OGDEN — It’s the “O” in SJ-O Spartans.
The Pink House, now the Pink Pig and painted gray.
Or Billy Bob’s Under the Water Tower, literally beneath the big blue tower in downtown.
It’s also the big four-way stop at U.S. 150 and Illinois 49 on the way to Homer, Oakwood, Urbana or somewhere north.
It’s the town that’s survived five tornadoes in the last century — 1922, 1953, 1956, 1976 and 1996 — the last an F-3 twister that killed one person, destroyed more than 80 properties and damaged another 200.
Today, the community of just over 800 is like others in East Central Illinois — familiar faces, friendly waves, quiet streets, agricultural roots, a name spurred by railroad development and a recently revived annual summer celebration (the Ogden Street Fest, which wrapped up Saturday).
Surrounded by hundreds of square miles of flat, rich farmland, Ogden was once swampy prairie drained for cultivation before the IB&W railroad came along, bought a tract of land from John Ogden and named the town after him.
But less typical of small towns is Ogden’s big business.
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Inside two modest buildings near Billy Bob’s at the base of the blue “Village of Ogden” water tower that marks the center of town, employees at ShapeMaster Inc. design, engineer and churn out plastic products for all sorts of projects and people.
Owner Ken Cooley, a St. Joseph-Ogden graduate who started out woodworking and shifted his pattern-making knowledge and business sense into plastics, has built a small-town company that employs up to 20, including a couple work co-op students from SJ-O.
He does business with clients in eight countries and all over the U.S.
“I’m a maker guy. I have a passion for making things,” said Cooley, sitting in the office area of ShapeMaster surrounded by prototypes, parts and other memorabilia of the manufacturing company’s 30 years of work, including the donated license plate-inspired trophies given to entrants in Saturday’s car and motorcycle show at Street Fest.
Whether their order is just one, a handful or thousands, Cooley loves to sit down with customers — established companies, entrepreneurs, inventors, even UI professors and students — who need something made from plastic, like pieces that form a lip balm bottle, retail display racks for 3M tape, Monsanto seed germination trays, the tomato stems that were used on top of Garcia’s Pizza delivery cars or a human-sized Star Trek doll box for a customer who wanted to arrive at a Trekkie convention in character.
And the list goes on.
“It’s wonderful to know your product is being used,” Cooley said.
Orders for an industrial dehumidifier drain pan ShapeMaster was making at one time grew from 2,500 a year to 7,000 and continued ramping up through the recession, eventually reaching 23,000, driven by the legalized marijuana industry, which uses dehumidifiers in the growing process.
“One thing that makes us unique ... Ogden has a lot of business,” said Cooley, listing others, including some started by fellow SJ-O graduates.
It’s a business directory that many towns larger than Ogden would envy: Ogden Metalworks, a homegrown manufacturer of farm machinery; BEC Mechanical, a sheet metal shop; Crawford Equipment, a lift truck repair business; Johnson’s Trailer Sales; Rick’s Tractor Services; J&K Body and Paint; Hartke Surveying; Sadler Feed Mill; Longview Bank; Champaign-Danville Overhead Doors; and Frozen Genetics, a livestock breeder, among others.
Jeff Mohr, who owns Ogden Metalworks, was surprised to learn recently that there are another 30 home-based businesses in the Ogden area, from salons to construction contractors.
“It’s amazing, really, for a town like this to have so much business,” said Mohr, who for 21 years has been churning out a patented line of farm implement hay rakes on the northwest edge of tow.
“It’s been a good community. It’s a good farming community.”
He employs 15 to 20 and has expanded five times. He’s now hoping his son, who’s been working with him the last few years, will take the reins.
Mohr knows most of his fellow Ogden business owners and does work with some. He gets parts for his QC Lifters from ShapeMaster and other products from BEC Mechanical, also near the water tower and owned by his good friend Steve Williams and Williams’ brother-in-law Tim Harms.
