MONMOUTH, Ill. — In the 19th century, it was a common practice for a prospective lawyer to learn the trade by clerking in a law office rather than attending law school. The same was true of other knowledge-intensive professions, including that of pharmacist.
Such was the case with a prominent Monmouth druggist named Melville Brewer, who left his native Pennsylvania in 1861 and settled in the Maple City. His parents, John and Mary, followed in 1863. The entire family — John E., Melville, two sisters and a brother — are listed in the 1870 census as living in the same household.
Melville — or Mell, as he was known — studied in the scientific course at Monmouth College, and initially began to learn the printer’s trade, working for the Daily Review newspaper, but later became an apprentice clerk in the Monmouth drug store of Shultz and McGrew.
John Brewer purchased the pharmacy in 1872 and became a partner in the firm with Mell. That same year, Mell married Julia Bruner, a music teacher from Galesburg. John married May Eleanor Carns of Knoxville in 1873.
Located at 209 East Broadway, Brewer Brothers was the quintessential American drug store, replete with a soda fountain and a comprehensive line of stock that included perfumes, soaps, brushes, cigars, wallpaper, paint and glass.
In 1876, Mell and Julia traveled to New York for several months, where Mell completed a degree in analytical chemistry while Julia completed her musical training. The couple apparently divorced before 1880.
Mell was remarried in 1883, to Margaret Dryden. About that year, both brothers purchased land on South First Street, a growing residential district, where some of Monmouth’s leading businessmen and industrialists lived in large, comfortable homes.
John and May built an elaborate Queen Anne-style cottage at 320 South First, while Mell and Margaret built an equally impressive residence next door at 314 South First.
May became one of Monmouth’s leading society women, being a member of P.E.O, the Unique Club, Monmouth Country Club and a number of smaller organizations. She regularly entertained, sometimes hosting parties for more than 200 guests in her home.
Seven years older than his brother, John retired from the drug store in the early 1890s, remaining active in the Elks lodge, the Country Club and civic affairs.
Mell continued running the store until 1905 when poor health caused him to sell both the store and his home, retiring with his wife in Los Angeles. He suffered from hardening of the arteries and had a severe stroke that had caused some paralysis. The couple later moved to Chicago for a few years and then to New York City, where he died in 1911. He is buried with Margaret, who died in 1922, in Monmouth Cemetery.
John’s wife died in 1917, but he continued to live in his residence on South First Street until 1922, when he died at the age of 78. He had no children, and the house was sold at a tax sale shortly thereafter. Both John and Mary are interred in the Glendale Mausoleum in Monmouth Cemetery.
Interestingly, the Brewers were not the only Monmouth brothers who were both business partners and next-door neighbors. Henry and John Stoecks built virtually identical houses at 408 and 412 North First St. in the 1890s. They were proprietors of the Red Star Store, a dry goods company on the northeast quadrant of the Public Square. Both brothers died in 1928 and are buried in Monmouth Cemetery.
The two Brewer houses and the two Stoecks houses still stand today.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.