MBIP weekend blogger Chip Joyce has lived in the same location since 1984 and will soon be moving on from the neighborhood he has called home for most of his life. In this series, he chronicles the history and memories from his time growing up in Peoria’s East Bluff. This is part two of the series. If you missed part one, click here.
The fourth corner of the intersection at Forrest Hill and Wisconsin Avenue is arguably the greatest legend in all of East Bluff mythology. And I’m about to blow it wide open for you right now.
Originally slated for my last entry, I soon realized it could never get its due with such limited space and merited its own tribute.
Situated on that corner for the past 20 plus years of course is Demanes Animal Hospital, but prior to that stood an institution that was ultimately bulldozed into nothing but a vague and hazy memory for us all. A modest building transported directly out of a Norman Rockwell painting, a LIfe magazine cover, or some other simpler time that all of us sort of but don’t quite really remember, from an era that probably never was but always will be…
A rustic structure that served the sugary needs of several generations, Weber’s was the definitive (and in our community, final) penny candy store around. One of my favorite writers Jean Shepherd wrote of “Old Man Pulaski” and his candy counter, but we here in the East Bluff had Herman Weber
Weber’s quietly closed when I was about nine-years-old and many people out there may remember the place better than I do; I realized after committing to this I was probably under-qualified and had bitten off more than I could chew. Seeking help from my dad (who grew up around there and was one of many “kids” on a first name basis with Weber), and putting a call out on Facebook spawned endless memories, anecdotes and other fragments from countless individuals, many clearly exaggerated and skewed in memory from the passage of time.
Facebook also connected me to Weber’s grandson Mark, who connected me to his father Oscar, one of Weber’s sons.
The direction of this story then took a major shift—a glib, nostalgia piece with little hard, factual information became something else—a key to the past, an opportunity to fill in gaps, and a chance, in some cases, to set the record straight.
Herman Weber was pretty much a definitive portrait of the early 20th Century American Dream.
Born in Germany, 1898 he served in the German army in World War I and immigrated to the United States in 1927, escaping the turmoil that was Germany at that time. He found the freedom and opportunity in America fascinating, and spent time in Montana and Iowa before settling in Peoria, where one of his first jobs was working at the Hotel Pere Marquette as a busboy and bartender. While in Iowa, he met his wife and they married in 1938. Remembered by many who tell the stories as simply “Weber’s Wife”, her name was Esther and she worked as a nurse when she wasn’t tending the store with Herman.
Herman operated his first grocery store out of 630 Main beginning in 1943. Meat was of course rationed at this time and Weber got a lot of use out of his butcher block, cutting and chopping beef, chicken and deer meat acquired live from local farmers. He operated at 630 Main until losing the lease in 1949.
His entire operation, fixtures and all (butcher block included), were relocated to the Murphy’s Upholstery building at 1821 N. Wisconsin in 1953. At some point, the street was renumbered to align with Knoxville and the address became 3035 N. Wisconsin.
Weber was a steadfast member of the German American Society for 60 years (“Herman the German” he was called) and sang with their “Harmony Singers” group, remembered fondly for their German renditions of Christmas carols at holiday time.
Weber even lived in the back of his store. Nobody lives in a store these days. This might explain why I remember stopping in there at all hours of the day and night; the sign above the door said “OPEN 7am to 9pm EVERYDAY.” Weber’s just always seemed sort of open to do business whenever someone walked in.
The family did own a house at 728 E. Corrington. It was typically used as rental space, and the Webers raised their entire family IN the store for large stretches of time—a two bedroom apartment housing Herman, Esther, and 5 children—three sons and two daughters: Herman (aka “Sonny”, who died in a car accident in the 1960’s), followed by Louise, Oscar, Marie, and William (aka “Junior”, so called because he was the youngest).
If you grew up in the East Bluff prior to the 1990s, you probably still recollect at least one story about Weber or the store. A trip to Weber's typically began by dropping your bike in the dirt out front, right by the bench made from a plank laid across two milk crates. The front screen door was creaky, spring loaded and lead into a small, un-air conditioned room with an even creakier wood plank floor, whose echo would call Weber out from the backroom. Lit primarily by daylight from the front windows, which were cluttered with advertisements (Borden’s “Elsie the Cow” amongst them), the check-out area and candy counter were directly inside to your right.
And oh, that candy counter. Weber’s was the last location in Peoria to sell penny candy, and though most bought in bulk, you could walk into Webers with one cent and walk out with a single piece of candy. I remember the counter was loaded down with Lemonheads, Cherry Clan, Wacky Wafers, Necco wafers, candy cigarettes, candy necklaces, Atomic Fire Balls, Pixie Sticks, Fun Dip, Red Hots, Twizzlers, Sugar Babies, wax teeth, wax lips, Bazooka gum, Bottlecaps, and Chewy Sweet Tarts (much bigger then than they are now), but those were only some of the many items contained within. Chips and soda sold as well, but that counter was literally a Candy Mecca...if Webers didn’t have it, your cavities probably didn’t want it anyways.