Mohr said he also makes a point to rotate his work week lunch stops to all the restaurants in town — Billy Bob’s, the Pink Pig and Rich’s Family Restaurant.
“Once we have a business, it’s just nice to keep them sustained,” said Mohr, who just sold a building on U.S. 150 in town to Max Painter, who’s moving his electrician business, MX Electric, to Ogden.
Painter lives in St. Joseph, has been renting commercial space in Champaign-Urbana and has been looking to buy a building for a while but wasn’t finding an affordable option that met his needs until he visited Mohr’s available site.
“It fit every aspect of our needs,” said Painter, who hopes to be up and running by the end of the month. “The townspeople here have been super nice.”
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A block north on East Street is where Jac Knoop decided to set up shop nine years ago.
After seeing the former Kirchner’s building sitting empty, he bought it and opened AMS Inc., located next door to the now-defunct rail line that gave the town its name and will eventually bring the Kickapoo Rail Trail through here.
Knoop lives outside town, closer to Homer. He grew up in the Netherlands, started a career in farm machinery sales and continued that work when he came to the U.S., eventually landing in C-U.
“After a while, you just want to get out on your own,” Knoop said, and the building in Ogden provided the opportunity to do just that, selling Amazone — German-made machinery for agriculture and other industries. The job required traveling all over the U.S.
His son and daughter, who both had overseas stints with Amazone, have settled back in the area, joined the family business and are now branching out.
Mattheus Knoop has started selling the Bad Boy brand of lawnmowers at their Ogden building, and his sister, Lucinda Paganin, has a marketing and web design business. They also offer a line of attachments for chain saws that can turn one into a boat motor, saw mill or wood drill.
“We enjoy small-town living,” Mattheus said.
“Everybody helps everybody here,” his sister added.
Dad said it’s an “American thing,” thinking about all the times he’s seen local farmers harvest another farmer’s crops in times of need. “You don’t see that as much in Europe.”
And the Knoop family passes on that small-town helpfulness.
Next door to their AMS building, Thailand native Paul Jisook is working to open a Thai American restaurant.
The Knoops helped him hang the sign on his building, a former bank. It’s one of the only truly old buildings left in Ogden, where much of the housing and other structures were built, or rebuilt, after the ’76 and ’96 tornadoes.
Jisook’s restaurant manager, Amanda Eaton, who commutes 45 minutes from Bellflower, said the small town has been very welcoming to Jisook, who plans to live in Ogden.
She worked in the building’s previous restaurant, The Vault — so named because the old bank vault still exists.
“Right behind the bar is the vault door,” Eaton said.
She said the Knoop family and Jisook have cooked respective ethnic dishes for each other and shared them over lunches.
“It’s just a very welcoming town,” Eaton said.
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Many buildings here did not fare as well as the old bank, which has now survived two major twisters. Both directly hit Ogden’s downtown.
The March 20, 1976, Saturday-afternoon F-4 that spouted multiple funnels and had wind speeds over 200 mph left a 63-mile path of destruction. After hitting Sadorus hard, it took a toll on Ogden, destroying the lumber yard, another bank, the water tower, grain elevator, fire house and several homes. Five people were injured and $1 million worth of damage was done, according to National Weather Service records.
Twenty years later, on April 19, 1996, an F-3 with winds over 158 mph touched down after dark half a mile southwest of Ogden and marched northwest directly through the center of town, crossing I-74 and killing Mary Lou Laird, of Missouri, who was riding in a semi with her husband, Fred.
This one destroyed 68 homes, 12 businesses, three churches and the combined library and village hall building, according to the NWS. Another 199 structures sustained varying degrees of damage.
The Homer Grain-owned elevator was leveled again but not rebuilt, forever changing the Ogden skyline.
Linda Lewis grew up here, raising a family with husband Carl and working most of her life at the First National Bank of Ogden. She was fortunate not to be in her office on the Friday night 23 years ago when the bank was leveled.
Now retired in Ogden, she recalls both disasters.
When the 1976 tornado struck, she was in C-U with her daughter.
