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Molly Crusen Bishop: Holidays with the Greenhuts

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“It can be said of Mr. Greenhut, more than any other one man that he has made Peoria commercially, for he has been connected with practically every business movement and enterprise of importance here.”

The above is a direct quote from the book History of Peoria City and County 1912.

Joseph Benedict Greenhut is one of the most intriguing and important influences on Peoria, Illinois. He left his footprints and heart in the city he considered home long after leaving for New York.

Joseph was born in Austria on Feb. 28, 1843. His father died when he was only 4 years old and his mother remarried and the family ended up in Chicago in 1852. He was sent to learn the tin coppersmith’s trade in St. Louis as a young teen and later attended school in Mobile, Alabama.

Eventually he came back to Illinois in 1861 when Abraham Lincoln asked for volunteers to preserve the Union, enlisting as a private in the Twelfth Illinois Infantry. He was seriously wounded but recuperated and being the tenacious man he was, he re-enlisted and he was then a captain in the 82nd Illinois Regiment. He was elected Chief of Staff of the Brigade and served until 1864. He fought in many famous battles, including Gettysburg and Chattanooga.

He married Miss Clara Wolfner in October of 1866 as he had settled here in Peoria. They had four children, a daughter Fannie, and three sons, Benjamin, Walter, and Nelson. Walter died very young and is buried with many other family members at historic Springdale Cemetery. The Wolfner family and the Greenhuts both ended up in the distilling business.

Together Joseph and Clara Greenhut became quite the power couple in both business and charitable works. Joseph became one of the wealthiest whiskey barons in the United States. He invented and got a patent for something called a twine binder that was used in the McCormick reaping machine in the distilling business and helped make them even wealthier.

Mr. Greenhut was incredibly business savvy and very successful. He created the Distillers & Cattle Feeding Company in the 1880s, serving as its president, and he also created the Glucose Company and was an officer and director of the Central Railway Company. He was instrumental in the Commercial German-American National Bank, Merchants National Bank, National Bank of the Republic of Chicago, and of course he was famous for developing the Great Western Distillery.

Joseph and Clara were also admired for their genuine love for helping the poor and others, in Peoria and across the nation. They were known all over the U.S. for their vast contributions to National Jewish Charities.

Here are some of the many Jewish charities and clubs that Clara Greenhut was a part of: The Circle of Jewish Women, Peoria Hebrew Relief Association, Jewish Ladies’ Sewing Society, Ladies’ Hebrew Aid Society, Sisters of Peace Charitable Association, Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society. She donated thousands of dollars every year to the poor people in Peoria. Clara Greenhut also served as vice president of the Peoria Woman’s Club, which is still to this day the longest running women’s club in the United States.

Joseph Greenhut refused to take his large military pension and this endeared him to even more folks in Peoria. He donated tens of thousands of dollars in 1899 for the Soldiers and Sailors monument located now at the Peoria Courthouse as well as the Greenhut Memorial Hall Grand Army of the Republic, dedicated to Civil War Veterans in 1909.

World famous Fritz Triebel created the Sailors and Soldiers monument that was dedicated on Oct. 12, 1899. President McKinley and his entire staff made a huge trip to be a part of the dedication ceremony. A huge parade beginning at Chestnut Street greeted McKinley as well as close to 6,000 children. The entire city of Peoria prepared for weeks for this special day. Lucie B. Tyng, Colonel Martin Kingman, and then Peoria Mayor Henry W. Lynch, as well as the President gave speeches and prayers and song in honor of the Civil War veterans.  McKinley noted that the monuments and the flag encapsulated every single battle the Union fought, and represented when Ulysses S. Grant accepted Lee’s final surrender. “Grant and the brave Union soldiers helped to keep us one Nation,” stated McKinley. The ceremony closed with everyone singing “America.”

President McKinley and his family were personal friends and guests of Joseph and Clara, and stayed at the Greenhut’s massive and beautiful High Street mansion, which is still standing in the High Wine Historic District. McKinley was assassinated a mere two years later, incidentally.

The Greenhuts eventually ventured out East to live in New York and were involved in many enterprises out there, not surprisingly. This included the Greenhut-Siegel Cooper Company, of which Joseph served as president.

The Greenhuts owned a country estate on the West End of New Jersey that was considered one of the largest on the East Coast. This mansion had been built by John A. McCall, who was the President of the New York Life Insurance Company.

 Yet,Joseph and Clara Greenhut never forgot their love of their “home,” which they considered Peoria. The Greenhuts kept their mansion open year round just for their yearly homecoming for the holidays with their family. Every year around Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Day, they would return from the East for holiday celebrations with their entire family in Peoria at their mansion. Joseph was known to say it was well worth the expense to “celebrate at home” in Peoria.

Joseph died in 1918, and he and Clara are buried in a gigantic family crypt in King’s County, Brooklyn, New York, at Salem Fields Cemetery. There are several Greenhuts and Wolfners buried together at Springdale.

The love Joseph and Clara Greenhut had for Peoria, and the footprints they left behind are still here in Peoria, the home that the wealthiest whiskey baron’s in the U.S. came home for the holidays every year to “celebrate at home in Peoria”.

About the Author
Molly is a life-long Peorian and an author, speaker, and storyteller. She is married to Doug Bishop and has five children and one grandchild. Molly loves history and Peoria and loves to share her passions with anyone she can get to listen to her. She loves to research, interview, and write or speak about history. The youngest and ninth child of Don and Joani Crusen, she grew up on the West Bluff in the house her great grandparents built in the 1880s. She writes a historical column in Woman’s View magazine, and will be writing a column called The Peorian Perspective in The Peorian.