You’d dictate your “special order” to Weber, and he’d repeat what you said in a thick German accent, reach under the counter, grab and drop it before you. Once the desired pile accumulated, he’d count up by hand what was due, you dropped your change, grabbed your bag and were out the door, consuming as much of your purchase as you possibly could on the walk or ride back home for dinner. Tastes matured for many over time. For those that graduated from sugary vices, cigarettes could sometimes be purchased with a “note from home.”
For many, the first business transaction of your entire life was handing over an odd assortment of coins to Herman Weber in exchange for something out of his candy counter. Taking too long to make decisions sometimes found Weber deciding for you.
The memories of Weber’s demeanor are varied, but overall favorable. Though recalled primarily as polite, patient and very nice, he carried with him throughout his entire life a stubborn, strict and “old world” temper. Many folks remember feeling cheated when Weber charged sales tax, to which he patiently explained over and over again why he charged 26 cents for 25-cent candies.
There was of course, more to Weber’s than candy. Given that its name was Weber’s GROCERY, it was indeed that—a grocery store the likes of which were once common but basically extinct today. Described by the Weber’s themselves as an “old-fashioned country market,” they dealt mainly in convenience for the neighbors. Mothers often sent their children on urgent last minute dinnertime emergencies such as salts, spices, cooking oil and other staples.
If you kept walking straight past the candy counter, you would pass through another doorway and enter the actual grocery area-rows of wooden shelves, reminiscent of Gower's stock room in "It's a Wonderful Life.”
The room to some kids was “scary” and dark-probably actually far less scary and dark than remembered. Off to the north side of the building outside was a garden in which Herman could be frequently seen tinkering for both exercise and profit—the corn, beans, berries and other produce grown there would be harvested and sold in the store. If that’s not old school, I don’t know what is.
Slowly over time, Kroger and other supermarkets reduced Weber’s to deal almost exclusively in candy, a niche where even the big businesses couldn’t beat Weber. The times would change, though very little at Weber’s Grocery ever did. One of the few attempts at “modernizing” was the addition of several video games to the storeroom in the 80s.
The neighborhood was certainly changing, as business for the Webers dropped off when their most loyal customers, the students at Von Steuben School, were now riding buses and also no longer leaving campus at lunchtime. They still managed to keep busy in the morning and evening/after school hours, but began having other trouble with the neighborhood as well.
Many accounts of robberies and theft of Weber’s still permeate East Bluff mythology, the worst happening on March 18, 1987.
Esther Weber was tending the store alone that evening while Herman attended a rehearsal for the German American Society Spring Concert. An intruder armed with a gun entered through their backdoor and used electrical tape to restrain her to a chair, where she was found by Herman two hours later. The crook made off with a $100 and had done considerable damage. The Webers were fazed surprisingly little by this event, though Esther was hospitalized as a result of this robbery, sustaining injuries that factored heavily into her passing on December 21st of that year. Despite what people may think they remember, Herman was never one to call the police on deviant children, but merely ban them for a few days from the store if he deemed it necessary.
Herman continued to operate Weber’s for three more years alone, struggling with more robberies until late 1990 when a stroke deprived him of his ability to run the store any longer. Herman Weber died at the age of 93 in Bel-Wood Nursing Home on the morning of March 17, 1992, just as stubborn and headstrong as ever.
A few months before, the property was sold and the wood-frame building that was Weber’s Grocery for nearly 40 years had been demolished as crews began constructing Demanes Animal Hospital, still there today. And I watched it all happen out of my fifth grade classroom window. Somehow, even at that young age, I knew an era had ended. But how lucky I was to know it, and remember it.
The Weber family has held onto remnants and artifacts of the old store. The inset of the front door is now on display in Oscar Weber’s home.
This original sign still remains in possession of his grandson Mark, and is held here by Herman and Esther’s great grandchildren, Rachel and Eric.
So much of what we remember of Weber’s Grocery are like most memories, a cluster of fuzzy snapshots in our minds that aren’t as much about how things actually were, but how we remember them. Hopefully, this has helped shine some light on those fuzzy snapshots of a simpler time that we all still carry with us and on most days, would give anything to return to.
My unending gratitude goes out to Oscar, Joan, and Mark Weber for their time, support and generosity in realizing this story. Numerous generations of East Bluff “kids” who remember Weber’s Grocery would thank them as well, I’m sure.
Original documents from Weber’s stores.