MONMOUTH, Ill. — In my years of discussing local history with Monmouth natives, perhaps no single locale has evoked more nostalgia than the building popularly known as Wirtz Corner, which stood for more than a century at the northeast corner of Broadway and First Street.
While most remember the building being associated with the Wirtz name, only about 38 of those years did it house the Wirtz Book Co. Throughout most of its life, however, the building had a close association with Monmouth College.
The three-story brick business block with street-level stores at 200 and 202 East Broadway was constructed in 1891 to house R. A. Wilson & Co. Robert A. Wilson was an 1874 Monmouth College graduate, who in 1875 purchased the book, stationery and wallpaper store of Wilson & McDill at 113 South Main St. With some partners, he incorporated the business in 1891, adding carpets, furniture and paint to his line, and constructing the new building.
Lacking the capital to erect the building itself, the company turned to Miss Nannie Martin, a young socialite who had inherited a fortune after having been orphaned at age 17. Martin, a Monmouth College alumna, would later build the mansion at 915 East Broadway that is now the Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter house. She spent about $30,000 on the project, receiving payments with interest from the firm.
The Wilson Co. initially did a strong business, decorating many of the elegant homes, businesses and churches that were constructed in Monmouth during the early 1890s. It was also the agent for Monmouth College textbooks and became a western depository for the United Presbyterian Board of Publication. An astute businessman, Wilson himself served as treasurer for Monmouth College for 14 years.
But despite his business acumen, Wilson failed to anticipate a crisis in 1896, when a cash shortage forced foreclosure on his entire stock and the business was closed. The failure was partially blamed on the business having too much of its capital invested in the building. Although it had to that date paid Miss Martin $8,000, she still held title to the building.
The book and stationery inventory of the store was transferred to the Monmouth Book Co., across the street at 213 East Broadway, which Robert Wilson managed from 1898–99. He was then hired as jobbing manager for the new Weir Pottery Co., but in 1904 left for the St. Louis World’s Fair, where he and his son ran the concession for Malto-Grapo, a malted grape soft drink. Wanting to become an independent jobbing manager, he later that year purchased an interest in a Chicago commission business, but was suddenly stricken by a heart attack and died at age 54.
The former Wilson store at 202 East Broadway was at the time occupied by the pioneer Monmouth grocery firm of Scott Brothers, which remained there until 1923. The corner store would become home to George Schussler Hardware, and would long remain a hardware store, as Worley Hardware (1909–10) and Roy N. Newman Hardware (1911–21).
The Warren County Farm Bureau replaced the hardware store in 1922 and Johnson Grocery succeeded Scott Brothers the following year. In 1927, a familiar name in Monmouth grocers entered the picture as Barnes Bros. rented the store at 200 East Broadway. Two years later they expanded to occupy the store at 202. Fires to the building in 1934 and 1937 threatened the Barnes operation, but it would take World War II to eventually close them down, as wartime rationing of coffee and sugar caused them to temporarily cease operations in 1942.
This provided an opening for the Wirtz Book Co., which had its roots in R. A. Wilson’s original book company. The firm of Harvey & McKelvey (two Monmouth College grads) had purchased the Monmouth Book Co. in 1899. A Monmouth College student named John Parshall bought the business in 1906 and sold it in 1909 to George O. Wirtz of Fairfield, Iowa. Wirtz Book Co. — then located on the south side of Broadway — would become Monmouth College’s official bookstore for the next half century.
George Wirtz himself would have future ties to Monmouth College. In 1916, he married the college librarian, Marguerite Rhodes, a 1913 Monmouth graduate. In 1964, his nephew Willard Wirtz — the U.S. secretary of labor — delivered the college’s commencement address.
Long managed by Monmouth alumnus James C. Foster, the Wirtz Book Co. in 1944 moved across the street to the vacant Barnes Bros. grocery building, owned since 1927 by furniture dealer R. E. White. Wirtz’s would occupy the west store, while a Western Auto franchise run by Frank Gunn moved into the east store. The expansive upper floors provided excellent warehouse space and gave rise to another business known as Broadway Storage.
In the postwar period, Foster purchased the building and Wirtz’s soon became a Monmouth teen hot spot — not only for its books (Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys were favorites) but also for its music. On a pegboard in the rear of the store hung the latest hits in the form of 45 RPM records, while bins held LPs. Patrons could listen to records in a booth before they bought them. An unusual feature of the store was a U.S. Mail substation, which allowed customers to mail greeting cards they had just purchased.
In 1959, Wirtz’s expanded to the Monmouth College campus, opening Scots Student Supply in the basement of Wallace Hall. Jim Tippett, a 1940 Monmouth grad, managed the store. In 1963, the bookstore moved into the new Student Center, where it was managed by Tippett’s wife, Mary Jane. It would later relocate to the former Carnegie Library on campus and Foster would work there part-time, well into his 80s.
Meanwhile, management of the Western Auto franchise at 202 East Broadway had been assumed by Max Schlatter, who eventually transitioned to his own business, called J & R Auto Store. A gunsmith named Joe Virden maintained a shop in the basement. In the 1960s, the business was purchased by Max Howe, who renamed it Max’s Auto Supply and ran the store there until 1972.
Following the retirement of Jim Foster, veteran Monmouth merchant and Monmouth College alumnus Phil Wheeler purchased the Wirtz store, continuing to operate it until 1982. A short-lived men’s clothing store called Bunyan ’n’ Babe in the east store (operated by Kenneth Ray) was succeeded in 1982 by Dottie’s Corner (owned by Dorothy Hutchisson), which lasted there until 1991.
In 1982, the Wirtz building was purchased from Foster’s estate by Imal Fritz, who opened a restaurant called Imal’s Beef House. When that business closed in 1989, Far & Near Travel Agency located in the west half, while the east half remained vacant.
Toward the end of the 1990s, Midwest Bank, which had owned the building for several years, decided to relocate its main office from 100 East Broadway to a new building on the Wirtz site, which would physically adjoin its existing Colonial Drive-In. Construction of the new facility was completed in 2000.
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.