The Southenders are having another reunion and this one is expected to be much bigger than the first. Nearly 200 former Southenders and their families joined together two years ago to relive growing up in the southwest end of Brazil in the 1940s and 50s.
The second Southenders Reunion will start at 10 a.m., Sept. 4, in the Forest Park Pavilion. Many special guests have been invited this time around. All former Arketex employees and their families are asked to join in the fun.
Reunion organizer Jack Tucker said, "Since the Arketex ceramic plants had such a tremendous impact on Southenders during the 1940s and 50s, the day will include sharing stories about Arketex, special door prizes and, thanks to Ken Barr, copies of all of the Arketex Family News from 1955 to 1959."
The Arketex Ceramic Corp. was founded in 1937, by John H. Stelle, a lawyer, farmer and manufacturer from McLeansboro, Ill. After the Clay Products Company, in Brazil, went bankrupt, Stelle bought its three existing plants. He and a retained Clay Products employee, ceramic engineer George Shoemaker, came up with the name Arketex as a play on the word architect.
Stelle, who was president or chairman of the board of various entrepreneurial endeavors, was also active in politics. He held several elected offices in Illinois and served as the Governor of that state from 1939-1940.
A World War I veteran and past national commander of the American Legion, Stelle was always interested in the welfare of servicemen. According to the American Legion Magazine, he led a team of Legion officials that, in just six months, designed and put forth the main features of the G.I. Bill, organized massive public support and guided its successful passage through Congress in 1944. The G.I. Bill offered veterans money to attend college.
American Legion Magazine reported that "at one point in the negotiations, he arranged for an airplane to fly to Florida to pick up an Alabama legislator, home recovering from an illness, to break a 3-3 deadlock in the House-Senate Conference.
"Stelle reached the congressman at 11 p.m. the night before the vote and a U.S. Army vehicle drove the legislator 200 miles to Jacksonville, Fla., where he was placed on a specially cleared Eastern Airlines flight arranged by Stelle. The legislator arrived in Washington, D.C., at 6:37 a.m. and cast the deciding vote at 10 a.m., clearing the G.I. Bill from the joint conference June 8. The Senate and House approved the bill on June 12 and June 13 respectively. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill June 22 with Stelle and other top legislators present."
In July, 2004, Stelle was honored posthumously by The Education Commission in Orlando, Fla.., for outstanding service to education. Some of his family members were on hand to accept the annual James Bryant Conant Award for his work in making educational opportunities available to millions of Americans.
Stelle also touched the lives of many out-of-work Clay Countians during the Depression years when he opened Arketex.
Paul Atkinson, a laboratory engineer at Arketex for 15 years, said at one time there were about 15 brick factories and a furniture factory in Clay County. But during the Depression, a lot of those companies went bankrupt.
"I remember when Arketex bought that plant, people were pretty desperate for jobs," Atkinson said. "When they opened it up and started production, men flocked there for jobs. It was good for the area and put a lot of people to work.
"John H. also started health insurance for the employees," Atkinson continued. "It's a big political issue now, about companies not having or reducing insurance benefits. But back then nobody had insurance. Arketex was one of the first companies around this area to offer health insurance. Mr. Stelle thought it was something the employees needed. It wasn't because the Union pushed it."
Tomorrow: More history and memories of Arketex.