Our Times

Brain Spangle

During the year 1917, as the First World War raged in Europe, a big construction project was underway on the south side of Vincennes. That year, the massive new E. Bierhaus & Sons wholesale grocery was built on the southwest corner of First and Church streets.

At the time, construction of the George Rogers Clark Memorial had not yet been envisioned, but just 14 years later, the grocery would be torn down as part of that project, it being on the site where old Fort Sackville had stood.

The Bierhaus wholesale grocery was founded in 1866, by German immigrant Edward Bierhaus, whose sons later joined him in the business. Since 1886, the E. Bierhaus & Sons building had been at Fourth and Main streets (where Pioneer Oil is now located). The Bierhaus building would later be converted into the Burchfield Department Store, which burned in 1926. One of the big disadvantages to Bierhaus at that site was the lack of a railroad switch for loading and unloading. This would be rectified at the new location.

The building was truly a massive undertaking. The Evansville architectural firm of Clifford Shopbell & Co. designed the three-story structure. It measured approximately 22,000 square feet and would be of reinforced concrete (some 50 concrete columns) and reinforced steel, with dark red shale brick walls. There would be one million cubic feet of floor space.

The construction contract was let on June 11 and, although Vincennes contractors entered bids, the job went to the well-known Midwest company A. W. Stoolman, of Champaign, Illinois. The precise bid was not revealed, but was said to be around $100,000 (nearly $2 million in today’s money). The local firm Buck & Boyd got the heating and plumbing contract. Construction began later that month and was to be completed by Jan. 1, 1918.

It certainly seemed a waste to many that such a modern building that only a dozen years earlier was a subject of such pride, had to be razed due to its location, but that is what happened, much to the dismay and over the opposition of the Bierhaus family. The building was so substantial that its razing was, in some ways, as complex as its construction.

The George Rogers Clark Memorial Commission purchased the building in the summer of 1929, for a whopping $145,000, with the stipulation that the Bierhaus family keep possession for one year. Some consideration had been given to moving the immense structure, but the cost was deemed prohibitive. Bierhaus vacated the building and it stood vacant for a time. A miniature golf course later opened on the first floor and the Fort Sackville Rifle Club used the second floor as an indoor shooting range.

At first, plans had been to keep the building standing for a time, so that it could be used for storage by contractors working on the Memorial. That plan was later abandoned, and, on April 17, 1931, bids were opened for its demolition.

Representatives from many out-of-town firms came to inspect the building before placing bids. Numerous local bids were taken as well. The contract finally went to the Globe Wrecking Co. of Chicago, which had the low bid of $13,800.

One member of the Bierhaus family, commenting on the sturdiness of their former building was quoted as saying: “You could knock the walls down and it still would stand. The walls were just put up to keep the rain out.”

Demolition began on May 5, 1931, with a big crowd of spectators on hand to watch as a 4,800-pound wrecking ball smashed down the walls. Work went more smoothly than had been expected. Some bricks and steel were salvaged, but most of the debris was used as fill around the Memorial and in the basements of other razed buildings.

As for the Bierhaus family, in 1890 sons Will and Edward Jr. had started a separate wholesale grocery business called Bierhaus Brothers, and in 1901 they built the mammoth warehouse that still stands at Second and Perry streets (now The Bierhaus Center). E. Bierhaus & Sons bought that warehouse shortly after the sale of the First and Church street building was finalized with the Clark Commission where they continued to run their wholesale grocery operation.

Brian Spangle can be reached at brianrspangle60@outlook.com.

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