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Thursday, April 8, 2004 07:29 am

Made by God, delivered by Rechner’s

art957
Saints Peter and Paul Church, photographed in 1889, was the religious home to German Catholic immigrants on Springfield’s north end — families such as August Rechner’s.
COURTESY OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY / PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN

At the corner of 12th and Reynolds, hard by what was once the site of the John Hay Homes, stands the former residence and business of August Rechner Sr., a native of Baden, Germany, who emigrated from that place to Springfield in 1895 as a 17-year-old boy.

The two buildings have borne witness to so much Springfield history that they resemble the last brave mums of autumn, buffeted by the bitter winds of age and progress but so deeply rooted in the neighborhood that they steadfastly refuse to capitulate in the face of the great changes taking place all around them.

These two structures, built not just of brick and mortar but also of equal parts love and hope and hard work, yet stand as eloquent testimony to the promise that is America and the fulfillment of that promise for a teenage immigrant who came to Springfield with a strong belief in God and family and the ability to make good bread.

Two weeks after arriving in this country, Rechner had a job baking bread at the Amrhein bakery in Springfield. He had been trained in Germany as a baker and was already a master baker, even at his young age. Here he joined others from Baden who had preceded him, including his older brother, Joseph, who had found work at the Reisch Brewery. For many of these German Catholics, their safe harbor was the church of Saints Peter and Paul, which was demolished in 2003. It was there that Rechner married Helen Bansbach in 1900 and there that their 10 children were educated in the parish school.

Rechner spent five years working for Amrhein's and, through thrift, economy and hard work, was able to buy out the Bruno Scheffler bakery at 1128 S. First St. He operated there for just a very short time, then moved to 12th and Reynolds, where he was able to expand the operation to include an attached retail grocery store. Fred Rechner Sr., the only one of the 10 children still living, recalls with pride his father's expertise at turning out the various breads, cookies, stollen, hard rolls and butter cakes for which the family became so well known:

"My dad could make anything, and it was all made by hand. We were a close family, but Dad was always the boss. He was good to us, but he worked hard and expected us to work hard. We knew what hard work was. When the Elks had their banquets, we'd make 400 dozen hard rolls on a Saturday. At Easter and Christmas, people would bring their hams to us and we'd bake them in the oven with a pastry crust for 50 cents. We had to trim it, wrap it, bake it, tag it and keep track of them all. Eventually it went to 75 cents, and I urged him to increase the price because of the work involved. He told me in no uncertain terms that we wouldn't charge any more than that -- and Pop only had to tell us once."

Rechner says his father, who lived to be 91 (he worked until three weeks before his death on April 30, 1970), was a good, kind and charitable man who never sought any recognition for his kindnesses. And, he says, because his father "came up the hard way," he was liberal in extending credit to the poor people of the neighborhood (and they were all poor). During the infamous race riot of August 1908, African-American residents of the neighboring shantytown were given safe haven from the rampaging mob at the bakery. He says that many times, his father had him put up a grocery order for Mother Joseph and the rest of the sisters at the convent, with never a charge.

"That's the way he was," Rechner says.

Although Rechner says that the bakery was known for hard rolls and poorboy rolls, it seems that many people remember the butter cake best.

The late Dan Cusick, who was chairman of the English Department at Griffin High School, once said that he thought "the streets of heaven must be paved with Rechner butter cake." Harold Figge, who owned and operated one of the finest bakeries Springfield has ever known, the B & Z, says that it can now be revealed that his children preferred Rechner butter cake to his own. Jeff Magill, of the state fire marshal's office in Springfield, says Rechner butter cake "was the most delicious, sugary, dripping-with-butter butter cake ever. It was incredible. It was the best butter cake ever made. I think it was made by God and only delivered by Rechner's bakery."

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