Hieronymus Mueller Museum, Decatur, Illinois
  

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Biography of Hieronymus Mueller

Hieronymus Mueller: Immigrant

Hieronymus Mueller Hieronymus Mueller
Hieronymus Mueller was born in Wertheim, Germany in 1832. He was trained and apprenticed as a machinist but became caught up in the widespread economic and political upheaval engulfing Germany in the 1840’s. This unrest culminated in the revolutions of 1848 which attempted to consolidate the several German states into a more democratic nation and to increase economic opportunity. The movement failed and was followed by greater repression as the old power structure reasserted itself and repealed reforms of the past decade.

Hieronymus was involved in some degree with the reformist movement – family lore tells that he was charged with a conspiracy in a failed plot to blow up a bridge with other revolutionaries. We have no record that would confirm this, but we do know that Hieronymus did decide to flee Germany in 1850 and that he soon made his way to the United States. He was not alone – approximately one million Germans made the exodus to America from 1848 to 1858 to escape the repression. He ended up in the Chicago area (Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis were primary beneficiaries of the German mid-century immigration) where he joined two older brothers who had preceded him.

Ship
Hieronymus Mueller emigrated from Germany
on a ship similar to this one in 1850.
He briefly settled in Freeport, Illinois where he met and married Frederica Bernhart, a Prussian immigrant. His brothers advised him that he should strike out on his own with his new family and suggested the he “pick a good town with a railroad and grow with it. Decatur, a town south of here, is at the junction of two railroads. Go there and grow up with the town.” That was good, sound advice in the mid-nineteenth century as railroads were the driving force of the emerging economy. Hieronymus moved to Decatur in 1857, established his business, and watched the town grow ten-fold in the following decade.

The story of Hieronymus Mueller is like the stories of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were driven to America by the dual forces of opportunity and necessity – the necessity to escape famine, political oppression, religious intolerance, or economic disasters. He made the most of his opportunity and became a quintessential immigrant success arriving with pennies in his pockets while going on to achieve the “American Dream.”

Hieronymus Mueller: Patriarch

The Mueller Family Mueller Family Portrait
The Mueller family consisted of six sons and one daughter, born between 1858 and 1871. There is little recorded history of the details of family life although it appears that his family was run on traditional lines with Mrs. Mueller running the household and raising the children while Hieronymus tended to his business interests. We do know that Hieronymus enforced discipline while encouraging thrift, good character, and a love of nature with his children.

A few family stories give some insight into principles and operation of the household. When Hieronymus learned that one of his younger sons, Fred, got a job paying $10 per week he insisted that Fred go to his new employer and ask to be cut to $4 per week. Hieronymus thought this wage was more appropriate for a boy of his age and experience and that too much money might harm his character.

The children’s rooms and possessions were expected to be kept in orderly fashion and an inspection was preformed by Hieronymus each evening to see that these chores were done. Corporal punishment was reserved for only the most severe of infractions such as the unfortunate pilfering of some cherries from a neighbor’s tree. Evenings were devoted to gatherings of the entire family for readings and story telling. The children were encouraged to pursue their individual interest whether in music, athletics or tinkering in the workshop. While Hieronymus was very much consumed with his work, he took time to share his love of hunting, fishing, and skating with his sons.

One of the interesting aspects of Hieronymus as a father is that he was very much the same person as an employer. The same principles that guided his family were applied to the company he established and he thought of and treated his workers as a extension of his family and assumed the same concern for the welfare of his employees.

Hieronymus Mueller: Inventor

Mueller-Benz Car The original Mueller-Benz car can be found in the Mueller Museum.

Hieronymus Mueller was good with his hands – he had been trained as a machinist in his native Germany. But, he was also good with his mind – an apparently natural talent. He started his business with a small gunsmithing shop but soon added locksmithing and sewing machine repairs. He had a knack for understanding mechanical devices. This led to his appointment as Decatur’s first “city plumber” in 1871 to oversee the installation of a water distribution system.

Mueller Water Tapper
The Mueller Water Tapper



The following year he patented his first major invention, the Mueller Water Tapper which is, with minor modifications, still the standard for the industry. He and his sons went on to obtain 501 patents including water pressure regulators, faucet designs, the first sanitary drinking fountain, a roller skate design, and a bicycle kick-stand. In 1892 Hieronymus imported a Benz automobile from Germany and, together with his sons, began refining it with such features as a reverse gear, water-cooled radiator, newly-designed spark plugs, and a make-and-break distributor – all leading to patents. His automobile innovations were such that his “Mueller-Benz” won the first unofficial road race in the nation in 1895 and finished 2nd in the the first official race held a few weeks later in Chicago.

 

Hieronymus Mueller: Businessman

One of the surprising qualities of Hieronymus Mueller was his natural instinct for business. He had training as a craftsman and his mechanical abilities derived from that training. Young men in Germany were apprenticed into a trade at an early age and generally other educational opportunities ended at that point. We assume that Hieronymus received very little education that would prepare him to run even a modest business enterprise.

Mueller Factory
A Bird's eye view of the Mueller Factory in Decatur, IL.

Despite this challenge, Hieronymus possessed certain traits and beliefs that would serve him well as he built his small shop into a major manufacturing enterprise. He demanded quality work from himself and his employees. He was an excellent judge of character and hired workers based on that judgment. He believed in fair treatment of his workers and of his customers. He lived a frugal life and put his resources into building his business. These simple principles helped make him a great success and created a livelihood for his family and workers for generations to come.


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