Editor’s note: Charles Schneider will be one of the historic individuals featured tomorrow (Aug. 25) in the “Voices of the Past” Cemetery Walk at Mound Grove Cemetery. Tours begin at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the event.
The 1800s were “the century of immigration,” when literally millions of people — mostly from Ireland and Germany — came to America. Many were fleeing famine or political unrest, but others were drawn by the economic opportunities the United States offered.
The peak year for German immigration was 1854, when 215,000 men and women entered the country, primarily through East Coast ports. Among those arriving in New York on Aug. 9, 1854, was 18-year-old Charles Schneider, a native of Wurttemberg, Germany.
Young Charles had been trained in a skilled occupation, engraving on steel and other metals, and quickly found employment in New York City. He also found, in short order, a bride to share his new life in America: On May 10, 1855, he married Miss Mary Hahn. Like Charles, she had been born in Wurttemberg and emigrated to the United States.
The young couple soon relocated to Newark, N.J., where Charles continued to work as an engraver. Their first child, Albert, was born in Newark in 1860. Another important milestone in Charles’ life occurred on Nov. 11, 1861, when he stood before a Newark judge and took the oath of United States citizenship.
In 1869, some 14 years after arriving in America, Charles decided to heed the advice of New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” To Charles and his family, “West” was the thriving railroad town of Kankakee, where his brother, Louis, had settled several years earlier.
He found a significant number of fellow German-speakers in Kankakee. The town’s business community was well-populated by families with names such as Radeke, Babst, Ehrich, Schnell, Schrempf and Kamann. They operated businesses as diverse as a brewery, a bottling works, a hardware store, a wagon factory, grocery stores and a feed store. The town also supported Lutheran and Baptist churches, where the services were conducted in German.
During his early years in Kankakee, Charles was involved in a number of businesses. One of these, in 1876, was a saloon on East Avenue, where his 16-year-old son, Albert, served as a bartender. In that same year, Charles’ brother was operating a cigar factory on Rosewood Avenue; Louis would later establish the successful L. Schneider & Son Wagon and Carriage Shop.
In the late 1870s, Charles entered the business — insurance — that he would pursue for the rest of his life. Later, he added a travel agency. His listing in an 1883 business directory read: “Charles Schneider, Notary Public; insurance and passage agent; fire insurance in first class companies; tickets sold to and from all parts of Europe; real estate agency.”
Joining his father in the business, and eventually operating it himself, was son Albert. He was the oldest of the 12 children born to Charles and Mary (eight survived to adulthood).
In 1895, Charles and Albert opened what a local newspaper described as “a handsome brick building at the corner of Schuyler Avenue and Merchant Street” to serve as offices for the insurance agency. The building also housed an institution that would be an important part of the Schneider family’s legacy: the Kankakee Building and Loan Association.
When the association was founded in 1885, Charles was one of the nine original members of its board of directors. The institution’s purpose was to loan working people the money needed to buy or build their own homes. In the same month the association began, it made its first loan, to Kankakee carpenter Napoleon Reeves. He borrowed $600 to erect a small frame house for his family on North Wildwood Avenue.
In 1894, Charles had built a new home for his family on East Avenue, north of River Street. The eight-room, two-story house was not only large and comfortable, it also was well-ahead of its time in one respect: electricity. In a period when most home were lit by gas jets or oil lamps, the Schneider home was entirely illuminated by electrical fixtures. Even more unusual was its burglar alarm system: Every door and window was wired to sound a loud alarm if an intruder attempted to enter. The house was demolished in 1960.
Charles died, at age 59, on Aug. 27, 1895. Albert continued the family insurance business; the family’s connection with the Kankakee Building and Loan Association (later Kankakee Federal Savings and Loan Association) would continue for more than 100 years, through four generations. That connection ended in 2000 with the death of Charles’ great-grandson, James Schneider, who had served as the association’s president for 39 years.