While visiting Decatur, Illinois last week, one of the stops that Annie Jansen and I made was the amazing Hieronymus Mueller Museum. Anyone will like this museum. It tells the family story and the manufacturing outline of Hieronymus Mueller and his company. The doors are a piece of art welcoming you in.
And, if there was ever a perfect time to tell this inventors story, perhaps it is now during COVID-19. Hieronymus Mueller was a political refugee that arrived in the US from Germany. He fled political unrest but arrived in the states with a marketable skill, he was a machinist apprentice. He would go on to create amazing inventions that impacted water and gas distribution. Impacted cars, and led to many patents. But during the Spanish influenza, he created and patented the first sanitary drinking fountain, the bubbler!
Who was Hieronymus Mueller?
HM was born in 1832 in Wertheim, Germany during political upheaval. “He was part of the 1850 political upheaval exodus to the US, ” Lauren Taylor, Archives and Collections of the museum shared.
“There is a family story that he was part of a rebel group that was supposed to blow up a bridge, but I have a hard time seeing that,” Lauren added.
There is a really cool exhibit at the Hieronymus Mueller Museum of the ship that he traveled to the US on. Built by Nels Johnson, not long ago, they at the museum learned he was the first engineer that HM hired!
Lauren said that HM never liked his first name and always went by Mueller. She said there would never be a family member named Hieronymus until generations later! Coming to the US with skills as a machinist, HM first settled in Freeport where a few of his brothers had previously arrived.
During his brief stay in Freeport, Illinois HM met and married Frederica Bernhart. She was a Prussian immigrant with a strong personality and a quiet supportive woman.
Lauren said that HM’s brothers advised him to move to an up and coming new railroad HM moved to Decatur in 1857, and opened a shop downtown. “He had a foundry on the 2nd floor,” Lauren said.
HM and Frederica had six sons and one daughter. The children were born between 1858 and 1871. This was a very inventive family. HM encouraged his children and later his employees to follow their interests. Although a strict father, he instilled a love of nature within his children. He shared his love of hunting, fishing, and skating with his sons.
Next to Hieronymus Mueller’s bust is a quote that states, “Hieronymus Mueller built this business on the premise that this company should never manufacture a product to which he could not be proud to apply the Mueller name.”
This pride in workmanship began with a gunsmith shop. Soon it expanded to lockmithing and sew machine repair. Annie and I also saw farm equipment as well. “He worked on anything metal that needed repaired,” Lauren explained.
The big break and expansion though came when he was appointed as Decatur’s first “city plumber” in 1871 to oversee the installation of a water distribution system. The Hieronymus Mueller Museum website explains his first major invention, “the Mueller Water Tapper who 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.”
Automobile history at the Hieronymus Mueller Museum
I was fascinated by the automobile aspect of this story. It really touches on every aspect of the Muellers lives! Lauren said that HM enjoyed problems and probably hated horses . In 1892 when he had a chance he imported a Benz automobile from Germany.
“It was the first auto in Decatur and he had to improve it right off,” Lauren said. She added that his son Oscar later patented the modern spark plug.
Entering the first automobile race, he won first place. But Lauren noted this was not an official race, there were only two cars, and the other went in a ditch! The second race he won 2nd place. It took place on Thanksgiving and was the first official car race in America!
The Muellers had several patents over the years with automobiles. This however would be a mixed blessing. One day while working on his Benz, HM got flammable liquid on his clothing. He went out to light a pipe and caught himself on fire. He spent two weeks in the hospital before he died on March 1, 1900. When I ate dinner later at the Gin Mill, the manager told me that HM was the first auto related death in the US.
Lauren said that Frederica was distraught over the accident. She made her sons give up all patents and forgo any further pursuit of development of automobile advancement.
The Mueller factory made munitions during the war and won the prestigious E award. This was for a munition that penetrated German tanks prior to detonation
The company had many forward ideas. HM had plans to develop a community a kind of utopia for his workers. After a strike at another plumbing factory and other things, he scratched this . They loaned out baby cribs and had other social practices to help the good will of their employees.
However, he was patriarchal and did not plan to give his daughter a share of the business like his sons. Leda, though had other ideas and working through her husband accomplished this.
The business continued to grow and in 2016 they sold their 4 millionth fire hydrant in their Albertville, Alabama plant.
Currently, the Hieronymus Mueller Museum is closed during COVID-19, but they hope to open this fall. Check their website to or call 217-423-6161 for more information. Decatur has several wonderful sites to tour. Check out the James Millikin Homestead and the Staley Museum!