BLOOMINGTON — Today, we tend to forget the important roles vinegar and pickling played in 19th and early 20th century American and immigrant cookery. Pickling and canning vegetables were standard practice in many households, and vinegar added that sour zing to sometimes bland fare.
Many families also used cider vinegar as medicine, and today it’s claimed that vinegar can be used to treat arthritis, osteoporosis and skin irritations, as well as serving as an antibacterial agent. What’s more, Bloomington was home to a large German community, and these folks used vinegar for all kinds of dishes, such as potato salad, sauerbraten, coleslaw, sweet and sour cabbage, pickled beets and pickled herring.
Thus it’s no surprise Germans played a leading role in local vinegar production. The first such significant undertaking dates to 1880 when Dr. Herman Schroeder and William Rahn opened the Bloomington Cider Mills and Vinegar Works at 313-315 S. Main St. (today the site of the Eagles hall). Schroeder and Rahn’s cider was “hard,” making it in today’s parlance, an “adult beverage.”
In 1881, Detroit vinegar maker Gustave B. Gehlert bought out Schroeder. Operations were moved to an old flour mill at the northeast corner of Clinton and Taylor streets. Around this same time, the company switched from apples to corn as the “base” for its cider and vinegar.
Four years later, Gehlert bought out Rahn, and not long after that, on Oct. 4, 1885, the factory was “well nigh wiped out by flames” in what was the city’s largest fire in years. The losses included some 500 barrels worth of vinegar sitting in large vats. Gehlert recovered and rebuilt, and his company entered the pickle business in earnest in 1889. In no time, it was “putting up” (that is, cleaning, salting, pickling and packing) 7,000 barrels of pickles a year.
Now named Bloomington Cider and Vinegar Co. it relied on area farmers for its supply of cucumbers, preferring ones no longer than 4 inches. In 1893, the company paid 35 cents per bushel for small pickles (or more than $8.50 today, adjusted for inflation) and 15 cents per bushel for the larger, less desirable ones. The company all but promised area farmers that a few acres of cucumbers would pay better than comparable acreage in corn. It sold cucumber seed at cost, though farmers were free to purchase their own. “The varieties which we like best are the Early Frame, Long Green, Boston Pickle and White Spine,” Gehlert said in 1894.
Gehlert’s company also made a spicy relish dish called chow chow, which included pickles, white silver onions, beans, green tomatoes and cauliflower. All the same, its “bread and butter” remained pickles and vinegar. By 1894, the firm was churning out some 15,000 barrels of vinegar annually as its four traveling representatives worked a sales territory stretching from Pennsylvania to Nebraska
In early 1897, Charles C. Pearce, a wealthy banker, landholder and horse breeder from Flemingsburg, Ky., purchased the operation from an ailing Gehlert. Business remained strong, at least on the local front, and an October 1901 advertisement listed no less than 48 Bloomington grocery stores that carried its vinegar line (this was before the rise of automobiles and chain food stores, so one couldn’t go but a few blocks before coming across corner groceries). Of those 48 stores, 13 also carried the company’s Perfection Pickling Vinegar brand.
Sometime around 1904, Pearce spun off an all-pickle business, and several years later the Bloomington Pickle Co. was all that was left. Company officials evidently had high hopes for the pickle market, as operations were relocated to a recently vacated factory building on the city’s far west side.
In 1906, the same year as passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act, a Bloomington Pickle Co. advertisement emphasized the company’s sanitary processing methods.
Its pickles, the company proclaimed, “are thoroughly washed, steamed, and processed, ensuring an absolutely clean cucumber, made ready for the pickling process.”
For reasons lost to time, the company closed its doors for good a year or two after that advertisement, though it’s probable that it could no longer compete with larger processors that enjoyed economies of scale in purchasing, processing, storage and transportation.
The McLean County Museum of History collections include two stock certificates for the Bloomington Pickle Co., both dated May 21, 1907, and signed by Bloomington resident Allison Hitch.