Businesses of St Martins
THE EARLY BUSINESSES OF ST. MARTINS
A windmill, a brewery, a general store, and a farm implement dealer —these were some of the early businesses of Franklin. Located in St. Martins, they provided products and services for the rural population of the area. Even though all four of these no longer survive, what they did was to play an important role in the commerce of Franklin.
ST. MARTINS WINDMILL
The state’s first windmill was built in Sommers Township, Kenosha County in the 1840’s. By 1868 it was taken apart and moved to St. Martins, using 33 wagons to transport it. Five of the original seven stories of the mill were brought to its new home to stand on a hill on Spring Street as part of the Joseph Nelesen farm.
The windmill was made of clapboards and shingles and the sails were made of canvas. It was said to have served Franklin farmers well because of the high quality grist that it produced.
Later the windmill and the farm where it stood were sold to John Mayer and former owner John Nelesen moved to a nearby farm. Mayer then rented the farm to Mike and Nettie Acker, his daughter and son-in-law. On the night of a bad storm, two men who ran the mill forgot to furl the sails and unfortunately the sails were blown off. Because a wind powered mill was slow and farmers were becoming less inclined to grind their own grain, the mill was not repaired.
By 1920 Mayer sold the farm and the windmill. Through the years the winter’s cold and the summer’s heat had taken its toll on the old mill. The age of engine power had arrived and so the mill was torn down. The last owner of the farm where the windmill had stood was John Bonnert, Sr. He rebuilt his home using some of the windmill’s millstones that originally were made in France.
In 1846 Gottfried Gross and his wife Agnes (nee Engelhardt) and Agnes’ brother and sister-in-law, George Heinrich and Elizabeth Engelhardt immigrated to Wisconsin. They settled in Harrisburg, which was an area immediately north of St. Martins, an area in the northwest corner of Franklin. The Grosses and Engelhardts purchased 145 acres and by 1875 had increased their land holdings in the town of Franklin.
To augment their farming income the Grosses built a brewery at which is now 11765 W. St. Martins Rd. Because that area had many low-lying hills, the brewers could excavate caverns to store the beer. This area also provided a source of cheap ice from the nearby lakes and streams, which was needed to keep the beer cool during lagering. Beer would be brewed during the winter months, a slow time for farmers. This was Franklin’s first and only brewery, and like the tall windmill in St. Martins, it was an example of a trend toward the development of an agriculture-related business in Franklin.
Another historically significant fact is that there is evidence of a business connection with the Miller Brewing Company. Records show that Frederick Miller and Lisetta Gross, daughter of Gottfried and Agnes Gross, wed in 1860 at Sacred Hearts Church in St. Martins (now St. Martin of Tours). Miller was a 36 year old widower and Lisetta was 19 at the time of their marriage. After their marriage they lived on Highland Avenue in Milwaukee raising their children.
Eventually Lisetta’s brother Philipp assumed ownership of the farm and brewery. By the late 1800’s, Miller Brewing would be buying all of the beer the smaller brewery could produce. There is also evidence that the Gross Brewery had beer kegs in their facility that read “Gross Miller”.
In 1894 the brewery was closed down, but the Gross descendants continued to farm the land where the brewery once stood. One of the caverns remains and is located in a basement of a house on St. Martins Rd. The large 1891Victorian house situated on the corner of St. Martins Rd. and North Cape Rd. is a former Gross home and was referred to as “The Mansion” by people who lived there at the time.
Between 1918 and 1920 the brewery buildings were torn down and the recipes sold to the Miller Brewing Company. People who visited the Miller Brewery Visitor Center would report seeing a picture hanging on the wall that showed the village of St. Martins and the Gross Brewery as part of that picture. This provided more evidence of that past business partnership
JOHN F. HERDA COMPANY
The John F. Herda Company was founded by 2 brothers, John and Henry Herda in 1923. For awhile, it was known as one of the few remaining general stores in Wisconsin. Herda’s was a place farmers knew that they could find items like tractors, farm machinery, tools, horse bits, cattle leaders, stoves and refrigerators, garden supplies, feed, and even baby chicks!
