Opportunity Doesn’t Knock… it Rings the Doorbell

I can honestly say that I never once in my life pictured an afternoon spent researching the history of the doorbell. But, it’s still cold outside (surprise, surprise), so what else am I going to do? Clean? Yeah… right.

Recently, local Belleville history enthusiast and President of the Belleville Historical Society Larry Betz contacted me and my husband saying he had something of ours. He went on to explain that it was the original doorbell to the Romeiser house. When we met up with him, he explained further.

The house has been mostly occupied since it was built in 1887. The Romeiser family owned it until 1919 when it was sold, converted to a boarding house, and then later changing hands a few times over the years. When the house ultimately ended up in foreclosure in the early-20aughts, the house was essentially emptied. The fact that so much of our beautiful architectural details survived that time is impressive to me. Larry told us how he came in and was able to procure the home’s original doorbell and he’s been holding on to it ever since. He expressed how it was time to return it to its rightful place on the walls of this incredible home.

The doorbell itself is, at its core, simple, though advanced for the time. The fact that the Romeisers even HAD a doorbell is impressive. However, knowing how Peter Romeiser was at the forefront of basically every advancement and was a very progressive thinker, I’m not surprised. His store, The Romeiser Company, changed the way businesses operate. He was one of the first merchants to use a set-price model for his items… the price you see on the tag is what you pay, no haggling. His store was the first in Belleville to use interior electricity. We know for a fact he had a home telephone in 1906– if not earlier. He saw the value in invention, the beauty in progress, and he wanted to be a part of that.

We fully believe this doorbell is original to the home’s construction. (It looks almost identical to this image I found on Wikipedia of an 1884 doorbell from Budapest.) 640px-Lakáscsengő_-_Andrássy_út_94_szám_II._emelet_2_ajtószám_(1)Simple clapper doorbells work through high-school science. When you push the button, you complete an electrical circuit. This “push-to-make” switch powers a hammer that rings a bell. My husband (you know, the one I previously mentioned who just knows how to do everything? Yeah. Him.), he totally got this thing to work while tinkering with it down in the basement. We may wrap our heads around REALLY getting it to work but for now will still display it lovingly.

I am so thankful to Larry for thinking of us and being so devoted to preserving history and saving the details of these old homes. Without his dedication, this piece of Romeiser house history would likely be lost today and we’d have had no way of knowing it ever existed.

His work with The Belleville Historical Society, along with the work of other members, is inspiring and exciting. And it’s for those reasons that I’ve decided to partner with them and join as a member. I’m also really thrilled to be able to announce that they’ve nominated me to a position on their Board of Trustees which was approved at their membership meeting last week!

The way that the pieces of my life have fallen into place within only 7 months of moving here is nothing less than extraordinary. The ways in which people have embraced us and supported us and encouraged us to get involved have made us feel more at home than any place we’ve lived in a really long time. I am practically buzzing with excitement over the possibilities and wondering what the future holds; it’s exactly the kind of life I pictured for myself when I was a little girl.

To check out what the Belleville Historical Society is all about, visit their website and consider joining or donating! So here’s to many, many more years researching Belleville homes and families, and preserving those stories for years to come. Even if it means spending an hour reading about doorbells.

The Belleville Library: Part I

Located on E. Washington Street, the Belleville Library was constructed in 1916 by way of a $45,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation. Over the course of his adult life, Andrew Carnegie made it his personal crusade to build libraries all over the world. All said, Carnegie spent $55 million to build 1,679 libraries in the United States and 830 abroad.

Belleville Public Library

During the library dedication ceremony on January 20, 1916, then-board director Jacob Aull encouraged all Belleville residents to thank Carnegie by sending him letters and postcards. (Photos of library dedication courtesy of the Belleville Historical Society)

Other than an addition made to the building in the 1970s, the original building stands almost unchanged. Updates and upgrades have been made throughout the years but otherwise, she stands just as she did in 1916.

Here’s where the Romeisers come in.

When Peter died in 1916, he left a detailed Will & Testament. Everything was covered from the house and land all the way down to each share of company stock. He divided up 300 shares amongst his children and left a reserve for philanthropy. His daughter, Emma, spearheaded the idea that the remaining children (herself and her three brothers Theodore, Edwin, and Alvin) use that reserve to make a public donation to the library.

News Article

The amount at the time, $1,680, was the first public donation to the Belleville library and equates to more than $20,000 in today’s terms.

Emma wrote a letter to Charles Grossart, who took over The Romeiser Company after Peter’s death, about what to do with the funds. Her letter reads:

“My dear Mr. Grossart,

After months of pondering what to do with the money father left as a reserve, I have finally decided that a book shelf in the Public Library as an “In Memoriam” for father would be best of all. Alvin, Edwin, and Theodore are all agreed that it would please father. In this way, the money would be put to a fine purpose and serve to keep green his memory in the town in which he was so much interested. The best kind of monument.

