BLOOMINGTON — For a mid-size city on the quiet Illinois prairie, Bloomington-Normal has made quite a name for itself when it comes to ideas and innovations. Some are well-known, like being the founding location and headquarters of the State Farm and Country Financial insurance companies, and the birthplace of Steak ‘n Shake. But did you also know a best-selling novel was written here in the 1990s, and that we may not have automatic garage doors without the genius of one local inventor?
Here’s the scoop on 12 well-known people, items and ideas that got their start here in the Twin Cities:
1. Abraham Lincoln
While President Abraham Lincoln is most often associated with Springfield, Bloomington-Normal also played a role in his ascension to the presidential seat.
As a traveling attorney, many of Lincoln’s court cases took place in McLean County. In fact, historians believe he spent more time in Bloomington than in any city other than Springfield, with his first visit here thought to be in 1837. Lincoln also became the first attorney for the Bloomington School District.
During his time in Bloomington, Lincoln met Jesse Fell, a businessman who later founded Illinois State University and the city’s first newspaper, “The Observer.” Fell became a longtime friend and supporter of Lincoln, and Lincoln later became the attorney chosen to help secure ISU’s funding. Lincoln also became friends with Judge David Davis and stayed with him often at his farmhouse. Davis’ support was instrumental in Lincoln’s political rise, and Davis would eventually go on to lead his friend’s presidential campaign.
On May 3, 1865, Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Bloomington on its way from Washington, D.C., to Springfield. Though the train was two hours late, arriving around 5 a.m., 8,000 people were there to bid farewell to the president.
2. Pullman sleeping car prototypes
Train travelers would not have enjoyed cushy sleeping quarters if it weren’t for George Pullman coming to Bloomington in 1859 to build a prototype sleeping car for the St. Louis, Alton and Chicago Railroad.
The company had shops in Bloomington, and Pullman, of Chicago, was tasked with converting existing train cars into “sleepers.” (It should be noted that contrary to popular belief, Pullman did not invent the sleeper car. Sleepers were already in commission but, according to a 2013 Pantagraph column written by McLean County Museum of History archivist Bill Kemp, they had “all the charm and comfort of rolling, rattling bunk houses.”) Pullman teamed up with Leonard Seibert, selecting two of the roomiest cars and souping them up with plush upholstered seats that could be laid flat, complete with mattresses, blankets and a curtain for privacy from other passengers. Each car also had a linen closet and a marble-topped sink and toilet.
The railroad company liked what it saw, and the Bloomington-drafted prototypes became brand-new luxury sleeper cars in four months’ time.
3. The automatic drive gate
William Richard White was proof that you don’t need a fancy upbringing or extensive education to become a successful businessman. Born in Cumberland County in 1844, White was the son of poor farmers and suffered from an eye affliction so debilitating that he was unable to attend school until age 11. Even after that, most of his education was self-taught.
In 1871, White lost his home and farm during an economic depression. While out of work, he began creating inventions in hopes of generating some income. His most successful invention came in 1890, after he had moved to Bloomington. His automatic drive gate — considered to be the precursor to the automatic garage door — allowed a farmer to stay seated in his carriage, pull a cord, watch a gate swing open, drive through the opening, and then pull another cord to close the gate behind him. The invention took off, and White sold thousands of them across the U.S. and even the world. While this was his most famous and successful product, White patented over 70 inventions over his lifetime.
White died July 10, 1906, at age 61, and is buried at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington. His former residence on North East Street is now the site of the Bloomington Center for Performing Arts.
4. Your favorite font?
Goudy Old Style, Copperplate, Californian, Camelot, Forum, Hadriano, Kennerly — you probably recognize some of these names from the list of fonts available on your word processor. But did you know the man behind them was Mr. Frederic W. Goudy himself? Yep, that’s right — the man credited for developing some 124 typefaces in the early 1900s was born right here in Bloomington, in a house in the 600 block of East Jefferson Street.
While Goudy only lived in Bloomington until he was about 14, he did say his interest in printing and typeface started when he was a young boy. He would go on to work as a bookkeeper in South Dakota, Minneapolis, Springfield and Chicago, eventually settling in Marlboro, New York, and becoming known as the “great letter shaper” by the end of his life at 82.
5. A pencil pioneer
Born just outside Bloomington in 1883, Charles Rood Keeran worked at the Bloomington Pickle Co. and took a liking to inventing items relating to jars, vacuum seals and home canning. In 1913, after buying a mechanical pencil, his interest turned to making and selling an even better one. By the end of that year he had perfected his design with a double magazine and telescoping screw cap, chose .046-inch lead to fill it, and settled on the name “Eversharp.” Keeran & Co. soon was housed in the First National Bank building in downtown Bloomington and was working with a New Jersey metalworks to make and sell the pencils near and far. They became so popular that “Eversharp” became the generic term for all mechanical pencils, regardless of brand name.
Keeran’s success was short-lived, however: In 1915, he moved his operations to Chicago and partnered with the Wahl Adding Machine Co., which eventually took control of the business and forced Keeran out. He never gave up mechanical pencils, though: His involvement with the Realite Pencil Co. later led to the development of plastic mechanical pencils, which remain the standard today.
6. A pair of insurance giants
Agriculture is a major industry in Central Illinois, and those farmers need insurance for their crops, livestock, equipment, property and families. Thus, Bloomington-Normal is home to two major insurance companies: State Farm and Country Financial.
State Farm was founded by G.J. Mecherle in 1922. The retired farmer and salesman began working for an insurance company in downtown Bloomington before branching out to start his own company. Today, State Farm has some 57,500 employees, with about 14,000 of them right here in the Twin Cities.
