One holiday season more than 100 years ago, local businessman John Geltmacher rounded up all the poor children he could find and treated them to a free meal at a downtown Bloomington restaurant. And with this singular act of benevolence, an unusual local holiday tradition was born.
Beginning in the 1890s and lasting into the 1950s, children from underprivileged families were given a meal on New Year's Day. It's believed the first organized "Geltmacher Dinner" was held in 1896 when 175 children gathered at the Salvation Army room (then at 118 S. Main St.). They were then led in groups of 50 to a restaurant several blocks away. In later years, several different churches in downtown Bloomington hosted the annual event.
Geltmacher, who earned a successful living warehousing grain and lumber along the Chicago & Alton Railroad, set aside $1,000 for an annual children's dinner. Interest earned from the original donation was then used to pay for each year's dinner.
Along with the food came a dollop or two of Sunday-school moralizing with each meal. Geltmacher, who died in 1904, was a supporter of the anti-alcohol Woman's Christian Temperance Union, so for years the children also sat through songs, skits, and lectures on the evils of drinking.
Pictured here is Adelaide Holton serving hot rolls during the 1940 dinner. That year, 145 children gathered at First Methodist Church to enjoy a meal of creamed chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, oranges, and a "bottomless" glass of milk. The dinner program also featured music, including cornet and piano selections by Albert and Raymond Olson and an accordion number by Eldon Marquardt.
In the late 1940s, the dinner was canceled and replaced with a program to deliver food baskets to the needy. The dinner was later reinstated, and the last known event was held in the mid-1950s.
For more information on local history, go to www.mchistory.org.