta Evans Memorial Fund, created by the Saleta Evans Trust, continues to benefit temperance programs through grants awarded by the Vanderburgh Community Foundation.

Sources for this story include Margaret McKinney’s 1982 book, “Founding Families,” Sunday Courier & Press; “Faces of Philanthropy: Generous Friends of Vision,” University of Southern Indiana Foundation, 2008; “Jewish Life in Evansville 1857-2007: A brief history of the Jewish community in Evansville, Indiana,” Temple Adath B’nai Israel; “History of Vanderburgh County, Indiana:  From the Earliest Times to the Present,” Brant & Fuller, 1889, Reproduced by Unigraphic, Inc. Evansville, Ind., 1967; “History of the City of Evansville and Vanderburgh County Indiana,” Frank M. Gilbert, Pioneer Publishing, Chicago, 1910; the Reitz Home Museum website, reitzhome.com; and artinindiana.org. Photography provided by Willard Library, the Reitz Home, the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, the University of Southern Indiana, Koch Enterprises, Inc., and historicevansville.com.

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