“My heart dropped,” she said, remembering the dread of driving back to Ogden to see if their home was still there and the relief she felt when she saw it was.
At the time of the 1996 twister, she and her husband were both serving as emergency management volunteers. She was working the radios at the town hall, which was severely damaged, while Carl was out weather spotting.
“It was a difficult evening, but we got through it, and Ogden survived,” she said. “And I know that the disaster made the community even stronger than it was.”
Cooley was early into the launch of ShapeMaster, sitting on one of his biggest orders ever — from an Indianapolis businessman — when the ’96 Friday night twister damaged the roof on his building, exposing the interior. He worked around the clock to get back up and running by Monday, so he could complete the order: components for water purification systems.
“Still, to this day, we’re making parts for that,” said Cooley, who knows that night could have gone a lot worse. One of the bins from the grain elevator would have rolled over his building, crushing it, but got stuck between the water tower and another structure.
In some ways, the disaster provided opportunity.
Cooley bought the cleared lot where the destroyed bank was eventually demolished and built a second building to expand his business.
Oddly, while digging in preparation for that addition, workers found an old headstone that was traced back to an infant child of Ogden’s first postmaster. His house once stood on that same site.
Out of respect, Cooley had the headstone placed back on the site in a protected case at the corner of his building — a tiny piece of the town’s history, he explained.
“The things you’d consider landmarks are gone,” he said.
Ogden has lost a lot, he lamented.
“But it’s maintained a lot, too,” he added.
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One of the “best parts” that remains, according to local librarian Lora Holden, is the Ogden Rose Public Library, a modern brick building that was reconstructed after the previous one was destroyed in ’96.
That twister passed through on the last day of Holden’s first year in Ogden.
She’s been brushing up on a lot of village history lately, because Ogden Rose is celebrating 100 years since the Rose family donated the land and money for a library.
The previous library was also in a building shared by the village, but prior to 1970, it also had a jail cell, a garage bay where a fire truck was housed and a leather exam table in the library where a physician would see patients. Upstairs, the Knights of Pythias would meet and had a skeleton that kids would sneak in to see, according to Holden’s research.
“It was a very interesting building,” she said.
There have always been multiple generations of families in Ogden, she said, and after living there long enough, you begin to “connect the dots.”
But there are also people like her and her husband who moved in and stayed. Holden said she’s noticed an influx of families in recent years with young children.
Village Mayor Gabe Clements has, too.
“There seems to be a lot more little kids now than I can recall,” he said.
Houses in Ogden typically sell very quickly, he added. A few new homes have been built on vacant lots and several other lots are for sale.
Clements, who grew up in Penfield, moved here after finding a larger house and garage at a more affordable price and tax rate. He enjoys being part of the volunteer Ogden Royal Fire Department and pitching in to lead the town.
The village doesn’t have a windfall of revenue or a large staff (its three employees include a part-time office manager and two maintenance workers — one full-time, one part-time), making drainage and streets improvements a challenge.
Clements said the village is working on both, with upgrades planned for both the north and south sides of town. Also in the works: a complete rebuild of Main Street.
“That’s one of our worst streets in town, and that will be in the next two years,” he said.
Besides an influx of young families, some Ogden businesses have embraced video gambling, with a new business — Buckley’s Gaming Café — popping up at the four-way stop on U.S. 150. It’s helping generate some new money for the village.
“In essence, it’s free money. Some people like that; some people don’t,” Clements said.
Although Ogden has changed a lot since Lewis was a kid and used to walk up town to the grocery store, it hasn’t grown outward with houses or other development.
“You can pretty well see it hasn’t exploded like some towns. I think part of that is the sale of farm ground around the outskirts of Ogden. It hasn’t sold. Yet, we have good companies and businesses in town,” Lewis said.
She and Carl rotate between the village’s restaurants on Friday nights and never leave unsatisfied.
“We are very lucky we don’t have to drive to Homer or Champaign-Urbana if we don’t want to,” she said. “The food is always good, and they know you and call you by first name.”