The details and arrangements, I’m afraid, I must leave to you. After the stock is sold and the money available, would you still be willing to act as trustee of the fund until it has been used up? My idea is that from time to time books of real value shall be added to the library, fiction excluded. Books perhaps like Carl Sandburg’s ‘Abraham Lincoln’ and Emil Ludwig’s wonderful ‘Napoleon,’ books that will be permanent additions to the library. Of course a library committee must be appointed and I would be pleased to have the list submitted to me if possible.

Please let me know what you think of the plan, and what you would suggest in the matter. With greetings from all here to you and your family.

Sincerely, Emma Pannes.”

The connection between the Romeisers and the library doesn’t end here… there’s a second part to this story that I’ll be covering next week. So be sure to hit ‘subscribe’ and check back next week for Part II!

Stay sweet,
The Brick and Maple Family

Meet Emma Romeiser Pannes

The second child born to Peter and Elise, Emma Romeiser was born in 1880 and was likely the darling of the family. She was brought up in high society, was said to be a gifted Soprano singer with much interest in music, and was even chosen Maid of Honor at the Belleville Flower Carnival in 1899. Despite being well-to-do and of marrying age, Emma did not wed until 1912. She was 32.


A chance encounter at the Opera in St. Louis led to her meeting John Pannes, a St. Louis native living in New York. They were both attending the opera alone and were seated next to one another.

Upon striking up a conversation, they discovered they had a mutual friend who was prominent “in music” in the West. John and Emma even shared the same birthday, September 14th. It was quite the “meet-cute” that every romance writer tries to recreate.


After their marriage, Emma moved with her new husband to their home in Plandome, Long Island, New York. John was also well off, working as the manager of the Hamburg-American Steamship Lines. They would go on to have two children, a daughter Nathalie first (1915) followed by a son, Hilgard (1917- a year after the death of both of her parents). You’ll remember that Hilgard was Elise’s maiden name.

plandommehouseThey lived in a cute little bungalow on Long Island with their two children and, in later years, John’s ailing mother Hilda. In fact, the home is still standing… and has an estimated value of $1.9 Million. Check out the full listing and more photos here

As manager of the Hamburg-American’s New York office, John Pannes was in charge of lots of details concerning transatlantic passenger travel. Part of this involved scheduling zeppelin travel, particularly the Hindenburg’s comings and goings out of Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Pannes at 1936 HAPAG with arrow
John Pannes (arrow) at a meeting between officials of the Hamburg-America Line and the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei in summer of 1936.

In 1937, John and Emma made the decision to sail to Germany so that they might fly back home on the Hindenburg’s first North American trip of the 1937 season. It would be their third transatlantic flight, having been passengers on the Hindenburg twice the year before. I’m sure by now you’ve figured out that, unfortunately, it was also their last.


Emma and John Pannes both perished when the Hindenburg burst into flames on May 6, 1937. Their son, Hilgard, had traveled to Lakehurst to greet his parents and witnessed the disaster from the viewing deck. (Below on left are photos of John and Emma, then on right is John and Hilgard.) 

Of the 72 passengers aboard, nearly half died. Those that survived went on to provide eyewitness accounts of those tragic final minutes. As it turns out, John had the opportunity to save himself, but insisted on finding Emma first. News reports from the day of wrote that, “One survivor of the disaster related Pannes might have escaped death had he not waited in an effort to save his wife. The survivor Otto Clemens said he was standing beside Pannes in the airship’s lounge and called upon Pannes to jump. Pannes replied, ‘Wait until I get my wife!’ There was not a second to lose. Clemens jumped and saved himself.” [Further research indicates that this would have been German Photographer Karl Otto Clemens, aged 27]

Friend and fellow passenger Margaret Mather wrote about the couple in the November 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, writing about passing the time together and dining with John and Emma in the airship lounge. s-l225They ate sandwiches, looked through the mist so that Emma might point out their Plandome home to Margaret, and tried to bide their time while the weather cleared up enough to land the zeppelin.

Reports given indicate that as the Hindenburg approached the mooring mast at Lakehurst shortly after 7pm, Mr and Mrs Pannes were standing by the observation windows in the dining saloon. With the ship apparently just minutes away from landing, Emma decided to go downstairs to her quarters to retrieve her coat. She was never seen again.

At the time of the tragedy, John was 60 and Emma, 56. She left behind her children and four remaining Romeiser siblings (Theodore, Edwin, Corona, and Alvin).

In the years since the tragedy, articles, movies, tv shows, and books have all come out about or inspired by the Hindenburg. The Panneses are even featured in the pilot script for NBC’s show Timeless. One book is Time Loves A Hero which surmises that a time-traveling space scientist aboard the doomed zeppelin actually caused a rift in the space-time-continuum and altered history. Other publications propose that John and Emma did not, in fact, perish on the Hindenburg… but were instead abducted by aliens and are still alive today in alternate universe.

What we know for a fact is that yet more sadness and tragedy befell the Romeiser family even after the deaths of Roland, Petranella, Elise and Peter. But the stories don’t stop here… like we’ve said before, hours of research have gone into this house and this family. What follows is more speculation, more blurred storylines, more confusing heartache. All we can do is stop for a second and take pause to honor all the members of the Romeiser family, in particular a loving couple who met their fate too soon.

As always, stay sweet,
The Brick and Maple Fam ❤