A “hard road” brought Romy Hammes to Kankakee in 1926.
The narrow ribbon of concrete paving was not only the way that Hammes came to Kankakee ... it was the young automobile salesman’s reason for coming to the growing town on the Illinois prairies.
Hammes, who would go on to become an entrepreneur of worldwide scope over the next half-century, chose Kankakee as the site for his first business venture after winning a Ford Motor Co. sales contest. Working for a Ford dealership in his native LaCrosse, Wis., he sold 107 “Tin Lizzies” (Ford Model T autos) in a 90-day period to capture a national sales title.
At the sales award ceremony in Detroit, he expressed interest in running his own car dealership. Ford executives first offered him a spot in the town of Atoma, Iowa. He asked, “Is the town on a paved road?” (At that time, most smaller communities were served by dirt or gravel roads.) It was not, so he rejected it. Hammes reasoned that a paved road would make it much easier for customers to reach the dealership to buy or service their vehicles.
Ford did have a location that was well-served by paved roads: Kankakee, about 60 miles south of Chicago.
In the 1920s, Illinois Gov. Len Small (a Kankakee native) carried out an ambitious highway program that laid down more than 7,000 miles of concrete paving to connect many of the state’s communities.
The Kankakee dealership opened under the name of Harry Dahl, owner of the LaCrosse Ford agency, where Hammes had set his sales record. Hammes, 26 years old, was listed at first as manager of the business, but soon became a partner with Dahl. The new dealership was well-located in downtown Kankakee, occupying a one-story building at 151 S. Indiana, directly across from the Kankakee County Courthouse. The business would be a downtown fixture until the late 1940s, when Hammes relocated it to his new Marycrest Plaza shopping center on East Court Street.
Hammes came to national attention in November 1938, when Life magazine chose to feature him in a story on the annual introduction of new car models.
Under the headline “A Dealer Demonstrates Art of Selling a Car,” millions of Life readers were introduced to the “able Ford dealer in Kankakee, Ill. Householder, father of three, ex-president of the Kiwanis, member of the Chamber of Commerce, Knights of Columbus and of the Elks, Dealer Hammes takes his business, family and community interests very seriously. ... He sells about 400 new cars annually. On this page, he shows how to do it.” The rest of the page was devoted to photos of Hammes working with customers.
Eight years and one world war later, Life returned to Kankakee for an even larger story on Hammes. Six pages of photos and text were introduced by a half-page portrait of the subject and the headline, “U.S. Success Story 1938-1946: Auto Dealer Romy Hammes, Whom Life Looked at in 1938, is now going like a House Afire.”
The magazine’s editors discovered that, since 1938, Hammes’ auto business “had been so successful, that he had bought agencies in South Bend and Chicago. He had gone into the tractor business. Turned down on a physical disability when he tried to enlist during the war, Romy had begun converting automobile trailers into trucks for Army use. Later, he had expanded his tractor business ... bought some land, started an investment trust. Then, he sold some of his land for a factory site. Last week, he was up to his ears trying to build houses for the flood of workers shortly expected in Kankakee.”
The houses that Hammes was building were in his Marycrest subdivision on Kankakee’s east side. It included hundreds of homes priced affordably for returning soldiers who were starting families, parks, a Catholic church and school and a shopping center along Court Street that eventually would house Hammes’ Ford dealership, a bowling alley, grocery store, bank, offices and a Howard Johnson’s motel and restaurant.
Northwest of the Marycrest development were several large industrial plants built on land sold by Hammes. He later built housing developments in Joliet; Fort Lee, N.J.; and Las Vegas.
St. Teresa Catholic Church, in the Marycrest subdivision, was an early example of Romy’s devotion to charitable causes, especially those with a religious basis.
He built the church and school, then donated it to the newly formed Joliet Diocese.
For the rest of his life, he would erect chapels and schools in countries around the world, and support numerous educational and charitable organizations. Romy Hammes’ lifetime of philanthropy to good causes totaled literally millions of dollars.
When Hammes died in Kankakee on Dec. 8, 1981, the newspaper obituary listed a number of civic and religious honors.
The most distinctive of those honors was being chosen as a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope Pius XII in 1951. The knighthood is the highest church honor that can be awarded to a layman.
His funeral was held at St. Teresa, the church in Marycrest he had built and donated to the Diocese of Joliet, with Bishop Joseph Imesch officiating. He was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery at Notre Dame University.
Today, his legacy as a businessman and philanthropist is carried on by his son, Jerry Hammes, in South Bend, and a grandson, Jeff Hammes, in Kankakee.