Herda’s was a 3 story building. On one side was a loading platform full of bags of feed. In the basement was a repair shop where mechanics would work daily fixing machinery. For farmers that needed machinery or equipment assembled, that could be done in the back of the store! On the main floor of the store was merchandise in drawers, cases and on shelves, but it was always said that the Herdas knew exactly where everything was. Farm supply stores, like Herda’s, were not only places to get what was needed but they were gathering places to share news, discuss politics, and even gossip! As time passed, Herda’s became more of a hardware store and carried less farm-related items. Even though the merchandise may have changed somewhat, the store itself stayed much like it was years before. People coming to the store could get a glimpse of what an old general store must have been like.
The store was a family affair. After John Herda passed away, brother Joe continued to run the business. Brothers Lawrence and Henry had also been actively involved in working at the store. John Herda’s children continued running the store and in 1963 Herda’s Hardware became a True Value Hardware store. In 1981 Lucille and Alan Kelly, John Herda’s daughter and son-in-law sold the store to Ralph and Ann Sterzinger, Herda’s grandson and wife. By 2005 the store closed, marking an end to the Herda family’s role in the hardware business.
R. A. MAYER IMPLEMENT COMPANY
It was in 1928 that R.A. Mayer decided to change from having an Auburn and Dodge auto agency to having an Allis Chalmers tractor and farm machinery business. The first tractors that R.A. sold were steel-wheeled, but when Allis-Chalmers introduced rubber tires for tractors, he sold them. The local farmers were ready buyers, also liking the new All-Crop Harvester, a forerunner of the combine and one that would eventually replace threshing machines that farmers had used for years.
When R.A. sold tractors, the Allis Chalmers company would supply silent cowboy movies and a portable screen. They would show these movies in Market Square in St. Martins. Everyone would sit in the grass or bring lawn chairs. Of course Allis Chalmers also showed advertisements for their tractors, not wanting to miss an opportunity to sell their products!
The R.A. Mayer Company also had a long tradition of repairing what they sold –even providing replacement parts for old Allis Chalmers tractors. During the Depression, R.A. would take livestock in exchange for farm equipment and services. He would fatten up the stock and then either sell it or butcher it for meat. If he got horses, he would usually trade them.
On occasion the business had customers that were very interesting individuals. One such person who occasionally came to the store was Al Capone, a Chicago mobster, who would pass through St. Martins on his way from Chicago to his family cottage on Big Martha’s Lake near Mercer, Wisconsin. He would stop at Mayer’s to get gas and coffee. Capone was always in a black Cadillac between lead and trail cars full of his bodyguards. One time Dave Mayer, a son of R. A., had to install a headlight on Al Capone’s car!
In 1946 R.A. Mayer Implement Company built a new facility — on the site of where the family home once stood. While the demand for farm tractors lessened, suburbanites that moved to Franklin after World War II (in the 1940’s) were looking for a way to mechanize their outside work chores. R.A. and his sons — Robert, David, and Gordon — then began to sell lawn and garden tractors. These were sold to help customers keep their lawns mowed and their driveways clear of snow. Later, changing lifestyles and the need for recreational vehicles, also brought another new line for the company — that of snowmobiles.
R. A. Mayer died in 1950, but the business continued in operation on St. Martins Rd. run by his three sons, Robert. David, and Gordon. In 1975 R. A. Mayer Implement Company hosted the 125th Anniversary of St. Martins. By the time the three brothers retired in 1987, the business had served Franklin and the nearby area for over 70 years, first as an auto agency and later as an implement dealer. The building remained in use and at the present time houses a heating and air-conditioning business.
Even though these businesses are no longer in existence, some remnants of them remain whether it is a cavern, millstones in a foundation, a former residence, a name above a building or the building itself. They once were a vital part of the development of Franklin and now remain as part of the history of the city.
– Judeen Scherrer