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10/28/07: Heberling Co. specialized in 'household necessities'

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BLOOMINGTON - Today, at the corner of Douglas and Prairie streets, stands a handsome, five-story brick building more than 110 years old. It is apartments now, but once the building was a bustling warehouse and factory that imported spices, minerals, oils, perfumes and who knows what from exotic climes spanning the globe.

The G.C. Heberling Co., which was in business for more than 50 years, sold "household necessities" commonly found in the medicine cabinet, kitchen, bedroom and even the backyard chicken coop. The company's wide-ranging product list included remedies such as camphor cream, "headache tablets" and laxative tea; toiletries like vanishing cream, complexion powder and "Flowers of Beauty" perfume; extracts, flavors and spices; and miscellany ranging from stove polish to sewing machine oil.

In addition, at a time when many people raised chickens and the like in their backyard, Heberling also sold stock and poultry "preparations," such as louse powder and worm expeller.

Born in Ohio, George C. Heberling attended a commercial business school in Valparaiso, Ind., then worked as a stenographer and accountant in Chicago before moving to Bloomington sometime in 1901 or 1902. Once here, he worked as a clerk for Gem Pharmacy, located in what was then known as the White building. Not long thereafter, Heberling and his brother, John G., went into partnership to sell household remedies, as well as toiletries, spices and other items.

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George Heberling bought out his brother's interest, and under his direction, the business grew to where it occupied the entire five-story brick building at Douglas and Prairie, as well as the three-story brick structure attached on the west. The White Building then became known as the Heberling.

The business used self-employed salesmen who went door-to-door (or rather, farm-to-farm, since most of its customers were rural folk). At one time, more than 500 of these traveling salesmen sold Heberling wares in 28 states.

A March 30, 1926, advertisement made much of the company's global reach in securing needed spices, extracts and flavors. "Our Tellicherry pepper comes from far off Java, Siam, and the Malay peninsula; our cloves from the Indian archipelago, Zanzibar, and Madagascar; our cinnamon from the sunny isles of Ceylon and ginger from Jamaica and Africa; … our essential oils and perfumes from Italy, France, Austria, Bulgaria and other small principalities in Southern Europe." The advertisement concluded with the slogan: "The sun never sets on our source of supply."

In 1938, E.L. King of Winona, Minn., purchased the company, though George Heberling remained onboard for another five years as manager. He passed away March 3, 1952, and is buried at Park Hill Cemetery.

The end of World War II brought the promise of economic good times. In February 1946, Heberling Co. announced an ambitious $225,000 expansion program that included the conversion of the old Dodge-Dickinson mattress factory at Empire and Linden into a plant to manufacture, among other things, DDT-laden insect sprays.

Yet the rapid decline in the use of traveling salesmen, or the practice of "direct selling," doomed Heberling's expansion plans. Sales declined, and by 1957, the Bloomington payroll that once numbered 35 was down to just seven. Clinton B. Morris, president and manager at the end, blamed improved roads and the ease by which farmers could reach chain stores in the larger towns and cities. On Jan. 1, 1958, Heberling closed its doors for good.

In 1994, the White-Heberling Building (the name for both the five-story, large-windowed building and the older, three-story extension) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally built by Samuel R. White in 1894-1895, the building stands as a fine representation of the architectural style known as Commercial, or Chicago School. In the mid-1990s, local developer Barry Spitznass converted the building into two- and three-bedroom apartments.

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