Meanwhile, a group of farmers from the Illinois Farm Bureau started Country Financial in 1925 to provide fire and lightning insurance for area farmers. The company moved from Chicago to Bloomington in 1960, and now has nearly 4,000 employees nationwide, including 2,000 in its local home office.
7. Steak ‘n Shake
The chain restaurant famous for its steakburgers, milkshakes and shoestring fries traces its roots to the corner of Normal’s Main Street and Virginia Avenue in 1934. The site is now home to a Monical’s Pizza, but for many years it was a Shell gas station that owner Gus Belt embellished with a food menu. For only 20 cents and a penny tax, customers could order a burger and shake and watch it being made right in front of them.
The restaurant grew in popularity and number, becoming a fast food chain. While Belt died in 1954, his wife Edith ran the business until 1969. The company has switched hands several times over the decades and now is owned by Biglari Holdings Inc. in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 500 restaurants in 28 states, including three in Bloomington-Normal.
In March, the company announced it will replace its waitstaff with self-service kiosks, marking the end of an era for the Bloomington-Normal icon.
8. Are you nuts?
In the late 1930s, the Shirk family’s Caramel Crisp Shop in Bloomington was known for its caramel apples, caramel corn, orange drink and redskin peanuts. By 1950, Russell Shirk had started pouring a top-secret glaze on the peanuts and selling them to liquor stores and bars. He called them Shirk’s Glazed Peanuts, but with the snack becoming a hot item in bars, he adopted the name Beer Nuts and partnered with potato chip distributor Eldridge Brewster for a wider reach.
By the 1960s, the nuts were sold nationwide, and the company began adding to its offerings: coated cashews, almonds, a bar mix incorporating pretzels and sesame sticks, and various other iterations of the now-famous nuts and snack mix.
Today, the company operates out of a 100,000-square-foot facility at Washington and Robinson streets, and the Shirk Center Athletic Complex at Illinois Wesleyan University carries the Beer Nuts founding family’s name.
9. A DIY “wooden lung”
In the summer of 1949, Bloomington-Normal was in the heat of the polio epidemic. St. Joseph’s Hospital had two iron lungs, a type of early ventilator used to help polio patients breathe until the virus had run its course — but what would happen if a patient desperately needed an iron lung and they were both occupied?
On Aug. 5, the hospital and Eureka Williams Corp. partnered to build a wooden lung in hopes of filling a desperate need. They did succeed in building a wooden lung out of plywood, household electrical switches, a washing machine motor and gear box, an inner tube from a tractor tire, a wash tub and an alarm clock. On Aug. 10, the machine was put to use on an 8-year-old boy, and it saved his life, declared the hospital’s chief administrator. The invention went on to receive the American Medical Association’s seal of approval and be featured in Popular Mechanics magazine, and Eureka Williams published and distributed a booklet on how to make a wooden lung.
It would still be several years before the polio vaccine was invented and widely distributed, but it seems Bloomington’s DIY respirator played a significant role in filling the gap for much-needed medical equipment.
10. The radio tape cartridge player
We’ve come a long way since the days of cassette tapes, but in the heyday of Bloomington’s International Tapetronics Corp., the radio tape cartridge player was just what the media industry needed to take broadcasting to a higher level.
ITC, formed in 1969, is credited with the design, production and resale of audio equipment for use by radio and TV stations. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the company employed some 150 workers across three buildings in Bloomington.
You would be hard pressed to find a U.S. major network that wasn’t using ITC equipment in its studio, according to documents from the McLean County Museum of History, and the same was true in England, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy and Japan.
In 1982, 3M offered to become the holding company of ITC. The two made a deal, and ITC became the foundation of the current 3M Corp.
11. Two famous puppets
Whether you’ve seen the 1980 cult classic “Caddyshack” or not, you’ve probably at least caught a glimpse of the adorable menace of a gopher who plays opposite Bill Murray, aka golf course groundskeeper Carl Spackler. Turns out, the man behind the gopher was puppeteer Pat Brymer of Bloomington-Normal heritage.
Born in 1950 in Highland Park, Brymer went on to graduate from University High School and then ISU, where he studied theater. He gained much attention for his involvement with “Caddyshack,” and in 1983, he started his own puppet company, Pat Brymer Creations. In the 1990s, he joined up with ventriloquist Shari Lewis and updated the Lamb Chop puppet she’d been using since the 1950s. He went on to be the master puppeteer for her stage shows, videos and PBS shows, including “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along.”
Brymer died April 12, 2020, in Los Angeles, at the age of 70. His obituary was published in The Pantagraph.
12. "Infinite Jest"
American author David Foster Wallace gained notoriety for his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” praised by Time magazine as one of the “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.” What many people may not know is that Wallace wrote the novel while living in Bloomington and working as a writing instructor at ISU.
Born in 1962 in Ithaca, New York, and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Wallace made his way to the Twin Cities in the early ‘90s, working at ISU from 1992 to 2002.
Despite his literary success, Wallace struggled for years with addiction and depression, and in 2008, while living in Claremont, California, he took his own life. He was 46.
His legacy lives on, though: D.T. (Daniel) Max published a biography titled “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,” for which he spent nearly a month in Bloomington-Normal interviewing more than 30 locals as part of his research. In 2015, his life was depicted in the film “The End of the Tour,” starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. ISU began holding an annual David Foster Wallace Conference in 2015, and the website of the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention & Visitors Bureau includes a page directing Wallace fans to his favorite local haunts, including his home on South Woodrig Road; St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, where he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; and local businesses he frequented, with Garden of Paradise, Cracker Barrel and The Coffeehouse and Deli among them.