In 1914, when Carl J. Woeber put up a building at 561 Madison Ave. to make the mustard and horseradish mustard he’d been concocting at the family home on Sherman Avenue, people wondered why on earth the German would build anything so far from town.
It wasn’t long until the plant and the neighboring home he and wife Helen shared were surrounded by a wave of residential building north of Buck Creek.
What Woeber’s critics had failed to recognize is how quickly history can overtake us — one of the reasons for the Clark County Heritage Center’s exhibit on Woeber’s that will remain in the main lobby until month’s end.
The Woeber exhibit kicks off a program that will feature displays of at least three historic hometown businesses a year and encourage local businesses to save and store their memorabilia so it will be properly preserved when the present suddenly becomes the past.
Had the Woeber family done that around the turn of the century, the current display might be able to tell us whether the recipes Carl Woeber started with in 1905 were family recipes or just traditional German recipes.
It might be able to tell us why, after immigrating to the Quad Cities, Carl’s parents Alois and Anna Woeber came to Springfield — and what connection they had with the Quad Cities Woebers who made luxury railroad cars.
It might also explain why the company name changed from the German Mustard Company to the Crown Mustard Company, then to Woeber’s in its earliest days.
The Woebers had set aside some pictures and documents as they added on to their plant on Madison Avenue, as Raymond V. Woeber took over from his father in 1955, then as his sons Raymond L. and Richard succeeded him in the late 1980s. The sons built the current plant on Commerce Circle and launched the “Sandwich Pal” line that proved even more successful than their father had imagined.
But when Clark County Historical Society Board Member Larry McCoy asked current co-owner Raymond L. Woeber about putting up a display, it took a little time to pull together what material had survived the course of more than 100 years.
Virginia Weygandt, the museum’s director of collections, said the pickings can tend to be slim because at any moment, it’s easy to forget that “20, 30, 50 years from now these are the things historians will need to know — especially for local companies.”
One element of the outreach to local businesses involves the Heritage Center’s desire to bring some of today’s items into its collection — or to advise companies on how to preserve the material themselves.
“Yes, we want it,” Weygandt said, “but we’re also available to help a company manage their records. We want to partner with them.”
The project is focusing on businesses 50 to 100 years old, locally founded, and if not still locally owned, with a current presence here.
For its part, the Heritage Center hopes to make connections with such businesses and to create displays that give people a reason to stop into its lobby. And, as Woeber’s learned, a partnership with the Heritage Center has benefits.
In her research for the exhibit, Curator Kasey Eichensehr turned up information the company either wasn’t aware of or hadn’t been able to confirm.
She not only verified that the home at 16 Nelson Ave. the Woeber’s moved to in 1906 is the very same home later listed at 910 Sherman Ave. A year or two after the move, Springfield renamed some streets when it changed addresses across the city for the sake of consistency in numbering.
While taking pictures of the present operation for posterity, Eichensehr also experienced history in a new way.
Until she walked into a room filled with the smell of horseradish with a tinge of vinegar, “I never thought I was a fan of horseradish,” she said. “It made my mouth water.”
But her favorite discovery on the tour “was that Raymond Woeber Sr. was a self-taught engineer/machinist and designed a lot of the equipment” used, including the horseradish grinder.
The machines the company uses have been slightly modified, particularly in the use of modern materials, but the basic designs haven’t changed a bit.
Meanwhile, so much else has.
Although Woeber’s still makes its two founding products, it is about to add a 15th production line to keep up with demand for the 1,000 products its Moorefield Twp. distribution center ships not only from coast to coast but to the Middle East, Africa, Japan, England and Australia.
As exclusive provider of mustards for the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Browns, the company that does 25 percent of its business overseas hasn’t forgotten its home base. But the exports are part of a period in Woeber’s history in which the pace of change seems to continually accelerate.
“If you don’t keep moving, you don’t push forward, you can’t survive,” said the current Ray Woeber. “Sometimes you wonder if you’re going in the right direction, but you’ve really got to move with the times. You can’t falter.”
It’s the kind of time in which the business of preserving a company’s history might be even easier to overlook.
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