In 1968, Edward Welch moved his Stop & Shop Meat Market, opened in 1953, from Griffith to St. John. At the time, about 1,700 people lived in the town founded in 1837.
That's when 50-year-old John Hack and his wife, Johanna, emigrated from Germany along with eight of their 11 children to a swampy wilderness. Within a decade around 4,000 such Prussians were living in Lake County.
“The Hacks were Roman Catholic at a time when there weren’t many Roman Catholics in Lake County,” says Kenneth Schoon, author of numerous books on Northwest Indiana including "Calumet Beginnings: Ancient Shorelines and Settlements at the South End of Lake Michigan" and "Dreams of Duneland: A Pictorial History of the Indiana Dunes Region." “The Catholics moved to Schererville, Dyer and St. John, and the Protestants tended to be further north in Lake County.”
There was talk at one time of naming the town Hack, says Schoon, a Northwest Indiana native and professor of science education at Indiana University Northwest.
“But they decided that Hack, Indiana, didn’t sound very good,” says Schoon.
The new town had not only the whiskey and peach brandy Hack distilled in one of the first businesses in the county, but also the first Roman Catholic church, St. John the Evangelist, a log cabin on Hack’s property.
St. John was still largely a farming community when Tom Mavity was growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s. He and his friends played pond hockey and tobogganed at what was the Lake Hills Golf Club.
“We called it suicide hill because it was so steep sometimes your toboggan would break apart,” says Mavity, who graduated from Lake Central High School and wrote "T.H.A.N.K. Y.O.U. Positive Words and Actions with Gratitude Lead to Success," which recounts how the people he met in his early years in Northwest Indiana helped shape his life.
“There were about 2,000 people here when I was growing up, now there’s about 20,000 but there still are some places that were here when I was growing up like Mama D’s Pizza and it’s still great,” he says. “It’s located in what used to be the Royal Blue Grocery Store. Back then families just had one car and I remember my mother putting my sister and brother and myself in a wagon and pulling us to the store.”
Mavity’s father worked for the phone company for 38 years and was one of six volunteer policemen for St. John.
“My dad used to say he could patrol all the streets in St. John in one hour,” says Mavity.
In 1971, Mavity’s mother received a phone call, asking whether her husband was one of the officers killed by two thieves.
His father was at his phone company job when word got out that St. John Town Marshal James “Red” Larimer and State Trooper John Streu had been shot and killed by two men who had committed several crimes. They had stolen a car and were sleeping in front of Kolling Elementary School. State Trooper Pete Popplewell Jr. was injured.
“What made me want to become a policeman was seeing a photo in the Hammond Times of my dad carrying Marshal Larimer’s coffin,” says Mavity, who retired from the Indiana State Police after 30 years and now works for the campus police at the University of Notre Dame.
Ed Welch, a friend of Mavity's and grandson of Edward Welch, who established Welch’s Stop & Shop in 1953, receiving his first “official” paycheck for working in the family meat market when he was 14. The business, which has welcomed its fourth generation, has changed as customers want prepared foods or those that can be cooked quickly.
“We now have eight or nine kinds of marinades, and we’re always coming up with new ideas,” he says. “But the quality of our food remains the same. We have to be better so that people keep coming.”
Welch says he learned much of what he knows from his father, who died the same year as his grandfather.
“I was lucky to have a couple of years to learn from my father,” he says. He also has a partnership in Malt Brothers Brewing, a craft operation in St. John.
No longer sleepy, St. John ranks among the top towns in Indiana, according to HomeSnacks. According to Nick Johnson of HomeSnacks, a media/news company that uses census date, FBI crime rates, median home values and income, education level, poverty rates and unemployment rate to determine the best towns and cities in Indiana, St. John ranked third this year, just behind Carmel and Zionsville, out of of 112 places surveyed.
From early breweries and hotels, St. John now boasts a wide variety of businesses.
“Nick and Cora DeYoung were my grandparents,” says John DeYoung, owner of the DeYoung Interiors, a multigenerational business specializing in home furnishings and accessories. Its vast showroom and online presence as well as reputation for service make for continued success since opening in 1928. Originally, the family had stores in South Holland, Lansing and Chicago's Roseland neighborhood before moving to St. John.
“This is a great place to run a family business,” says DeYoung. “St. John is seeing a lot of growth but still has that special feel and friendliness about it.”
The Schilling family also plays heavily into St. John's growth.
“Schilling Development was started over 120 years ago and Schillings over 70 years ago,” says Frank Schilling, whose family also founded St. John's first bank and shopping mall and were part of the post-World War II housing boom, opening Schilling Lumber in 1945.
Since those early days, the company’s business have continued to grow and expanded into Cedar Lake and Illinois.
“My boys Dean, Greg and Jeff, run the day-to-day operations of the company," Schilling continues, noting they’re part of the five generations in the business. “Additionally, my son Todd is involved in the development company. They came to me and asked to be a part of the company. My only question to them was if they were ready for 80-hour weeks and sleepless nights.”
For decades, Schilling measured every kitchen sold and loved going into people’s homes to make sure the new cabinetry would fit properly. It was also a way to build generations of satisfied customers.
“We love our town,” says Schilling, noting that his family lives, works and worships in St. John. “It was and is a terrific place to raise a family.”
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