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History

History of Conrad's Bakery

by Janet Cremer

The sweet smell of fresh baked breads and pastries is long gone, but the memories and stories associated with Conrad's Bakery still live on. The bakery, located where the log cabin stands at Conrad Park, just off of Dixie Highway, operated at the site beginning in 1908 closing some 54 years later.

Oscar Conrad came to the U.S. from Germany in 1899. He and his wife, Clara Pabst Conrad, first settled in Chicago, where Oscar worked as a parade rider for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Five years later, they moved to Momence, first establishing a bakery at the corner of Front (Washington) and Range Streets. Oscar then built a bakery and hotel at the site of Conrad Park, along with a retail outlet at the old Momence Theatre building.

In 1919, Oscar's son, Henry, took over, turning the bakery from retail to a wholesale operation. The hotel was closed but a mechanic's shop to work on the delivery trucks was added.

In her book, Momence, the Making of a River Town, Kay Hess wrote that "in the first days bread was baked in the shop and wrapped by hand with the help of Henry's wife Hazel McConnell of Momence." It was delivered to stores in town in a push cart by Henry himself.

By 1925, delivery expanded to as far away as Dwight; Chicago; and Gary, Ind. Modern bread mixers, dividers, ovens, slicing and wrapping machines replaced the old equipment, Mrs. Hess wrote. At the height of their business, Conrad's had 65 employees who made not only bread but cakes, long johns, bismarks and later, buns for McDonald's restaurants.

The bakery also housed "a beautiful recreation room on the river that anyone could use," remembered June Nagle Hamann of Grant Park, a niece of Henry and Hazel Conrad, in a Journal article regarding Conrad's. The rec room had a locker room made of Tiffany enamel brick produced at the Momence brick yard. It was used by the boys' basketball team the Conrad's sponsored.

Hardship struck when Henry Conrad was kidnapped on November 26, 1929, nabbed in his very own bakery. Two gunmen walked into his bakery and grabbed Henry Conrad while holding off employees Mildred Rice, George Searles and Charles McNulty. The gangsters sped off toward Lowell, Ind., stocked with machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.

The gangsters held Conrad for ransom and when they drove him to a Lowell bakery so he could cash a check as a $1,000 down payment, the bakery workers told him they only had $17 on hand.

Lucky for Conrad, the bandits were driving with their emergency brake on and the car caught fire. They abandoned the smoking Packard and hijacked a Chevy driven by Carl Schultz, whom they kicked out of his own car. When the Packard stopped smoking, Conrad drove it to a nearby farmhouse for help. The two gunmen were never seen again.

The business suffered another setback on November 10, 1933, when Henry and Hazel, both 38, were killed in a car accident while driving home from Chicago. Late in the night, their car ran out of gas two miles north of Momence and when Conrad flagged down an oncoming car for help, the driver accidently hit the two. Hazel was instantly killed. Henry died on the way to the hospital.

A short time later, the business went bankrupt. In 1935, the business and its equipment were purchased by retired Chicago baker Edward Litoborski. Litoborski partnered with his son and four daughters, who successfully operated the bakery until it closed in 1962.

Pictures Courtesy of Henry Conrad and Florence Hayes